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Untold History: Early US Imperialism, Hitler, Roosevelt, the Spanish Civil War

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Peter Kuznick, co-author with Oliver Stone of Untold History of the United States, discusses Roosevelt’s attitude towards Hitler and the Soviet Union.

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Peter Kuznick, co-author with Oliver Stone of Untold History of the United States, discusses Roosevelt’s attitude towards Hitler and the Soviet Union.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.

We’re continuing our series of interviews with Peter Kuznick. He coauthored the script and the book with Oliver Stone of the series The Untold History of the United States. And we’re just going to pick up our discussion. Thanks for joining us again.


JAY: So I should remind everybody that Peter’s a professor of history at American University.

So the series essentially is about the roots of World War II and the effect of this post-war, some people call national security state that gets established. And I’ve only seen as of this interview the first three parts, so we’re going to focus more about the roots of the Second World War and a little bit of—.

KUZNICK: And the book actually begins in the 1890s.

JAY: Oh, is that right?

KUZNICK: The book is broader, ’cause we’re dealing with the early vision of empire as articulated by Seward and other American policymakers, and then what an important turning point the Spanish-American War (especially the U.S. suppression of the Filipino insurrection) is.

JAY: Well, I promise you that we’re going to—as I say, the reason this is going to be a series, as I said in the first interview, over the course of a year is we’re going to start digging into the book as well and dealing with some of these periods. I mean, I don’t think many people know that Mark Twain was copresident of the Anti-Imperialist League in the 1890s. And this isn’t the—this does go back some ways, this anti-imperialist opposition [crosstalk]

KUZNICK: And even such a mainstream politician as William Jennings Bryan, who ran for president three times on the Democratic Party ticket and was secretary of state afterwards, was a leading anti-imperialist and very, very critical of U.S. policy in the Philippines. He ran for president in 1900 against McKinley and 1896.

JAY: So let’s—for now we’re going to kind of focus on the TV series, and then we can dig back into—in other interviews into the book and such. You have a quote in the series of Truman:


NARRATOR: Missouri senator Harry Truman declared on the floor of the Senate in 1941:

HARRY TRUMAN, U.S. SENATOR: If we see that Germany is winning, we ought to help Russia, and if Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.


JAY: So, essentially, this attitude is that, you know, if the Germans and the Russians slaughter each other, that ain’t so bad for the United States. And there’s a lot of people theorize, have commented afterwards, and even at the time in the 1930s, that there was an interest in the United States for the Germans to invade Russia and, you know, put an end to this socialist experiment. And your series, one of the critiques people have made about the series is that it’s pretty soft on Roosevelt and that his position in all of this in the series comes off as someone who’s always sort of taking this sort of enlightened, even somewhat open, friendly attitude towards the Soviet Union and its role.

But the critique is that in fact Roosevelt’s in on this idea that yeah, it wouldn’t be so bad if the Germans invade Russia. And some of the evidence they point to is that Roosevelt does very little to stop American corporations from arming Hitler. General Motors was—I think there’s a quote somewhere where Opel’s—Germany depended on—General Motors created Opel’s for the invasion of Poland, a very important role that American corporate world played. Roosevelt doesn’t stop the American team from going to the Olympics in 1936. So what do you make of his role in the leadup to war?

KUZNICK: We trace the arches of the Cold War, really, back to the Russian Revolution in 1917, and the United States sends over 10,000 troops, along with many British troops and other Western capitalist troops, to try to put down the Russian Revolution, to kill it in its cradle as—strangle it in its cradle, Churchill says. So that enmity between the U.S. and the Russian/Soviet government goes back to that point, which is central at the conflict—at Versailles. And they have two visions: you’ve got Wilson’s vision and you’ve got Lenin’s vision for the world.

JAY: Okay. Quickly for young people watching this who don’t know this, Versailles is where the post-World War I peace treaty is signed. And you may want to say just a few words. A lot of people watching this are going to be young and won’t know even some of the basic references. So—.

KUZNICK: Well, so the United States does not recognize the Soviet Union, but it’s actually Roosevelt who actually recognizes the Soviet Union in 1933. And Roosevelt is by no means pro-Soviet. He’s a dedicated capitalist and is responsible for saving capitalism, but a different kind of capitalism, with the idea that government is not the enemy, like we have in the United States now. The idea was that government was the savior. And Roosevelt revolutionizes in many ways the attitude toward government and the role of government in getting the United States out of the Depression.

So you’re correct to say we’ve got a pretty positive portrait of Roosevelt.

