Kuznick on Obama's Missed Opportunities
In part one of our conversation with Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, authors of "The Untold History of the United States," Stone, especially, harshly criticized the U.S. for its militarism, its saber rattling at China, and he even found time to go after Diane Sawyer. In this second installment, Peter Kuznick casts a critical eye over President Obama's missed opportunities, the scourge of income disparity across the globe and what the U.S. should do about the Middle East.
Bookish: What would make you most excited about America’s role in the world if they got it right?
Kuznick: The United States would take the leadership on nuclear disarmament. Obama’s Prague speech in May of 2009 committed the United States to nuclear disarmament. He said the United States has a special responsibility. It’s the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons of warfare against another country. Unfortunately, he also backed down in that same speech. He said it might not happen in his lifetime and he basically implied that the United States was not going to be the first country to give up nuclear weapons--we’d potentially be the last, because we need it as a deterrent. What kind of example is that setting? If the United States needs nuclear weapons as a deterrent, with the strongest conventional force, by far, in the world, and spending as much on weapons and security and intelligence as the rest of the world combined, then what does that say for other countries?
Number two, I think that there’s something obscene about a world in which the richest 300 people have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion people. We’ve got to begin thinking about redistribution of wealth.
In his inaugural address, Obama mentioned the importance of dealing with climate and global warming, but I want to see some real action behind that. Obama is very articulate, very smart and he’s got a great platform. What I criticize him for in a large part is that he hasn’t used it to educate people. I’m not saying that he can get a lot through this reactionary Congress, but he at least has got to be educating the American people about what the real priorities are. And I think he’s failed to do that, and that’s one of the things I’m most critical [about].
Another place I’d love to see him go is much more aggressively in dealing with Israel. It’s such an obvious issue to everybody who’s perhaps not in Israel itself, or in the United States. The world understands this problem. We understand what the outlines of a future solution are going to be, with a two state solution, and we know the basic exigencies for creating that. If we look at what Al Qaeda said originally, what bin Laden said were the reasons why he was so contemptuous of the United States was, number one, because of the Israeli/Palestinian crisis and that the United States only supports the Israelis in a blind way; and number two, because of the American military presence in the Middle East, and particularly in Saudi Arabia. (Osama thought the base in Saudi Arabia was an outrage.) The United States is not doing Israel any favors [with this kind of blind support]. From the standpoint of a friend of Israel, I think that the best thing the United States could do would be to show Israel some tough love and to say that we support Israel, but we don’t support these policies, and we don’t support these extremist right wing governments that have taken power in Israel. And that the United States is going to cut off aid to Israel and support for Israel unless Israel takes real aggressive steps to deal with solving this crisis.
Those are the kinds of things I would like to see the United States do. We can’t solve the climate issue by ourselves right away, but at least we can set an example so that countries like China and India, which obviously [has] a greater claim to this kind of pollution, will at least realize that the United States is serious about taking these kind of aggressive steps. And countries like Iran, which have reason, obviously, to want to develop nuclear weapons, are going to see that the United States actually means what it says, is not such a hypocrite when it comes to telling other countries that they shouldn’t develop nuclear weapons at the same time we say we definitely need our own nuclear weapons.
Bookish: Do you ever look at the next 20 years of politics and think that some of those things are possible? Obama got hammered for income redistribution . . .
Kuznick: Except that the Occupy Movement had a lot of popular support in the United States. And when people are polled about whether they think taxes on the wealthy should be raised, the overwhelming majority always says yes. So if you talk about it in terms of income redistribution, people are going to say no. But when you talk about specific programs, they want to spend more money on education, they want to rebuild the infrastructure, they want to spend money on transportation--these are things the American people want. But once you’ve put it in the kind of rhetorical framework of saying "big government" and "social spending" and these things, then they get nervous. I think that the American people are with us in terms of the priorities that Oliver [Stone] and I have been espousing. I think that Obama would get a lot of support if he started to educate people, if he showed that the average wealth of American families dropped 39 percent between 2007 and 2010. People were slaughtered during this time. Since 2010, all the profitability has gone to the upper one percent and much of that to the upper one-tenth of one percent. We’re in a situation now where the richest one percent have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent in this country, where the six Wal-Mart heirs have more wealth than the poorest 30 percent of Americans. If people had more education, more information--if Obama played that role and others played that role--I think the American people would be very supportive of the kinds of measures that we’re talking about.
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Bookish: Now, I know you can’t [really] speak for Oliver, but would either of you ever run for office to push this stuff?
Kuznick: I’m pretty sure Oliver wouldn’t, because people have asked him. I don’t think anybody’s ever asked me. At least not for a long time. [laughs] Oliver and I do enjoy doing as much media and as many public events as we can, and we love to do conservative shows, because that’s an audience we don’t usually get to address. I think it’s a very important that those people hear alternative views. I get a lot of emails and phone calls from staunch conservatives who hear us on some of these shows and say they really agree with—they don’t necessarily agree with 100 percent of what we’re saying, but they agree with 70 percent or 80 percent. It’s a start. What we can do is plant the seeds in people’s minds to think of things in different terms than they’re used to thinking about them. I love to do older audiences and talk about the decision to drop the bomb, especially with World War II veterans. When we start the conversation they believe that Truman is a hero and he saved their lives by dropping the atomic bomb. After we talk for an hour or two, they get a very different view of it.
There are two problems in the United States: One is that Americans don’t know a lot of history. Second is that much of the history they do know is not correct or is very, very partial and very, very slanted. In the national report card that was issued in 2011, high school seniors had a 12 percent proficiency rate in U.S. history. They actually came in lower in U.S. history than they did in math and science and all the things that we’re concerned about them not knowing. If you don’t know your history, then you don’t have a good sense of what’s possible in the future. If you think that what exists is all that could ever possibly have existed, then you have a very limited sense of what’s possible. [What] we’re trying to spark is a sense of dreaming, a sense of utopian possibilities, a sense that the world could be a lot better than it is, and that the United States could play a more positive role than it has.
Peter Kuznick is a professor of history and director of the award-winning Nuclear Studies Institute at American University and is currently serving his third term as distinguished lecturer with the Organization of American Historians. He has written extensively about science and politics, nuclear history, and Cold War culture.