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Sean Wilentz: Wrong on Untold History, Wrong on History in General

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Sean Wilentz is a fancy professor of history at fancy Princeton, and a personal friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, two extremely fancy Democrats. And as he recently explained in the New York Review of Books, he hates Untold History, the new book and Showtime documentary series by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.

A quick glance might give you the impression Wilentz's grudge is all about a seemingly obscure, dusty corner of history (Henry Wallace and the 1948 election) that doesn't affect anyone's life today one way or the other. But it's not. Wilentz is pissed off because he understands Untold History is a damning indictment of an entire worldview – that of his political patrons and all comfortable establishment historians like him. And that worldview is genuinely a matter of life and death for all Americans in 2013. If you'd prefer that the plane you're taking next week not get hit by an surface-to-air missile liberated by Islamists from Libya's stockpile, and that you not personally get torn into several large chunks at 7,000 feet, you really should pay attention to this.

Untold History, and hence Wilentz, spend lots of time examining the aftermath of World War II in the late 1940s; it was a critical period of U.S. politics, one that's determined our path ever since. As Wilentz accurately writes, "the beginning of the cold war divided American liberals and leftists of various stripes," as the liberals mostly got what they wanted and the leftists did not.

Cold war liberals of the time, exactly like Wilentz today, would have preferred not to share power with the paranoid, racist neanderthals of the U.S. right. (The neanderthals of 1948 didn't read "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" in the New Yorker and were terrible at sophisticated discussions about existentialism at Georgetown dinner parties.) However, the liberals were even less eager to share power with genuine leftists – especially because the liberals agreed with the right that the cold war was forced upon the U.S. by the Soviets and was mostly or wholly defensive in nature.

Meanwhile, the leftists of various stripes believed the cold war might largely be avoided – but that powerful sectors of U.S. society found it to be the perfect cover for aggressive policies they would have wanted to carry out even if the Soviet Union had never existed. Leftists also believed there was a natural constituency for endless war in the White House. As Clark Clifford, then Truman's White House counsel, wrote to him as the cold war was dawning: "There is considerable political advantage to the Administration in its battle with the Kremlin...In times of crisis, the American citizen tends to back up his President." Moreover, as Wilentz says, leftists saw liberal anticommunism "as virtually indistinguishable from – indeed, as complicit with – the anticommunism of the right."

Wilentz is incredulous that Stone and Kuznick are resurrecting this perspective, something liberals like himself believed had been dead and buried for decades. That's what he's angry about: that they're on the New York Times bestseller list and premium cable saying things that all properly educated people know are wrong.

But are they? Now, with twenty years of post-cold war history behind us, we should be able to judge.

We can never know what might have come to pass had the U.S. adopted a different posture toward the Soviet Union, either after World War II or during the decades that followed. From the viewpoint of liberals like Wilentz, the answer clearly is: nothing good. The Soviets were determined to export their totalitarianism to the world, and any naive failure on our part to resist would end in disaster. Yes, the U.S. might have gone overboard here and there, but the overall story of the cold war was that the Soviet Union acted and we reacted.

But this is what we can know: if Wilentz's understanding of history is correct, U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.

Looked at through that lens, Stone and Kuznick's perspective explains a lot more about the world than that of Wilentz. The Warsaw Pact is gone, but NATO remains, and in fact has expanded eastward. The embargo against Cuba was not lifted at the end of the cold war but intensified. The U.S. habit of supporting overseas coups, both successful (Honduras) and not (Venezuela, Gaza), endures. The Air Force is busily researching how to drop tungsten rods onto anyone anywhere from space.

And on Iraq, the most important foreign policy issue of the past twenty years, we appear to have reenacted the cold war in miniature. Like the Soviet Union, Iraq had been a U.S. ally against a third country. Like Stalin, Saddam Hussein was a cruel dictator who was extremely dangerous to his subjects. But also like the Soviet Union, Iraq was ruined by war and far weaker than the U.S., yet inflated by propaganda into a huge danger to us that bore almost no resemblance to reality. Like Soviet leaders, Hussein understood the realities of power and made repeated attempts to avoid conflict with the U.S. – attempts of which almost no Americans are aware. (According to the CIA, Hussein begged the Clinton administration for the opportunity to be our "best friend in the region bar none" but felt "he was not given a chance because the US refused to listen to anything Iraq had to say.") And as with the cold war, we will never know what would have happened if our country had chosen another path. All we know is U.S. officials had no interest in exploring it.

Finally, with both the Soviets and Iraq there was – as Henry Wallace said in 1948 – a "bipartisan reactionary war policy." Vice President Biden voted for the Iraq war, as did our old Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and our new one John Kerry. The day after Colin Powell's notorious Security Council presentation, Susan Rice, now the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, claimed Powell had "proved that Iraq has these weapons and is hiding them." And while Barack Obama did give a mildly anti-war speech in October, 2002 (stating "I don't oppose all wars" three times), he was then representing a solidly liberal state senate district where opposing the war posed no political danger. Given his behavior as president, it's hard to be certain he would have voted no if he'd then been an ambitious U.S. senator.

Most depressing of all, establishment historians like Wilentz play the same role today as they did during the cold war: not just refusing to ask critical questions about U.S. history and its effect on the present day, but shouting down those who attempt to do so. That's what Wilentz is doing with his review of Untold History. And it's what he did in October, 2001 when he explained why the U.S. had just been attacked: "To the terrorists, America's crime – its real crime – is to be America."

It's no surprise Wilentz was desperate for Americans to adopt this childish view: the Arab anger that al Qaeda was attempting to ride to power via 9/11 was the result of the Iraq policies of his friend Bill Clinton. Without Clinton's brutal sanctions on Iraq and U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden might – as a senior Bush official said in 2004 – "still be redecorating mosques and boring friends with stories of his mujahideen days in the Khyber Pass."

So in Wilentz's own words we can see the value of what Stone and Kuznick have accomplished. Readers and viewers of Untold History could use what they learned about the past to predict that the liberal War on Terror would be virtually indistinguishable from – indeed, complicit with – the War on Terror of the right. And they'd be correct.