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Arms across the ocean

The Cold War was both an era of armed peace and global violence. The United States and the Soviet Bloc may have avoided the nuclear annihilation that many feared, but the rest of the world saw little peace between 1946 and 1989. The chilling concept of Mutual Assured Destruction added a sinister novelty to what was, in essence, a simple continuation of the geopolitics of imperial rivalry that have been a hallmark of the modern age. Europe was divided, but not in ruins; the actual wars of the Cold War were fought in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, as the United States and the USSR shot at each other by proxy.

In retrospect, the long duration of the Cold War was perhaps not a surprise; but its quick end, when the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union fell with a sudden whoosh, caught many off guard. Grey, dreary, and oppressive, the Soviets nonetheless showed indomitable staying power over the years, crushing dissent when they had to – in Budapest in 1956 or Prague in 1968 – and alternately threatening and courting the West. Though the “war” ended two decades ago, it continues to define our sense of the latter half of the 20th century, and its ideas and stances have not yet ceased to influence the outlook of its former participants. The divisions within the West over the battle against communism remain stark, and the big questions – What accounted for the Soviet downfall? How did the West prevail? – are still a matter for fierce argument among the ageing Cold warriors still with us.

The intensity of these long-distant debates is more than apparent in the maddeningly idiosyncratic new book by the British historian Norman Stone, The Atlantic and its Enemies. As a disinterested general overview of the Cold War, Stone’s book is of dubious value. His account is, as the subtitle explains, “a personal history”. The former Oxford professor of modern history and now director of the Russian-Turkish Center at the University of Bilkent, Turkey, Stone is a legendarily colourful character. (At Oxford, he conducted tutorials over billiards and glasses of Scotch). Vehemently opinionated and mordantly witty, Stone’s personality barrels across the Atlantic at hurricane force. 

His history lessons come with plenty of ad-hominem thunderbolts: John F Kennedy was “a hairdresser’s Harvard man”; “[Jimmy] Carter’s regime symbolised the era. It was desperately well-meaning. It jogged; it held hands everywhere it went with its scrawny wife”; “Nancy Reagan was a face lift too far,” and so on.  

However, such quips distract from the seriousness of Stone’s often trenchant analysis. Stone, who is fluent in Hungarian, Polish, Czech and German among other tongues, is well-equipped to report from the trenches of this global struggle. He is a former speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher (who emerges, unsurprisingly, as the great heroine of this tale), but he is no end-of-history triumphalist. He says Marxism had much to recommend for analysing peasant economies of the postcolonial third world; he just vigorously disagrees with the prescriptions. Though he salutes “the extraordinary vigour of the capitalist world”, one of his themes is how the Western alliance tended to fumble economic issues. For a time, it was the Soviet Union and Communism that seemed to have the answers. 

In the immediate years after the Second World War, the British Empire, exhausted and financially prostrate, surrendered its place as a global power, creating an imperial vacuum into which the United States and the Soviet Union quickly moved – leading Stone to dub the whole mess “the war of the British succession”. The Allies had little claim on checking Stalin, whose armies had suffered immensely in the brutal struggle for the Eastern Front. He would have a sphere of influence in Europe, and his Communist allies in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia took power, however ruthlessly. In Asia, Mao triumphed in China and Ho Chi Minh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. The US contested these advances, in Europe with defence guarantees and monies in the form of the Marshall Plan, and in East Asia with armed interventions on the Korean peninsula and Vietnam. Britain’s last stab at imperial assertion, meanwhile, was the utter disaster at Suez in 1956.

But in Stone’s telling, it is economics, not armaments and military manoeuvres, that take pride of place. His vignettes on the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis have the feel of a school primer. But on the economic issues confronting the West, Stone mounts a bold, if not altogether persuasive, argument. For Stone, the spectre haunting the West was not communism, but Keynsianism. America and Europe boomed through the 1950s and 1960s. In Western Europe, it seemed, social democracy could deliver the goods, literally: France had refrigerators and West Germany, washing machines. “Nato developed its own financial military complex,” he writes, “and the central banks were part of it.”

Still, financial arrangements in the Atlantic world were ever precarious. The dollar – and its crucial adjunct, cheap oil – underpinned the whole system, but by the end of the 1960s, this hard-won stability was starting to break apart. The United States, pouring money into the war in Vietnam and into LBJ’s Great Society programmes, unleashed waves of inflationary pressures that, combined with oil shocks of the 1970s, would bring about a sea change for the Western economies. Inflation was the genie unleashed from the bottle, and getting it back in would vex governments across the Atlantic world.

Reviewing the decade, Stone finds little good to say about this turn in the West. It had become “extraordinarily self-indulgent”. He approves of the coup in Chile that brought Augusto Pinochet to power (with not a little bloodshed) and the economic reforms the General put into place after seizing the presidency.

He commends Helmut Schmidt’s gestures to the USSR and East Germany – the so-called “Ostpolitik” – and generally rhapsodises about the performance of the German economy, but for Britain his scorn is unrelenting. “Since 1815 Germans had been asking why they were not English. After 1950, the question should have been the other way about: why was it preferable to be German?” America’s central partner in the Atlantic alliance was in thrall to the unions – Stone hates them – and spent money ontoo generous a welfare state: “The overall Atlantic crisis was displayed at its worst in England.” (He refers to nationalised industries as “a sort of non-violent protection racket.”) Stone spends a great deal of time in trade ministries looking at currency flows and trade imbalances, but here misses an opportunity to look at the broader intellectual contest about economics and society.

Stone does not have much to say about the social history of these decades, or the ideas that animated it. He is scathing about the student movement of the 1960s – the expansion of universities, he suggests, was a mistake – but he pays very little attention to debates that played out in magazines, journals and op-ed pages. If the Cold War was, in fact, a kind of intramural argument within the West about how best to organise society and politics – whose roots date back to the same Enlightenment – Stone acknowledges it only incidentally, by focusing so relentlessly on the disputes within the capitalist bloc. Thatcher’s heroism, in his account, has less to do with her opposition to communism than her defeat of the moderate Tory “wets” and the unions inside Britain.

His disjointed narrative attains a certain momentum only with the arrival of the Iron Lady, “who knew when to be Circe and when to be the nanny from hell”. Stone is a partisan, and he cheerleads for the supply-side economics favoured by the prime minister and her American partner Ronald Reagan; he approvingly cites Reagan’s quip about the US government, “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidise it.” This, in a nutshell, is what strikes Stone as wrong with the welfare state economics of the West.

Stone’s account ends rather abruptly, with a whimper, not a bang. He hazards no thoughts about the legacies of the Cold War, its metaphysics and the habits of mind it spawned, and their implications for Europe and the rest of the world. For Stone, it is enough to say that the 1980s “had been the most interesting, by far, of the post-war decades”. A united Europe, the crisis in Greece notwithstanding, is a successful by-product of the Cold War’s end; yet the legacy of the Cold War is still, in some senses only coming into shape.

May 29, 2010 Posted by | Cold War, Off Topig | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment