Publication Date

October 1, 1997

Oliver Stone's film, Nixon, was the subject of a panel at the 1997 AHA annual meeting in New York City. On Saturday evening, January 4, approximately 800 people crowded into one of the largest ballrooms of the Hilton Hotel-a big surprise given the Big Apple’s alternative entertainment and artistic options. (Many arrived an hour in advance of the session to assure priority seating.)

As the audience filled the room, John O'Connor, Rutgers University professor and film historian, pointed out a number of eminent people: Ray Browne, founder of the Popular Culture Association and the American Culture Association; Joel Colton, historian and former chair of the Humanities Division, Rockefeller Foundation; Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame; George Plimpton, editor of the Paris Review and dilettante sportif; Libby H. O’Connell of The History Channel; and Mike Briggs, editor in chief of the University Press of Kansas. There were both young and old faces in the crowd.

Peter Rollins introduced the session with a short update on Film & History, explaining that the journal has convened such meetings as the Oliver Stone session for the last 25 years and mapping out future issues of the journal, issues on the West, World War II, Oliver Stone as historian, the medieval era in film, television as historian, and Cuba on film. Rollins introduced the chair of the session, Robert Brent Toplin of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, making sure to mention Toplin’s new book, History by Hollywood (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996), a collection of essays for the classroom which includes an excellent essay on Stone’s JFK.

Robert Taplin delivered a succinct and balanced introduction to the session, conceding that there was considerable controversy, but praising Stone for having the intestinal fortitude to show up for such a session. This introduction contained sufficient detail to bring the audience up to date on the Stone oeuvre and to set an academic tone for the meeting.

Oliver Stone spoke about his understanding of history and his role as a popular historian. He cited President Eisenhower as a major source and defended his attack on "the beast" that controls our lives-big business, big government, big media. The audience listened with respect, although Stone's conspiratorial interpretations often drew suppressed disagreement. (Most members of the audience seemed to be impressed by Stone's sincerity and his willingness to come before a professional audience.)

George McGovern, former presidential candidate and a personage in Nixon, gave an eloquent presentation in which he both praised and criticized the film. McGovern took quite a bit of time to comment on the innocence of Alger Hiss within the context of condemning Richard Nixon. This defense was rather impassioned, particularly in the light of recent information about the Hiss case. This paean to the late former State Department employee seemed misplaced and out of focus-yet, again, the sincerity of the delivery carried the audience.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Pulitzer Prizewinner and Kennedy historian, applied some methodological criteria to Nixon, again coming up with some positives and some negatives about the film.

Among the questions addressed at the session were the following:

  • Would Kennedy have extricated us from Vietnam? Stone and Schlesinger agreed that he would have done so. (Stone remains adamant about his conspiracy theory: a few powerful people with munitions interests or right-wing views were behind the assassination. Schlesinger believes that Kennedy was too wise to become bogged down in a Vietnam quagmire.)
  • Was there a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, and was Nixon somehow involved? Both McGovern and Schlesinger scoffed at the idea, citing the porous nature of Washington's security system-hard data would have been "leaked" somewhere along the way. Stone was adamant about "the beast" and its inexorable and secretive activities. Both Stone and McGovern cited the famous scene at the Lincoln Memorial in Nixon. There, a young girl tells the President that even he is powerless to change the system-that he, too, is a victim of the juggernaut of “the military-industrial complex” (that is, “the beast”).
  • Was Nixon a fascinating and enigmatic character? All agreed; and all agreed also that Stone and Anthony Hopkins did a wonderful job in evoking the multiple facets of the man. McGovern went on to describe a post-Watergate Nixon who (according to McGovern) was milder, wiser, and more circumspect.

The Film & History panel was a great success! At a closed reception afterward, one-on-one discussions explored issues in greater depth.

C-SPAN has been showing its recording of this panel meeting. Those who missed the opportunity to view (and tape) the session are not totally at a loss. The two hours of television can be purchased from C-SPAN at its Purdue University Archive. Check for details at the Film & History web site:

Subscription information, recent book/film reviews, and 24 years of tables of contents are there, too.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.