The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War

August 5, 2010

Norman Stone's "personal history of the Cold War" is an informative, entertaining and often provocative account of world affairs from the fall of Winston Churchill in 1945 to that of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. The familiar landmarks are here: confrontations over Berlin; open warfare in Korea and Vietnam; the Cuban Missile Crisis; and the tensions of the 1980s over Poland and Afghanistan. Stone's book has the great merit of placing these issues in the truly global context of relations between "East", "West" and the "Third World": he goes into great detail, for instance, on the affairs of Latin America and Turkey, the country in which he is now employed.

Stone's account of international politics is enhanced by his penetrating interpretation of the internal forces at work in the major powers concerned, particularly the US and the Soviet Union, and his confident grasp of economics, which allows him to explore the political impact of oil-price increases or international monetary flows. Looking at the postwar world in the broad sweep of history (and he often sweeps back very far indeed), he summarises some of the main trends by cleverly suggesting that the Cold War period saw "the War of the British Succession", with Washington and Moscow competing to take the place of the prewar world's leading power.

This theme could have been explored more systematically in relation to the UK's withdrawal from Africa, from the area "East of Suez", and later from Hong Kong. He exaggerates when he asserts that Britain made a great comeback to international prestige and influence under his heroine Thatcher: one of her concluding actions, her wilful refusal to accept German reunification in 1989 (on which Stone says very little), took an isolated UK into the sidelines as the Cold War ended.

Readers familiar with Stone's reputation may have feared that his "personal history" would place himself at the centre of events, in effect saying "l'Atlantique, c'est moi", but the autobiographical passages are limited to a detailed account of his prison sentence in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and a few academic reminiscences. He does refer in passing to his experience as a speechwriter for Thatcher, and when he tells us that in one of her speeches she mocked the "multilingual parliament" of pre-1914 Austria, it is not hard to guess who should get the credit for it (if "credit" is the right word). There is certainly something personal about Stone's occasional sideswipes at his academic elders - Hugh Trevor-Roper, Fernand Braudel, Hannah Arendt, J.K. Galbraith and E.H. Carr - and, persistently, Lord Carrington.

Unsurprisingly, in such an erudite and wide-ranging book (where else would we learn that in the 1980s, Russian productions of La Traviata were abridged, lest all that drinking encourage public alcoholism?), there are a few little slips. The European institution that merged in 1967 with the Economic Community and the Atomic Energy Community was not the European Defence Community (this had died in 1954), but the Coal and Steel Community. It is misleading to suggest that the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe only "assembled in Helsinki in 1975": this Helsinki summit meeting was merely the formal conclusion of the CSCE's two-year-long negotiations, conducted almost entirely in Geneva. And the composer Arnold Schoenberg's link with the University of California was not with Berkeley, as Stone suggests, but with the university's other major campus, at Los Angeles.

Some of the judgements in this impressive book will provoke dissent, but the author has generously provided a comprehensive bibliography of other studies, some of which offer interpretations different from his own.

The Atlantic and its Enemies: A Personal History of the Cold War

By Norman Stone Allen Lane, 712pp, £30.00 ISBN 97818461458. Published 6 May 2010

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