The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War, by Norman Stone, Allen Lane £30, 688 pages FT Bookshop price: £24
Pedantic historians are just one of Norman Stone’s targets in this swashbuckling survey of the cold war. Perhaps the most brilliant Europeanist of his generation, a man with an intimate knowledge of at least half a dozen countries, and the languages to match, he serves the reader a spicier fare than the pabulums provided by his more cautious brethren.
Stone remains a Thatcherite and reading his book is to be transported back into the 1980s, when the golden couple – Thatcher and Reagan – seemed to reinvigorate the Atlantic alliance. Stone’s political views seem little changed from the days when he doubled as newspaper columnist and occasional adviser to No 10.
He portrays the late 1940s as an age of great promise when titans ruled the west, got Europe back on its feet and kept the commies behind the Iron Curtain. According to Stone, the rot set in with the indulgences of the 1960s, rampant Marxist chic on the campuses and Keynesian arrogance in the ministries. The 1970s are depicted as one long wallow in the Slough of Despond, with Jimmy Carter and Edward Heath running the asylum either side of the Atlantic, the picture brightened only by timely military coups in Chile and Turkey. Thank goodness then for the 1980s, which saw Atlanticist virtues rediscovered by the grocer’s daughter and the movie actor.
This book is less personal than opinionated, and its version of the rise, fall and rise again of the Atlantic alliance is familiar. Externally there are Them – the communist bloc allied with various unpleasant Third World dictatorships – and Us in the west. At home, there are sensible types who understand how the world works – businessmen and monetarists – and those who think society can be improved and are eventually disillusioned.
If Stone’s politics are not your cup of tea, you can still enjoy the spray of the flame-thrower. Khrushchev had “a human face, though pachydermic”; Nancy Reagan was “a facelift too far”. As for Camelot, “almost everything to do with JF Kennedy was false”.
But the breeziness of tone can also make the author sound less knowledgeable than he is. Can the entire Middle East (Israel and Turkey excepted) really have been run by “megalomaniacs”? Surely Mohammed’s first enemies were the idolators, not the Jews? A few of his sweeping summaries remind one of the British spoof history, 1066 and All That. Yet there are brilliant images and insights too.
One exception to the overall Atlanticist perspective is provided by the treatment of Turkey. This is a country Stone knows well and now works in, and his frequent discussions of its postwar transformation give a vivid sense of how differently the Soviet-American antagonism looked to people outside the main arena.
A different view of the cold war to Stone’s is emerging, one less centred on Europe and more conscious of the limits of Soviet global power. Even so, Stone is always entertaining. In 10 highly readable pages, he shifts gear and humorously narrates his own cold war entanglements. He had found himself roped into a madcap plot to smuggle out a dissident – a distinguished Hungarian ineffectively concealed beneath a glamorous, fur-coated Mitteleuropa journalist. The border guards noticed and Stone got first-hand experience of Slovak jail. Here is a glimpse of the personal history promised in the subtitle, and it left me wanting much more. Of how many historians can one say that?
Mark Mazower is the author of ‘No Enchanted Palace: the End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations’ (Princeton)