A Cool Look at the Cold War
Book Review

The Cold War is rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror of history, with the current war (if you are a conservative) or "long twilight struggle" (if you are a liberal) against radical Islam having replaced it as the preoccupation of political leaders and intellectuals. The Left isn't as interested in disputing or revising our understanding of the Cold War as it once was. All the basic elements of the Cold War story are now well known; barring the unlikely revelation from a still-secret American or Russian source, there is seemingly not much new to say about the matter.

Given this state of affairs, is there room or need for Norman Stone's new history of the Cold War? The answer is a surprisingly strong yes. Stone, the veteran British journalist and historian, has produced an original interpretative narrative that is idiosyncratic and downright odd in places. (The British edition of the book bears a different and more suggestive subtitle: "A Personal History of the Cold War.") His chronology jumps around, requiring concentration on the part of the reader. He omits a lot of familiar greatest hits: Where are Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech, Kennan's "long telegram" and containment doctrine, Reagan's "evil empire" speech, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and the climactic stare-down with Gorbachev at Reykjavik? Stone downplays the ideological dimension of the East-West conflict, and does not spend much time noting the Left's sympathy for Communism. The "enemies of the Atlantic" referenced in the title were not so much mendacious as idiotic. Yet it is precisely Stone's departures from the standard political-diplomatic themes that enable him to offer a fresh and provocative perspective on events we might have thought thoroughly familiar.

One of the beguiling charms of Stone's narrative is the way in which his cool, understated prose bursts from the page at piquant moments, especially when describing the defects of political leaders of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Atlantic and Its Enemies is perhaps best described as an economic and cultural history of the Cold War from a Eurocentric perspective. Although he sets up his narrative by suggesting the Cold War ought to be understood as "the War of the British Succession" (which superpower would inherit the worldwide British empire?) and gives his due to the United States ("the United States, in it all, was the great creative force"), his main focus throughout is on Europe and some of the peripheral nations of the developing world, such as Egypt, Turkey, and Chile. Although he is properly respectful of Ronald Reagan, Stone's three leading heroes are Margaret Thatcher, Charles de Gaulle, and Helmut Schmidt.

The focus on Europe is a useful complement to the bipolar approach to the Cold War more familiar to American readers. Stone takes us back to the hard winter of 1946-47, when the economy of Europe was still very weak and tenuous, with near-starvation conditions in Germany. The U.S., this time willing to step up to the challenge of holding Europe together, stepped in with the Marshall Plan, which Stone judges was "enormously successful." Whereas most narratives of the Marshall Plan tend to portray it as merely a giant Keynesian welfare-stimulus program, Stone's narrative gets into the details of how the Marshall Plan was integrated into the larger project of restoring Europe's economic foundations, creating the "European Phoenix" out of the ashes.

Today the "European project" of economic and political integration is taken for granted, even if the euro, first contemplated in the Marshall Plan days, looks a little shaky at the moment. In addition to his fine-grained details of the reconstruction of basic industries, the stabilization of currencies, and the revival of trade between European nations, Stone reminds us that making Germany respectable again was the key to the European project and the creation of the NATO alliance. The success of modern Germany was by no means assured in the late 1940s, and Stone singles out Ludwig Erhard's market liberalization, as well as that of the framers of West Germany's post-war political structure--"wise men of the Philadelphia class," Stone judges. By contrast, East Germany's status, culminating in the Berlin Wall, was a perpetual embarrassment to Communism--"a slow-acting embolism in the entire arterial system of European Communism. In that sense the West had won," even though it took more than a generation to consummate the victory.

Despite the creation of a stable Europe with a durable anti-Soviet alliance in the space of a few years after the war, the Soviets had reason for their surging confidence in the 1950s and 1960s, after Khrushchev succeeded Stalin. "Khrushchev was of just the generation to think that Communism would triumph, worldwide," Stone observes, even if it was hated in most places where it ruled and required tyranny to maintain its hold on power. Soviet high culture seemed richer than Western culture, and the Soviets were rushing to fill the vacuum in the Third World where Western empire was crumbling. For a time the Soviets seemed more technologically dynamic: Sputnik "was the calling card of Communism."

