Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States premiered on Showtime on Monday, Nov. 12. In a prologue to the 10-part documentary series, which covers the period from World War II to the present day, Stone describes being perturbed by what was being taught in American schools and determining to “tell the American story in a way that hasn’t been told before.”
Slate spoke with Stone and his co-author, history professor and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at the American University Peter Kuznick, about the project.
June Thomas: Did you always see this as a documentary?
Oliver Stone: Not until 2008.
Thomas: What happened then?
Stone: The Bush presidency and Ken Burns’ The War on PBS, which so irritated me because it was constantly glorifying and sentimentalizing World War II through American eyes. I felt like we’d reached a place, where, for at least the remainder of my years, I had to put something down that really matters for the future, and I thought the documentary form would do it. I went to Peter and I said, “Let’s do this story on [Henry] Wallace and the bomb.” And that grew from one hour and a half to this monstrosity. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in terms of social contribution in my opinion.
Thomas: It feels like a very personal project—your name’s above the title, you appear in the onscreen prologue, you’re the narrator.
Stone: I didn’t narrate it from choice. I laid down a pilot track because we needed that to cut to, and everyone was reacting so well to it. They said, “Go ahead, you should really do it.” I would get an English actor or a very distinguished American actor normally, but there is a cadence to the thing, and I think people felt I was interrelated with the material.
June Thomas: The documentary has a very self-consciously old-fashioned aesthetic. You used lots of archival images, maps, and film clips.
Oliver Stone: I love the newsreels. I love black and white.
Thomas: It seems a little strange, though, because you’re using traditional imagery to tell a different story.
Stone: We went classic, yeah.
Thomas: Why didn’t you use any talking heads?
Stone: When you go to a talking head, it changes the pace. There’s a poetry to the flow. We go to movie clips. The rhythm never stops. With talking heads it’s a debate. We’re very careful on the editorializing. Frankly, if we’d cut to someone who’s against the idea and someone who’s for the idea, it becomes another form of exercise.
Thomas: The episodes move very fast.
Stone: It’s really a 20-hour documentary, and we did it in 10. And there’s a book that’s available, so stop complaining. The critics can complain all they want, but for Christ’s sake we’re presenting at least something that’s debatable and intelligent.
Peter Kuznick: And grounded in the facts.
Thomas: How did you two work together?
Stone: We started with television. We laid out the plan, and he’d write a chapter, and then I would go through it. We’d cross-fertilize.
Thomas: The big hero of the first four episodes seems to be Henry Wallace. Why was it so important to you to tell Wallace’s story in particular?
Kuznik: Because Henry Wallace has been lost to history. When I ask my students who was vice president between 1941 and 1945, even the grad students almost never know.
People think in narrow, constrained, constipated ways about the world. They can’t imagine that the world could be different. We like the dreamers who actually see a different world, a better world. And nobody embodies that more than Henry Wallace. Not only was Wallace a profound thinker who had a different vision of the world, he came within five feet of becoming president. Had Claude Pepper gotten to the microphone [at the 1944 Democratic Convention], we could have had Wallace as Roosevelt’s vice president again, as the American people wanted. He was the second-most popular man in America. It wasn’t just like it was him on a white horse; it was Wallace with the people behind him in a progressive period in our history. We believe there could have been no Atomic bomb, no nuclear arms race, and maybe even no Cold War. Certainly the United States would have been very different. Right now we’re a country that abhors the government. From Reagan on, many people think the government is the enemy in the United States. Wallace had a very positive vision of government, of community, of people sharing the wealth. So we love that vision.
Thomas: Truman was also transformative, but in a way you don’t like. I was very struck by how negative the portrayal of Truman was. You virtually call him a war criminal.
Stone: I don’t think so. [To Kuznick] Do you feel that?
Kuznick: I think what we say is that in some ways, he was worse than being a war criminal. We say that he threatened our species with extinction. … So, yes, we think that there were war crimes committed and that Truman is not held accountable, but nor were Bush and Cheney.
Thomas: There was one section where you mention that Truman had been called a sissy. You say “gender issues plagued him for years.” That felt like it was different tone from the rest of the documentary. Where did that come from?
Stone: Why doesn’t Truman have any kind of empathy for the Soviets? That haunts me. He felt insecure [in the presidency] from Day 1. … And I think that comes from a background where he has to prove himself tough. So this is the wrong choice at the wrong time. You want somebody in office with some humility, like Wallace, who has a world vision.
Thomas: There was another similar, psychological point at the end of Episode 4, where you almost suggest that because we’re a nation of immigrants, Americans are more prone to fear.
Stone: Yes, I feel that very strongly. It’s a theme that haunts America right to today. It was exacerbated by 2001 to a level of hysteria never before felt in this country.
This interview has been edited and condensed.