HOLLYWOOD, CA — Oliver Stone places his new 738-page book down on a patio table in his home, a mansion tucked cozily away near the bottom of a canyon, just as his 16-year-old daughter walks into the room.
“Hey, Tara, check this book out,” Stone says to her, one of his three kids, suggesting she show it to her classmate who’d come over to study. It’s called The Untold History of the United States, released this week to accompany a new ten-part documentary series set to start next Monday on Showtime. “Take it to school tomorrow and show it to your teachers.”
“This?” she says skeptically, picking it up and shaking her head. “Oh, it’s by you?! That’s cool!”
“It’s dedicated to you, sweetheart,” he says. “Your name’s there.”
“Wait, oh, okay,” she says. “Thank you — I really appreciate that.”
The proud father smiles — reaching a younger generation, he says, is the point of the project he describes as his most ambitious to date, an energetically suspicious re-telling of American history in the 20th century, documenting the growth of the national security state, the CIA’s secret wars, and various men and women who he thinks “history has forgotten.”
Over four and a half years in the making with coauthor Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University, the series begins with World War II and the atomic bomb, passes through Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada, and ends with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, critiquing leaders current (Obama “doesn’t have the courage or integrity” of JFK) and past (Truman is a “caveman”) and describing a United States that, while certainly more sinister than the one our country’s candidates are currently rhapsodizing, is not necessarily one that readers of radical historians like Howard Zinn will recognize, either. (Stone is a fan of former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle.)
“It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s a combination of all the themes that I’ve been interested in — JFK, Nixon, W., the power of money, the corruption of empire. This is a chance to say, ‘Hey, I don’t have to dramatize it, I can just go to the real record.’”
Stone gave BuzzFeed the first extensive interview related to the series. In a discussion, conducted last month, the 66-year-old iconoclast and Vietnam veteran — he was a lowly foot solider in the war — talked Obama (he gave him money in 2008; this time, no dice), Romney, weed, his most recent feature, Savages, his encounters with the devious and powerful (Bob Gates, Gorbachev), and his new project, among other things.
The ground rules? I told him I’d publish as much as I could, with the understanding we would likely take the most inflammatory thing he said and make a headline of it, and it’d probably be interpreted wildly out of context elsewhere in the media. He agreed.
“So, I’ll start with the softball question,” I say.
“Softball? There is no softball,” he says, then pauses. “I know that technique. OK, the softball question.”
MH: Are you going to vote?
OS: I just got a write-in ballot. I don’t know, I think I should, but they demoralize you. They say California makes no difference anyway. And we vote last. In which case they’ve announced practically the whole thing. So what would you do?
MH: Would you vote for Obama?
OS: I feel like I should. You should, right? [Ed.: Stone did later vote for Obama.] I guess if I was another kind of personality, I would say I’d vote for Romney because it’ll wreck it faster. And you know, we’re going to go down, but it’s going to be faster, and maybe that’s better. Maybe we should just bankrupt the whole fucking thing. If [Romney] declares currency war on China…I’m worried about his Iran position, certainly. And, I think he said geopolitical enemy number one [was Russia].
MH: Yeah, that’s a quote…
OS: The more they boast during the campaign, the more danger they put the whole thing in. The boasting is what turns people off the most.
MH: There’s an intoxicating power to the American presidency — you can bomb almost any country, at any time, really.
OS: Well, Nixon said that in the interview with Frost, right? If he’s the president, he can bomb anything he likes. Do you remember that? Have you seen that movie?
MH: It’s great. What did you think of Obama when you met him?
OS: I thought he was very impressive.
MH: Could you talk about that?
OS: It was his early days in the Senate, but he was starting to raise money for the presidency.
MH: He came out to Hollywood.
OS: I met him here twice. He was hot from the beginning. I was in that anti-Hillary…I was disgusted with Clinton’s Iraq vote. I was in that group that gave him money and everything. I haven’t seen him since. I’m dangerous to him, in the sense that, you know, he has to be respectable, he can’t be seen with me.
MH: You don’t think you’re respectable?
OS: They would see me as a danger for them — as a radical person and mentality, so it would not be good for the voter to be…He would lose his image as a moderate. Not that I’m not a moderate, but….
MH: Has Obama been that big of a disappointment to you? Did you expect anything different?
OS: Yeah. I mean, I did. But I’m not saying he could have lit the world on fire — he had a lot of enemies right away. But no, I admire him.
MH: Do you regret funding him in the beginning?
OS: No. Listen, McCain — we’d be at war now in about three other places.
