Oliver Stone’s Left-Wing Agitprop

Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.


Editor’s note: The following is an introduction written to a series of articles Frontpage will be running in the days ahead in response to Oliver Stone’s neo-Communist documentary series, “The Untold History of the United States,” currently airing Mondays on Showtime. Frontpage will be reviewing each episode of the Stone series, exposing the leftist hateful lies about America and setting the record straight. To see Daniel Greenfield’s  review of “The Bomb,” the third episode of the series, click here. Stay tuned for more hard-hitting exposés of Stone’s distortions of U.S. history in the coming issues of Frontpage Magazine.

The American left has always lived by the slogan of “The Party” in Orwell’s 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” The politicizing of history in the academy has led to an ideologically distorted interpretation of American history that has trickled down into the K-12 curriculum, shaping the perceptions of generations of Americans, and determining how U.S. history is presented in popular culture. Oliver Stone’s 10-part “documentary” on the Cold War airing on the Showtime cable channel, “The Untold History of the United States,” is merely the latest version of American history presented as left-wing propaganda.

Despite Stone’s claim that this leftist story of American history has been “untold,” or, as he told London’s Guardian, that the “dirty story” of America has been “sanitized,” it has long been a ubiquitous, tired cliché. Indeed, even before Howard Zinn’s 1980 masterpiece of agitprop, A People’s History of the United States––which has sold over 2 million copies and is a staple of university and high school reading lists––the melodrama of American historical crimes and oppression was a staple of progressive received wisdom. Indeed, so entrenched is this narrative in American culture that purveyors of it like Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Oliver Stone––who is worth $50 million––have become rich peddling it. And contrary to Stone’s assertion that, though his version of the American story may have been “told” by “cutting edge” academic experts, it remains “unlearned” by students and the larger culture, some version of his view of history can be found in most American history textbooks from grade school to university. That’s why despising America for its historical crimes is an intellectual fashion marker, one of those things that everyone sophisticated and smart just knows, and that sets them apart from the mass of patriotic oafs who believe what Stone and his co-writer Peter Kuznick sneeringly deny––that America is “the world’s greatest nation.”

Why leftists like Stone hate America has long been obvious. The ability of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy to provide prosperity and personal freedom to an unprecedentedly large number of people has discredited the socialist and communist ideologies that have failed miserably and bloodily to achieve the extravagant utopian goals of the left. As Raymond Aron wrote in 1955, the left hates America because it “has succeeded by means which were not laid down in the revolutionary code. Prosperity, power, the tendency towards uniformity of economic conditions––these results have been achieved by private initiative, by competition rather than State intervention, in other words by capitalism, which every well-brought-up intellectual has been taught to despise.” Reinvigorating and promoting the socialist revolution thus requires slandering its most successful enemy. So too today, the rationale for those, like Barack Obama and Oliver Stone, who are eager to expand government power and control over society and the economy is found in what during his international “apology tour” Obama called America’s “arrogant, dismissive, derisive” behavior and the “darker periods in our history.” More political power is necessary for correcting and compensating for that oppressive record, and steering the locomotive of history back towards the internationalist leftist utopia.

But this leftist view of history results from facts and events evaluated in terms of some impossible utopian standard, instead of the record of how peoples and states have typically acted over time. As such it commits the mortal historiographical sin: presentism, the projection onto the past of contemporary standards, categories, and expectations. Thus the politically correct historian castigates the European and American violent collision with the Indians in the New World as a historically unprecedented crime, an act of  ”genocide” and a bloody stage of imperialist expansion. In historical reality, it was yet another instance of the major dynamic of world history: the migrations of people to obtain land, and the violent appropriation of it from those already there. Indeed, long before the coming of the white man, Indian tribes in America were violently seizing land from other tribes. For Indians, title was conferred by force, not by documents, as the Oglala Sioux chief Black Hawk said at a conference with the U.S. cavalry in 1851: “These lands once belonged to the Kiowa and the Crows, but we whipped those nations out of them, and in this we did what the white men do when they want the lands of the Indians.” Perhaps you can argue Americans should have known better, but then you’d have to admit they are better in some respect, something the America-hater vehemently denies.

