Operating as a well-dressed, two-man wrecking crew, legendary Hollywood director Oliver Stone and American University professor Peter Kuznick visited UC Irvine last weekend with an impassioned call for citizens to reject the conventional, rah-rah version of U.S. history. The idea that our nation is a benevolent superpower dedicated chiefly to spreading liberty around the globe as well as freedom at home is, Stone and Kuznick insist, deceitful propaganda. They say that since the dropping of atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians during World War II to present-day U.S. military drone strikes that kill women and children in the Middle East, our government has far too often been a case study not just in corruption, but also evil. They argue that we're not the world's ethics-driven policemen we like to think we are, but instead the planet's myopic, trigger-happy, money-hungry bully.
"I think our society is where the Soviet Union was [in the 1980s, on the verge of collapse from corruption and desperately in need of reform]," Stone told several hundred attendees. "I think we are moribund. I think there is something wrong. We're corrupt. Our economy is corrupt. There's too many large corporations. There's too many wealthy individuals. . . . It's a two-tiered system, and the people at the bottom—nobody gives a fuck about them, and that's what's going to bring us down."
During the past five years, Stone and Kuznick have teamed up to develop a multipart Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States, and an accompanying 784-page book. Their UCI appearance was part of the ongoing promotion of their project, inspired by what they see as hair-pulling trends toward increasing public ignorance. For example, while most 18-to-29-year-old Americans now consider the Vietnam War wise public policy, they note that older citizens, more familiar with the realities of the bloody conflict, see that war as "a terrible thing."
"But the younger generation we're trying to reach isn't getting that," said Kuznick. "There's another whole part of our history that Americans have got to understand—not singing our praises, [but] looking at what we've done wrong so we can get it right next time."
He explained that Japanese war memorials he'd visited honor all individuals on each side who died in battles, but our government erected a Vietnam War Memorial that only mourns American dead. "The message of the Vietnam memorial is that the tragedy of Vietnam is that 58,272 Americans died," said Kuznick, observing the memorial stretches 146 feet. "If that memorial actually had the names of the 58,000 Americans, the 3.8 million Vietnamese, the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, Laotians and other people who died, it would be over 4 miles long. Now, that would be a war memorial, and that would tell something about Vietnam. . . . That would be the tombstone to this idea of American 'exceptionalism' that we need, and that's what we're trying to convey here. This idea that is so dangerous to think [is that] the United States is God's gift to humanity, that we're different from other countries, that we're altruistic, that we spread freedom, and that's what our goal is."
Added Stone, "I think we react as a mad dog, and we are sick. We have this military aggression inside us. It's evident in our football games, where you've got the flyover jets and this homage to the military. Now, we need a military; I'm all for the military. I joined the military, and I see the strengths of it. But we need a military to defend this country and defend its national interests, not to go abroad looking for fights to pick and for countries to intervene in if they don't agree with our way of doing things. We cannot impose one cultural value on the entire world."
Kuznick said that though President Dwight Eisenhower is commonly given credit for alerting the nation to the scary inclinations of the military industrial complex, he is the primary architect of Cold War hostilities. When Eisenhower took control of the White House in 1953, the U.S. had 1,000 "nukes." When he left office, we possessed more than 23,000.
"This policy of threatening the world with annihilation in order to maintain American economic and political privilege in the world doesn't make sense," he said. "That's what we're challenging here—a world in which the richest 300 [individuals] have more than the poorest 3 billion, a world in which the United States controls the planet with our bases, with our fleets, with our arms—which we're selling everywhere, with military alliances."
Research for the series and book underscored a key lesson, according to Stone, director of Platoon, Savages, Wall Street, Nixon, Born on the Fourth of July, The Doors, Heaven & Earth, and JFK, as well as winner of nine Academy Awards.
"Governments lie," he explained, careful to note he doesn't necessarily trust President Barack Obama any more than he did George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. "When I [was growing] up, I believed the government. My father told me to believe them. You know, I didn't realize how corrupt this thing was."
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Stone's biggest worry? In the wake of the shocking Edward Snowden revelations about the extent of warrantless National Security Agency spying at home and overseas, the U.S. is marching to a future few could have imagined just a year ago.
Gary Fouse—a retired federal narcotics cop who never fought in a war and writes the blog Patriot's Corner—took the first opportunity to ask a question and delivered an oral blow to Stone, who earned a Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his repeated combat bravery in Vietnam. "I seem to feel that maybe your experiences turned you against your country in many ways," Fouse said. "And I just wonder if you've ever considered that if it were not for the United States of America and specifically its military, I don't think that there would be a country in the world living in freedom today."
Because of microphone problems in the auditorium, an expressionless Stone couldn't hear the remark, and Fouse, who stood in the back of the room, continued, "I'd just like to say to the young audience here that in spite of what you've seen in this one-sided presentation, and in spite of our mistakes and the dark chapters in our history, which we acknowledge, which, you know, we're making mistakes today, this is still a great country, and I think it deserves your support and your loyalty."
Stone isn't easily rattled. Questioning his patriotism is always the first move of his critics. He called the Showtime presentation a "visual poem to a country that I love—loved [his emphasis] when I was a young man. . . . [The U.S. has] lost our goal, and that is what this whole series is about. . . . I wish to God we can turn it around. And that's why we did these things, and that's why we're here today among you, trying to remind you that we were and still can be a great country."