Oliver Stone’s Cold War Melodrama

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 the fourth installment of a series of articles Frontpage is running 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. Below is a review of Part 4 of Stone’s series.

Oliver Stone is the mastodon of the La Brea tar pits of left-wing ideology. In his movies over the years he has recycled stale left-wing narratives with all the nuance and complexity of a Soviet-era Pravda editorial. Now he has brought his agitprop gifts to cable television in the Showtime series “The Untold History of the United States.” In episode 4, “The Cold War: 1945-50,” Stone once again tells the fossilized and duplicitous tale of America’s greed and aggression against a Soviet Union that just wanted to get along with its war-time ally.

Those of a certain age will recognize the story Stone tells, for it was dominant among left-wingers all the way up to the day the Soviet Union collapsed into the dustbin of history, and still can be found among diehard true believers. In this rewriting of history, the Soviet Union had been a stalwart ally during World War II, bearing the brunt of the fight against Nazism and suffering 27,000,000 dead. In 1945, the possibility of continuing cooperation between the West and the Soviets was destroyed by America’s aim to use its overwhelming economic and military power to dominate the world and to destroy the socialist and communist challenges to its hegemony. Winston Churchill is one of the villains in this story. Eager as he was to maintain the British Empire, Churchill’s famous “iron curtain” speech delivered in Fulton, Missouri represented to Stone a “quantum leap in bellicosity” against the Soviets.

President Harry Truman also took a hard-line against the Soviet Union and the democratically elected communist parties in France and Italy, and in 1948 helped England to crush a “popular leftist” government in Greece. This aggression, camouflaged as the  “Truman Doctrine,” against a wartime ally was rationalized by propagating what Stone calls the false “image of the Soviet Union out to conquer the world.” In fact, Stone explains, the Soviets––“stunned” by Truman’s bellicosity–– were simply trying to rebuild their war-shattered country and alleviate its “crushing poverty,” defend their western borders against their historical enemy Germany, and seek the “warm water ports” necessary for their geopolitical interests. Ignoring these understandable needs, Truman bullied the Soviet Union, using nuclear blackmail to drive them from Iran, forcing Germany to cut off reparation payments, and continuing to test nuclear weapons.

Fearful of Truman’s imperialist expansionism, the Soviets responded to intervention in Greece with a coup in Hungary, and imposed on its Eastern European satellites a “new and stricter order,” as Stone euphemizes the brutal totalitarian regimes imposed on Eastern Europe. The hero in Stone’s tale is communist fellow traveler Henry Wallace, who “tried to put a stop to the growing madness,” but was spied upon and denigrated by the Truman administration, ending any chance of stopping the “nuclear arms race.” Yet fearful of the “Republican right,” Truman at home instituted surveillance of suspected “subversives,” demanded loyalty oaths, and investigated suspected communists in Hollywood and unions, thus pandering to the irrational fear of communism widespread among Americans vulnerable to the machinations of capitalist overlords. What followed this “red scare” were anti-communist propaganda in movies, and the “witch hunts” conducted by the FBI and CIA, “capitalism’s invisible army,” as Stone calls it.

So goes Stone’s melodrama, in which peace-loving Soviets are driven to occupation and subversion by the imperialist hegemonic ambitions of a United States eager to become the world’s dominant power in order to maximize capitalist profits. Every Soviet move is explained as a natural response to American provocations and aggression. Thus the Soviets overturned the Czech government and installed a puppet regime in 1948, a “purely defensive move,” Stone explains, because the Czech acceptance of Marshall aid was understandably seen as a tool of American penetration. This is the same stale apologetics for tyranny that I remember parroting in my left-wing callow youth, and it will only impress those who are as ignorant of historical fact as I was then. And it works, as most bad history does, by omitting inconvenient truths.

Take, for example, Stone’s central justifying assumption: the implication that the West’s fear of Soviet plans for “world domination” was a paranoid fantasy manipulated by the U.S. government to further its own ambitions to control the world. To believe this requires not only ignoring or explaining away, as Stone does, the decades of mass murder and brutal tyranny perpetrated by Soviet leaders in thrall to an expansionist ideology, but also forgetting the words of Soviet leaders themselves.