MH: And back to Mitt Romney?
OS: [Not] unless you took the other argument, like, let’s go for it and trash the place. The changes will come faster, if you…the stupider you are, the more mistakes you make, the faster the changes.
MH: A vote for Mitt accelerates the collapse?
OS: You burn faster. The Roman legions who were sent to more and more ridiculous places to fight ridiculous wars became so corrupted, because they were paid to fight — the all-volunteer idea of the citizen army was dead —they became mercenaries, and eventually they appointed the emperors. They picked them. So it becomes an incestuous system. And there’s no reason to believe that this thing would not deteriorate between a Romney and a McCain into a system where [CIA chief and former general David] Petraeus becomes president by dictation, by appointment — I can see that happening without any problem — and [Admiral Stanley] McChrystal [ed.: former commander of American forces in Afghanistan] becomes his number two. And of course…the ultimate liberal nightmare is internment camps for all the intellectuals.
MH: But ultimately you think we should probably vote for Obama.
OS: I’ve said that publicly. I’ve said that I supported Ron Paul in the primary because I wanted him to be the alternate voice. I’m surprised he didn’t speak out at the convention. Gary Hart was my guy. I love Gary Johnson. Gary Johnson, Gary Hart. There have been so many intelligent people that have just been ignored. Tom Daschle was very good. He was a center-type candidate. I thought Fritz Mondale made sense. I loved George McGovern. He was a fighter pilot in World War II — he had really been there. A lot of the guys, these are chicken hawks, these guys, the guys who always want to go to war. The McGoverns really go to war.
MH: The documentary examines the growth of the national security state from World War II to the global war on terror. A number of high-ranking military officials appear as characters, including Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
OS: I wanted to nail [Petraeus] as much as I could, because we don’t have a lot of time in 10 chapters, but I had plans for him in chapters 9 and 10, which were the Iraq and Afghanistan chapters, among other things. I remember how sick I was watching the grapefruit grow. It just got bigger and bigger. Petraeus represents everything that’s gone wrong with this Congress, kissing the ass of the military, and all this super patriotism, you know — but also another one you mentioned is Gates. I mean, Gates has gotten away with history. When Obama appointed him, I said, “Jesus, there it goes.” Right away, that was first thing I said. Hillary Clinton and Obama…
MH: You said Obama was overseeing the American empire.
OS: They bothered me far more than Summers and Geithner. Bob Gates goes way back.
MH: Gates started in the CIA in 1966.
OS: He was very involved with [former CIA director] Bill Casey. [Gates] knew all this shit. Gates fascinates me because I thought that Gates was a psycho. I really knew that he was a psycho. I think he’s a fascinating movie character, the more you find out about him. I knew people who knew [Casey when he was director of] the SEC — my father’s on Wall Street. He was always an eccentric, but he got worse as he got older. More and more Catholic, [the Catholic organization] Knights of Malta and all that shit. But, you know, Gates was [Casey’s] number two right? I did JFK and they gave me an Academy of Achievement. Some major award in Las Vegas. They give it to 20 people a year. Gates was one of them.
MH: You and Bob Gates received the same award at the same event?
OS: Yeah, Barbra Streisand, Kevin Costner, George Lucas. It was a classy promotion for [Steve Wynn’s] casino.
MH: Steve Wynn. The man knows how to do nice hotels.
OS: [Wynn] brings all these students — a thousand students from all over the world — and they sit there for these day seminars with these American leaders. Gates is there, and everyone makes a speech, and all the students come to the hall. When I did mine, Gates showed up. I had a speech that I had worked out at the college campuses about these six or seven illusions that I had lived through in my lifetime since World War II. And I got to number five, and I said, “And then there’s the CIA.” And I gave them my personal history of the CIA, which was doing all this shit in Eastern Europe and constantly fucking over democratic governments, and I said at the end, “And I think the CIA at the end of the day is going to be demolished, is going to be deleted from our consciousness, and it has to be called the greatest criminal organization [in the country].” At this point, Gates, I swear to God, he was red in the face. He stood up near the end and they walked out [with his entourage].
MH: Wow. Sensitive!
OS: It wasn’t like a pin drop, because people were coming and going in this huge hall, but I remembered that, and I wonder if I ever got on his shit list for it.
MH: I think it’s safe to assume you’re on the shit list.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
OS: That motherfucker. Obama appointed him. I don’t get what happened. But my theory — and you probably know more than I do — but I think [former counterterrorism official] Richard Clarke said [in the PBS Frontline documentary Secret America], “someone got to Obama.” They brainwashed him between November and January. They scared him.
