In early September, noting that nearly fifty years have passed since President Kennedy's assassination, I sat down with Oliver Stone to discuss his masterpiece, JFK. My first question for the esteemed filmmaker was rather broad.
“The president was murdered in Dallas half a century ago,” I said, “and it's been 22 years since JFK was released. Yet the film remains pertinent to our lives. What - in the world and in the film - accounts for its ongoing immediacy and power?”
Mr. Stone responded: “There’s the film, on one hand and, on the other, Kennedy’s reputation. Mainstream American media have for the most part depicted him a ‘minor president’ who wasn’t in office long enough to make a difference. Lyndon Johnson, in that narrative, came in and fulfilled JFK’s vision with the Civil Rights Act and so forth, and basically continued his policies. I vehemently disagreed with this view back in the nineties and I continue to disagree with it as I’ve deepened my own awareness in the last five years while working on THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES. In Part 6, ‘Kennedy to the Brink,’ (co-writer) Peter Kuznick and I show JFK to be a great president. Not a near-great or glamorous one, but a great, great one who, next to Franklin Roosevelt, effected the biggest change in the U.S. government and its attitude toward the world.”
UNTOLD HISTORY is a documentary series directed by Mr. Stone for Showtime and broadcast in 2012. On October 15th, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment will release all ten episodes, along with hours of previously unaired material, on Blu-ray. The high quality of these one hour shows – from “World War II” to “Bush & Obama: The Age of Terror” – place them squarely in a tradition of excellent nonfiction films made by the best fiction directors. Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST WALTZ, MY VOYAGE TO ITALY, NO DIRECTION HOME and LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD epitomize this tradition today. But decades before Mr. Scorsese, such renowned storytellers as David Lean, Carol Reed, John Ford, John Huston and Frank Capra crafted superb fact-based motion pictures.
Mr. Stone’s program is a direct descendent of Mr. Capra’s Second World War series, WHY WE FIGHT. Using voice-over narration, newsreel footage, clips from feature films, re-enactments, maps (some of them produced by the Disney Studios in the 1940’s), and original as well as classical music, UNTOLD HISTORY pays homage to Frank Capra. Early episodes feature clips from WHY WE FIGHT itself, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and Sergei Eisenstein’s ALEXANDER NEVSKY, which Mr. Capra “quoted” in his two-part “The Battle of Russia” (1944).
The Showtime series is thus stylistically conservative, in marked contrast to motion pictures like THE DOORS, NATURAL BORN KILLERS and, especially, JFK, in which the director exhibited groundbreaking technical virtuosity. But a mainstream, even old-fashioned approach suits UNTOLD HISTORY. Partly because of the show’s Capra-esque feeling, Oliver Stone’s love of country comes across clearly. Not a jingoistic patriotism or love based on “American exceptionalism.” But a love of ideals like FDR’s “Four Freedoms” (freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear) and of heroic figures like FDR’s progressive vice president, Henry Wallace (1941-1945), and, of course, President Kennedy.
Which brings us back to Oliver Stone’s reflections on the 35th chief executive. “As we show in UNTOLD HISTORY,” said Mr. Stone, “Kennedy was, at first, a typical cold warrior. From 1952 to 1960, when Eisenhower’s budgeting cycle was complete, there was a huge build-up of hydrogen bombs, and JFK supported it. He continued to do so early in his own presidency. But he changed after the Bay of Pigs debacle and even more so after the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. He changed radically.”
Thus, the director said, “Everyone today owes the simple fact that they’re alive to JFK. Because the situation created during the Cold War -- with first strike nuclear capability over the Soviets and the ’brinksmanship’ policies of Allen Dulles and Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950’s -- made the US overwhelmingly armed, shockingly aggressive toward the USSR and willing to use those first-strike capabilities to destroy the Soviet Union and communist China forever.
“(Air Force Chief of Staff) Curtis LeMay and other generals were ready to go whole hog, urging the president and Secretary of Defense McNamara to bomb Cuban missile sites. If you’ve seen DOCTOR STRANGELOVE, you know the scenario. Bombing Cuba would have resulted in the end of life as we know it. And Kennedy understood that.”
The president expressed his view of nuclear war concisely but dramatically in a September 1961 address to the U.N. General Assembly, excerpted in episode 6 of UNTOLD HISTORY: “Today, (everyone) must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under the sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”
With that perspective, Kennedy stood up to the military brass. Oliver Stone explained: “Kennedy -- and UNTOLD HISTORY goes into detail about this -- actively resisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA. Eisenhower weighed in heavily in favor of going into Cuba, to attack them and the Soviets. So for Kennedy to say no to the CIA at the Bay of Pigs was enormous. To say no during the missile crisis was enormous. To say no to the Joint Chiefs of Staff when they wanted to invade Laos, was enormous.” Kennedy’s leadership – his fearlessness and forcefulness in the face of nearly rabid, united opposition -- changed the course of human events.