In fact, as the great historian of Soviet tyranny Robert Conquest writes, “The Soviet assumption that all other political life-forms and beliefs were inherently and immutably hostile was the simple and central cause of [the] Cold War.” Thus there “was never any question of a permanent accommodation between the USSR and the ‘capitalist’ world.” Any “temporary relaxation, a reining back, of the ideology’s inherent expansionism” was strictly tactical, a delay made necessary by Soviet weakness, as in the period following World War II. As Stalin said in 1945, “We shall recover in fifteen or twenty years, and then we’ll have another go at it.” In that same year, Deputy Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov, in response to ambassador Averell Harriman’s question what the West could do to satisfy Stalin, answered, “Nothing.” In 1946 Litvinov told a Western journalist that the “root cause” of the confrontation with the West was the view in Russia that such a conflict was “inevitable.”

The ultimate triumph of communism was the supreme goal of Soviet foreign policy, as codified by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. In 1968––the year the Soviets brutally crushed the liberal democratic uprising in Czechoslovakia known as the Prague Spring––Gromyko said that “the range of our country’s international interests is not determined by its geographical position alone,” and “despite an acute situation, however far away it appears from our country, the Soviet Union’s reaction is to be expected in all capitals of the world.” Later in his 1975 book The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, Gromyko wrote, “The Communist Party subordinates all its theoretical and practical activities in the sphere of foreign relations to the task of strengthening the positions of socialism, and the interests of further developing and deepening the world revolutionary process.” So too General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, who said, “Our Party has always warned that in the ideological field there can be no peaceful coexistence” with capitalist countries. In 1972 he added regarding the policy of détente, “While pressing for the assertion of the principle of peaceful coexistence, we realize that successes in this important matter in no way signify the possibility of weakening our ideological struggle. On the contrary, we should be prepared for an intensification of this struggle and for its becoming an increasingly acute form of struggle between the two social systems.” This belief had been consistent with Soviet communism ever since Lenin proclaimed a necessary “series of frightful clashes” between communism and capitalism, and so cannot be explained away, as Stone attempts to do, as defensive reaction to American aggression.

It seems, then, that Stone’s paranoid anti-communists like Truman had a valid point, one confirmed by the extensive Soviet spying and subversion that in fact took place in America, as well as the violent subjection and oppression of other countries across the globe. It also explains the point made by historian Richard Pipes in 1975, and confirmed by documents from Soviet archives accessible after the regime’s collapse, that despite protests to the contrary, the Soviet regime was prepared to fight and win a nuclear war. As Soviet official V.V. Zagladin said in 1988, “Repudiating nuclear war and conducting an active struggle for peace, we nevertheless proceeded from the assumption of the possibility of victory in a possible conflict.” Conquest adds, “The Communist armies, as we now know, were on a very short notice for an invasion of West Germany, with the certainty of a tactical nuclear exchange. And military thinking in Moscow inclined to a view that nuclear war, while to be avoided, was winnable.” Given these beliefs, the U.S. aim to maintain superiority in armaments, derided at the time as a dangerous “arms race,” and to resist communist expansion across the globe were necessary for peace and American security.

This evidence of Soviet ideologically driven expansionism destroys the central assumption of Stone’s apologetic narrative: that the West overreacted irrationally against the understandable foreign policy interests of the Soviet Union, thus instigating reciprocal overreactions by the Soviets. Many other distortions of history, of course, riddle the film. The implication that the Soviet Union was a friendly ally during World War II is absurd. Stone neglects to mention that in August 1939 Stalin signed a treaty with Hitler and for nearly two years provided much needed resources to Germany until Hitler invaded Russia. Stalin became our ally on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and cooperated with the West not on principle but in order to survive and to receive much-needed aid. The explanation of Ukrainian resistance to the Soviets in 1948 as fueled by American subversion and support of fascists ignores the 5 million Ukrainians slaughtered by Stalin before the war during the terror-famine campaign of 1932-33. In his encomium to Henry Wallace, Stone doesn’t tell us that Wallace’s Progressive Party was mostly a creation of a Communist Party that took its money and marching orders from Moscow, and that Wallace’s candidacy according to one writer was “the closest the Soviet Union ever came to actually choosing a president of the United States.”

