What good are counterfactuals? In the late 70’s Saturday Night Live aired a skit where a panel of distinguished guests commented on counterfactuals like, “What if Superman had landed in Nazi Germany?” or “What if Napoleon had a B-52 Bomber?” Counterfactuals can easily become laughable. They should be used sparingly. They have some utility for exploring history, especially events that very nearly had different outcomes. We may always be tempted to wonder ‘what if’ about the 2000 election, because it was such a close election. However, a counterfactual can quickly become a waste of time. One counterfactual that isn’t often discussed is, “what if Henry A. Wallace and not Harry S. Truman had been the Vice President on the 1944 ticket?” Oliver Stone will raise this question in an upcoming history series.
The New York Times has an article, by Andrew Goldman about Oliver Stone’s new project “The Untold History of the United States.” It is a 10-part series with a companion book that begins with events from World War I and goes up to the first Obama administration. The article begins with this brilliant hook:
“Come on, that’s such a canard, you know that,” Oliver Stone said. “ ‘The Greatest Generation?’ That was the biggest publishing hoax of all. It’s to sell books.” This seemingly sacrosanct term was coined by Tom Brokaw for his 1998 book of the same title, in which he recounted the lives of ordinary, World War II-era Americans. “I was in Vietnam with the Greatest Generation. They were master sergeants, generals, colonels. They had arrogance beyond belief. The hubris that allowed Henry Kissinger to say North Vietnam is a fourth-rate power we will break. The hubris of that!”
Finally, someone is punching back against the greatest generation WWII myth industry. Anything that jolts the discourse out of its comfortable and incessant retelling of the same old WWII story is a welcome change. The lessons of WWII seem to be that war ends depression, turns farm boys into heroic warriors, leads to huge material wealth for the nation, stops holocausts and makes the nations of the world sing praise to America. Who can forget the incessant invocation of Neville Chamberlain in the lead up to the Iraq War and the dangers of appeasement? Even if the following quote from a 2007 article is a parody, it is a parody that makes the point:
The Alliance of Historians and Biographers (AHAB) recently voted to make the capitulation of Neville Chamberlain to Adolf Hitler in the Munich Agreement of 1938 the only bona fide lesson of history. That event, mentioned in newspaper editorials, conservative blogs, and broadcast news commentaries no fewer than 343,267 times since 2003 as a justification for the Iraq war, has now officially been designated the past’s only teachable moment.
Anyone that comes along to root out the idea that WWII is the only war that contains teachable moments and that everything about it is the ‘greatest’ is very welcome indeed. In America, discourse about war, especially the decision to go to war, has a way of focusing on WWII to the exclusion of the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1st Iraq War and the many other little wars. In American discourse, WWII transformed us from an up-and-coming power into the number one nation in the world. It is told and retold that the war caused a great metamorphosis from an unwilling player in world events into ‘Leader of the Free World.’ Not only that, but America is described as a moral colossus. In the retelling of the story, America is the bringer of justice, prosperity and freedom. Even if there is truth to the story, it amounts to an incredibly damaging myth. The fact is that America’s pre-eminence at the end of the war was due in large apart to the destruction of the rest of the world. Europe and the Far East were in ashes after the war. However, in the media, whenever a new war is being sold, we re-tell the story of transformation brought on by WWII. WWII ended the Great Depression, it ended a holocaust, it made America great, it turned farmers into heroes, and so on. In America, the discourse, by returning always to WWII, reassures the audience that war is moral and successful like WWII. There is a definite need to complicate this picture and Oliver Stone and his co-creator Peter Kuznick set out to do this. Here is another excerpt:
From where Stone sits, World War II begot the cold war, which landed us in Vietnam, a manifestation of American imperialism, which led inexorably to our current battle in Afghanistan. We have, Stone says, been sold a fairy tale masquerading as history, and it is so blinding it may ultimately undo us. “You have to understand what it was like to be a Roman empire and to find some barbarian tribe riding into Rome in 476 A.D.,” Stone said. “It’s quite a shock. And that’s what will happen to us unless we change our attitude about what our role in the world is. Every story out of most newspapers is ‘the Americans think this, the administration thinks this.’ It’s always about our controlling the pieces on the chessboard. I think what the Arabs have shown us is that we don’t control the chess pieces. And this is a shock to many people. But it’s definitely in ‘The Greatest Generation.’ And it’s in Spielberg’s World War II film, and it’s in Ridley Scott’s ‘Black Hawk Down.’ These are wonderful-looking films, but the message is perverted.”