MH: They scared him.
OS: If you have yourself in a room with these guys, that you know, every day, and they gave you briefings about how they’re trying to kill you and blow up your cities, I don’t know. It must…brain shrink…is that what you think?
MH: I think they terrified him, and national security is such a sensitive point for any Democrat with no military experience. The safest course was to just keep Gates there. But do you think President Obama could roll back this national security state in a second term? For that matter, could any president get elected without adopting the national security framework?
OS: Both parties are locked into a grid where they have to support empire. And it’s very difficult to move in the other direction. It would be possible if you were strong enough. And I guess you have to serve like a Kennedy — he was very cautious, but he’d been in the military, and he saw through the Bay of Pigs, he saw through what the generals were saying. He made very clear [as is shown in] our chapter six that you should not believe generals. Or the CIA.
MH: “The sons of bitches with all the fruit salad on their chests telling, nodding their heads, telling me it would work” — that’s what Kennedy said after he felt mislead by the Pentagon after the Bay of Pigs.
OS: Or the CIA. That’s a great chapter. The Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis had a great lesson for humanity. There’s been all these hinge moments in history — [Truman’s replacement of progressive FDR vice president] Henry Wallace, JFK, the Cuban crisis, the Gorbachev moment with Reagan. Can Obama [stop the growth of the counterterrorism-industrial complex before it installs David Petraeus as emperor]? Yes — [he could] if he were the young vigorous figure that he pretended [to be]. That I thought he was. But he wasn’t.
MH: Our top political item on BuzzFeed Politics this entire year has been a post about President Obama smoking weed in high school. The so-called Choom Gang. You were on the cover of High Times earlier this year. Can you talk a little bit about marijuana? I’ll leave it at that.
OS: I dealt with marijuana, I thought, effectively in Platoon, and I said so at the time. I said, “Look, this weed is a good thing. And it was a good thing in Vietnam.”
MH: Did you get stoned in Vietnam?
OS: Of course I did. Many times. Why? The first fucking time, in the rear. Because naturally, the first line of attack is [you shouldn’t smoke as a soldier because] you’re putting other lives at risk, you’re a bad soldier, and that wasn’t true. We did it at the rear bases when we were not really in jeopardy except in the case of an incoming mortar or rocket or something. It was always in the rear because it was the only place we could relax. You didn’t want to do it in the field because it would smell. People would [notice], and you had a lot of lifers in the field, not too many, but you had a few. You had assholes, you know, people who were, they called them alkies — they just liked alcohol. Going back to the war on drugs — as you know I got busted when I got back, with Vietnamese weed, actually coming back from Mexico. Isn’t that bizarre? I was in the early Pre-War on Drugs. Nixon called it that in ‘71, that was when they were cracking down, partly because of the Vietnam thing, because a lot of guys were coming back high and fucked up. But not all of them. I have to say very few [were] fucked up. That was the exception. But people definitely had been influenced by drugs and music and a new attitude. There was also a casual cruelty that came back with all of this. Vietnam distorted everything in American life for me. Be that as it may, I came back to society, and the war on drugs was crazy, but people were doing it anyway. Everywhere, drugs were hot — from acid to pot; coke, I didn’t hear about until many years later, and heroin was hot, too. Actually, there was heroin, but I didn’t partake of it. So the war on drugs was insane, it was insane then, it’s insane…even more insane…at least with Nixon, apparently two-thirds of it was for treatment. But now we’ve reached this place where we’ve spent almost — what is it, an agency that costs $40 billion a year, $35 billion a year, plus all the other agencies will get into it, so we spend $50 billion a year chasing drugs, building walls, then on top of that inflating the prison system to this point where 20% of state prisons are for drugs, and 50% of federal. That’s a big population. What Americans don’t get is that per capita, we’re bigger than Russian and China in prison population. So it’s a new industry.
MH: Do you smoke pot and write? Does it hurt your productivity?
OS: Oh, sure. No, listen, listen. I’ve used marijuana off and on for 40-plus years. Do I look like I’m in jail? Do I look I’m not paying my taxes? I got a house and I got some kids I put through school. I’ve been productive. I don’t know that marijuana is such a bad thing.
MH: Your last movie, Savages, is about two weed dealers in Laguna Beach caught up in both a love triangle and a war with Mexican drug cartels. You did W, the sequel to Wall Street, and Savages, while you were getting this documentary project going as well. Has your political notoriety hurt you as you try to get films made?
