Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick Challenge America
President Obama, Hillary Clinton, even Diane Sawyer--when Oliver Stone sets his sights on you, you might want to take cover. The director of seminal movies including "JFK," "Natural Born Killers" and "Savages" spent five years making the recent Showtime documentary series "The Untold History of the United States," with American University professor Peter Kuznick. The result is a damning account of what they think has gone wrong with the U.S. The eponymous book has been garnering a lot of attention, too, so Bookish recently spoke with Stone and Kuznick in exclusive interview about the Chinese threat, disappointment in Obama, the coming war in space and plenty more. In this first installment, Oliver Stone begins by realizing that his interrogator is not U.S. born.
Stone: Oh, you’re English.
Bookish: I'm from England, yes, and lived there for 25 years. [I have] really fallen in love with America--I can tend to sound a bit too much like Ken Burns. I’ve lived all over the world, and there’s something about this country and its people especially that I adore. I know you both get accused of being, quote-unquote, “anti-American.” I wonder what your answer to that is.
Kuznick: I would say that the highest act of patriotism and love for one’s country is to be critical of one’s country. There’s been a dangerous tendency in the United States for over 100 years to equate dissent with disloyalty. And if you really care about something, if you really care about your kids, you’re going to be critical with your kids because you want them to grow and develop and become better. We have the same attitude about our country. We think that the United States has done a lot of great things, it stands for a lot of terrific principles, but it often doesn’t live up to those values. What we’re trying to do is encourage the United States to be true to those principles because some of them are very uplifting. And we look at the history of this country, and we look at wars and interventions and expansions and genocide and atrocities, and we want it to see that if this country is going to realize its true potential.
Stone: I was born on the Republican, Conservative side of the fence. My father was a Republican, grew up in New York right after the war. I was a patriot, but not excessively so, and I actually dropped out of college and I ended up in Vietnam as a volunteer draftee. And I served and I was wounded and decorated over there, and I came back, and I have to say that I was naïve and innocent. It’s not like I was radicalized in Vietnam: It started a process of opening my mind to looking at the damages of war. I saw war really live, up front, in my face, and there’s no way you could talk about war in an abstract way [after that], like some of these chickenhawks do. I have seen the effect of US policies abroad in third-world countries. I returned to Central America in the 1980s to make Salvador, and again, I saw this interventionism, this mentality rampant throughout Central America, the sense of ownership [by the United States], the sense that we have the right to go into Nicaragua to prevent the Commies from taking over Central America, we have the right to go into El Salvador and murder all the trade union activists, labor leaders and—not us to do it, but through our protégés in the army and the paramilitary and the death squads. [We say,] "We have to stop this menace, as we did in Chile in the ’70s and as we did in Argentina, and as we did on numerous, numerous, numerous occasions."
So I love the country, but it is screwed up, terribly, since World War II. I think that was a real demarcation. The dropping of the bomb set a new standard of barbarity. And I don’t think we had to drop it, as we argue in the series--as we show throughout, [we think our] sense of might makes us right. [This concept of] American exceptionalism, that we are blessed by God, through some special, unseen magical act and that we are the greatest country in the world. . . . [It] is the most damaging statement you can make about America because it sets up a series of expectations that we can never live up to.
Those who have great power have a greater responsibility not to exercise it; they must discipline themselves and control themselves. And none of the American people who call in on these radio shows seem to have any idea of the extent of our power and what it does in other countries, because they don’t live there. They have no idea that we’re only 4.5 or 5 percent of the world’s population and that we expend the most amount of energy; that we are the leading polluter of the universe with carbon emissions. We have yet to sign on to a treaty governing space, which is the biggest danger of the modern era. We and Israel have been outliers on the proposal from the United Nations to demilitarize space. So, we have abused the privilege of power repeatedly.
When Hillary Clinton stands there at the Council of Foreign Relations and talks about how America prevented World War III through its fairness and justice and balance, and shows us a historical amnesia about an American triumphalism, she doesn’t have any acknowledgement of the more than one million deaths that we have caused as a result of our interventions in foreign countries such as the Congo, Chile, Nicaragua, Vietnam . . . the list could go to 20 countries, maybe 25, maybe more. Who’s kidding who? Who’s blind here? Now, I can join this country as an American or as a foreigner and say, “Hey, I like my McDonalds, I like to have my gas, and I’m comfortable, and I can watch football.” That’s all well and dandy. [But] it’s consumerism--you’re not contributing to the saving of this planet, which is in jeopardy.
Bookish: Can I ask both of you what you thought of this “staunchly liberal” inauguration speech by Barack Obama? It’s certainly been argued from left, middle and right that it was finally him coming out as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and I wonder how you heard it.
Kuznick: Oh, dear.
I think it was a small step in the right direction. [Obama's] showing a little bit of backbone and a little bit of fight now, which I like. He’s talking about the positive role the government can play. He wasn’t focusing on the budget deficit, which is a good thing. He talked about ending wars, which is good. He talked about the fact that it’s not going to be a permanent war on terror, we’re not going to be in a constant state of war, which is good. But what he didn’t talk about was equally disconcerting to me: He didn’t talk about drones; he didn’t talk about empire; he didn’t talk about America’s 6,000 [military bases] here at home in addition to the 800 to 1,000 overseas. He didn’t talk about the fundamental issues. Unless Obama seizes the opportunity to at least educate the public about the nature of American empire, he’s [just] following in the footsteps of Madeline Albright, and Hillary Clinton, and of Woodrow Wilson, of president after president, in saying that the United States is the indispensable nation. Those are his words. And what we’re saying is that he’s got to finally wake up and start critiquing empire. On January 5, 2003, the New York Times headlined its magazine section "American Empire: Get Used to It." Well, the United States has gotten used to it. We’re not even conscious and aware of it. And Obama’s role as a leader should be to articulate that, express it and to start critiquing it in an honest way.