Stone’s words are ear-nectar. However, Stone has a complicated relationship to history that can’t be overlooked. For some, Stone’s work is a complete turn-off, since he made a few mistakes in JFK and it has destroyed, for them, all of his credibility. On the other hand, one would be a fool, as some are, to confuse Oliver Stone’s films with precise historical statements, especially JFK. What Stone inarguably does is to get people to talk about history that is unsettled or in disrepair. Stone gets us to reexamine history. Stone upsets our assumptions, especially ones that need to be upset. Stone won’t let us be content with the idea that America is a morally superior and smoothly functioning super-power. Stone’s apparent lack of objectivity actually pierces through the years of History Channel programs, high school textbook summaries, and the smug confidence of the chattering class, to confront facts and events that have been forgotten. These complications create and irresistible didactic that enlivens discourse, topples smug assumptions and starts the process of getting closer to a history that is real and perhaps dependable.
In the upcoming show, Stone and his history professor co-creator, Peter Kuznick, present us with a counterfactual of what might have been if Henry A. Wallace had been the Vice Presidential candidate for the 1944 election. Henry A. Wallace was Vice President from 1941 to 1945. Conservative democrats agitated to get Wallace off the ticket in 1944 in favor of Harry S. Truman. As this Wikipedia link notes: “Henry A. Wallace had missed being the 33rd President of the United States by just 82 days.” Harry S. Truman became president in 1945. Truman dropped the A-Bomb, and, in Stone and Kuznick’s history, America’s foreign policy in the Truman years forces the USSR into its aggressive actions. In other words, the U.S. brought the Cold War on itself. Truman is an admired president by both Republicans and Democrats, which may be deserved, but also suggests that a re-appraisal of this period is overdue and Stone and Kuznick, however un-objectively, are bringing it on.
Would Henry A. Wallace have been different? Take a look at the Wikipedia description of his 1948 presidential campaign:
Wallace left his editorship position in 1948 to make an unsuccessful run as a Progressive Party candidate in the 1948 U.S. presidential election. With Idaho Democratic U.S. Senator Glen H. Taylor as his running mate, his platform advocated friendly relations with the Soviet Union, an end to the nascent Cold War, an end to segregation, full voting rights for blacks, and universal government health insurance. His campaign was unusual for his time in that it included African American candidates campaigning alongside white candidates in the American South, and that during the campaign he refused to appear before segregated audiences or eat or stay in segregated establishments.
As a further sign of the times, he was noted by Time as ostentatiously riding through various cities and towns in the South “with his Negro secretary beside him”. Many eggs and tomatoes were hurled at and struck him and his campaign members during the tour, while at the same time President Truman referred to such behavior towards Wallace as very un-American. Wallace commented that “there is a long chain that links unknown young hoodlums in North Carolina or Alabama with men in finely tailored business suits in the great financial centers of New York or Boston, men who make a dollars-&-cents profit by setting race against race in the far away South.” State authorities in Virginia sidestepped enforcing its own segregation laws by declaring Wallace’s campaign gatherings as private parties.
Wallace was decades ahead of his time. It is a mesmerizing counterfactual to imagine him in the oval office in 1945. Would America have leap-frogged decades ahead, essentially accelerating into 1992? Would the world have avoided the drawn out conflict of the Cold War? Counterfactuals allow our minds to delve into history in a way that we might not if it didn’t appear so rich with alternative outcomes. Eventually, it is probably best to return to the fact that Truman was president, the Korean War happened, the USSR ground Eastern Europe into misery and so on. Nevertheless, let’s keep an eye out for Stone and Kuznick’s new show, and let it open our minds and gain a new perspective on the blunders, missteps and wrong turns that are unquestionably part of the American story. Let us be reminded that many of the greatest mistakes were made by the Greatest Generation. Let us be reminded that not every war ends with America riding high in the saddle.