Interview with Oliver Stone, film director, on “myths” of American history

by Yumi Kanazaki, Editorial Writer

“It’s a lie that the atomic bombing was necessary to speed up the end of World War II.” To reveal the truth about the “myths” of modern American history, film director Oliver Stone, 66, co-produced a documentary series and published a book, both titled The Untold History of the United States, that have roused interest in both the United States and Japan. The Chugoku Shimbun interviewed Mr. Stone, during a visit to Hiroshima around the anniversary of the atomic bombing, to hear his messages for the American and Japanese people.

This is your first visit to Hiroshima.
I’ve read a lot of books and other materials on the atomic bombing. But walking through the museum, and listening to an A-bomb survivor, I can feel things that can only be felt through these experiences. The horror of a city blown up by a single bomb is incomparable. The contrast between this prosperous city and the misery of that day is very powerful.

What was your intention in the title The Untold History of the United States?
History has been conveniently glorified, and we need insight into those myths so we can face the truth. The atomic bombings are the prime example. American children are taught in school that the U.S. won the war because it dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. They aren’t learning the truth. I myself was bound by this myth until around the age of 40, when I made “Platoon,” which was based on my experience serving in the Vietnam War.

You say that the atomic bombing was not only morally unforgivable, it was also unnecessary from a military standpoint.
This becomes obvious when you delve into the background behind President Truman’s decision to use the bomb. A number of military leaders told him that using the atomic bomb against Japan was pointless, since it was already battered by air raids and was about to surrender. But the president disregarded this advice because he was intent on deterring the Soviet Union, which was set to enter the war with Japan. As for Japan’s decision to accept an unconditional surrender, this may have been because it was shocked by the Soviet Union’s invasion on August 9.

That is the view widely supported by experts in Japan. What about in the United States?
Only a small number of historians give this much attention. The general public doesn’t know about it at all, or they aren’t interested in the first place. School textbooks refer to the Nagasaki bombing on August 9, but make no mention of the Soviet invasion. I want people in countries around the world to see the TV series and the book so they can learn the real facts of history.

I was surprised to learn that a politician other than Truman might have become president.
The year before the atomic bombings, it was thought that Henry Wallace, who was then vice president, would again be on the Democratic ticket with Roosevelt. Wallace was very popular with the public, and he opposed discrimination at home and pursued a policy of conciliation abroad. He was very popular among the general public.

But his detractors backed Truman and aggressively undercut Wallace, which led to Truman’s nomination as vice president. When Roosevelt died suddenly, Truman then became president.

What if Wallace had continued as vice president, instead of Truman?
Wallace harshly criticized Truman’s hardline stance against the Soviet Union after the war. What would have become of the U.S. if he had succeeded Roosevelt instead of Truman? Would the A-bomb have been used? Could the Cold War have been avoided? We’ll never know. History might have been different. But his name has been completely forgotten, even in the U.S. It was Peter Kuznick, associate professor at American University, who exposed the inconvenient history which called into question the idea that the atomic bombings were unavoidable. I co-produced the film with him.

If the atomic bombings were unnecessary, do you think the United States should apologize to A-bomb survivors?
President Obama, who called for a world without nuclear weapons, chose right-wing aides in his first term and fell short of expectations. Politics in America is all about power. If you are soft and conciliatory, you are attacked as weak. In good conscience, he should apologize for the atomic bombings. But if did that, there would be an uproar from the military and hardliners. It would be difficult.


Oliver Stone
Born in New York City, Oliver Stone attended Yale University and New York University, where he studied film. Mr. Stone has received the Academy Award for best director two times, for “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” Other well-known films include “JFK” and “Wall Street.” He is co-producer of the documentary series “The Untold Story of the United States,” released in 2012, with Peter Kuznick, an associate professor at American University. This series, spanning American foreign policy from the 1930s to the Obama administration, was turned into a book of the same name, with the Japanese version published by Hayakawa Publishing Corporation. Mr. Stone visited Japan this summer with Dr. Kuznick.

(Originally published on August 7, 2013)