Or we hear a lot about American slavery, as though it too was a historically unique phenomenon. But slavery has been universal among humans, with the exception of those peoples or tribes not strong enough to enslave others. What is remarkable is not the existence of slavery, but the rise of an anti-slavery movement that convinced people slavery was morally wrong, a movement powerful enough to spark in the United States a civil war in which 650,000 Americans died. It is the exceptions in American history that we need to study and acknowledge, not just the endless recitation of sins common among mankind. And even when judging those “crimes and misfortunes” of history, as Voltaire put it, we must locate them in the context of what humans over time have typically done. We must define our standard of judgment and be clear where that standard comes from. For genuine historians, the standard comes from the record of human behavior over time. For Stone and his ilk, the standard is a utopian one that no human society, comprising as it must flawed human beings, will ever live up to.

From that impossible perspective, then, history can be only a lurid melodrama of cardboard heroes and villains. For the left, this means defining “villain” in Marxist-Leninist terms. Hence leftists obsess over “imperialism,” a word that communist ideologues transformed into a crude smear. It has become one of what historian Robert Conquest calls  “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” the function of which is “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” “Imperialism” automatically denotes a self-evident evil, so all we have to do is attach the label to the United States in order to signify its oppression and exploitation.

But once again, the absence of intellectual precision and a reasonable standard of comparison leads to simplistic and misleading interpretations of historical events. Just say “imperialism” and you can reinterpret the Cold War against Soviet communist expansion as the pretext for America’s global power-grab. Of course, you have to ignore the fact that no careful historian would call America an “empire,” nor simplify its military action abroad into “imperialism.” And to call the Cold War camouflage for imperialist expansion is to ignore the massive amounts of evidence––much of it available even before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 released definitive evidence from Soviet archives––that the communist superpower was actively subverting other countries through violence and espionage in order to expand its empire and to bring about the triumph of communism.

Equally important, any fair comparison of the United States’ behavior to that of other countries enjoying such overwhelming military and economic power will show that America has been remarkable not for its excesses, but for its restraint. What other country has spent billions rehabilitating a defeated foe, as the U.S. did after World War II, or providing humanitarian and foreign aid? Does Stone think the Romans would have honored the sort of rules of engagement or limitations on air power that the United States has demonstrated in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan? They would have made a desert and called it peace. Or has there been any other country that has welcomed in foreigners, and then allowed them to slander and vilify the very people who have given them freedom and opportunity? What other country allows its citizens not just to voice slanted and false criticisms of it, but to get rich doing it? This restraint and openness have sometimes been a consequence of tactical or pragmatic calculations, but they also reflect the foundational principles of the American political order and its commitment to freedom and individual rights.

The story that needs telling, then, is not the story of America’s sins, which have been the sins of an imperfect humanity found in every time and every place. We have heard that story over and over for the last half-century. The story we should be hearing is the story of America’s exceptional virtues, the dedication to personal freedom and rights that, no matter how often betrayed in the past, today remains a monument to those virtues. As the stale clichés of left-wing history saturating our culture and schools show, that’s the real “untold” and “unlearned” story of America.

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  • objectivefactsmatter

    "For Stone and his ilk, the standard is a utopian one that no human society, comprising as it must flawed human beings, will ever live up to."

    It's intentional deception and they know it. They know the USA is the worst, except for all the others. They just leave out the last statement of the sentence to pursue their agenda. This is part of the "visualize the future" BS they forget to reveal to their audience. The USA is "the worst" only because as you say in different words, it's the only one really in the way of their imagined Utopian future.

    Chomsky is probably the worst at this. Practically everything he says is in contrast to the Utopia he hopes for and expects, but he never reveals his standards to anyone. He's aware of his own lunacy on some level, and many of these other lying dirt bags are too.

  • objectivefactsmatter

    "It has become one of what historian Robert Conquest calls “mind-blockers and thought-extinguishers,” the function of which is “mainly to confuse, and of course to replace, the complex and needed process of understanding with the simple and unneeded process of inflammation.” “Imperialism” automatically denotes a self-evident evil, so all we have to do is attach the label to the United States in order to signify its oppression and exploitation."

    I love it. Great explanation. I've always said that colonialism in and of itself is not anything to be ashamed about. Many great things came from Western colonial developments. As to the accusation that the USA is "imperialist," please. If by some definition the USA is imperialist, then it's a benevolent empire.

    Someone has to lead. Get over it.

  • john butala

    I find it simultaneously amusing and irritating when multi-millionaire gasbags like Stone and Moore lecture the country about the evils of capitalism. Hey guys, how about getting rid of some of that filthy lucre….send some of it my way. I'm not the least apologetic about making money off the "evil" capitalist system (brrr, boo, hiss). I'm sure every single waking moment Stone and Moore tell themselves "I sure hate this capitalist/free-market lifestyle and these huge mansions and fleets of expensive automobiles I'm forced to own." C'mon gentlemen, rid yourselves of all that guilt instantly, and give all your toys and ill-gotten gains to people like me who won't feel the slightest amount of guilt.
    Just one time I'd like to see all those late night talk show hosts Stone and Moore like to tell their poisonous lies to would just once ask these fantastic hypocrites if they don't feel the least bit ashamed for living like pharoahs when most Americans don't possess 1/100 of their wealth. It'll never happen.

