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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

“The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War”, by Norman Stone

712 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465020430

Norman Stone’s book The Atlantic and Its Enemies: A History of the Cold War brings that lamented conflict to life through detailed and penetrating descriptions of everything from the ruins of Germany to Ronald Reagan’s White House, all with a wonderfully waspish turn of phrase; i.e.: Nikita Khrushchev, unlike his colleagues, “did indeed have a human face, though pachydermic”; or this lyrically surreal description of the funeral of the Haitian president “Papa Doc” Duvalier in 1971:

He lay in state in the presidential palace for rather too long, given the heat and the power cut, and was then escorted to a vast mausoleum. There were some alarms in the crowd as it shuffled through the dust and the ruts…the wooden balconies, overloaded with spectators, sometimes let out pistol-like cracks; and a little gust of wind, a miniature tornado, suddenly swept the street rubbish into a column.

Often relying on first-hand observation, Stone captures, in the manner of a novelist, the fleeting epiphanies that accompany public events, and by the end of this book you will have learned a great deal about Europe, about the Cold War, and about Stone himself. But the book has a rather careless air about it; the prose reads as if it had been dictated rather than written and was then sent straight to the printers; the word “besides” appears with alarming frequency as a way of linking page-long paragraphs; colloquialisms that would be charming once become grating and lazy when you meet them page after page; episodes that normally count as rather important – such as the Polish shipyard strikes in 1980 – pass in a blur, whereas hobby-horses such as the decline of British universities get an energetic ride.

But this rather adds to its charm: it is as if you are not reading a bone-dry epistle about a long-dead conflict, but rather that you are in the midst of a dinner party full of historians – amateur and professional – discussing-and-debating this-and-that over wine and hors-d’oeuvres, with facts, anecdotes, bons mots and sparkling insights swirling past in a bewildering but entertaining array. The conversation continues on a punt, then on a brisk walk, then over tea, which slips into (more) wine and hors-d’oeuvres, and afterwards a splendiferous “high table” dinner. Late at night you wobble through the darkened streets, still talking, feeling pleasantly at one with the world. It is great fun, but no substitute for actually studying history. It is entertaining history, sure to cause arguments heartburn, sure, but anything but boring.

A beguiling mix of grand narrative and autobiographical vignettes, The Atlantic and Its Enemies is the one book that anyone who wants to understand the Cold War as it developed must read. Using his vast but lightly worn learning, Stone conjures up the winter of 1946-47, the Marshall Plan, the death of Stalin, Khrushchev and Berlin-Cuba-Vietnam, the Sixties, Nixon in China, “The British disease”, Reagan and Thatcher, the collapse of communism and the non-ending of history that ensued. Pretty much everything of importance that transpired during these years is covered, with extensive sections also devoted to Turkey (where the author now lives). Perhaps the most annoying of all is the lack of a conclusion: the book ends with a garbled account of the downfall of Margaret Thatcher and the limp observation that the 1980s were by far the most interesting part of the post-war era. In spite of that, however, this is a grand and glorious history of perhaps the most misunderstood and misrepresented conflicts in history, one the Western Democracies won hands-down – but which doesn’t feel that way.

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