OS: Certainly I could get more things done in the ’90s. I did take stands because I felt like too many filmmakers were copping out and saying, “You know, it’s just a movie.” I don’t agree with that. If you make a movie, it’s your life, it’s your position. You have to either back it or you don’t. Part of my strength is I involved myself in every one of those 19 feature films. I became the style of the movie. I become the movie for a year or two. It’s a way of working. It’s Method acting, I guess. [Now I do] Method history. I put myself in the shoes of Churchill, I put myself in the shoes of Stalin. I try to understand what they’re thinking.
MH: Spoiler alert: the ending of Savages is very different from the ending in the book. Why’d you make that choice?
OS: I never bought the idea that two young people would give their lives up for the other one. I just don’t buy it. It’s a romantic idea. The second ending, which I believe is more accurate to the drug war, is that [law enforcement agent] John Travolta’s not going to walk away with $3 million. He’s still going to come back, because he’s smart — he’s going to keep going, because there’s more money to be made. The DEA colluding with the drug war makes sense to me. Obviously it turns off a lot of Americans.
Universal was the only studio to take [the movie]. And that I have to say, you know, like Showtime, you got to have some balls in this business, and I’m glad they did. They stepped up.
MH: Have you noticed a change in Hollywood’s willingness to take risks?
OS: Savages went out on July 4th. I’m not sure that was the right date, because July 4th is a big barbecue spectacle. You have big pictures like Spider-Man and Batman. In the older days, certainly, I was hotter off the bigger movies. I always demanded these things, and I got them. In my head, I always feel like I can do it if I want to. Which is to say, commit to it. And if the screenplay is good enough and has enough tension, they will make it. We’ll find a way to make the movie. I did with W. And nobody did want to touch W. We had no takers — 55% of the money came from Hong Kong.
MH: Have you ever felt any political pressure?
OS: I got a lot of heat for South of the Border [ed.: a documentary about Hugo Chavez and governments in South America]. Comandante [ed.: a documentary about Fidel Castro] did not make it to the air. It was promoted and then pulled with two weeks to go because of political pressure. You get into so many scrapes. You feel a bit like Willie Pep. Or the guy from Raging Bull. [Ed.: boxers known for the incredible amount of abuse they took during their careers.] You’ve got to be careful when you go in the ring. You don’t want to get too banged up. And I saw Muhammed Ali the other night at a dinner. Muhammed is…it’s hard to do that, and get beaten…
MH: How do you deal with criticism of your political views?
OS: It’s debilitating to the spirit. And I think that if I hadn’t spoken up a bit over these years, certainly a lot of people — I would be more acceptable to some people. Spike Lee had that great quote that [now] he wouldn’t be able to make Malcolm X unless he was in a cape. I mean, I don’t know that JFK would be financed at this point.
OS: I mean, I don’t know. I don’t know. Well, I mean, [the corporate conspiracy drama] Michael Clayton got [financing]. But the budgets have been shrunk. They’ve made drama into a category that’s more risky. They used to make dramas all the time, but now they’ve become special items, as opposed to action, adventure. If you ever look at the genre of releases, they never say drama, they say action, adventure, comedy, or horror.
MH: In your feature films you’ve already given an untold, alternative, history of the United States. What does a documentary add?
OS: That’s a softball question right there. But I want to finish one thing — I don’t want to be tangential, but it’s important, because sometimes these things get distorted [when published].
MH: I plan to do it as a Q&A for BuzzFeed.
OS: BuzzFeed. It sounds like buzz food, or buzzkill. OK. You know what a buzzkill is?
MH: I have a general idea.
OS: It’s when you smoke a J, and somebody comes in, and they kill your buzz.
MH: I’m somewhat familiar with that experience.
OS: What I want to say is — I just want to finish one thought. In this series there’s three empires — Soviet, U.S., but there’s the British Empire, and you cannot overlook the power of [the Empire’s dominance of] the map. We show the map in chapter two, I think it was. The size of this thing. All the Churchill southern movement in World War II toward the second front to North Africa, Italy, the Balkans. Also look at the trade routes coming from India, keeping those routes open. The importance of Greece, the importance of Suez, Egypt. It’s crucial. It’s almost like Churchill, after he keeps England secure, is fighting this other war to maintain the empire. And he says, in chapter four, in 1941 or 1942, he says, “I will have not become Prime Minister to see the demolition of the British Empire.” In no uncertain terms, which is why the people throw him out. That’s the other thing I wondered. How come he’s such a hero, but he gets thrown out like a week later, [during the post-war conference at] Potsdam, he gets removed from office in July of ‘45. That’s like winning the Super Bowl and, what, you know? Something is wacko. That empire map is the crux of this thing. Is the U.S. going to support this empire? That’s why we did not want to go into World War II [in the first place].
