Smarter conservatives winced when Francis Fukuyama made his declaration that the closing decade of the 20th century marked the “end of History.” But their disquiet was nothing compared with the sheer wretchedness of those who had spent the prior decades hoping history would progress ever leftwards. When Fukuyama pronounced the endpoint of History, classical liberals publicly accepted the compliment while privately affirming that nothing on this earth is permanent; at the other end of the spectrum, the Marxists looked disconsolately at the emerging storyline and saw that it was dominated by the conceits of their enemies.
In defeat, though, comes opportunity. Some were troubled by the very presence of a zeitgeist in which a man might announce to much acclaim that it was time to accept the “universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government,” and they understood Fukuyama’s quixotic assessment as a call to arms. “What do we do now?” they asked. “Well, the same thing we do every night, Pinky,” was the answer. “We try to take over the past!”
The Howard Zinn/Noam Chomsky/Oliver Stone Account of Things Past — let’s call this “Zinnism” for brevity’s sake — bubbles up from time to time. The latest contribution to the canon is filmmaker Oliver Stone’s new ten-part documentary, An Untold History of the United States. Stone’s series suffers from the dual afflictions of being neither “untold” nor a “history,” but, given that neither deficiency impedes its purpose, this doesn’t really matter. Propaganda need not be pure.
In its most modern incarnation, Zinnism is primarily a reaction to the abject failure of socialism, that pernicious ideology to which the American ideal has been an implacable foe, both in theory and in practice. Ultimately, Marxism and its attendant philosophies are faith positions, and the rewriting of their legacies is an exercise in apology by which the true believer attempts to show that his favored prophecies did not fail to come to fruition. By revising socialism’s execrable record, the Zinnist attempts to demonstrate that History’s losers did not fall onto the proverbial ash heap through any fault of their own, that the victors enjoyed no worthwhile victory, and that — if you squint — the morality play is being remembered upside down. This is not new: Walter Duranty was doing this — in real-time no less — as early as the 1930s.
Distressingly, the seminal rewriting of American’s past, A People’s History of the United States, has sold more than 2 million copies. It is, it seems, America’s best-selling work of history — “history,” perhaps — and it has increased its annual sales each and every year since its publication in 1980. Nonetheless, its message has remained an intellectual undercurrent — the preserve of unlettered students, Internet leftists, and pseudo-philosophers. As if to aim a blow to that bruise, it has also become something of a joke: This year, A People’s History was voted one of the ten “least credible history book[s] in print” by the History News Network, sharing the questionable accolade with such works of arrant nonsense as David Barton’s The Jefferson Lies and Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Move these books to the Fiction section please, librarian.
Conservatives reflexively concerned by the commercial popularity of Zinnism should buck up. Upon Zinn’s death, David Horowitz wrote that his “wretched tract . . . is worthless as history, and it is a national tragedy that so many Americans have fallen under its spell.” “Zinn’s life work,” Horowitz continued, “was a pernicious influence on the young and ignorant, with destructive consequences for people everywhere.” Horowitz’s sentiment is admirable and his contempt fair. But he has considerably exaggerated Zinn’s impact (if not his intent). “My life,” Zinn told a classroom full of Harvard undergraduates shortly before his death, “has been devoted to rolling my little apple cart into the marketplace of ideas and hoping that I don’t get run over by a truck.” Still, for all Zinn’s sales, he has been essentially squashed — not least by the very future that he sought to shape. Why does Oliver Stone need to make another “untold story”? Not because the radical counter-history remains untold, but because it remains widely unappreciated.
Happily, this looks unlikely to change. As Stone well knows, the appeal of Zinnism rests on its remaining unappreciated, as it is primarily for this quality that it sells. Why? Because to those susceptible to such things, the “radical” rewriting of history is interesting and edgy, carrying with it the perverse imprimatur of the illicit, and satisfying that thoroughly modern need for a wildcat James Dean type to come onto the stage and rebel against anything and everything. “Hey, you think your history and country are great?” the Zinnite asks, cigarette hanging at a jaunty angle from his mouth. “Well, actually, they’re not. They’re all lies, and — unlike me — you are a dolt who has bought into the mythology.”
To many, especially those whose knowledge and intellectual confidence are not in proportion, this is catnip. People of all stripes enjoy knowing things that others don’t know or — better — that others can’t know. Along with the remainder of their baleful ilk, Zinn, Stone, and Chomsky rely upon a trade secret of gurus everywhere: Flatter your acolytes by promising them hidden truths that their ignorant fellow citizens will never discern.
