U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Suckers…for the TRUTH

untold historyHistorians spend most of their careers trying to ask good questions.  Occasionally those questions move other historians, the students they teach, and perhaps even the general public, to consider new ways to understand a past that seemed fairly well known.  This process is the basis of the historical method.  Sometimes it is called revisionism, though in the politics of the academy that term can also be used imprecisely as an epithet.

On one level, revisionism simply describes how historians test historical assumptions as they discover or take another look at the sources of those assumptions.  On another level, perhaps a more popular level, revisionism promises to draw us closer to a truth and perhaps even THE truth about the past.  To marshall the TRUTH about the past can feel like calling down thunder upon one’s intellectual and ideological enemies.  But, declaring a truth about the past gives revisionism a bad rap.

stoneAt least that’s the feeling I got listening to Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick talk history at Illinois State University.  I came to central Illinois on one of the coldest nights I have ever experienced at the invitation of S-USIH colleague Andrew Hartman.  We sat in a very large and quite impressive auditorium with at least two thousand other folks–undergrads on up–and watched a screening of episode three of a ten-part documentary entitled The Untold History of the United States. Showtime has distributed the film and Stone and Kuznick are making the rounds on talkshows and college campuses and anywhere else they can find an audience to promote it.  Following the screening, filmmaker and historian sat down and answered pre-arranged questions from Dr. Monica Noraian, a faculty member in the history department who had gone to graduate school with Kuznick.

kuznickStone and Kuznick created this series to question what they see as misguided notions about recent American history.  Those misguided notions can be summed up in a single term–American Exceptionalism.  The problem with the revisionism engaged in by Stone and Kuznick is that both their movie and the brick of a book that accompanies it are the photographic negative of the thing they want to critique.  They simply reverse the rolls of villans and heroes in the traditional rendering of American Exceptionalism, so instead of a virtuous Woodrow Wilson, we meet the duplicitous Wilson; rather than a tough-willed Harry Truman, we see the evil at the heart of everything Truman did.  For a categorical refutation of the historical arguments Stone and Kuznick make, see Sean Wilentz’s recent essay in the New York Review.

Frankly, Wilentz makes short work of the history and the woefully inadequate historiography of the Stone-Kuznick project. The aspect that struck me as especially pernicious, though, emerged in the talk the two gave at ISU–they constantly resorted to a rhetorical device that they employed not as rhetoric but as the foundation for their historical method.  They used counterfactuals to invite their audience to imagine how different world history (not merely American history) would have been if only their heroes had been allowed to succeed.  I am well aware that we all use counterfactuals–“what if…” questions–but I’ve also understand that there are fairly clear limits within which this device can be used.

In the hands of Stone and Kuznick, the “what ifs…” came fast and scurrilous.

What if Henry Wallace had been vice president in 1945? What if Henry Wallace had been able to prevent the American use of the atomic bomb?  What if Henry Wallace had been able to negotiate a new peace with the Soviets in the early postwar period?  What if Henry Wallace had been able to deal with civil rights, healthcare, poverty, wages, mass transit, and perhaps every other major issue one might imagine?  The answers to all these questions–some far more outlandish than others–was that there would not have been a nuclear arms race, nor a cold war; civil rights would have expanded exponentially faster and sooner, along with the universal healthcare and the elimination of poverty.  In one of his fastest flights of fantasy, Kuznick declared that the living standard of the world would have been 70% higher than it is today if Henry Wallace had not been thrown off the Democratic Party ticket in 1944.

Counterfactuals work for two basic reasons: first, they work when they stick as close to what we understand to have happened as possible by helping us think through options that might have appeared to the historical actors we study; however, the farther they float from the source (the known facts) the more ethereal they become.  Second, counterfactuals help us identify the most significant aspects of the history we study.  If we can figure out what aspects had great consequence relative to others we begin to get a sense of how to shape the narrative we want to tell.