We are very critical of him in certain ways, and one of the ways we’re very critical is that he didn’t intervene early enough to stop fascism. The Soviet Union was urging the United States and the Western capitalist nations to rise up against Hitler, to stop Hitler, because the Soviets understood what a threat he was. But there were people in the West who didn’t want to stop Hitler, because they hated communism more than they hated fascism, and they were—.

JAY: And there were some outright fans of Hitler. I know Henry Ford gave Hitler—what is it?—$50,000 every year on his birthday, and he was awarded the highest honor a foreigner could be given by the Third Reich.

KUZNICK: Well, Henry Ford’s admiration for Hitler was mutual. Hitler says that he admired Henry Ford and that Henry Ford was his model, as did several other of the Nazi leaders during that time. Ford was a notorious anti-Semite. Ford had tens of thousands of copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion printed. He was a leading anti-Semite during that time. Ford’s a complicated figure. We don’t have time to go into Ford.

But American business—we go into this in a later episode, because we tie it into George H. W. Bush and the so-called idea of the greatest generation. And we’re trying to complicate that in a later episode of the documentary. But the American corporations were up to their eyeballs in working with the Germans, and even in rearming the Germans in the later ’30s. And what most Americans don’t realize is that much of that relationship to American corporations continued even after the war started, and that companies like GM and Ford actually get reparations from the U.S. government after World War II to pay them back for the factories that the U.S. bombed during the war that were owned by GM and Ford.

JAY: Great. So the argument goes Roosevelt should have done something.

KUZNICK: Yes, Roosevelt should have done something. And we’re very critical—.

JAY: And didn’t do it just as an oversight.

KUZNICK: But it wasn’t because he was ideologically soft on fascism. He hated the deal at Munich. He hated Chamberlain’s giving in to the Germans there. He said this was a terrible mistake and they’re going to pay for this in blood.

The problem is, you have to understand the United States in the 1930s. There was a lot of isolationist sentiment. There was—World War I was still fresh in people’s memories.

JAY: Yeah, you give the number in your series 95 percent of Americans in a poll were against getting involved in it.


NARRATOR: Although most Americans wanted Britain and France to win the war, according to a Gallup poll in October ’39, 95 percent wanted the U.S. to stay out, fearing essentially that Britain was again, as in 1917, drawing the U.S. into a futile world war.

UNIDENTIFIED: Another war? Not for me. This time, America should keep out, and I know I will.

UNIDENTIFIED: Let Europe fight her own battles. They mean nothing to us.

UNIDENTIFIED (SEVERAL): [incompr.] no. No. No. No.


KUZNICK: World War I was so rancid in America’s memory at that point. It was a terrible war. It was a war to redivide the colonies. It was not a war for a democracy.

JAY: But I think the critique would be not that Roosevelt had any sympathy to fascism—I think clearly he didn’t, and he certainly fought those kinds of tendencies within the United States—but that he first and foremost was about American national interest and had visions of post-World War II as the era of America, and in that vision, it ain’t so bad if the Germans and the Russians kick the shit out of each other.

KUZNICK: No, he had a vision, really, more of four policemen, that the United States and the Russians and the British and the French would be the policemen of the world in the post-war period, that we would be able to collaborate.

JAY: During the ’30s he has this vision?

KUZNICK: That’s more in the ’40s, early ’40s he lays out that vision. In the ’30s he’s more—I agree with you that he should have intervened. We’re critical of him. And you’ve got these—the Germans and the Italians beginning to operate in Ethiopia and in Libya, and then you’ve got the Spanish Civil War. The United States should have supported the Spanish Republic.

JAY: Yeah, talk a bit about the Spanish Civil War, ’cause that’s a really critical moment where the United States does nothing and watches the Germans and the Italians support Franco. And go ahead.

KUZNICK: They supported him with arms. They supported him with pilots. They bombed them. The Germans and the Italians were militarily involved in supporting Franco’s fascist forces.

JAY: Overthrowing a legitimate, democratically elected government.

KUZNICK: Overthrowing a democratically elected, very progressive left-leaning government, the Spanish Republic. And there was strong pressure in the United States to support the republic. There was also a lot of pressure not to. There was—the Catholic Church was very much pro-Franco at that point. And even Churchill had said a lot of very supportive things about Franco. So the world was not clear on that, and the West did not intervene to help the Spanish Republic. And that was the first major defeat. I mean, Hitler has a series of victories at that point, but in a military sense, that’s the most important turning point, or failure, too.

But a lot of Americans went over there to support the Spanish Republic. Many of them fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

JAY: Yeah, people from all over the world.


NARRATOR: The fighting dragged on for three years. Twenty-eight hundred brave Americans snuck into Spain to battle the fascists, most joining the communist-backed Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Almost 1,000 did not return.