    • Jim_C

      I'll never understand why some conservatives think that being rich and being liberal (or whatever these guys are, progressives? Lefties?) is somehow a cause for consternation and cognitive dissonance. Apparently. class envy is OK, if it's a liberal who is rich.

      These guys are saying "Yes, tax us!" That's the opposite of hypocrisy. These guys are using their position to say "I don't like this about our country." Before you put that down, take a look at this site: it says the same thing, every day, from a different perspective.

      FPM, and many conservatives, seem to have a lot of problems with this country. Do they "hate America?" One of their biggest problems is "Hollywood." Well, Hollywood operates at about as pure a free market level as any industry. So do conservatives actually hate free market capitalism?

      • reader

        "These guys are saying "Yes, tax us!" That's the opposite of hypocrisy"

        Typical demagoguery. These guys may be saying "Yes, tax us," when in fact they suggest to tax other people. For example, Buffet pays taxes predominantly on unrealized long term capital gains, not on earned income. Moreover, he would benefit from tax rate hikes financially, since his investments are tied in estate insurance interests.

  • tagalog

    If the story that Stone is telling is hitherto untold, where did he get it from? Make it up?

    • JacksonPearson

      Hollyweird was born with with mascara and makeup!

  • Loupdegarre

    In 1934 Stalin viewed his first Hollywood Movie. It was "Scarface" starring Paul Muni. When the film ended and the lights came up and Stalin sat quiet for a moment then turned to those in attendance with him and said, "If I have Hollywood, I have the World". In 1935 known communist Herb Sorrel and his union thugs struck at Warner Bros. and Disney.

  • Omar

    Apparently, Stone ignores the massive suffering the Miskito indigenous tribes endured in Nicaragua under the Sandinista regime during the 1980s. The Miskitos are an indigenous peoples, but the left doesn't care about them because the left supports the Sandinistas. The Miskitos are one of many indigenous people who do not fit the anti-American agenda. Also, slavery continued in the Hemisphere until 1888, when Brazil finally outlawed the institution. Yet, I don't see nor hear Stone or any other leftist complain about slavery in Brazil or in other parts of the Hemisphere. And that is because Stone and the left are not really anti-slavery (they support Islamist slavery), but they are anti-American. Their concerns are never for the victims (the left exploits victims) and always for the political agenda. In addition, there is no American "imperialism", but there is Russian imperialism (since 1917), Chinese imperialism (since 1949), Cuban imperialism (since 1959), Venezuelan imperialism (since 1999), Iranian imperialism (since 1979), "Palestinian" (invented people) imperialism (since 1964-although the war against the democratic state of Israel has been on since 1948), Communist imperialism (since 1793 with Robespierre, the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror) and Islamist imperialism (since 610 AD/CE). The closest imperialist power to America (in terms of distance) is the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, which along with the Chavez autocracy in Venezuela, has been trying to transform the United States into a Communist country for a long time. The real imperialist powers are America's enemies. That's the reality.

    • Jim_C

      "Also, slavery continued in the Hemisphere until 1888, when Brazil finally outlawed the institution. Yet, I don't see nor hear Stone or any other leftist complain about slavery in Brazil or in other parts of the Hemisphere."

      Omar: Are you saying slavery is overrated as a blot on American history?

      Stone is American, not Brazilian. Doesn't it make sense that he'd be a bit more concerned with his own country? Do you think he shouldn't have a right to be concerned about it?

      • Omar

        The point I'm trying to make is that the left everywhere only blames atrocities on America and the West. Slavery is one example of the hypocrisy. We all know that slavery was practiced all over the world at different points in history, but that the significant abolitionist movement was led by Western countries like America and Britain. Another hypocrisy the left has is that it blames only America (and to a lesser extent the European colonists) for the plight of the indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere, while ignoring the actions of other Hemisphere countries (as well as the historical conflicts between the indigenous tribes themselves), most notably the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. The Miskito tribes in Nicaragua are an indigenous people, yet the left doesn't care about them because the Miskitos do not fit the anti-American agenda. The left has a double standard in many things, and Oliver Stone is no exception.. That's the reality.

