The Atlantic and its Enemies
David Priestland reviews Norman Stone's latest history of the Cold War.
The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War
By Norman Stone
Allen Lane 712pp £30 ISBN 978 18461 42758
Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, according to Norman Stone, is the best guide to the grimness and red tape of post-war Britain and his history of the Cold War is imbued with the spirit of Waugh. Opinionated, engagingly written and with an acute sense of the absurd, he gives us a readable and quirky account of the epic ideological struggle.
Stone’s book is subtitled A Personal History and he approaches his subject as a partisan in the conflict. He ended up in a Czechoslovak prison in 1964 for trying to smuggle a dis-sident out of the country in his car boot – an incident described in Waughish style – and in the 1980s, while Professor of Modern History at Oxford, he became a speech-writer and op-ed cheerleader for Margaret Thatcher.
His story is also structured as a trilogy: in the first part, the US rescues Europe from postwar poverty and lays the ground for the golden age of the 1950s; in the second the rot sets in with Kennedy, Johnson and the big-state liberals of the 1960s and things go further downhill with the ‘babyish revolts’ of 1968 and the union-appeasement of the 1970s; then, finally, Reagan and Thatcher lead a counter-attack, rescue the Atlantic powers and ultimately save the world.
For much of the book, Stone’s Cold War is one of moral certainties. The Atlantic world’s success following the economic decay of the 1970s shows that Thatcher and Reagan were right to be militant: German students do not flock to British universities today ‘because truth is in the middle’. On the other side, there are few, if any, good Communists: Gorbachev is denounced as a windbag (which he was) and a ‘useful idiot’, sent by the Kremlin to ‘soft-soap the West’ (a rather less convincing argument).
However, there is a tension between Stone’s pro-capitalist sympathies and his interest in high culture – a major theme in the book. For he notes, with regret, that Soviet states produced excellent classical music and well-read middle classes, while the victorious free-market has been accompanied by a ‘vulgarisation and coarsening of things’.
In general, then, Stone shares Waugh’s taste in conservatives: he prefers the relaxed Cavaliers to the Roundhead, philistine neo-liberals, ‘the money-mad doctors with rimless spectacles from Pasadena’. Even so, his politics is ultimately rather more Calvinist than the Catholic Waugh’s. Like Thatcher, he is interested in economics and gives a great deal of attention to the role of finance in a way that is rare in histories of the Cold War. August 1971, the end of the dollar-dominated Bretton Woods system, and October 1979, the massive interest-rate hikes that rescued the dollar, are seen as crucial dates in the history of American decline and resurgence.
Stone’s emphasis on finance is refreshing, but his view of the reasons for the crisis of the West in the 1960s and 1970s is perhaps an overly Calvinist one. For Stone, internal failings, both moral and economic, were responsible for Atlantic weakness; the West was guilty of too much spending and too little Smilesian discipline. Once it had purged itself of lily-livered liberalism, it could win. But this ignores the strength of resistance to American dominance from the global ‘South’. Like other over extended empires before it, the US could not impose its rule on the newly decolonised world without its citizens rebelling or its enemies retaliating; Vietnam and the Arab oil boycott were merely symptoms of that weakness.
Ultimately the US did not escape this dilemma through a conservative moral revival. Rather the Communists’ own loss of faith in Communism, in both Deng Xiaoping’s China and Gorbachev’s USSR, delivered victory to the West.
Given Stone’s pugnacity and love of controversy, it is inevitable that readers’ politics will colour their responses to this book. If you share his Cold War conservatism (which I do not), you will not mind his tendency to be softer on anti-Communist violence than Communist violence (for instance in Pinochet’s Chile), or his attacks on welfare states and feminism. Occasionally, though, he does give the Left its due, recognising the achievements of the New Dealers in crafting Marshall Aid.
Stone declares that he is an unashamed triumphalist: ‘The Atlantic won, warts and all.’ But one senses that he is rather disappointed with the world he fought for, dominated as it is by commerce and compromise. In capturing so well the militant temper of the Cold War era, The Atlantic World and its Enemies shows how much the world has changed.
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