Oliver Stone, the Academy Award–winning writer and director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Born on the Fourth of July, Natural Born Killers, and other films, and Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and the author of countless books on science and politics, nuclear history, and Cold War culture, visited the 2013 ALA Annual Conference on Monday to discuss their collaborative project, The Untold History of the United States, as .part of the Auditorium Speaker series. A 10-part Showtime cable series and a 750-page companion book, The Untold History of the United States delves into the “dark side” of 20th-century American history, spotlighting influential events and unsung heroes swept under the rug by many modern historians because they reveal a US foreign and domestic policy that betrays the widely accepted notion of American exceptionalism. It’s a deep, highly researched, penetrating piece of scholarship—one that has earned both praise and scorn for exposing hard truths.
Stone and Kuznick’s talk was moderated by former American Libraries editor and publisher Leonard Kniffel. The discussion almost didn’t happen, though. The microphones failed without warning at the onset and the auditorium’s house lights flashed on and off without explanation at one point, prompting Stone and Kuznick to wonder if the CIA might be sabotaging the event. Once the technical difficulties were fixed, Kniffel got down to business, probing the pair on the inspiration behind the Untold History project, the state of contemporary historical study, and what librarians can do to help Americans stay informed about the true state of geopolitical affairs. Kuznick name-checked Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn as inspirations, but noted that he and Stone hope to go beyond the works of those noted thinkers. Stone’s explanation was more personal: He was depressed by the state of his children’s history books. Stone also noted, to much applause, that after eight years of a George W. Bush presidency that pushed American empiricism globally through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and eroded civil liberties at home, he had to stand up and say something about the dark direction that our country continues to go down. “The fact that we don’t learn our own history makes us unable to move forward,” he said.
Stone and Kuznick pulled no punches when it came to addressing the overlooked ills of American history, particularly the whitewashing of the Vietnam War. Kuznick said that most Americans think that the Vietnamese casualty rate numbered in the thousands during that conflict, when in fact, 3.8 million died. He went on to note that if modern German citizens had such disparate thoughts about Holocaust casualties, the world would be in uproar. They also took the Obama administration to task for many failed promises and for further eroding civil liberties, noting the recent revelations about NSA wiretaps. They did so with sadness, comparing the president’s potential to that of Robert Kennedy and Henry Wallace, the 33rd vice president of the United States and former Progressive Party presidential candidate who is a major figure in The Untold History. “We all thought he’d be a breath of fresh air,” Kuznick said. “Instead, we got a fourth term of Bush, and not a second term of Obama.”
The pair is hopeful for the future, however, and they said that librarians play a key role. “Librarians are on the front lines against censorship,” said Kuznick, to cheers. Stone was optimistic, as well. “Don’t give up hope. There are constant opportunities for change. This empire is too malignant to last,” he said. “All empires fail, but it’s dangerous, because the US is so armed. The goal is not to bring the US down, but to push it in the right direction.”