Of Empires and Colonies: Oliver Stone’s “Untold History of the United States”
Having just finished watching on Netflix the 12-part documentary by Oliver Stone, “Untold History of the United States” (2012), I find myself amazed. At risk of coming off as conceited, I am amazed at myself and at my many history teachers: for how did I, having studied Western history at the highest quality grade schools, university, graduate schools, and law school, having been an exceptional and curious student, and having continued to study such topics as history and politics well past my academic years, not know so much of the essential information gifted us in this documentary (and its companion 700-page book) by famed film-maker Mr. Stone and co-author Peter Kuznick, an American University historian?
More so, I am mind-blown by this masterwork which gives viewers an eagle-eye view of the complex flow of facts and events that mark the bloodiest century in human history: the 1900s. By no means will I attempt to outline its grand story here, but I will share a few of my observations with the hope that it might encourage you to immediately watch the entire documentary, if not read the book as well.
Mr. Stone, who narrates the series, certainly provides editorial comments along the way, and frankly I appreciate that he does so explicitly, for historians too often try to hide their bias. I do not wholly agree with Mr. Stone’s views, though I do share his frustrations with the social injustice, oppression, deceit, and truly insane bloodletting of the last century’s many wars – which continue today, as we all know.
What I found most disturbing are some of the basic facts made evident in this bingeable, A-level production of the major and indisputable events of the last 100+ years, not even counting the important tangents and commentary that Mr. Stone shares with us and which so many critics have protested since its airing in 2012.
First, empire is the way of the world. It always has been. Consider the Roman Empire, the Ottoman, the Persian, the Mali, the Zulu, the Mayan, the Aztec, the Cherokee, the British, the Spanish, the French, the Russian, the Chinese, and the American. We, the people of the world, have been in the middle of the great power-grab since time immemorial.
The reason for this is simple: only with the natural resources and cheap labor of conquered nations can wealthy countries afford to have all the conveniences and luxuries they need and want. Look at all we enjoy in the USA: cars, homes, clothes, food, entertainment, doctors, lawyers, schools, and our sprawling infrastructure. There is a price for all this: Empire.
Most crucially, I learned this frightening and perhaps nihilistic fact from watching this series: if any one nation sits back and refuses to participate in this imperial struggle for power, influence, resources, land, and workers, if any one country truly dedicates itself to pacifism, then surely it too will be conquered.
It’s important to realize that not all conquerors are the same. Certainly, all empires are vicious in their military efforts to dominate a target nation. But once the war ends, some will treat the colonized better than others. Now of course, I’m speaking of modern times here, for prior to the 1900s, it seems that all empires treated their colonies in a most cruel manner. Think about how modern China treats Tibet, how Russia treats Ukraine, or how Israel treats Palestine. They’re brutal regimes.
The contemporary USA plays a most unique role in the world, for while it is surely plagued by economic inequality, greedy monopolistic corporations, violence, a prison-industrial complex, police brutality, racism, sexism, corrupt politicians, a drug epidemic, lack of quality education, limited true access and use of health care, environmental pollution, traffic and public transportation problems, and other serious issues … nonetheless, it truly might be the best country in the world. It’s not that the USA is perfect but rather that the other nations of the world are either in terrible chaos or simply lack the full spectrum of American advantages.
Given the choice between corrupt local rulers and foreign intervenors, the people of developing nations seem to clearly prefer the lifestyle offered to them by developed nations, especially the USA. Witness the surge of immigration to the EU, Canada, Australia, and the USA by citizens of developing nations, or observe the joy with which they greet new employment opportunities at wealthy corporate offices, mines, and factories that land in their localities, regardless of how low the wages seem in comparison to a wealthy nation’s standards. It is this corporate colonialism – born of free trade agreements – that is welcomed around the world, whereas military actions that sought to force an empire’s corporations’ entry into the developing world were so aggressively opposed.
Consider that the Japanese refused to surrender after the USA dropped the first nuclear bomb on August 6, 1945 on their nation at the end of World War II. Even the second nuclear bomb dropped 3 days later was arguably not the reason Japan surrendered. Rather the Japanese decided to give up to the Allies only when Russia turned its attention on Japan, attacking it from the West that same August of 1945 after a few months of rest after defeating the Nazis in Europe. With Russians attacking from the West and Americans attacking from the East, only then did the Japanese realize their war was finished. Even more so, consider how aggressively the Vietnamese fought the USA for roughly two decades, refusing to stop fighting no matter how much the Americans destroyed every square mile of their tiny nation.
Yet when wealthy corporations came knocking a few years later in both these countries, as in many developing nations around the world, the people of these nations were quite ready for the capitalism and cultural mitigation that they fought so hard to keep out. One could certainly argue that such nations demanded self-determination. But self-determination does not mean much when your nation, hosting one foreign company at a time, becomes economically if not culturally dependent upon and in awe of foreigners from wealthy nations.
So what to do, then, to fix the mess on both sides, in the empires and the colonies alike?
First, it seems incredibly foolish for any nation to go to war against the USA, not only because it is a superpower that can bring untold levels of military punishment for decades upon a foe, but more so because accepting the role of US colony, or “protectorate” or whatever euphemism is popular at the time, has so many political and economic benefits. Why resist, when truly billions of people in every nation on Earth yearn for US citizenship? Why resist, when fighting will only result in hideous genocide?
Secondly, the USA needs to keep out of such wars in the first place, and rather needs to focus on mutually beneficial trade agreements and diplomacy. Yet given the fact that so many foreign nations are run by “bad actors” or “evil doers” intent upon genocide, corruption, terror, and mayhem on a worldwide level, it seems inevitable that the USA will need to engage militarily with such developing nations. When it does so, however, it should be as part of a community of UN Security Council allies. Such wealthy, imperial nations with relatively strong and well-intentioned political and economic systems should be closer allies of the USA, though the current Trump administration does not understand that at all. This is not to say that China, Russia, and other Security Council nations are not plagued by serious problems such as those detailed above in regards to the USA, but that relative to the same systems in developing nations, these wealthy countries are doing much better – as sad as that is to say.
In short, we need the wealthy nations of the world to step up their game in terms of battling such ills as corruption, pollution, civil rights, discrimination, and so on, so that the citizens of developing nations (e.g., in the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia, etc.) will have an easier choice when presented with the option between local warlords and dictators on the one hand or some measure of colonization by the world’s wealthiest nations on the other hand.
Regardless, citizens of developing nations should not fight and should rather immediately surrender when faced with the intrusion of wealthy countries. While this is obviously a very alarming statement to make as I full well understand, it’s key to consider how many millions die brutal deaths when a tiny nation tries to stand up to a bully behemoth.
And finally and most importantly, the wealthy nations should work together to form a more progressive and fair world. This is exactly what rulers like Germany’s Merkel, France’s Macron, Canada’s Trudeau, and even Japan’s Abe are doing, and nations like the USA, China, Russia, and the UK need to follow suit. Hopefully with the powers of the vote and public protest, the citizens of these problematic empires can help set their countries – and the world – on the right path: a path of substantially less consumerism by wealthy nations, global efforts to reduce the population via healthy and free birth control options, universal health care, environmental stewardship, civil rights, access to quality education, employment opportunities and/or universal basic income, global collaboration rather than imperialism, and dare I say, world peace.
– Ali Shahrestani