This is a good strategy for a startup but hardly a recipe for growth. Because “inside knowledge” is necessary for its cachet, the proctors of “untold” history are forced to hand out new Believe It Or Not! facts in order to continue their posturing. And, scraping the barrel as he is, Stone fails in this spectacularly. Essentially, An Untold History . . . is a reworking of existing historical revisionism that is punctuated by some silly new twists. For example, in an interview conducted while promoting his series, Stone told the Associated Press:
Very few people know about how strong the English empire was going into World War II. Roosevelt had a suspicion of the English empire and he was trying to balance the Soviet interests with American interests as well as British interests. He didn’t want to be taken for a ride and save England to have England re-colonize the world, which is what they did.
Neither of these things is true. Anyone in 1939 who was able simultaneously to read a map and to determine which of its colors was pink was keenly aware that the British Empire was at its historical zenith. And, providing that the war didn’t cost them this pair of skills, they were also able to see that its size and influence declined extremely quickly after the conflict concluded. England “re-colonizing the world” after 1945 was, alas, reserved to the British imagination. (More pedantically, no one serious has called it the “English Empire” since 1707.)
When Stone is not being silly, he is being simplistic. He expects us to see evil American hands behind every Bad Thing in history, including the crimes of others. Michael Moynihan’s masterful takedown of An Untold History on the Daily Beast shows just how childish — and depraved — Stone’s conclusions are. Why, say, did the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan in 1979? Because Jimmy Carter and his national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, “set the trap for the Russians in Afghanistan.” Why did the Americans contrive the Marshall Plan? To provoke the Soviets, whose obnoxious behavior, incidentally, can be easily explained by legitimate “fears of both a rearmed Germany and capitalist encirclement.” The Soviet blockade of Berlin, you see, was contrived by the United States, and the Soviet Union’s gross abuse of its own people was merely the product of necessary “breakneck industrialization” undertaken in the pursuit of the “greatest human experiment undertaken.” Another: Why did Stalin form an alliance with Nazi Germany, and brutally occupy much of Eastern Europe? Because America refused to help the Soviet Union in the face of the Nazi threat in the late 1930s. As Moynihan catalogs, An Untold History of the United States goes on and on like this until we can answer every posed question with, “Let me guess, is it America’s fault again?”
The historian Eric Foner once wrote that Zinn’s “account tended toward the Manichean” and to “an oversimplified narrative of the battle between the forces of light and dark.” Stone’s account is guilty of the same charge, although he throws in his trademark conspiracy theories for good measure. For Zinn, America was explained by an “American system that . . . serves the interests of a wealthy elite, but also does enough for small-property owners, for middle-income mechanics and farmers, to build a broad base of support.” For Stone, America’s modern history can be explained by consulting the minutes of the Bilderberg group. Ultimately, for both Zinn and Stone, the world’s problems are an issue for the human-resources department to resolve. Find a new set of managers, they seem to be saying, and everything will start working out nicely.
This simplistic tendency will undoubtedly raise conservative hackles. The foundational premise of the conservative worldview is that we cannot achieve a perfect world. Why? Well, partly because we do not possess the capacity to perfect it — however great our leaders — and partly because, as Yogi Berra observed, “if the world was perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Most of us on the right of the spectrum are dismissive of Zinnism less because we dislike the stories that they tell and more because we are loath to believe either that American history could realistically have been made perfect or that the government can act flawlessly behind the scenes when it is so obviously incompetent in public. Are we to buy, say, the theory that the Cold War as we know it was one big, flawless American behind-the-scenes project when we know that a president couldn’t even break into a hotel room and get away with it? I think not.
Stone, likewise, expects his viewers to look at his account of the 20th century and conclude that their previous understanding of History is the product of a false consciousness into which shadow puppeteers have lulled them. Here, again, he runs into trouble. In A Brief History, Zinn argued that “the memory of oppressed people is one thing that cannot be taken away,” and that there is “a profound conflict of interest between the people and the government of the United States.” But he then went on to complain that the people are “passive acceptors of the official doctrine that’s handed down to them” via “pledges of allegiance, national anthems, flags waving and rhetoric blowing.” This philosophy, which Stone appears to share, might be condensed as “The People are idiots. Long live the People!”
To watch Stone’s documentary series is to watch a man convinced that he has somehow stumbled upon a historical truth that has eluded everybody else — a historical truth that, amazingly enough, fits with his worldview and with his hopes for future change. Howard Zinn was famous for his total lack of pretense at impartiality. “Why should we cherish objectivity?” he once asked, adding that History was not about “understanding the past,” but rather about “changing the future.” With his series, Oliver Stone has proven himself the rightful heir to Zinn’s approach. Television viewers should elect to change their present — by watching something else.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is an editorial associate at National Review.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial publication. I mistakenly neglected to attribute the excerpts in the eleventh paragraph to Michael Moynihan, who collected them in his November 19 Daily Beast piece on Stone. I apologize to Michael Moynihan.