Stone: I didn’t listen to the [inauguration] speech. I read parts of it and I felt like it was not particularly inspiring. The concept of fighting for social rights, although a good one, is not the primary focus of our problems. Our problems are survival of the planet and war. [Obama is] pro-empire; he’s an effective war manager.
I’m sure that this Asia pivot is a serious thing. I take it seriously, anyway. [We are] building this gigantic base, aimed at China, on Jeju Island in South Korea. Now, this is a very important, huge nuclear submarine-type thing that will damage the ecosystem there. The villagers, the Jeju people, have been up in arms about it for years, and even though it’s been planned for a while, it’s going into being soon. So this kind of continuation of our empire, global policing, is what is the problem. And you as a British person: I have mixed feelings about that, because—
Bookish: So do I. [laughs]
Stone: —I find in Britain, sometimes, the media is far more aggressive than the American media in saying, “What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with being a global policeman?” [Britain] certainly [has] a long history of it. Now, the question is, is America now your stalking horse? Is it easier for the British people, for the British media to say, “Well I’m glad we have an English-speaking global policeman, sounding like Winston Churchill, who can police the world for us, because then we don’t to have to f*cking do it.”
Bookish: We can get into that if you want to.
Stone: Defend yourself, sir! [laughs]
Bookish: I think any Briton who tries to have any cogent opinion about who runs the world should just think back to British Empire, and what a beautiful travesty that was for the planet. It wasn’t our finest time, just as I think your argument is that this is not America’s finest time.
Stone: That’s right. [So] how can you defend [America] then? 40 percent of our budget goes to security. You have to rethink this country, and look beyond the surface of its comfort.
On the news today, I saw that idiot Diane Sawyer—God, we have such newscasters! She has this big frown on her face [talking] about the threats to America. We have the threat today from North Korea, which apparently hasn’t even built this f*cking missile, but they show [maps about] how it can hit Washington or the West Coast, or Hawaii. In Mali and Algeria [the situations are] characterized immediately as threats to Western values. And the Brits, the French and the Americans are now united in this war on terror. Everywhere you go, anybody who does anything in a nationalistic or in a Muslim way is considered a terrorist. And the truth is all these weapons for the Mali rebels came from f*cking Libya. And who destabilized Libya? I was shocked when Obama did that; that was a hidden war. It wasn’t even declared a war, correct? So Libya leads to Mali--and who armed Osama bin Laden? Who set it off? Who sets off this militarism in the world? We do.
Kuznick: And we never know the consequences, and then we end up paying the price.
Stone: Well, it’s naive.
Kuznick: The Libya situation is a very interesting one, because the reason why we intervened was supposedly to prevent an atrocity from being committed on the part of Gaddafi, when there are atrocities being committed by our allies all over the world. Bahrain is a good example. And so, to prevent an anticipated atrocity, we go in there and overthrow the government.
But the Libya thing also raises some other points: One is, we had befriended Gaddafi in the previous years because he gave up his weapons of mass destruction. [North] Korea is blustering and threatening with their nuclear program now because what Kim Jong-Il said was that the big mistake Saddam Hussein made was giving up his weapons of mass destruction, that once you give up your weapons of mass destruction, then you become vulnerable to American attack and invasion. Which is exactly what happened to Gaddafi. So, the lesson that these dictators get is to acquire weapons of mass destruction. If you were the leader of Iran, if you were Khamenei, you would say, “Of course we want to develop nuclear weapons, because that’s our only safeguard against the United States and Western invasion.” You could see why they would think that way.
Stone: I would think Assad of Syria now regrets not having done that.
Bookish: Where does this end, do you think?
Stone: It goes to a space war. It goes to versions of Star Wars that are beyond our nightmares. This goes to militarizing space, attacking, blinding, destroying, preempting other countries, such as China.
Bookish: So you think we would preemptively attack China?
Stone: I just told you that we’re building a gigantic base in South Korea that nobody wants in South Korea, except their government. And, we have troops in Australia now. We also have expanded our presence on Okinawa, on Japan. It’s a policy. And all the hawks in the future in the Congress are going to start talking about the China threat.
Stone: I’m just trying to educate this Briton to the American madness. [laughter]
Bookish: Well let me just say one thing, because I don’t want you to have the wrong opinion about me: It’s very important that you know, Oliver, that I don’t eat McDonalds and I don’t watch football.
Stone: How can you grow up with a good, clean education and then come over here and start? OK, I’m not going to get into that.
Bookish: I was very lucky to have two American children, who I think embody all the positive parts of America.
Stone: But they’re naïve. They don’t know anything. They’re nice kids; people are nice. We haven’t fought a war like in Europe; we haven’t been through that kind of nightmare. So we’re nice people, okay. Great, that’s nice to know. But we still consume like sh*t. I think Luke gets me.
Bookish: I could listen to you all night, despite the fact that you’ve impugned my country and my education. And my beautiful children.
Stone: [laughs] Nice to meet you, Luke.
Bookish: You too.
[STONE SIGNS OFF]
Kuznick: I’ll try to soften a little bit of Oliver’s edge today. [laughs]
Bookish: No--it was a treat.
Oliver Stone has won numerous Academy Awards for his work on such iconic films as Platoon, "Wall Street," "JFK," "Born on the Fourth of July", "Natural Born Killers," "Salvador", and "W."
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.