MH: Clearly you’re fascinated with presidents — you’ve done three films on them.
OS: No. I’ll go back to your softball question, which is why I started this [new project]. I’m fascinated to know who I am. OK? And I don’t know. And I grew up, let’s call it brainwashed, like your Obama, from 1946 to 1968. Brainwashed. I mean, I had history a certain way, and I read it, and I believed it. My father was a Republican — a very intelligent man, well-read, quoted Shakespeare — but he definitely believed the Russians were out to conquer the world. And then under that basis, among other problems, I went to Vietnam because I felt we were doing the right thing. I served, I saw horrible things. I saw things I was disgusted by, but I didn’t understand them. Just because you see something doesn’t mean you can understand it.
MH: What were those things?
OS: The overall nature of the bombing. The way the racism kicked into the village. A part of my tour was going into villages, looking for weapons, doing things to villagers, checking them out, patrolling them. Sometimes we’d kill them. I got into this in Platoon. But you know, most of my time was in the bush where I didn’t see many people. But what I saw was disgusting, in the rear base camps, where you were, you saw a lot of — I don’t know what you call them…
MH: Like indentured servants? I saw that in Iraq. Non-Westerners there to support the U.S. military presence — either local Iraqis or foreign nationals, shipped in from Pakistan and the Philippines and places like that.
OS: We had the same issue in Vietnam. In the Army in the States, when you do basic training, you do your own fucking laundry, your own kitchen duty. Then you go to Vietnam. Well, we’re hanging out, it’s cheap. So all of a sudden you see all these Vietnamese are walking around the base in the rear, and they’re doing your laundry. They’re doing everything. They’re selling everything. So something is fucked — you know damn well. And I arrive at the 25th infantry base camp, in Cu Chi, which is huge. You know they found out years later that there was a tunnel system underneath that was practically the size of Cu Chi, which is a trip! You can’t go abroad and do it like that. You can’t. And nothing’s going to work in any country. You know the Afghans are sitting there saying why the fuck would I be loyal [to the United States]? It’s money, I’m gonna get some money from this guy, I’m gonna figure out an angle. He’s a big lumbering hunk in armor, and he’s gone one day, he’s gonna be gone, and then I gotta deal with the rest of these fucking people. I mean, they’re all trying to fuck each other over the in end. You know?
MH: Why didn’t we learn from Vietnam? What happened?
OS: Because of the Petraeuses writing these fucking books. Didn’t he write a [counterinsurgency] manual explaining it all to us? You can dice anything any way you want. If you specialize it enough — well, we just didn’t do this thing right and this thing right — if you break into a specialization act, you can probably convince yourself of anything, which was what a lot of them did. Reagan goes [to Vietnam], and he says that this was a noble cause and we should not be ashamed of it. Then Clinton came in years later and at least he recognized Vietnam [as a mistake], but he did make the statement that American soldiers had gone in there for good reasons. And so did Obama.
MH: Obama says that about Iraq.
OS: It’s like he’s pulling out with his tail between his legs, because the Iraqis don’t want to continue the agreement. You can’t win political office without this mythology. You have to pay obedience to the idea that World War II was the great grandfather and we are the great country.
MH: There are filmmakers who glamorize war, sell war, but have never experienced it.
OS: I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And they do a good job at it. They really do. I mean, I get criticized for Natural Born Killers. You know, I was trying to make a satire about it. But I’ve never done that kind of war film. My violence is real to the degree that it shows you how one bullet in Ron Kovic’s spine [ed.: the protagonist of Born on the Fourth of July] has a huge effect on a man’s life. It’s really dangerous to make these movies…they make it very attractive.
MH: When did you first read Born on the 4th of July?
MH: That’s the most powerful anti-war book I’ve ever read.
OS: Ron would say Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun [was better]. But Ron’s book moved me. It was a difficult picture to adapt because, as you know, it was fractured in time. It was beautifully done, it was a poetic book, and I wrote a screenplay like that — several, more than one draft — [but] eventually we went back to a linear narrative and I think that worked better for our movie.
MH: Should filmmakers be taking more political risks?