time wallaceStone and Kuznick’s central counterfactual focuses on the significance of Henry Wallace, at different turns the Secretary of Agriculture, Secretary of Commerce and Vice-President.  According to the duo, if Wallace had been kept on FDR’s ticket in 1944 and taken over after Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, the world as we know it would have been dramatically and fundamentally different.  That counterfactual is an interesting one.  It suggests that it was entirely possible that Wallace could have been FDR’s running mate in 1944; where it goes horribly wrong is in the way that Stone and Kuznick avoid dealing with the likelihood of that happening.  Just because they want to imagine Wallace’s candidacy–the possibility of it happening–doesn’t, as a consequence, provide evidence of its likelihood.  As Wilentz makes clear in his review essay, the account accepted by most historians who have done considerable research on the 1944 Democratic convention is not only was it unlikely that Wallace would have been FDR’s running mate in 1944, but Wallace had been prevented from forcing his way onto the ticket where, Wilentz notes, “Roosevelt had decided he did not belong.”  It is a conclusion that not only disagrees with Stone and Kuznick history, but strikes at the heart of the spirit that infuses their pursuit of that history.

Stewart Winger, a colleague of Hartman’s in the ISU history department, pointed out that while Stone and Kuznick might have a flawed viewed of the historical method, their greater problem is more embarrassing given their project’s ultimate intentions–they don’t get politics.  Wallace, like Truman and FDR and all the other good and bad individuals they include in their book–were creatures of their historical circumstances.  Sure we can hope that our “man” rises above politics we dislike, but as we’ve seen recently, politics trumps hope.

I often use Stone’s JFK to help me teach historical methods and historiography to my undergraduate students.  I do so because Stone is so prolific in gathering material about any era that interests him and such a disaster presenting it.  He stands as perhaps America’s greatest history buff–an abject lesson to all those students of mine who are too easily impressed by provocative claims, but are often too lazy to question Stone’s assumptions.  His collaboration with Kuznick has brought the buff more legitimacy but no closer, it appears, to doing good history.  At some point during the discussion, Stone declared that people are suckers for the truth.  It’s a line from JFK, and the inspiration for Stone’s approach to history.  The problem is, of course, that while people might be suckers for the truth, they don’t like being played for suckers.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for this overview, Ray; I must say it’s refreshing to see people at least debating Wallace’s legacy. I’m more interested in Wallace’s “Century of the Common Man” than in Wallace himself. To what extent was there any chance of that vision suceeding in the Cold War? To what extent did Cold War policies actually reflect more of a Wallace-type America and world?

  2. Interesting review. Thanks.
    “Following the screening, filmmaker and historian sat down and answered pre-arranged questions from a faculty member in the history department who had gone to graduate school with Kuznick.”
    The colleague’s name is Dr. Monica Noraian.

  3. The thing about wild what-ifs is that they’re daunting if you choose to engage them. Based on your review, Ray, it’s clear that Stone and Kuznick’s what-ifs form a mythology that is irrefutable. All fantasies are irrefutable. That’s why, I think, that I find counterfactuals almost entirely useless. They are a departure rather than an engagement with history. I almost never utilize them in a text I intend for publication.

  4. I am in Dr. Hartman’s seminar covering the American Culture Wars and in lieu of a normal class session, we went to this talk. I had not previously seen any of the documentary series, so I went in with an open mind and high expectations. Halfway through the film I was thinking to myself, “This argument is pernicious.” (So I was quite pleased to see you describe it as such too) The way they attempt to boil recent American history down to a singular moment when Wallace is denied an opportunity at the DNC is certainly an oversimplification, but also a pernicious counterfactual.
    I feel as though because Stone and Kuznick are doing a popular history, they deserve some slack from a lowly graduate student like myself. But I couldn’t help thinking that they were doing a disservice to the audience in the auditorium that night as well as their broad television viewership. When I left, I could only think about how much I wished I had someone to discuss this with. Needless to say, I found it here. Great write-up, Ray.

  5. Mark, I too am happy to hear more about Wallace, I just think that Stone and Kuznick used him almost as a conduit for more interpretations of US history than any one figure could possibly support.
    Tim, I understand your wariness of counterfactuals but I use them all the time to figure out why a certain interpretation seems to make sense to me. For better or worse, when writing God and War I kept coming back to the notion of civil religion as a way to understand the convergence of many religious arguments about the nation. Without that convergence the interpretation does change. Though I suspect that what I describe above is what makes you distrust counterfactuals.
    Mike, thanks for the comment. I am all for new interpretations and radical revisionism but like you what struck me as very troubling was the kind of argument Stone and Kuznick made if taken at face value lead us almost no where as either historians or as a political agents who want to create change. The fact is they part of an army of historians, journalists, political scientists, students, etc. all questioning the same assumptions. Why make the argument so difficult to support with evidence?

