In the 1930s, quite a few people failed to recognize the threat posed by Nazi ideology. In their eyes, Hitler was simply restoring Germany's wounded pride and rebuilding an economy battered by World War I and the harsh treaty that ended the conflict. Surely, Hitler and the German people preferred compromise to conflict, peace to war. This view turned out to be wrong, of course, and tens of millions of people were massacred as a result.
In the wake of World War II, quite a few people failed to recognize the threat posed by Communist ideology. In their eyes, Marxist/Leninist societies were emancipating workers from capitalism. This view turned out to be wrong as well, and in lands as diverse as the Soviet Union, China, North Korea and Cambodia tens of millions of people were massacred as a result. Today, of course, we see the world more clearly, don't we? Well, some do, some don't.
Ronald Radosh was born in 1937 in New York City and raised in a Communist household. In his youth, he planned to become a leader of the American Communist movement. But he became a historian -- one of those relatively rare historians who actually studies the past and learns from it, rather than attempting to shape it retrospectively to fit his ideological preconceptions.
Anything Radosh writes is worth reading. Most recently he has written a critique in The Weekly Standard of "Oliver Stone's Untold History of the United States," which premiered this week on Showtime, a cable network owned by CBS. Radosh makes clear that this series, in fact, reveals no "untold history" -- it merely reheats and rehashes the party line pushed by the Soviets and their fellow travelers during the Cold War, a line that Stone swallowed long ago and has since been regurgitating.
Stone argues, as Radosh puts it, that "the Soviet Union's leader in the 1930s and '40s, Joseph Stalin, has 'been vilified pretty thoroughly by history,' so what is needed is a program allowing viewers to walk in both his and Hitler's shoes 'to understand their point of view.' "
Radosh points out not only the factual errors littered throughout Stone's series but also the conspicuous omissions. For example:
Viewers are told that World War II ended with the world sharing the hopes and dreams of progressives everywhere, led by Stalin, whose desire for continued Allied unity and peace was rebuffed by Winston Churchill and rejected by President Franklin Roosevelt's successor, Harry Truman.
The viewer is never told of Soviet goals or practices, like the brutal occupation of Eastern Europe by the Red Army and the overthrow of its governments and installation of Soviet puppet regimes, except when the narrative justifies this as necessary for Soviet security.
Stone's rechauffe Cold War revisionism, Radosh writes, "consistently portrays the Soviet Union as the victim of American imperialism, while regarding the monster Stalin as a peaceful leader who sought only to gain valid security guarantees on his borders."
This propaganda exercise is hitting the small screens just as Anne Applebaum's Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, is appearing in bookstores. Following up on her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume on the Soviet prison system, "Gulag: A History," Applebaum draws on recently opened archives and interviews with survivors of Communist oppression. She "eloquently illuminates the methods by which Stalin's state imprisoned half the European continent," as historian Jennifer Siegel phrases it in one of many favorable reviews.
Will more people be educated by Applebaum or misinformed by Stone?
The answer is obvious. Does it matter? I think it does. Not only because post-Soviet Russia remains conspicuously un-free but, more importantly, because those persuaded that the 20th century fight against totalitarianism was not worth the candle are likely to conclude that defending America and the West is not necessary now -- a time when totalitarianism is again on the march, this time seeking not to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat or rule by a master race, but domination by religious supremacists.
Stone and his ilk -- not to mention Showtime and CBS -- are doing damage. Out of ignorance or maliciousness? The two are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they are a potent combination.
(Clifford May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.)