28 February 2013

Sean Wilentz vs. Oliver Stone: Round Two

As expected, Oliver Stone and his collaborator on the Untold History of the United States miniseries, Peter Kuznick, have responded angrily to Sean Wilentz's scornful review in the New York Review of Books. In their response, published in the March 21 edition, Stone and Kuznick find Wilentz guilty of imperialism by association with Hilary Clinton. "Perhaps it is here, over the question of empire," they close, "that the battle between our interpretation and Wilentz's should be drawn." Wilentz's supposed imperialism supposedly explains his disdain for Henry Wallace, the hero of Untold History, and his dismissal of the miniseries's premise that the Cold War could have been prevented had Wallace remained Franklin Roosevelt's Vice-President after 1944 and succeeded him in 1945. For Stone and Kuznick, the question of empire and the question of Henry Wallace converge, insofar as Wallace or anyone with a different attitude may have changed history. Implicit in both Wilentz's original review and the filmmakers' defense -- I still haven't seen their show -- is an argument that American imperialism has at least a nearly equal share of blame for the Cold War and all its related hot wars as does the Soviet Union's geopolitical ambitions. They apparently reject the fundamental Cold War premise that Soviet Communism -- not just Stalin -- was "utterly evil," a judgment Wilentz applauds Henry Wallace for making eventually but the Untold team treats as if made under McCarthyist duress. Wilentz presumably sees a moral imperative in thwarting any expansion of Stalinism's utterly evil influence, while the Untold team may find Soviet evil and its geopolitical aggressiveness deliberately exaggerated by American imperialists. As I said the first time, the historiographic jury is still out on the question of the origins of the Cold War. As a Bolshevik, Stalin was bound to want as much of the world as possible to go Communist, but how far he was willing to go to influence events, and how much of actual aspirations toward Communism in postwar Europe can be traced to his influence, is still disputed. In retrospect, it's easy to say you wouldn't want one more person in the world to have lived under Stalin's sway, but such moralism has a price in blood and treasure that is itself subject to moral questioning.  Wilentz himself has raised the question in his own work -- he convincingly refutes Stone and Kuznick's attempt to portray him as an apologist for Ronald Reagan's Central American policy -- but the Cold War is such a defining event for the self-styled "anti-communist left" that the room for objective inquiry seems to shrink, especially when someone like Oliver Stone seems to suggest that the opponents of Stalin were bad guys to any extent.

In his rejoinder, Wilentz basically denies acting as an apologist for anyone or anything. He rejects the Untold team's assumption that "the hidden motive behind my criticism of their book and television show must be ipso facto to defend American imperialism." His argument remains that Stone and Kuznick are poor historians, shockingly so given the latter's academic credentials. In academic terms, he makes a strong attack. He quite nicely defends his own Age of Reagan from an attempted smear, and harshly highlights Untold's apparent dependence on a single newspaper editorial source, hostile to both Wallace and Harry Truman, for the claim that Wallace's independent candidacy in 1948 compelled a not merely reluctant but reactionary Truman to adopt more liberal domestic policies. But Wilentz himself seems to realize that such fine points of attack miss the main point. Stone and Kuznick no doubt see all such criticism as nitpicking or cherry-picking. Their defense is that everyone does it and that the truth will out. They boast of a bias in favor of the downtrodden and a commitment to "focusing a spotlight on what the United States has done wrong -- the ways in which we believe the country has betrayed its mission." They aren't out to tell "all of US history," and that makes Wilentz's protests meaningless except to the extent that his rejection of their premises about Cold War and empire prove him wicked. As described by Wilentz and themselves, theirs seems like an exercise in moral judgment, the exact facts perhaps being less important than the observation that the results were wrong. The Cold War was a bad thing; therefore there had to be an alternative -- and if there was a road not taken, there has to be a reason why it wasn't taken. Hence a conspiracy against Henry Wallace at the 1944 Democratic convention. As a historian by vocation, I can empathize with Wilentz's dismay at this approach, but I'd disagree with his choice of "cynical" as the word to describe what Stone and Kuznick are doing. Wilentz sees them as cynics because, from his perspective, they treat history as "little more than propaganda." For him, it's cynical to use history selectively for partisan or ideological ends. For them, that's what everyone does, and what matters is who's right and who's wrong. Wilentz seems to treat "cynical" as the opposite of "objective," but that's just another way the two sides talk past each other. True objectivity might split the difference, and seem truly cynical doing so, by determining that some things were wrong but necessary or unavoidable. Stone doesn't seem to want to concede the necessity, and Wilentz doesn't seem to want to concede the wrong, at least sometimes. I'm not sure I'd want either person to write the history of our time.

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