An Academy Award-winning filmmaker and a Cold War historian came together Wednesday night to present a glimpse into the history of the atomic bomb.
Film director Oliver Stone, along with Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University, visited the Whitney Humanities Center to host a showing of “The Bomb,” the third chapter in a 10-part documentary series titled “The Untold History of the United States,” to a packed audience of roughly 200 people. After the screening, they participated in a discussion moderated by American Studies professor Matthew Jacobson. The duo said the series was created in hopes of exposing a different side of 20th-century American history than what is traditionally claimed as doctrine.
“We’re about deconstructing fundamental myths,” Kuznick said.
“The Bomb” offered arguments against three primary claims: that the United States was the force that won World War II, that dropping the atomic bomb was the reason World War II ended and that the Cold War was started because of Soviet aggression. In reality, Kuznick said, the Soviet Union was a far more powerful force in ending World War II than the U.S. both in Europe and in the Pacific.
The film explored the two atomic bombings in Japan by the U.S. during World War II. Stone and Kuznick turned a critical eye toward the behavior of the United States. According to the documentary, the Truman administration lied in asserting that dropping the atomic bomb was both necessary to end the war and successful in doing so. Stone and Kuznick presented evidence that the Japanese feared the invasion of the Soviet Union enough to surrender. This, they argued, would have been enough to end the war: the dropping of two atomic bombs was both unnecessary and a cruel means of demonstrating power on the global stage.
Stone and Kuznick also presented a historical figure that they described as an unsung hero of his time: former Vice President Henry A. Wallace, a progressive Democrat and an active opponent of the atomic bombs. When Roosevelt wanted to make Wallace his running mate in what would become his final term, the Democrats pushed against him and pressured him to nominate a less-popular Harry Truman. Had Roosevelt selected Wallace, he presumably would have ascended to the presidency upon Roosevelt’s death. Stone and Kuznick noted that such an outcome would have dramatically changed the American landscape after World War II. Because Wallace never would have dropped the bomb, the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union would have been maintained and the arms race and the Cold War would never have begun.
Stone said he was largely inspired to begin the documentary when he read his daughter’s high school textbook and realized how much was amended or missing in order to paint a more appealing picture of U.S. history. He said he wanted to show a more complete picture.
“Look, kids love horror stories,” he said. “If you make history the horror story it has often been, you get the kids’ interests.”
The duo are also releasing shorter editions of their 750-page ‘Untold Histories’ book, geared toward a broader and younger audience base. A currently available ‘abridged’ version checks in at 450 pages, and a “Young Reader’s Edition,” geared towards middle-schoolers, will be released in a few weeks.
Audience members interviewed said that they were fascinated by the story portrayed. Two men, both war veterans, said that they felt they had gained a new perspective on the historical subjects discussed in the film.
Carl Kreitzberg ’16 said he was most compelled by the relationship between Kuznick and Stone.
“You can really see the storyteller and the fact-checker chemistry,” he said. “That comes out in the film, too: the substantive facts, and the sly narrator moving the story along.”
“The Untold History of the United States” first premiered on the Showtime network in 2012.