Stone’s film is a tired reprise of decades of apologetic revisionist history on the part of leftist radicals who subordinate truth to ideology. Yet we should not dismiss it as unimportant or without consequence. As John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr––two historians whose studies of Soviet archives provide the evidence of communist subversion ignored by Stone and others––write, “Communism as a social fact is dead. But communism as a pleasant figment of the ‘progressive’ worldview lives on, giving a phantom life to the illusions and historical distortions that sustained that murderous and oppressive ideology. The intellectual Cold War, alas, is not over. Academic revisionists who color the history of American communism in benign hues see their teaching and writing as the preparation of a new crop of radicals for the task of overthrowing American capitalism and its democratic constitutional order in the name of social justice and peace. Continuing to fight the Cold War in history, they intend to reverse the victory of the West and convince the next generation that the wrong side won, and to prepare the way for a new struggle.” In the age of Obama, this warning is more important than ever.

Related articles on Stone’s series:

1. Bruce Thornton’s introduction to this Frontpage series.

2. Matthew Vadum’s review of Stone’s first episode.

3. Daniel Flynn’s review of “Roosevelt, Truman and Wallace,” the second episode.

4. Daniel Greenfield’s review of “The Bomb,” the third episode.

Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.

  • poptoy1949

    My GOD Oliver has finally gone brain dead!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Mary Sue

      finally? Where've you been, he's been brain dead a long time!

  • EthanP

    Actually, Stones premise has been leftist dogma for at least 50 years. It went something like this. "The Cold War began because of Winston Churchills Iron Curtain speach in 1948." Forgotten by all, including our history books is the basic fact that after the end of WW2 the USA completely demobilized her massive military forces. This was US policy until the Berlin Blockade woke us up to the Soviet threat. The reason Stone can spread his lies and distortions is the simple truth that the overwhelmingly leftist education system has already done his work for him. Our children are no longer taught how we saved the world!

  • Cassandra

    If the USA had not entered the war in 1942 the war would have lasted lot longer and who knows under what regime would Europe be now. When I watch the first free episode of this leftist propaganda movie i noticed how stone praises the effort of the Bolsheviks to rebuild their war industry. In fact the USA help them a lot with war material.

    • reader

      "the effort of the Bolsheviks to rebuild their war industry" is quite a way of putting it. By 1939, when the big war broke out, Stalin had more tanks than the rest of the world combined. Back in 1920, Lenin had announced his intent to destroy the Versailles Treaty to promote "the sovetization" of Europe. In 1922, Bolsheviks and the German government had an agreement to essentially subvirt the Versailles Treaty in terms of military development. So, WWII had been in the works for a long time. Here's an interesting take on this:
      http://www.amazon.com/Chief-Culprit-Stalins-Desig

      • Rifleman

        That IS interesting, thanks. I'd have to say stalin sidelined that with his megalomania (like a lot of socialist dictators have since), until hitler proved far beyond his absolute power to deny.

    • Rifleman

      We provided a lot of food, medicine, arty, C-37s, P-39s, P-40s, P-47s, trucks, radios, and megatons of material. The US and Great Britain did,'t just spread out and occupy hitler's forces, we chewed them up and drove them back though we had to cross oceans to get there.

      I'd be insulting family, countrymen, and allies to fail to note that the US forces tasked with enough resources to hold the Empire of Japan at bay while we went after hitler first, had backed the Emperor's human bullets back to the Japanese home islands by the time hilter surrendered.

      There aren't a lot of aviation nuts that know the Mig-15 used a knockoff of a Rolls-Royce Nene sent to stalin by the British, so who else would know stuff like that? They aren't likely to learn it in schools influenced by people like bill ayers, or watching stone's movies.

  • Rostislav

    You know, I see no reasons to reproach Stone: he just feels that now, thanks to the intensive toils of the Bill Ayers "professors" and the Walter Duranty "press", US audience is finally ignorant deep enough for the untold trash of his film. And I think that he is quite right! The problem is not in fiends like Stone or Ayers – the problem is in many generations of Americans who were benevolently permitting the free dissemination of the fiendish Communist propaganda. So what kind of reproach can we make today? Those who were eagerly planting the numberless seeds of ayerses and duranties can't expect a harvest of Reagans or Palins – every field would be full of Stones and Obamas only. I know it for sure: I've seen it in my own country. Rostislav, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

  • Tony Christensen

    Great article. It's chilling to think that Henry Wallace was vice president. It's also chilling to think that Oliver Stone has the ear of young people who don't know what they're doing when they approve of his nonsense. Moral vanity is so strong that they're wiling to give Stone credence.

