NR Digital


Comrade Stone

by James Lileks

The Showtime series Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States is like The Donner Party’s Christmas Cookbook — the title alone is sufficient warning. Some critics have objected to its portrayal of Stalin, which gives us something other than the standard blood-drenched tyrant. Why would Stone want to put him in a kinder light?

Perhaps because it’s Joe’s time to shine! He was, after all, the leader of a nation that suffered greatly. Because of him, true, but in the end he did more than anyone else ever did to rid the Russian people of Stalin, specifically by dying. A lot of people no doubt wanted to kill Stalin, but only he was up to the task. So there’s that.

Also, he had the right idea: Equality! With the exception of a thin stratum of well-connected people who spent their lives in a constant state of pants-dampening fear culminating in a bullet in the head in a stinky basement, everyone was equal. Some got shot in basements that were more attractive than others, of course; even a devoted servant of the egalitarian ideal couldn’t resist tossing an old pal a favor now and then. One can quibble about the number of lives chewed up, burned, starved, worked to death, fed to the military meat grinder, frozen, or otherwise sacrificed on a whim, but you can’t make an omelette twelve time zones wide without breaking 50 to 60 million eggs. It’s even harder when you purged half the chickens for not informing on the rooster who failed to greet the dawn with sufficient enthusiasm on May Day. Cut the man some slack, if you will.

No, Joe was the best kind of foreign leader: He was an ally of the U.S. when Saint Roosevelt was still among the mortals and the cause was just. Stalin’s twinkly charisma, his simple peasant ways, his devotion to the anti-Nazi cause and steadfast defense of the Motherland — why, there were some days he turned down the heat in his office to 69 degrees in sympathy with the troops at Stalingrad, and let his soup cool slightly before consuming it — these are the sorts of things that humanize a fellow. That’s very important, you see. To humanize him. To place his actions in the context of his humanity, his time, his unique role as a leader faced with the dual tasks of bringing his country into the modern world and eliminating every Jewish doctor born in the month of July.

Also, and just as important: If Stalin can be humanized and understood in context, it makes our guys look worse for opposing him. The Left hates anti-Communists. Here’s something from an activist writing in the publication Catholic Worker in 1948:

What nation today has a navy bigger than all other navies combined? The U.S.A. What nation today is steadily adding to the only known stockpile of atom bombs? The U.S.A. What nation today is tops in the development of buzz bombs, jet planes, bacterial poisons and death rays? The U.S.A. . . . It has become expedient that we preach hatred of Communists to the people, that we fasten signs of hate on Church doors and sell comic strip hate books in the Church vestibule. Christianity has been reduced by the theologians to a rule of expediency, Christianity has been made to identify itself with Americanism, with the scum of the Right!

The author, Dorothy Day, is now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

This consideration was praised in the Washington Post by Michael Gerson, who hopes it shows people how broad and accommodating the church can be. Nominating Madalyn Murray O’Hair would have the same effect. Whether Day deserves to be MSNBC’s first patron saint isn’t the point. She would not be considered for canonization if she had called anti-fascists “scum.” While she “distrusted” strong government, Gerson notes, she also wanted lots of socialism, which apparently required just a guy at a card table in the park handing out work assignments and food cards. Why, if there’s anything we know about collectivism, it’s that participation is strictly voluntary. For a day or two, anyway. Then — sigh; you people just aren’t helping here — government must step in to do the heavy lifting.

Which usually means corpses into mass graves, but never mind. It’s important to praise these people, and give money to Stone and his writers. They remind us what a wretched country this has always been, except for the parts of Manhattan where you can get really good Thai at 3 a.m. and people are talking about important stuff like that art installation that projects Sandra Fluke’s face onto the Statue of Liberty. (Where it ought to be all the time, you know.) The election showed that the country isn’t utterly unredeemable, but when half the country refuses to vote for a black president and doesn’t understand why it’s necessary to take property away from Walmart executives so we can hire the poor to make multimedia presentations about melting ice caps, well, it’s obvious that the rot runs deep.

A few more history lessons from Oliver Stone ought to help cure our ignorance. Maybe the execs are on the phone already: Boffo ratings, Ollie — we’re looking at a second season. Any chance we can take another look at Mao? Fashion trendsetter, loved his dogs, that sort of thing. Maybe he did the whole Long March Forward thing in response to American dominance. Excesses, sure, but he got closer to a society of true equals, where property and money didn’t contort the human spirit. Think on it.

What’s that? Oh, sure. You’ll get paid. A lot.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

Send a letter to the editor.

Get the NR Magazine App
iPad/iPhone   |   Android