OS: I think people do what they can do, you know? I have a certain background. You can see what it is, my concerns. They don’t come from that world, some of them. They come from a world of commercials and advertising. They think about the technical world. And, you know, pure directing, pure drama, is just about directing actors and bringing the life of the scene out. It’s a pure art, and I love it, but there was an engaged theatre at one point. There was, where [Elia] Kazan [Oscar-wining director of On the Waterfront] used to be, and Clifford Odets [a radical playwright who turned to screenwriting]. Not just them, but so many players. It shouldn’t be about an ideology, it’s about narrative. But the narrative reveals ideology, too. And if you’re honest, you have to see the implications of it. So if you’re making movies that support war or some of the vices of the knife, I think it comes back on you.
MH: How do you keep from worrying too much about how much money your movies are going to make?
OS: I mean, I don’t think there’s been anything [I’ve done for money]…except maybe The Hand [ed.: the first movie Stone directed, a horror film in which Michael Caine plays a comic book artist whose hand gets cut off and starts murdering people], but that was more about getting into the business. I’ve loved it and always wanted to make that movie at that time. I wish I’d been perhaps a little bit more commercial-minded about some of them. I’d like to make a huge hit again. That’d be great. Wouldn’t it be great?
courtesy of Oliver Stone
MH: How old were you when you were in Vietnam?
OS: Oh, as a solider, 22. Eighteen as a civilian teacher. I was a teacher in a high school.
MH: I can’t wait to get to Vietnam in your series.
OS: You’ve got to understand there are roots. There are roots. I love history because of the cause and effect. You don’t get that if you just come into the narrative and you say, “This is the worst guy that ever lived,” or, “This is the best guy that ever lived”…But for a veteran to see Vietnam and then see Iraq…Well, first of all, to see Grenada, which was really a big deal — an ugly deal. You have to remember, Clint Eastwood made a movie about it…
MH: Heartbreak Ridge. About a crusty old drill sergeant who whips up a bunch of losers into shape and leads the invasion.
OS: Yeah, and all these movies glorifying, you know, World War II. Saving Private Ryan. [And] Black Hawk Down and even Gladiator in 2000.
MH: The idea of the roots of Vietnam — you start with WWII. Do you think Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was coming? That’s Gore Vidal’s big theory.
OS: He said they thought the attack would come in the Philippines. You know, he may have had. I mean, he wanted an attack. He was hoping for a war.
MH: The U.S. had aggressively declared an oil embargo on Japan. And in the series you also address some even less-discussed incidents after the war that had a big impact on the rest of the century.
OS: In 1997, after Nixon, I ran into Peter Kuznick, who is a professor at American University. He was involved in nuclear affairs and eventually founded an institute there [American University’s Nuclear Studies Institute]. He had written some books on scientists from the 1930s and nuclear physics, and he was fascinated by that world of atomic power. He told me this story of Henry Wallace and how Truman had gotten into power, and I said, that’s a great movie. I don’t know if anyone is interested, but, you know, that seven seconds [at the 1944 Democratic National Convention] when Claude Pepper, [a left leaning Democratic senator] is five feet away [from the podium and Wallace almost gets the nomination for president.] It’s really a haunting story — how did that happen? — because the whole world pivoted on that, and it’s huge.
MH: At the convention?
OS: July ’44 — yeah, the convention. I mean, Wallace, you know, had done a good job as [Roosevelt’s vice president.] He was the second-most popular man in American in ’44. How did he disappear so completely from history?
MH: Henry Wallace was vice president for four years, and what we’d call a progressive.
OS: Four years. And he’d also been a key New Dealer for eight years, from ’33 on, and the key figure as the agricultural secretary. We had a huge agricultural reversal in this country, and he was very prominent and very thoughtful.
MH: What’s the alternative history if Wallace becomes president?
OS: Huge, huge. He was a man who was affable, liked, except by the hard-line, inside politicians. I think he would definitely have gotten Stalin’s respect, if he hadn’t already. I think the whole nature of distrust would not have grown [between the U.S. and Soviet Union]. You see the difference, from the moment Truman is in office, he’s talking to Molotov within a week and telling him, “You keep your word and you won’t have to get talked to like this,” and shit like that. You don’t talk to people like that, especially Russians who fought in World War II, and got wiped out doing it. So anyway, everything goes wrong. It’s like having a new boss who walks in the first day and says, “Alright, I wanna see everybody in my office, I wanna know if you’re a communist, I want your credentials…” There’s a way to do a job, and he didn’t handle it well.
MH: You say Wallace is one of the heroes that history’s forgotten.
OS: I think race relations would have been significantly different, I do think it would have been even faster and better and smoother. Wallace would have started that whole process. [And] Wallace had a distrust of the British Empire…Is [post-war history] really just about U.S.-Soviet relations? Or is it about all these colonial places trying to break out from the British and the Dutch and the French? The whole world picture — all the nationalist movements of the ’50s that lead to Eisenhower’s overthrowing so many governments — everything comes from [the United States’] caveman attitude about all kinds of reform.