    • Mark

      It is chilling to note that Henry Wallace was Vice President under Roosevelt and was heavily influenced by Communists and fellow travellers. However it is important to note that Wallace after running for President as the Progressive Party candidate with no chance of winning and refusing to reject Communist Party support for his candidacy soon changed his politics when he came realize that he had been duped by the CPUSA. He supported the U.S. in the Korean conflict and endorsed Ike in his second bid for the Presidency. In 1960 Henry Wallace endorsed Richard Nixon in his unsuccessful bid for the Presidency.

    • Fritz

      But does Oliver Stone really have the ear of young people? A documentary series on a cable network like Showtime has a far narrower reach then one on even PBS or A&E would have. Stone is also a bit of a has been director, what was his last big budget picture, "Natural Born Killers"? The young and impressionable are much more likely to pay attention to Micheal Moore, even though he is a buffoon, or a moron like Matt Damon, then Oliver Stone just because of the generation gap. Oliver Stone is like Don Bluth or John Carpenter, a movie maker of the 80s, but unlike most 80's movie makers his subject of choice was the 1960s, particularly the Vietnam era. Even in the 80's Stone's films were incoherent crap mostly relying on nostalgic boomers to fill the audience. Martin Scorsese has much more of a following among younger film buffs, even though he of around the same age as Stone, simply because he has a talent for making good films, something that eludes Stone. Martin Scorsese pictures are also replayed on TV, and frequently, I can't think of a single film from Oliver Stone that has aired in the past year in my region. The fact that Stone has been demoted to making crap propaganda show on a cable channel does not surprise me, after the flop of Natural Born Killers no sensible studio would trust this blowhard with a $100 million dollar production budget.

  • TSR

    There should be a rebuttal to stone's self-loathing revision–aimed at the same audience.

  • http://twitter.com/nolarobert @nolarobert

    The problem here is about balance. As a Historian we were taught to research an event or series of events that occurred in the past and understand them based on the context of the times, the intent of the actors and the consequences of their actions. There are many on the Left and on the Right who use a specific revision of history to promote their political agenda. For those on the Left who dislike nuclear weapons the "narrative" for Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan was a war crime for various reasons offered, i.e., Japan was already beaten and was ready to surrender, the bombs were used to intimidate the Soviets, and so on. For those on the Right they see the excesses of the Red Scare and McCarthyism as being wholly justified by the inflated threat of Soviet world domination. Thorton quotes from Soviet sources to promote this view that the Soviets intended to destroy America and the West therefore justifying our actions in the name of anti-Communism. The issue I take with both sides here is that they both ignore the context of the time these events occurred. Truman was making his decision to use the atomic bomb after a series of very brutal, bloody and deadly island invasions and battles culminating with Iwo Jima and Okinawa. From his POV Truman and his advisers believed that an invasion of the home islands of Japan would come at a very high cost in KIA, WIA and that the American people were ready for the war to be over. Truman's Intention makes sense in this context. The Consequence of the decision to use the atomic bomb was a war that ended far sooner than anticipated and without a costly invasion that would have killed a lot of American and Japanese troops and an untold number of civilian casualties. When you look at the behavior of the USSR after WWII you have to understand the context of the actions made by Stalin. The USSR had borne the brunt of the fighting against German. The Soviet Union lost around 27 million people during the war, almost half of all World War II deaths. One of every four Soviet citizens was killed or wounded in that war. Russia and the surrounding countries were attacked with a scorched earth policy practiced by the Germans as they later withdrew. Stalin was a paranoid, mentally ill man who felt threatened by the Western powers, especially by the US. Thankfully he died before a war between East and West could be triggered. Khrushchev had experienced the brutality and death of WWII firsthand in Stalingrad. He knew how devastating war would be especially with the use of atomic and then thermonuclear weapons. His main goal was to control the Soviet's sphere of influence and to battle the West via propaganda, aiding sympathetic countries, and financing and arming Cuba as a thorn in our side just 90 miles off of Florida. He saw the USSR ringed by the US and our allies with nuclear armed missiles, nuclear armed bombers and nuclear armed submarines. Given the Russians' previous experiences with being invaded the context of this paranoia made sense. The Intention of the Soviets were to remain in power and to control their hegemony and not show weakness to the West. The Consequences were a long, costly and often deadly Cold War with brush fire wars waged around the world in the name of ideology. So the Left shouldn't portray the Cold War as the US acting as an Imperialist nation intent on empire against an innocent and trustworthy former ally in the Soviets who just wanted peace. Just as the Right needs to acknowledge that the Cold War wasn't a black/white confrontation between good and evil justifying the plethora of unethical, illegal actions taken by our government at home and abroad that suppressed and oppressed people in the name of fighting Communism. The extremes of Left and Right are both afraid of the truth of history because it doesn't fit neatly into either side's cookie cutter worldview and belief system. History doesn't care what you believe should have happened in the past, it is only concerned with what did happen and to understand those events in the context of the time they occurred. Anything else is not history but revisionist political propaganda aimed at swaying the masses into supporting your belief system. In his BBC television series, "The Ascent of Man," Jacob Bronowski stood at the site of the crematorium at Auschwitz and reflected: "Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was done not by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave." This is why understanding history is so vital to our current political, social and economic situation. History can be a guide on how to make better decisions and to improve our world rather than constantly ignoring history to repeat the patterns of mistakes and failures from our past.