What emerges, then, from Oliver Stone’s UNTOLD HISTORY and from his dialogue about JFK is not a rehash of Howard Zinn’s PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, which focused on historic contributions of “common” people rather than high ranking officials. Nor is the Showtime series steeped in leftist paradigms one might expect from a supporter of Bolivarian socialism. Absent, too, are revelations of conspiracies behind earthshaking phenomena. Underlying UNTOLD HISTORY, instead, is a kind of “great man” theory of history.
The theory, popularized by Thomas Carlyle in the 19th century, holds that highly influential individual contribute to change by utilizing their special skills or power. But Oliver Stone’s take on this worldview is not that the actions of great historical players are fated or predictable. As Jon Wiener wrote in The Nation, UNTOLD HISTORY’s thesis is that “at many pivotal moments… history could have taken a radically different course. The missed opportunities, the roads not taken – these are Stone’s central themes, which he argues with energy, passion and a mountain of evidence.”
Therein lies the “untold history.” Mainstream texts usually present Henry Wallace, for instance, as a marginal third party candidate in the 1948 presidential race. The Showtime series, on the other hand, maintains that had Wallace won the Democratic nomination for a second vice presidential term in 1944 – which he almost did -- he would have become president in 1945. As a student of Buddhism, Mr. Wallace certainly wouldn’t have dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And the cold war and arms race might not have ensued.
Similarly, conventional history texts hold that President Truman’s use of nuclear weapons against Japan ended World War II expeditiously. The attacks are portrayed as wise, even humane. But THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES reminds us that Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur, along with many of the scientists who developed the bomb, opposed Truman. They felt his decision was unwise and inhumane. Hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved if the generals and scientists had held sway.
In the series’ final episode, Oliver Stone argues that if George W. Bush had heeded a CIA brief entitled “Bin Ladn Determined to Strike in U.S.,” delivered to him 36 days before the 9/11 attacks, the world would be very different today.
And in episode 6, the writers assert that if JFK hadn’t been assassinated in November1963, he would have withdrawn all troops from Vietnam and negotiated an end to the cold war. Which brings us back, once more, to my chat with the writer/director about President Kennedy.
“JFK’s position on Vietnam is much misunderstood,” he said. “He never sent combat advisors there, although that was recommended repeatedly; he sent non-combat advisors instead. In fact, he tried to keep a distance from the Vietnamese conflict. In the end, when Kennedy issued National Security Action Memorandum 263, proposing the recall of troops, he made it clear to his closest advisors that if he won the election against Goldwater in 1964, he would with withdraw entirely from Vietnam.
“He was also moving toward the end of the Cold War with Khrushchev. They signed a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963, of which he was most proud. He tried to end the space race, proposing that the US and the USSR work together on a piloted mission to the moon. He was attempting, through a secret emissary, to normalize relations with Cuba. On every front, Kennedy would have been a great second term president.
“He’s the only American president since Roosevelt to give a speech about the Soviet Union – at American University – paying homage to their sacrifices during World War II. He said that what happened to the Soviet Union was the equivalent of the United States being blown up from Chicago to New York. He empathized. He understood suffering because he had suffered his whole life. His brother was killed in the war, he was injured, and he behaved honorably in combat. That’s why men with three and four stars on their shoulders didn’t intimidate Kennedy - the guys who were telling him to go to war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
I became aware of the American University speech while watching JFK. In a clip from the 1963 speech shown in that film, President Kennedy humanized the Soviet people in a manner unheard of at the time. He said that the U.S. wanted peace, but “not a Pax Americana,” because at our core, we were the same as the Russians. “We all breath the same air,” he said, “we all want the best futures for our children, and we are all mortal.”
Oliver Stone added, “Kennedy was the last American president who really stood for peace.” Which, Kevin Costner’s character in JFK (Jim Garrison) slowly realizes, “made him a threat to the establishment.” In the 1991 feature, this becomes motive for murder. A strong case is made that there was a conspiracy behind the killing and a cover-up of the crime. The Warren Commission Report is thoroughly discredited. But in THE UNTOLD HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, Mr. Stone’s voice-over narration simply states that the public found “unconvincing” the commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the president.
This isn’t to say that the director has any less conviction that a conspiracy lay behind the president’s murder than he had when JFK was released. He made such a powerful a case in 1991 that Congress created the Assassination Records Review Board to continue collection and declassification of material related to the killing. And Mr. Stone still argues persuasively on the subjects of conspiracy and cover-up.
In a few weeks, Part II of my interview with Oliver Stone continues with a discussion of the Kennedy assassination and Mr. Stone’s amazing film on the subject.