Two prominent commentators on American political and cultural issues, particularly those pertaining to war, visited Boston College on Saturday to discuss the rise of the American empire and national security state under the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone joined American University historian Peter Kuznick to screen an episode of their documentary series, The Untold History of the United States, in Robsham Theater, as well as respond to comments and questions on their project. Stone is best known for films such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK.
The event, co-sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the sociology department, also featured professor of sociology Charles Derber as a moderator and professor of history Seth Jacobs, who took part in a panel discussion with Stone and Kuznick.
The basis of the series, which includes 10 episodes that aired on Showtime as well as an 800-page companion book, is to use newly uncovered material to re-examine some key-and often controversial-events in the last century of American history. The episode screened on Saturday was the final episode of the series, focusing on Bush, Obama, and what the filmmakers call “the age of terror.”
The Sept. 11 attacks opened the episode that outlined Bush’s response and launch of a global war on terror. As the war expanded, an American empire grew, creating its own reality through doublespeak-broad, vague terms such as “preventative war” and “homeland security”-and media that glorified American heroism in movies and video games. Bush, emphasizing American exceptionalism, called for a “moral crusade to protect liberty and justice,” and the war became polarizing throughout the U.S., just as the Vietnam War had several decades earlier.
After Obama took office, the episode outlined the financial crisis and the rise of the American surveillance state. The killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 renewed Obama’s image as an effective war president intent on taking down terrorists.
The episode closed by questioning the U.S.’s actions and its approach to world affairs throughout the 1900s and early 2000s.
“We must ask ourselves, humbly, looking back at the American century, have we acted wisely and humanely in our relations to the rest of the world?” Stone, the series’ narrator, asked. “Have we been right to police the globe? Have we been a force for good, understanding, and peace? We must look in the mirror. Perhaps in our self-love, we’ve become the angels of our own despair.
“Can we not surrender our exceptionalism and our arrogance, can we not cut out the talk of domination, can we stop appealing to God to bless America over other nations? Hard-liners and nationalists will object, but theirs is proven not to be the way.”
Following the screening, Jacobs critiqued Stone’s and Kuznick’s assertion that whoever is president of the U.S. truly matters in a given situation. The filmmakers had argued that events might have turned out differently if, for example, Henry Wallace had become president upon Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945 rather than Harry Truman, or if John F. Kennedy had not been assassinated in 1963.
“It troubles me to see Stone and Kuznick argue, at least implicitly, that the chief executive can control the overall trajectory of U.S. foreign policy, especially when the evidence they present seems to suggest otherwise,” Jacobs said.
Kuznick responded by arguing that there is, in fact, some continuity in American foreign policy throughout different presidencies, yet there have been times in which presidential leadership has made a significant difference in immediate policy choices.
“Had Barack Obama been president in October 1962 instead of Kennedy, and we’ve seen how Obama has stood up to his military advisors, that invasion [of Cuba] would have taken place, and we wouldn’t be here now,” Kuznick said regarding Kennedy’s decision to avoid an invasion during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Stone, who fought in and protested against the Vietnam War, noted that it was depressing to see the repetition of mistakes throughout American history, from Vietnam to the conflict in Kuwait to Iraq. He also responded to Jacobs’ criticism by commenting on specific presidential elections that, if they had turned out differently, could have affected the course of foreign policy, specifically mentioning the 1972 election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern and the 2000 election between Bush and Al Gore.
In answering questions from the audience about foreign relations and the struggling economy, Kuznick pointed out the disparity in wealth that characterizes this age of American domination.
“The richest one percent has more wealth than the poorest 90 percent in this country, and on the world scale it’s even worse,” Kuznick said. “An Oxfam report says that the richest 85 people in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3.5 billion. That’s the legacy of the American empire-this massive, disproportion and inequality that is not sustainable.
“The future is potentially very, very grim, unless we mobilize-as we say in the episode-as people, collectively, to take control back in our hands as a collective human society to decide what’s really in people’s interests,” he said.