AU’s Peter Kuznick Teams Up With Filmmaker Oliver Stone
History at American University newsletter
When Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone was in Washington in fall 2007, scouting locations for a film about the My Lai massacre, he asked AU history professor Peter Kuznick to join him, his cinematographer, and his producer for dinner. As often happens when Kuznick and Stone get together, their conversation turned to analyzing key events in history. In the midst of an animated conversation, Stone suggested that the two of them do a documentary film together.
Kuznick was then spending his sabbatical year working on a book on how knowing that nuclear war could end all life on the planet had influenced public opinion and policy decisions since the start of the atomic bomb project in 1939. Still, he agreed that working on a documentary with Stone would be an intriguing possibility for the future. Kuznick should have known Stone better than that. They had been friends since 1996 when Stone made the first of many visits to Kuznick’s class which uses Stone’s films as a window into recent U.S. history, comparing Stone’s interpretations with those of scholars and participants in key events.
The class is so popular with AU students that one year Kuznick let 150 students enroll instead of the customary 80. The class has brought an outstanding roster of guest speakers to the AU campus, including Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Bob Woodward, Paul Warnke, Seymour Hersh, John Dean, Ambassador Robert White, Senator Max Cleland, Vietnam vets Bobby Muller, Ron Kovic, and Wayne Smith as well as Pham Duy Thanh, who fought for North Vietnam, Cambodian child soldier and author Loung Ung, Hiroshima Mayor Tadatoshi Akiba, JFK screenwriter Zach Sklar and leading JFK critic Max Holland, and many others.
By the time Stone returned to California a couple days later, his idea for a documentary had evolved into something far grander. Stone phoned Kuznick proposing that they collaborate on a 10- part documentary series exploring lesser known aspects of U.S. history – the parts that are generally left out of high school history texts and those so often presented in a sanitized version conforming to what Kuznick and Stone consider a triumphalist and very partial view of America’s past. Their series instead plans to focus on the development of a peculiarly American form of empire and the national security state that undergirds it. Kuznick explained, “We had initially intended to begin by debunking the mythology surrounding the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then, in the second episode, go back to the roots of empire in the late 19th century. We now plan to begin with World War II and work our way to the present in a more linear fashion.” They will likely include the earlier material as an 11th episode in the box sets that are released next year.
Showtime has announced that the series, “The Secret History of the United States,” will be aired in 2010. Kuznick warns that, despite the title, people who are looking for conspiracies will be disappointed: “This is solid history, based on cutting edge scholarship. The broad public, which has not been exposed to this kind of information and analysis, may be shocked by what we present, but it will come as less of a surprise to historians who have stayed on top of the latest research findings.”
Stone, a decorated Vietnam vet who dropped out of Yale to serve, has won numerous Academy Awards, including two for best director. Despite an illustrious Hollywood career that includes the films Platoon, Born on the 4th of July, JFK, Nixon, Salvador, Natural Born Killers, Wall Street, The Doors, and W, he sees this documentary series as his crowning achievement. He recently proclaimed, “this epic 10-hour series…is the deepest contribution I could ever make in film to my children and the next generation.” He added, “I can only hope a change in our thinking will result.” Kuznick feels the same way: “It will be a great opportunity to reach an audience of tens of millions – here and abroad – rather than the tens of thousands who might read something I write. Oliver and I have put a lot into this project. We want to change the way people understand American history in the hopes that we, as a nation, can learn from what we’ve done wrong and build upon what we’ve done right. Our story has its share of villains, but it also has its share of heroes. We want to correct the historical record, but we also want to inspire the next generation to dream the dreams and fight the fights that will enable this country to become a force for good in the world rather than the hyper-militarized defender of an unjust and inequitable status quo.”
Two of Kuznick’s students – Cindy Gueli, who received her PhD in 2006, and Eric Singer, who is currently writing a dissertation on civil defense in Baltimore – have assisted Kuznick and Stone in the research.