Now in Paperback: The Atlantic and Its Enemies
by Norman Stone
Basic Books, 2012
In all the world, only Professor Norman Stone could have written The Atlantic and Its Enemies (now out in paperback from Basic Books), and this is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The book purports to be a history, in nearly 700 pages, of the 20th Century in the aftermath of the Second World War (the first chapter opens with a panoramic and very effective evocation of the catastrophic winter that clamped down on all of Europe in 1946-47, commerce stalled, houses freezing, rations meager), and yet it has no notes and only the most cursory ‘suggested reading’ afterword. The book dresses to be girded in facts and proportions, but the reader isn’t twenty pages in before the intensely personal nature of the whole thing becomes clear. “A Russian in New York asked, in bewilderment, why is it that, with a system of education five times better, we have an economy five times worse?” Stone relishes. “In this book, I have tried to answer such questions. The Atlantic won, warts and all.”
That viewpoint of win-lose (telegraphed in the book’s combative title) single-interpretation episodic drive is more natural to the stemwinding rant than it is to objective scholarly history, and although that distinction is probably important to maintain (being an ardent admirer of both Tacitus and Ronald Syme, I’ve never been entirely convinced), it goes a long way to explain why the Common Reader tends to steer clear of objective scholarly history. In the last three years, I’ve read three books that covered roughly the same historical territory as The Atlantic and Its Enemies, and in all three cases, I’ve had to compensate heavily with fried potatoes and Star Trek novels. Stone’s book has no scholarly apparatus, but it’s a sheer joy to read.
His knowledge is encyclopedic (perhaps a touch too encylopedic when it comes to the subject of Turkey, where he’s obviously spent a great deal of time – a bit of disproportion creeps in), but even when he’s rattling off facts, there’s likely to be a stinger of controversy, like the one that comes at the end of a quick (and slightly daft) summary of the Vietnam War:
The disaster was clear: America was losing, and doing so at much cost. There were to be nearly 50,000 battle deaths, over 150,000 cases of wounds severe enough for hospital, and over 2,000 missing. Two million Americans saw service in Vietnam but even then it was a selective business: conscription (‘the draft’) was theoretically universal, but in practice seldom hit young men who could ask for a deferment on grounds of education, and education was a very broad church. The army took a dim view of homosexuals and exempted them: there were volunteers for that.
The military, social, and especially economic dimensions of the many-sided international tension that arose from the ruins of the Second World War and eventually solidified into the Cold War are here given a thorough – and thoroughly individual – going-over. All the familiar figures from the era walk across Stone’s stage, and the procession is thrilling, since Stone’s own narrative volatility guarantees surprises. This is like reading Robert Hughes on art; Stone is always sharp, always ebulliently descriptive. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, for instance, “talked as if she had a carriage-shift bell in her larynx,” Nancy Reagan is referred to as “a facelift too far,” and a notorious opponent of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gets the full, funny treatment:
A high point of such criticism occurred when Dame Mary Warnock, a porphyrogenita of the long-bottomed-knicker progressive Edwardian world, mother of five, philosopher called to any committee requiring pronouncements as to public morality, headmistress of a famous school but also wife of the Oxford Vice-Chancellor, was interviewed about Mrs Thatcher. She did not have much to contribute as to privatization or the money supply, and the high point came with a strangled ‘that voice … those hats.’
Naturally, this approach can sometimes go badly off the rails, and the reader of The Atlantic and Its Enemies must beware of such howlers (as, for example, when President Eisenhower is casually referred to as “much better read” than President Kennedy, which would only be true if we were talking about the backs of cereal boxes) – they are the price of admission to the party, but they and their broader narrative siblings probably disqualify this book for first-time readers on the subject. Despite its long-rooted foregrounding, Stone’s book is really a passionate argument about comparatively very recent history, an argument mainly meant to be had with other people who lived through the years in question and have headline-derived opinions of them. This history is intensely readable throughout its length, but it truly comes alive when Stone’s dealing with the 1980s, and the center of its controversy will always be President Ronald Reagan.
Stone is that rarest of rare birds, a professional historian who’s also a Reagan fan. He maintains that despite their many flaws, Reagan and Thatcher represented something vital and perhaps courageous slowly coming to birth in the ember days of Communism, and in light of that importance, Stone is willing to be slightly merciful:
In his way, Reagan was a Nixon with charm, for he did not lock himself away, like Nixon, and there was an element of steel as well, in the sense that he knew that the United States represented something. He had charisma, such that people around him delivered, without quite knowing why. He was also quite indolent, and would semi-doze through Cabinet meetings …
“Ronald Reagan managed to get the big things right,” he tells his readers, many of whom will not want to hear such a thing, “sometimes despite crushing bombardments from people who ostensibly knew them much better than he did.”
As mentioned, the structural weakness of all this is that lack of professional accountability: Stone hasn’t followed the now-standard methodology of historical scholarship (a methodology, ironically, first established by the great 19th Century German historians he professes to revere) by laying out the sources from which he draws his conclusions, so that fellow historians (or the simply historically inclined) can follow his bread crumbs and perhaps thread the labyrinth a different way. Instead, despite warning his readers at the outset that he’s no tractarian, he gives them ample reason to think otherwise. He’s never less than entertainingly thought-provoking the while, however, and that excuses a great deal even in argumentative Scotsmen.