    • reader

      The bigest problem with your post that it is too long and, hence, it's hard to understand what the point is. There are a few more:
      "The Soviet Union lost around 27 million people during the war, almost half of all World War II deaths."
      This number is fabricated – exaggerated by about 10 million – to write off the victims of Communist purges.
      "Khrushchev had experienced the brutality and death of WWII firsthand in Stalingrad. He knew how devastating war would be especially with the use of atomic and then thermonuclear weapons."
      So how does that excuse the Carribean Crisis generated exclusively by Khrushchev?
      "aiding sympathetic countries, and financing and arming Cuba as a thorn in our side just 90 miles off of Florida."
      He didn't arm Cuba. He deployed Soviet nuclear missiles and personnel on Cuba.

      • tagalog

        The Soviet Union experienced a lot of dead (personally, I accept the 27 million dead from the war as accurate, but reasonable people could argue; after all, the Soviets suppressed the figures for fifty years after the war), and it's because Stalin and his pack of thugs wanted it that way. They played ball with Hitler for nearly two years, cozying up to him for the sake of getting the Baltic States and half of Poland, while Hitler took continental Europe and North Africa, thus making the Third Reich extremely resistant to Western attack, and permitting him to slaughter Soviets on a much greater scale than he might have if there had been no Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact.

        • reader

          Don’t accept 27 million. Soviet military counted RKKA casualties as no more than 11 million, including POWs. 5-6 million civilians perished under the Nazi occupation. Near 1 million civilians perished during the siege of Leningrad and in the rubble of Stalingrad. The rest were added to cover up for Stalin’s purges.

      • Rifleman

        I'd have to add, stalin's orders trapped and destroyed soviet army after army until stalingrad, and the soviets would send unarmed undesirables and conscripts to burn up German MG barrels and ammo, running up their own casualties. The jihadis also always add the 'friendlies' they kill to the enemy's total, not their own.

  • tagalog

    If the portion of the show that's discussed in this commentary actually says what the commentary says, I think Mr. Stone is ignoring a hell of a lot of history. Like the refusal to retreat from Poland and the Baltic states, Potsdam, the Soviet expansion into Hungary, the bickering debate over Berlin being administered by the 4 Powers, the division of Germany into East and West, and so on.

  • Ghostwriter

    I agree with Mr. Thornton. Americans had every right to be afraid of the Soviet Union,especially because of the large amount of dead thanks to Stalin's purges. A lot of people from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe fled to America and told horrifying stories of what happened there. It wasn't as though this came out of nowhere. This may not have always been handled well,but the U.S. and it's allies had every right to fight against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. I'm glad that that nightmare called the Soviet Union is long gone and I hope it doesn't get resurrected.

  • proxywar

    You should turn this series into a book rebutting stone.