ACTOR: Tell us, inglés, why have you come so far to fight for our republic?

ACTOR: A man fights for what he believes in, Fernando.

ACTOR: Well, but in his own country.

ACTOR: Well, maybe you feel that I’m sticking my nose into other people’s business. [snip] It’s not only Spain fighting here, is it? It’s Germany and Italy on one side, and Russia on the other, and the Spanish people right in the middle of it all. The Nazis and fascists are just as much against democracy as they are against the communists, and they’re using your country as a proving ground for their new war machine, their tanks and dive bombers, stuff like that, so they can get the jump on the democracies and knock off England and France and my country before we get armed and ready to fight.


KUZNICK: People who were anti-fascist from all over the world—.

JAY: Yeah, went to volunteer and fight in the trenches. And what is it?

KUZNICK: And a lot of them died.

JAY: Thousands.

KUZNICK: Thousands.

JAY: In the series you have a quote from Roosevelt where he says, this is one of my big blunders.



NARRATOR: By 1939, Roosevelt told his cabinet that his policies in Spain had been a grave mistake and warned that they all soon would pay the price.


JAY: But was a blunder—does he see it as a blunder strategically, tactically we could have weakened Germany and Italy then, rather than have such a large-scale war later, versus it was a blunder ’cause I should have understand it was the proper, good thing, democratic good thing to do to support Spain? ‘Cause maybe, again, he didn’t mind so much if this kind of lefty Spain didn’t succeed.

KUZNICK: I think Roosevelt by that point was much more left-leaning. We’re talking about Roosevelt in his second term, and by 1936 the United States had shifted pretty far to the left for the United States. If you look at it, you’ve got a Congress that gets elected in 1936 that’s about as left-leaning a Congress as this country’s ever had.

The Republican right wing had been vanquished. There was really almost nothing left of the Republican—of the right wing in the United States during that time. You’ve got the Duponts and the Morgans and the people who they’re working with who are trying to do whatever they can to revitalize the right wing.

But Roosevelt knew that he didn’t have enemies on the right who he had to contend with at that point, and his policies became much more progressive in a second New Deal. And I think he was commitedly anti-fascist and increasingly anti-colonialist.

That’s another thing that people don’t understand about the Cold War was that it was a tripartite Cold War in the beginning, that you’ve got the United States, you’ve got the Russians, and you’ve got the British. And the United States and the British were not entirely in bed at that point in our history. It’s later that that happens. It does not happen during the Roosevelt period.

JAY: But during the Spanish Civil War—my memory’s only a little vague on this, but I thought there was actual more active intervention, in the sense of making it difficult for the American volunteers to get to Spain.

KUZNICK: Yes. Yes. We had neutrality legislation, which Roosevelt backed.

JAY: Which was very much aimed to stop the support for Spain.

KUZNICK: And it really hurt the republic. It didn’t hurt—it wasn’t balanced legislation, because the right wing forces were getting all the arms and help they needed from Italy and Germany, which made it even—.

JAY: Yeah. I mean, amongst other things, it became a training ground for the German air force. But that speaks to not just, like, being a blunder; it speaks to being part of an outlook that, you know, we want capitalism as enlightened as we can get it, but we are going to suppress anything that smells like socialism.

KUZNICK: I don’t know. I don’t see that in Roosevelt in that period. I don’t see him trying to suppress it because it was leaning left or was socialist. I just see it as a much narrower kind of mistake that he made, but not part of a pattern of trying to repress progressive movements around the world, or in the United States for that matter.

This was a period when Roosevelt was being backed by the Communist Party. This is the popular front in the United States. This is the period when American culture shifted dramatically to the left, when almost every important American writer was either in the Communist Party or in the communist front groups—the same thing in all of the other arts. So it’s a different climate in the United States.

And the Spanish Civil War, the Republican forces became the cause célèbre of the left during this period. And Roosevelt—again, it was partly political, because you had a lot of—he didn’t want to antagonize the Catholic Church, and that was a big mistake on his part, and he didn’t want to—Roosevelt was always very pragmatic, also, as a politician, and that was part of his downfall during this period.

JAY: Okay. Well, one indication of just how different American political culture was was Roosevelt’s choice of vice president in his third term, because to imagine that anyone with that kind of politics became vice president—I should say it’s unimaginable in today’s America.


JAY: So that will be the next segment of our interview with Peter Kuznick. We’re going to pick up the issue of Henry Wallace. And it’s one of the—so far, for me, at least, in the three-part series, this is one of the best parts, the whole deconstruction of the Democratic Party convention where Wallace loses his job as vice president. So join us for the next segment of our series of interviews with Peter Kuznick on The Real News Network.

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