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Oliver Stone tackles modern US history in new series

Oliver Stone believes schools sanitize US history. In his Showtime series, he says, “We’re going back and saying, ‘Let the juicy stuff out.’ ’’


Oliver Stone believes schools sanitize US history. In his Showtime series, he says, “We’re going back and saying, ‘Let the juicy stuff out.’ ’’

NEW YORK — Oliver Stone has never been shy about ruffling feathers with his take on real-life events.

From ‘‘J.F.K.’’ and ‘‘Nixon’’ to ‘‘Salvador’’ and ‘‘W,’’ Stone has challenged the history taught in schoolbooks. His latest project, ‘‘The Untold History of the United States,’’ a 10-part series now underway on the premium Showtime network, explores more facts he believes were suppressed, with new takes on the atomic bombing of Japan, the Cold War, and the fall of communism.

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To maintain accuracy throughout the series, Stone partnered with Peter Kuznick, a history professor at American University. Kuznick was no stranger to Stone, having used Stone’s films for years to provide perspective for his students. Both he and Stone believe history is often written with a happy ending.

Recently, Stone spoke to the Associated Press about the issues tackled in the series, the companion book, and his take on the General David Petraeus scandal.

Q. What drives you to cover historical events with your own perspective?

A. This is a noble tradition. Sometimes it’s funny that it sounds as if it’s an illegitimate tradition, but it goes back — the Greeks did plays about ancient rulers. Shakespeare did a huge amount of plays about history. Some of them were more accurate than others, there’s no question.

Q. But you take a fair share of criticism?

A. I’ve never, ever by my own standard of ethics violated the trust of my audience by saying something that I knew to be false. I may have made some mistakes but never did it on purpose, ever. I’ve been so tired of defending myself it’s become silly. . . . [For this project] we’ve had three fact checks. There’s a book. Sourcing is included, footnotes. The facts are indisputable. The interpretation is disputable, but at least the facts are there.

Q. Why do people resist changes to the history we’ve learned?

A. We have told a coherent narrative that begins in 1900, and we’ve taken the darker view of the US actions because I do believe [that] in the US textbooks that the kids learn, there’s a process by which things get sanitized out. The horror stories. The bad stuff. Because kids love that, and it’s interesting that we’re doing the opposite. Instead of giving them some horror stories, we tell them everything works out well in the end. . . . My theory is [kids] don’t enjoy history, they don’t like to study it because they know the ending and know it’s going to be some sappy story the teacher tells them about how the US does good in the end. . . . We’re going back and saying, ‘Let the juicy stuff out.’ And it is good, some of the stuff that we do. It’s pretty horrible.

Q. Give me an example?

A. Very few people know about how strong the English empire was going into World War II. [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had a suspicion of the English empire and he was trying to balance the Soviet interests with American interests as well as British interests. He didn’t want to be taken for a ride and save England to have England re-colonize the world, which is what they did.

Q. Truman didn’t continue Roosevelt’s work?

A. When Harry Truman became president it was a bit of an accident. It was an ugly story, we go into it where he became vice president on a party boss ticket and he inherited the presidency, he wasn’t prepared for it. He didn’t even know there was an atomic bomb being built. When he found out . . . he thought it was a terrific idea, and he knew that he had the upper hand now in his dealings with the world. He not only had the right arm of good and power but he had the bomb, and the bomb made all his decisions easier to make, and I think this was a huge moment in our history.

Q. There’s new history being written with the General Petraeus scandal. What are your thoughts?

A. Frankly, it’s not a big concern of mine. It’s done. He’s out. But it’s sold again as a media-hyped narrative of a soap opera of a military hero, so-called, falling for a beautiful woman and being betrayed, and so forth, and he falls from stardom. Great story. The truth is that it’s like a Shakespeare drama. Petraeus was never a hero. If the media had used the same investigative skills that they are using on this sordid sex affair, they would have found out that Petraeus was not what he seemed to be. He was not in combat. His genius in writing about counter-insurgency was to point out essentially that we use the journalists to control perception, because perception is more important than reality.

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