MH: Truman had that caveman attitude?
OS: Oh yeah, most definitely. I mean, I don’t think he even thought twice — he said, “The Arabs don’t vote,” he said — you know, I don’t think he thought twice about the Palestinian thing.
MH: Truman is now highly regarded among historians. His reputation has had a real resurgence.
OS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I was young, but I remember how unpopular he was. Most people did not like the Korean War, and it dragged on. The McCullough book in the ’90s. McCullough, you have to keep in mind — and Peter reminded me of this — there’s a book on Truman that came out after McCullough. It’s by Arnold Offner. Offner’s book [Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War, 1945-1953, published in 2002] is much more thorough about Truman and Wallace, and McCullough is not really a historian. Although he got a Pulitzer Prize, he’s more of a journalist or popularizer of history. [McCullough] has admitted that he didn’t do a lot of research on the bomb. Because when I read the book what struck me was the omissions that I’d seen via Peter. I said, “How come the guy doesn’t even deal with these issues?” Wallace is treated in McCullough’s book as a naive flake. But most of all, the bomb research, what Peter did is uncover some cables and again reassert very clearly, I think, that this bomb did not have to be dropped. And anyone who really knew anything knew that. It was a simple political symbol he was using to push the Russians around.
Courtesy Los Alamos National Laboratory
MH: You don’t think the bomb needed to be dropped?
OS: No, I think that was clear. [Ed.: The documentary details a theory that the Japanese surrendered not primarily because of the bomb, but out of fear of the Soviet Union claiming Japanese territory.] Definitely the Russian invasion in the East was the thing that the Japanese noticed, because they had been carpet-bombed — there were so many cities destroyed, so many people killed. But when the Russians were going to take Hokkaido, which is a spiritual homeland of the emperor, and then take Manchuria [ed.: the mainland region closest to Japan]. The war’s not over. Stalin is sending troops into [Asia]. They move fast. And it was clearly a huge factor for the Japanese. I think this is a major moment in history and the dawn of my consciousness, because I was born in ’46. We grew up under the shadow of the bomb. You guys didn’t, but it was really was a fearful time. That’s what gave rise to the fear of the Cold War, which gave so much birth to all these ideas. It’s a virus that has even come down —a cold you catch — [see for example] Obama’s nonsense talk at West Point [in Dec. 2009]. Even Obama, I mean, the guy is wearing the flag pin…the American supremacy. The primary power, the superpower, there’s a word we use — exceptionalism, yeah. Exceptionalism.
MH: World War II becomes the excuse for every other major conflict — it’s always cited as a reason to go to war. Saddam is Hitler. Ahmadeinjead is Hitler. Et cetera. And yet it’s hard to say that we shouldn’t have gotten involved in World War II. The line is: “Well, what would you have done about Hitler?”
OS: That’s why my original series was 12 episodes! I said, “Peter, we’ve got to go back to World War I.” He said, “Why?” Because World War II is as good as any war could have been in terms of its reasoning. But it’s a completely foul war because it starts as a bastard’s stepchild to World War I. There would have been no World War II — it was just one long war. World War I starts for capitalist reasons because all these competing countries want more colonies and more money, and they start to compete — Germany, England, France, and Russia too at that time.
MH: What do you think of Brokaw’s Greatest Generation and others, like Spielberg and Hanks, who have mythologized WWII?
OS: Obviously you’re going to question it. Many [soldiers] were very brave. They gave their lives. But perhaps [Saving Private Ryan and The Greatest Generation] are exaggerated to enhance this America-the-good myth. It’s just not that simple. Because our support of the Nazis pre-World War II…Our involvement with the Nazis and our appreciation of them, whether it was [William Randolph] Hearst or [Charles] Lindbergh. Also our working with them. Right after, when World War II is over, and we’re grabbing all the assets we can to make another war against the Russians. [Ed.: the U.S. recruited Nazi-affiliated weapons scientists.] We have everything in our power — we have all the money, all the weapons — the Russians only have men. We have everything else.
MH: So you don’t buy into the Cold War, either?