        • Jim_C

          Don't you think if it is in fact your country, it's in your interest to talk about it? Yes, we had an abolitionist movement and eventually, a civil war to end slavery (or war of northern aggression, as some style it)–but the blight of slavery remained for a good long time afterward. As a historical moment in our country, it's one of the most significant. I don't know how bringing up Brazil or Islam or whatever changes that in any way.

          As for the left's double-standard, doesn't that work both ways? If the Sandinistas get a "pass" from the Left do not the Contras get the same "pass" from the Right?

          • reader

            "the blight of slavery remained for a good long time afterward. As a historical moment in our country, it's one of the most significant. I don't know how bringing up Brazil or Islam or whatever changes that in any way"

            Why not make it even more historically accurate and keep pointing out that the Democrat Party was the Party of slavery?

          • Omar

            Actually, the Democratic Party has gone through quite a few significant changes in its nearly 200 year existence. Throughout all those years, the Democrats have gone from being the party of slavery and bigotry (1828-1930s), to embracing classical liberalism (1930s-late 1960s), to embracing radical left-wing politics (1970-present). The Republicans, on the other hand, remained committed to their classical liberal (modern conservative) agenda throughout the party's history. Nowadays, many contemporary Democrats embrace ridiculous agendas, like identity politics. Anyone who disagrees with the left-wing agendas is denounced as a "racist" and a "bigot". Any conservative who happens to be of a racial or ethnic minority is denounced as a "race-traitor". Now that's ridiculous. The left has many double standards. That's the reality.

          • MikeGiles

            "Throughout all those years, the Democrats have gone from being the party of slavery and bigotry (1828-1930s),.. ….."

            I'm sure Martin Luther King would be glad to hear that the Dempcrats stop being the party of racism and bigotry in the 1930's. Though I'd be willing to bet that Orval Fabus, and Ross Barnett, and George Wallace, and Bull Connors, would dispute that point. Christ, do you think everybody is as ill informed as you obviously are?

          • Omar

            I was referring to the Democrats platform at the national level between the New Deal and the late '60s. Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces in 1948 and Lyndon Johnson signed both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Yes, there was opposition to civil rights reform in the South during those years, but the opponents were of smaller numbers than the mainstream. Obviously, there was a division between Southern Democrats and Democrats from the rest of the country regarding civil rights reform during those years.

          • Omar

            While it is important to talk about one's own country, it should not be just criticizing it, except of course if the country committed only bad atrocities (like the Soviet Union). I mentioned Brazil because leftists all over the world blame America for having a slave society (despite the fact that during the first 90 years of the existence of the United States, many politicians and activists opposed the institution and sought to abolish it, eventually leading to the Civil War), yet ignore the fact that slavery existed in another part of the Western Hemisphere until the late 19th century. As for Islamism, I mentioned that it is an imperialist ideology that wants world domination and slavery. As for the Contras, I don't recall a moment when they committed mass aggression against any ethnic group in Nicaragua during the civil war in that country. The Contras wanted to free their country from Communist terror. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, did commit outright terror against the indigenous Miskito people during the conflict. While the left complains about the conditions of Native Americans in the United States, it completely ignores the blatant human rights violations committed against the Miskito people in Sandinista-run Nicaragua during the 1980s. Now that is a huge double standard. The fact is that the left doesn't care about victims. It only cares about exploiting the people it supposedly "cares" about in order to advance its political agenda. That's the reality.

          • Jim_C

            Omar, I agree that it is important to point out the positives about our country, and this should be emphasized in our education system and in our homes. I'm a liberal but I'll be honest: I roll my eyes like anyone else when an Oliver Stone or a Sean Penn starts on something. I think there's a great danger in taking the gifts of this nation for granted. So while I do think other countries have it up on us in a few ways, I do think America is exceptional in a very important regard, and I try to make sure my kids understand what this means: we believe our rights are God-given, creator-derived. They are not "granted" to us by any mortal agency. And rights are different from privileges (like health care and education).

            The Contras were documented human rights abusers who used terror systematically as a tactic. So did the Sandinistas; to point out the one is not to excuse the other. I'm anti-communist to the bone, but it's hard to defend the Contras. Double standards and hypocrisy are par for the course in political debate, unfortunately.

    • tagalog

      How about Stalin's treatment of the Baltic nations and the people in them? How about Stalin's treatment of the people in the Stans? He started on the Jews in the late 1940s, and moved on to the doctors right around the time he died in 1953.

