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The Untold History of the United States (Book Review)

Cover photo of The Untold History of the United States, young readers editionLast week I wrote about free speech in a democracy and  how Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War may have been a revisionist attempt aimed at changing the dominant historical interpretation at the time.  Just now I finished reading another exercise of free political speech, Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, which also attacks a dominant historical narrative.  The authors tell a story in which 20th century  United States followed a relentless course towards imperialism, dominated by right leaning plutocrats, as opposed to the “history in the textbooks” which frames the US as the heroes, struggling against Nazis, Communists, Islamic terrorists, and other evil bogey-men.

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I read the “young readers” edition of the book, mainly because the original edition was checked out when I went to the library.  While I obviously wasn’t able to compare, it seems that the total page count is about the same, but the young readers version is broken into two volumes and does away with footnotes in favor of additional illustrations.

The book is just as biased as one might expect, given the nature of the project and who the identities of the authors.  Oliver Stone is well known both in and out of Hollywood for his leftist tendencies and fondness for conspiracy theories.  Kuznick is a history professor whose main areas of study are the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and the Cold War.  He is so heavily involved in anti-nuclear activism that it must be hard for him to remain objective when he publishes on these matters.  Still, wishing to avoid succumbing to an intentional fallacy, I tried to clear my mind and judge the book on its own merits, even though it was clearly written to support the authors’ previously developed platforms, rather than in a spirit of true scholarly inquiry.

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Oliver Stone at the 2014 International Students for Liberty Conference [photo by Flickr user Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Untold History is actually a fairly interesting read.  Other reviewers have pointed out a lack of academic rigor and over-reliance on secondary sources.  I was unable to find any major misstatements of fact, however.  I also think that it is appropriate for a book of such broad scope to draw from secondary sources, especially if it is intended as some sort of “anti-textbook”.  No one does archive research to write a history textbook.  Rather, they synthesize each chapter from several well regarded books by previous authors.

Still, there is no question that the authors picked out the facts that happened to justify their positions.  They also repeatedly ascribe thoughts and motivations to various people which they could not possibly know for certain, one of the classic “tells” of the revisionist.  And they were rather more blatant about it all than Thucydides, for example.  Then again, some of the facts are rather telling, even when picked out in isolation.  Did you know that Henry Ford published an antisemitic newspaper and used to have antisemitic literature translated and shipped to Germany, that most of the army trucks used in the Blitzkrieg were supplied by Ford and GM, or that Hitler kept a picture of Ford in his office?  Did you know that the Japanese were ready to surrender before the US dropped the bomb, provided only that they were given a guarantee of the emperor’s personal safety?  Things to think about, to be sure.

The book was exactly as advertised, and is rather entertaining.    For us writers, it stands as a good example of how not to write history if we want to be taken seriously in the scholarly community.  If, on the other hand, our goal is the sell a documentary series to Showtime, along with a companion book and other merchandising tie-ins, then this is apparently precisely how to do it.  It worked for Stone and Kuznick, anyway.

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Thucydides Books VI-VIII: Conclusion

I trust you will forgive me for lumping the last three books of Thucydides‘ History together in one post, but I have my reasons.  Book VI is the true climax of the narrative, in which the Athenians mount a massive expedition to Sicily and suffer a loss of men, treasure, ships, and morale from which they can never recover.  Everything after is mere denouement, even though the war lasts for another decade.  In Book VII the war shifts to the Aegean and Athens manages to scrape together enough forces to win a few victories, especially after the fickle Alcibiades switches back to their side, but the final outcome is never in doubt.  By the unfinished Book VIII the Persians have come in on the Spartan side,  Alcibiades is gone again, and it is obviously just a matter of time before the final defeat.  Thucydides leaves off in mid sentence, leaving it to Xenophon to write about the end of the war.

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Ancient Greek Acropolis at Selinus, Sicily [Flickr user Dennis Jarvis, CC BY-SA 2.0]

Maybe Thucydides’ health declined, or perhaps he was recalled to Athens and no longer needed a writing project to spend the empty hours of his exile.  As a fellow writer, I suspect that, having laid out his main thesis and arguments, he became bored with the final chapters and put them off, never finishing.  But what was this thesis that he was trying to prove?

I just finished reading Donald Kagan’s book Thucydides: The Reinvention of History, which sheds some interesting light on the question.  Kagan, one of the world’s foremost Thucydides scholars, argues that the “father of scientific history” was a revisionist who crafted the History to support his own platform.  The narrative that Thucydides presents is that the war was inevitable but the Athenians had a strong chance of winning under the leadership of Pericles.  After Pericles died in the plague, the democratic mob, urged on by demagogues like Cleon, went out of control and adopted a reckless policy, including the invasion of Sicily, which destroyed the empire.  Thucydides presents this perspective so effectively that it became the dominant interpretation of the Peloponnesian war for 2400 years.

Kagan, Thucydides the Reinvention of History Cover Image

In Kagan’s book, however, he explains how, while Thucydides clearly believed this interpretation, there is significant evidence within his own work to question whether things were that simple.  The war may or may not have been inevitable eventually, but Pericles was the one who pushed Athens to go to war when they did.  His defensive policy was already being shown to be ineffective by  the time of his death.  It was only after Cleon and others urged Athens into a more aggressive strategy that they began making advances.  Cleon himself, despite being hated by Thucydides, Aristophanes, and others, actually seems to have been fairly competent.

Perhaps most importantly the invasion of Sicily, far from being a mad power grab by the mob, was a fairly reasonable plan which might have succeeded had it not been for the gross incompetence of Nicias.  It was Nicias who, without actually meaning to, talked the assembly into a massive escalation of commitment in Sicily.  It was Nicias who committed one tactical and logistic blunder after another in the Sicilian campaign.  It was Nicias who waited too long to withdraw after it was obvious the campaign was lost, turning a strategic withdrawal into a disaster in which he lost his entire force and his own life.

Thucydides liked and respected Pericles and Nicias but loathed Cleon and distrusted democracy.  Thus, he structured the narrative to support his own bias, which probably went against the commonly held views of the day.  Kagan points out that, despite having a strong viewpoint, Thucydides was true to his own stated methodology and did not deliberately withhold information.  He wrote at a time when the war was still fresh in the minds of his readers and he could assume that they knew the major events, so he could emphasize the speeches and happenings that reinforced his own thesis.

Whether this interpretation is true or not–and perhaps particularly if it is true, Thucydides remains one of the greatest and most influential historians of all time.  Still, the issue reminds us, as readers of the Great Books, that every writer has their own agenda and their own biases, as does every reader, and we need to take them into account if we want to truly come to grips with these texts.