OS: It’s not a dichotomy, U.S.-Soviet. To me, it’s always about this tripartite thing, and it’s very important that Truman tilts British right way. Because he’s a simple man. A narrow-minded man in the most important juncture of history. It’s like having [hard-line Russian leader] Leonid Brezhnev become premier [replacing the more reform-friendly Nikita Kruschev]. It’s a shame. It’s the way life works, right? Gorbachev comes in, he only lasted, what, six years? You know, I got to know him a little bit, and I really think he’s an amazing man at an amazing time in history, and did so much without encouragement from the Reagan side.
MH: Where and when did you meet Gorbachev?
OS: Oh, I met him years ago when he was here. I saw him two months ago in Chicago. He gave me his memoir. He blurbed our book, gave me his new memoir, Alone. After Raisa died. He loved her all his life — he was 60 years married, I think. And he has a beautiful memoir. He talks about that period when he got destabilized, you know, after the wall goes down, from ‘89 to ‘91. He says that the U.S. had no interest in seeing him succeed at reform.
OS: Yeah, because they wanted to get rid of Communism and he was trying to reform it. He tried to let all the factions speak — and he got a coup on the right and then a coup on the left. He was a very noble man, I think.
MH: Is he bitter? Sad? Is he comfortable with his place in history?
OS: No, a great man. He was upset when Yeltsin — when the U.S. and Yeltsin — they wrecked Russia. The life expectancy dropped 10 years. I think the poverty rate jumped up — the numbers are enormous. You saw, and the privateers took over. I mean, it must have been a free-for-all. Putin did bring back to Russia a sense of power — that they had some strength.
MH: Romney talks about Russia as a villain. One of his advisers called Russia the Soviets a couple of months ago. He described Russia as the number one geopolitical foe to the United States.
OS: Sounds like Sarah Palin! What is it about Russia? I mean, does anything change? The military gets bigger.
MH: That’s one of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn’s major ideas — the supremacy of the Pentagon, or the military industrial complex, in dictating America’s role in the world. Some of the ideas in the book and documentary appeared to be taking the theories and works of Chomsky or Zinn. Did those folks influence you?
OS: No. Howard Zinn is great. But Howard, he was on a side. He goes right to labor. Whereas we’re really more empirical. With Chomsky, you would never satisfy him with this — he would take issue with Kennedy, the portrayal of Kennedy…1963, that window of time when [we believe] Kennedy could have really changed the nature of the world with Khrushchev.
MH: Back to the softball — why a documentary?
OS: Peter gave me a [Henry] Wallace screenplay in ‘97, it was 200 pages, it was very dry, and he’s not a screenwriter. I said, too bad, you know. And 11 years go by, and I’m sitting with him in DC, and I said, “Why don’t we just do a documentary about the bomb, because this is what your expertise is — let’s just do it, and we’ll bring in the Wallace story, we’ll do it in an hour and a half.” That seemed very sensible to me. Maybe I should have just stayed there and then I’d have my movie. But we decided to become more ambitious and to follow the thread all the way to now, and that become the birth of this idea. We got the private financing, which got us through two years — two and a half, three years… [then] Showtime committed. This was hard, man, I’m just telling you. I was doing three films. W was that period, and then I did [the sequel to] Wall Street, and then I did Savages to make a little money, essentially. I can’t get big momentum on a film career. We have a very small guerrilla staff.
MH: Did you have a model in mind?
OS: My model was World at War, which you must see, it’s a beautiful series done at BBC in 1973, Laurence Olivier narrated, Jeremy Isaacs produced it. They had a staff of 50, and they did the second World War in the most classy way. It’s not objective, but it’s certainly very well done.
MH: What’s next?
OS: What would I do now? I can’t tell you. Frankly, I’m exhausted. This has killed four and a half years. There’s been no free time besides trying to get this done, and the redrafting. but it’s so hard, and also we’ve had three fact-checks. We have to be very accurate because we’re breaking taboos and orthodoxy. It’s serious, we’re undermining this orthodoxy that says that we did the right thing in World War II, we bombed the Japanese because we were going to have to lose a lot of men, and the Russians…So it’s terrifying, and it’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done. Without having known what I was doing. I guess this is a chance to say, “Hey, I don’t have to dramatize it, I can just go to the real record, I can use archival footage.” This is documentary — and three-times fact-checked, at great costs and expense. I am very proud of it, even if 55,000 people see it and that’s it. Maybe if I can get to those 55,000 people and they’re smart, they’ll be the next generation. You know, things happen. You never know who sees your movie.
Really, it is exciting to go back to these years of my life… what does it mean for me, what does it mean in the life of a young person. It’s actually [been] quite enlightening to me and very much a part of the process of closing the circle. But I can’t get as passionate as you guys are about the selection [of the president]. It does feel repetitive sometimes.