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Untold History of Peter Kuznick

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Peter Kuznick with Oliver Stone
Peter Kuznick with Oliver Stone in 2010 at Kuznick's history class

AU history professor Peter Kuznick recently talked about his background in radical politics and the upcoming 10-part documentary The Untold History of the United States, which he worked on with Academy Award–winning director Oliver Stone, whose films include Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, and Born on the Fourth of July. The companion book to the series will be released October 30; the documentary begins airing on Showtime on November 12. Kuznick is the author of Beyond the Laboratory: Scientists as Political Activists in 1930s America and coeditor of Rethinking Cold War Culture. He also coauthored two books in Japanese: Rethinking the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Nuclear Power and Hiroshima. In addition, he wrote a historical screenplay for Stone titled Lost Cause, which has not yet been produced.

Kuznick, director of the Nuclear Studies Institute, which was founded in 1995 and sponsors an annual study abroad class that takes students to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, led the opposition to the Smithsonian Institution’s 2003 plan to display the Enola Gay, the B-29 that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, without discussing the historical and ethical controversies surrounding the bomb’s use or providing context on the devastation and suffering the bomb caused.

Stone will join Kuznick on November 7 at AU to preview an episode from the series and discuss the book and their research. Their presentation will be at 8 p.m. in Ward 2.

You’ve had a long history of involvement in radical politics.

Well, I grew up in a very politically aware family. And my earliest lessons in history and morality revolved around the Holocaust. More than half my relatives were killed in the Holocaust. As I listened to the stories, especially from my grandmother, my mother’s mother who was also quite politically active after coming here from Russia, I grew up with the sense that the worst thing you could ever do was to be indifferent to cruelty, to suffering, to injustice. And I grew up with the idea of the “good Germans” as epitomizing what one was not supposed to be like. My mother was active in civil rights and antiwar activities, and I would go with her to meetings when I was pretty young. I joined the NAACP when I was 12 and the Congress for Racial Equality when I was 13, and so I had the reputation of being quite liberal in junior high and high school.

Most 12-years-old boys in those days were busy playing baseball.

I was too. That’s why I could get by with being radical without being ostracized. Because I was also playing baseball and basketball and tennis. If you were a jock and you fit in socially then people were much more tolerant of your views, although in high school it didn’t always work. There were tense moments. My high school at that time was all white, which was not uncommon on Long Island [in 1965]. And when I brought an African American girl to a dance that created a lot of tension. But for the most part I would just get comments in my high school yearbook like “If you could form your politics as well as you shoot a basketball, you’d be in much better shape.” One of my nicknames was “Spade.” And these were my friends.

[At Rutgers University] I stayed very active, joining SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) before classes started my freshman year. I felt, however, that SDS’s appeal was too limited and too narrow. So I started another anti-war organization that would have a broader appeal. We called it the Rutgers-Douglass Committee of Conscience, and right from the first semester there were 200 people at meetings. Through that and other efforts, I was very active in the antiwar movement throughout my college years.

The Vietnam War was very important in your political consciousness. You’ve mentioned before that few of your students realize how many Vietnamese died in the war. Did learning that surprise you?

Yes, it’s shocking. When I ask my students, even my honor students, how many Vietnamese died in the war, they often say 100,000, sometimes a half million. Very rarely more than that. And then when I tell them Robert McNamara, when he came into class, told my students that he accepts the fact that 3.8 million Vietnamese died in the war, I ask my students to reflect upon that. Then I also ask them how many Jews died in the Holocaust. And to a person they all come up with the figure 6 million. And I ask what that says to them that they all know how many victims there were of an atrocity committed by another country but they have no idea of the number of victims of the atrocities committed by their own country.

Is it ever difficult being a radical teacher whose students may not share your political philosophy?

I’ve always had good rapport with my conservative students. I respect them for having the courage to stand up for their beliefs in an environment in which their views are in the minority. That’s especially true on our campus where the students and professors tend to be more liberal.

So why did you decide to get involved in this project with Oliver Stone?

I was excited by the prospect of having a platform for discussing history, and the lessons of history, not just with 20 or 50 or 100 students at a time, but with literally millions of people was very exciting. The documentary and book will be out all over the world. The book is even being sold in places like Walmart, Costco, and Sam’s Club. As a historian one almost never gets a chance to reach that many people. And I’m appreciative of the fact that of all the people in the country who Oliver could have asked to do this with him, he approached me.

Do you have the feeling your life is going to fundamentally change after this project?

Yes, hopefully it changes for the better. It’s interesting to me that since my focus so much for the past four plus years has been on this project, it’s almost consumed my identity, my sense of who I am. I go to bed and wake up in the morning thinking about it, every spare moment I have, studying, reading, researching. And it’s been a great project in another way. Eight of my grad students have worked on it, mostly as paid researchers, and I’ve had a lot of input from other graduate students and some undergraduates who have assisted in other ways. And I couldn’t have done this without my History Department colleagues. It’s an enormous project.

You mentioned earlier that Oliver Stone considers The Untold History of the United States his most important accomplishment, his legacy. Do you feel that way for yourself?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve done a lot of other things that I’m proud of, more strictly scholarly work. My Nuclear Studies Institute is something that’s very much a part of me. But yes, I see this as the culmination of 25 years of teaching. All those lectures that I’ve been giving my students over the years, all the messages I’m trying to convey. I don’t see teaching as a neutral, objective act. As my mentor, Warren Susman, who was the pioneer of American cultural history, one of the very great teacher/scholars of his time, said to us years ago, teaching is an act of persuasion, of engaging with students, and of trying to convince them of a certain interpretation of history. And that’s what I feel like I’m engaged in as a teacher. And now with this project, Oliver and I are trying to broaden that audience and spark a national conversation about where this country has been in the past and what it might become in the future.