Although the U.S. rose to the challenge of Sputnik, the space race was about the only arena in the 1960s and 1970s where the U.S. bested the Soviet Union. Stone gives a mordant survey of the rot that beset the West in that period, notably the American failure in Vietnam. But as in the early chapters, Stone is at his best in describing the economic rot, as the U.S. let inflation run away and the dollar's stability collapse, with baleful consequences worldwide. Stone blames the hubris of liberal economists: "Economists of the younger generation were convinced that they were legislators for mankind, and even that they had abolished all problems. . . . The essence of the Sixties was the belief that there were easy answers, so long as grumbling old men got out of the way."

One of the beguiling charms of Stone's narrative is the way in which his cool, understated prose bursts from the page at piquant moments, especially when describing the defects of political leaders of the 1960s and 1970s. He dismisses John F. Kennedy as "a hairdresser's Harvard man," and is scarcely more impressed with Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. The unraveling of America (what Paul Johnson elsewhere called "America's suicide attempt") that commenced under Johnson and Nixon left America "at its witches-of-Salem weirdest." The less said about Britain's Edward Heath the better. Stone's most splendidly contemptuous prose is reserved for Jimmy Carter: "Carter's regime symbolized the era. It was desperately well-meaning. It jogged; it held hands everywhere it went with its scrawny wife; it prayed, Baptist-fashion; it banned smoking where it could; it sent bossy women to preach human rights in places where bossy women were regarded as an affront to them." The Carter administration invited mostly contempt because Carter "was rather stupid." (Stone obviously isn't a member of the Nobel Prize committee.)

But even as matters continued to deteriorate in the U.S., both the U.S. and the U.K. were experiencing "tissue regeneration under all of this," culminating in the elections of Thatcher (who "meant business, at last") and Reagan a year later. Stone clearly esteems Thatcher the higher of the two, calling her the most able prime minister since David Lloyd George, with the ability to know "when to be Circe and when to be the nanny from hell." His reading of Reagan is fuzzier. Stone credits Reagan with having correct perception of the political and economic crisis of the moment, and with the insight and determination to challenge the Soviet Union directly, but Stone goes astray in understanding Reagan as "a Nixon with charm." Stone's overall reading of the 1980s is pitch-perfect, rebutting the liberal slogan about a "decade of greed." Although Stone judges that both the "Reagan revolution" and the "Thatcher revolution" were "something of an illusion," as government taxes and spending continued to grow despite the two leaders' intention to reverse this, he concludes that "no two decades could have been more different [than the 1970s and the 1980s]. . . . The Eighties had been a magnificent counter-attack: Just when the enemy thought it had won, its ammunition dump had exploded."

Stone thinks "the most interesting question about 1981 is why it did not foresee 1989," though, throughout, he notes the intellectual inertia of Western Soviet-watchers, himself included. (He makes several mea culpas in this regard.) Stone thinks the Afghan invasion of 1979 was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, a bookend of sorts with the British decision in 1947 to quit Greece, which "was the pebble, announcing an avalanche." He is unimpressed with Gorbachev, whom he calls "the last useful idiot," and though "obviously a decent man," not really a revolutionary figure as everyone liked to claim. He thinks even less of Boris Yeltsin, calling him "another of those sinister clowns whom Russian history throws up."

If Stone's narrative eschews some of the rhetorical triumphalism of other Cold War narratives, he nonetheless thinks the end of the Cold War "was an Atlantic hour" and "was quite well managed," making the 1980s "the most interesting, by far, of the post-war decades." Here and there are hints and foreshadowings of the present condition of the Atlantic world, raising the implicit question of whether our current leaders are equal in strength or ideas to those of the Reagan-Thatcher-Schmidt era. There are many other subplots (including a rollicking account of Stone's own brief imprisonment in Czechoslovakia in 1968) and themes, such as the self-inflicted debasement of European higher education, that further distinguish Stone's approach and make The Atlantic and Its Enemies a worthy addition to the essential Cold War canon. Add it to your shelf.

Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhauser Fellow at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Steven F.
Hayward
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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