Historians 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.
At 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.
Stone 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.
Stone 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.