    • Ray: I didn’t mean that I would discourage counterfactual *thought experiments* by any given historian. I should use them more than I do, in my head. It’s when folks like Stone, and the writers of show for the History Channel, use them as narrative—as a substitute for narrative and the hard work of anchoring interpretation in a broad array of documents, then I get perturbed. …But this is a digression from your excellent write-up. Very nice!

  6. I my quasi-intentional attempt at slow replying to the blog, I first want to say it was great to meet Ray the other night and thanks for the quick post. Like you I found some of the more fantastical elements of the night came from the question and answer session. Two of Kuznick’s claims stuck out in my mind.

    The first was that we are lied into war all the time. While that may be true, the specific example of Kuznick used of George H. W. Bush and the first Gulf War is really weak. I mean of all the lies that got us into war (The U.S.S. Maine, The Lusitania, The Gulf of Tonkin incident, WMD) the Nayirah testimony is one of the most obscure. Even if the Nayirah testimony was widely known to be false, I doubt the first Gulf War hinged on it. As if the collation force of literally dozens of nations (including Middle Eastern countries) would simply have gone “Oh, a witness at the U.S. House’s Congressional Human Rights Commission was less than honest, everyone, pack up and go home”. I remember that war pretty vividly (I’ll never forget coming home from swim practice to watch a war start live on CNN) and I’m pretty sure it was about oil, and not in a subtle way.

    The second fantastical claim was a continuation of the Wallace mythos that Stone and Kuznick have developed. Kuznick argued that a veritable democracy party was being held in Soviet occupied Eastern Europe and the Soviets only began to create puppet states and repress people as a result of Truman’s Cold War policies. If only Wallace had been President, the Cold War wouldn’t have happened. Kuznick repeated the claim that up until 1947 democratic elections were held all over Easter Europe several times. As Stewart Winger asked afterward “how would you sell this in Poland”?

    On a final note, the attempt in the documentary to make Gen. Curtis LeMay seem like an anti-nuke peacenik was almost too much to bear.

  7. Ray –

    Your excellent post made me think about the so-called “hindsight bias” I’ve been reading about. Somehow it seems relevant here, though I’m not exactly sure how.

    In a recent article in the journal “Social Cognition,” Harmut Blank, etal, explain that hindsight bias “in the broadest sense, …refers to a biased representation of events or facts once they are viewed in hindsight, with knowledge about the outcome.”

    One element is that we’re inclined to think we knew all along what would happen, thus it’s sometimes called the “we-knew-it-all-along” syndrome. In the “New York Times” just prior to the recent election, Benedict Carey described it as the tendency “to retrofit…opinions and judgments to the evidence” available at a later time, when the outcome is seen to have been, well, predictable.

    Another element is what Baruch Fischoff, the pioneer researcher of hindsight bias, called “creeping determinism” — the tendency to see events as more determined retrospectively. You might say, we tend to overstate the closed character of the past, and the open-ended character of the present. As we look back, historical actors may appear “creatures of their historical circumstances,” while the present seems various and new, rich with agency. Perhaps we could call this foresight bias.

    We can’t pre-dict our futures very well, perhaps because it seems so choice-ridden, but we can post-dict the behavior of actors in [our] past, whom hindsight suggests were creatures of historical “laws.”

    We have an advantage over historical actors, but perhaps not over those [historians] who succeed us, making their careers through postdictive revisions.

    How do we balance and reconcile the need to do history from the inside out with our improved information?

    I wonder how historical narrative is associated with hindsight bias, as perhaps the momentum and flow of a compelling story creates a sense of plausibility, even of inevitability. In “History as Art and Science,” 1964, H. Stuart Hughes made the point that what he calls “retrospective prediction” is virtually an inherent feature of the inertia generated by a historical narrative, as the historian “organiz[es] his statement of past events so that they move toward other events that lie in the future.”

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