The Atlantic and its Enemies Norman Stone

Allen Lane, pp.599, 30

Norman Stone forsook the chair of modern history at Oxford university for Ankara after realising that the ‘conversation at high tables would generally have made the exchanges in the bus- stop in the rain outside seem exhilarating’.

Norman Stone forsook the chair of modern history at Oxford university for Ankara after realising that the ‘conversation at high tables would generally have made the exchanges in the bus- stop in the rain outside seem exhilarating’. Dur- ing an earlier incarnation at Cambridge, Stone taught a galaxy of historians. His protégés include David Blackbourn, Harald James and Richard Overy, followed by Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, all bar two now working at Harvard or Princeton. During the 1980s Margaret Thatcher judged Stone one of the outstanding minds in England, his talents as evident in his long run as a Sunday columnist as in books. In the interim, he has become a passionate advocate for Turkey against a very powerful Armenian diaspora.

The Atlantic and its Enemies derives much of its fascination from being an intellectual autobiography concealed within a major history book. A lengthy note vividly retells one of Stone’s scrapes, which landed him in a Czechoslovak jail for trying to help someone flee. Throughout, he alludes to various unmemorable Sixties books and the occasional film. Otherwise, his cultural tastes are conventionally donnish: Russian pianists and Wagner, with far less on art or literature (except Balzac and Dickens). He must be an outstanding raconteur, judging from the random by-ways he so frequently explores.

The book focuses on the fate of the European Great Powers from 1945 to 1991 or thereabouts, with the US and other parts of the world, notably Chile and Turkey, more or less successfully riveted on. Like any good historian, Stone knows about the phenomenon of the benign coup, from the shades of General Schleicher onwards, though he knows too much about Turkey to make it readily comprehensible in the way he does with Korea or Vietnam.

The book’s importance is to remind us that the Cold War was an active contest, whose outcome was by no means certain. Stone seeks to occupy some of the ground contested by Eric Hobsbawm and Paul Johnson — the historical equivalents of Godzilla and King Kong — into which Tony Judt strayed a few years ago with a book more ponderously sanctimonious than this sparkling effort.

Stone does not mention Judt, possibly because of his declared animus against historians with beards, one of the occasionally eccentric admissions that startle the reader should his eyes be closing amidst a discussion of 1970s commodity prices. In further regards this is history as anti-soporific. A positive example of Stone’s lack of political correctness involves the notorious footage of Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a Viet Cong prisoner during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His better nature reports that the victim had just murdered some of Loan’s men, before slitting the throats of their wives and children.

Stone does not mess around with nuance in the cases of figures he dislikes. Take his account of the Carter presidency:

Inline sub2


Carter’s regime symbolised 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.

Some of the pithier characterisations are equally accurate and amusing: John F. Kennedy was ‘a hairdresser’s Harvard man’; Edward Heath ‘a hapless and virginal figure’; Roy Jenkins ‘a masterpiece of reproduction furniture’, and moral philosopher Mary Warnock ‘a porphyrogenita of the long-bottomed- knicker progressive Edwardian world’, her habit of talking with her eyes pursed possibly being more irritating than her undergarments and Establishment connectedness.

Those he admires — Charles de Gaulle, Helmut Schmidt or Augusto Pinochet — are less vividly evoked than Ataturk, who lies outside his period. Stone’s judgments of men occasionally falter, or are inserted for gratuitous offence, as in the case of Taki. He caricatures Peter Carrington as ‘an appeaser’, but in fact, unlike the Professor, Lord Carrington won a Military Cross at Nijmegen in early 1945 and was a distinguished minister.

Giddy summary is less successful in the case of complex global processes. Experts on the end of empire, such as John Darwin or Ronald Hyam, may baulk at Stone’s shorthand description of decolonisation:

Identification of least unpalatable power-wielder; minor member of royal family declares country open; Union Jack wobbles down masthead, cock-feathered-hatted governor at the salute; a few tears here and there; old hands stay on to manage schools; new hands arrive; native dances begin; new flag wobbles up; new anthem is sung; parliamentary mace is handed over; mayhem begins.

Mayhem is not a term one associates with Singapore.

As they say in academe, a few errors have crept in: pieds noirs refers to the Algerian colonists’ shiny black shoes, not feet blackened by crushing red grapes; and Hitler’s favourite film was Lives of a Bengal Lancer rather than Gone with the Wind.

Stone is most authoritative on the countries between Germany and Russia, including those powers themselves. On this vast area he excels, leaving those of us of a more Italo- or Hispanophile disposition feeling slightly short-changed amidst the earnest heaviness of it all. He evokes Central Europe’s tatter- demalion post-war plight well, since he seems to know every Bratislava or Budapest back alley, as these countries slipped into the iron grip of sundry Stalinists, many of them radicalised Jews burning with cynicism and self-righteousness, like Jakub Berman or Matyas Rakosi. Their modus operandi is worth repeating:

Packing key committees with their own placemen, putting essential details into the small print, preventing opponents from attending meetings, deploying boring and lengthy speeches as a way of emptying a hall of moderate opponents and then taking a snap vote, provided they had the chairman in their pocket.

Many of the same methods were evident among the student radicals of the 1960s, who have since gone on to colonise higher education on both sides of the Atlantic, for the secular decline of the western Academy is another of Stone’s strong suits. One can almost smell the tax-payer-funded accidie, relativistic corruption, and enthusiasm for anyone who hates our civilisation.

At the heart of the book lies the decline that Atlantic civilisation underwent in the 1960s and 1970s, the latter decade evoked with an absence of nostalgia one might bring to a distant nervous breakdown. A huge Soviet navy patrolled the oceans and various Red Afrikakorps meddled on that continent and elsewhere, while West Germany dallied with the old Rapallo dream of neutralism, otherwise known as Ostpolitik. As a participant, Stone skilfully evokes the intellectual excitement of the Reagan/Thatcher 1980s; he exuding a silky Californian version of patrician charm, she bothering every laggard with her handbag and peremptory manner.

His accounts of the British miners’ and printers’ strikes are compelling and unsentimental, with due credit given to Nigel Lawson, Ian MacGregor and Rupert Murdoch, though not, apparently, Norman Tebbit, a central hero, one recalls, of that decade. How tragic that in the ensuing two decades their legacy was nullified by New Labour statism, while economic power has migrated to Brazil, Russia, India and China. 

Despite the endless by-ways, Stone has produced a powerful alternative to the Left ‘liberal’ reading of Cold War history, without sounding in the least triumphalist. If a Conservative government plans to teach anything more than the da
tes of kings and queens, Stone’s book would be a provocative and rewarding guide. Who knows? It might also circulate as samizdat in our universities, should anyone still feel the need for a few of them after reading this book.

Michael Burleigh’s latest book, Moral Combat: A History of World War II, is published next month by Harper Press.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: 20th Century, America, History, Military, Non-fiction, Politics