      You know, a REALLY untold story, or set of stories, could be about the establishment of the Freedmen's Bureau, or the lengthy attempt by white Americans to obtain decent treatment for the conquered Indians after the Indian Wars ended.

    • Ghostwriter

      I'm more in agreement with Omar than Jim_C. We don't hear about the Miskitos because they get in the way of the Left's favorite pastime,America bashing. They want to blame America for all the problems that have ever afflicted mankind. I also say to those fond of the "American Empire" thing,I ask what "American Empire?" There IS no "American Empire!" That's a non-existent entity. It only exists in the deranged imaginations of people like Noam Chomsky and Oliver Stone,who want to continue their America bashing careers.

      • Omar

        You're right, Ghostwriter. There is no American "Empire", but there is a Cuban Empire and an Iranian Empire that wants to transform America into a totalitarian country where Marxism and Sharia would be the laws of the land. It is time for America, Britain, Israel and the rest of the free world to fight back against the Communist/Islamist threat.

  • marios

    Leftists/commies are vicious cynical hypocrites. It is so easier make money to be Liberal/leftist/commie than to be conservative. Leftists can lie, distort facts, they can steal, pay no taxes or cheat on taxes, even kill and … its OK. Almost all Dem's in Congress are lawyers and they make laws for themselves. There are MLN's people who immigrated from socialist countries and happy to be here. Why those US haters as Oliver Stone, Michael Moore, and other hypocrites villains have not immigrated from "sinful" US to socialist country? Cuba is so close. If they so greedy to spend money on ticket I am ready to pay for their on why ticket. They want to be taxed? I don't believe and they make no or close to that one donations to those one who is really in need.

    • ageorgio84

      why don't you go back to where you came from, or where can not find liberals/leftists, Muslim President, idiots in congress that are being manipulated by camel jockys, hypocritical liberal media or at least where you can speak Spanish (or whatever is your native language) , as you always keep whining about. It goes both ways Mario

  • bill k

    so what are people here going to do?

  • PAthena

    The so-called "left," like Oliver Stone and Michael Moore are would-be tyrants whose only goal is infinite power over others. They hate the United States because it is a land of freedom, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

  • Parviz

    During the sixties and seventies, decades that shaped the narrative abetting successful Islamic/Marxist revolutionary take over of Iran, it was not uncommon to hear people be warned of the danger of "others". There was an invented word often used in Iranian street: Comoneest (Communist).
    The unlettered masses would be told by both Muslim preachers and leftist intellectuals, the Kafir wants you to commit sin against God and to believe God is not!. COMO means God, in the kafir language. NEEST means is-not. Oh the horror!. For the left, this word and strong emotions it invoked, was one more useful tool with which to rev up the motor force of the revolution.Let's first kick out Amerikkka ,the thinking went, we will afterwards, sort out our differences with our Islamist allies.Ends justify the means comrades!.

    Some thirty three years later the very same Communists, the few of them who evaded Islamic justice,finding refuge in The States, continue spitting venom at Amerikkka.But this time Amerikkka is blamed for helping the Islamic Republic of Iran survive so she'll continue oppressing the toiling masses of Iran.How? and Why? need not be explained. USA is the enemy, all evidence to the contrary be damned.

  • ayearningforpublius

    Professor Thornton, thank you so much for your involvement in this. I first got wind of Mr. Stone's work when the Wall Street Journal wrote their piece. You can see my reaction at https://ayearningforpublius.wordpress.com/2013/01

  • Nicholas Halliwell

    what a ridicoulaus argument. When a person looks to put down an argument he can do so in 2 ways. The first and correct one is to dispute the facts, look for inconsistencies in the argumentation and errors in the work. The second the one taken here is to question the person making the argument, questioning their personality and motives. The intellectual circles have a name for that kind of argument its called reducto ad absurdum come back with an article disputing facts and id be interested.

  • plenty

    I have found “The Untold History of the United States” a refreshingly different view of history that was repressed when I was in school. Yes I remember the right wing propaganda of the ’50s and ’60s and beyond to Bush the Son’s Neo-Con justified lies to invade Iraq. I am well aware of the ideological struggle in this country of the Right vs. Left, but have chosen to follow a moderate political path to find some truth in this distorted American Matrix. For sure Stone is somewhat left of center but I find he distorts the truth much less then most Neo-Con history revisionists. I marvel at the Neo-Cons fervent embrace of Bush the Son even after or in-spite of the latter’s stripping of American Civil Liberties through the Imposition of the Orwellian Patriot Act.