Reviewed by: Arne Westad
Author: Norman Stone
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price (RRP): £30
As british academics go, Norman Stone has led a colourful life: Controversial Oxford don, sometime speechwriter for Thatcher and lately teacher at a private university in Turkey. But the thought that any of this should occasion him to write a ‘personal’ history of the Cold War era, and worse, get a publisher to accept it, beggars belief. What we get in Stone’s book is highly predictable: a lot of anecdote (some of it very amusing), a lot of references to his former students and to goings on at Oxford and Cambridge and (in bits and parts) episodes from the history of the Cold War of the kind that matters to Stone (central Europe, Chile, Thatcher). But anyone who picks up this volume with the notion that it contains a history of the Cold War will be disappointed.
Stone starts with an overview of the origins of the conflict, which he terms “the War of the British Succession”. As Britain’s importance declined, the Soviets and the Americans battled it out for who would succeed the British empire as the key power in Europe and beyond. The author gets much of this right; indeed, besides the outcome of the Chinese revolution, it is the rapid (and mostly unexpected) collapse of British power that is the most striking aspect of global change in the late 1940s. But there is a massive contradiction in Stone’s treatment of Britain’s role. He dwells nostalgically on the British débâcle, yet continues to centre much of his history on Britain (or England as he prefers to call it). For instance, the so-called ‘percentage agreement’ of 1944, dividing influence in southeastern Europe between Britain and the Soviets after the war, is alive and well as a cause for Soviet actions in Stone’s book, years after its influence on Stalin’s thinking has been contested by Russian and western historians alike.
Maybe the preoccupation with British affairs should be tolerated in a book subtitled “A Personal History of the Cold War”. Even so, it is hard for someone who has not lived through the great political disputes of the British past to see them as of great relevance to the Cold War as a whole.
The latter half of Stone’s book revisits the British (and to a lesser extent American) culture wars of the 1970s and 1980s. Thatcher is obviously his great hero – “there had not been a prime minister of this ability since David Lloyd George” – though he is not entirely uncritical of her. The United States (and Britain) won the Cold War because leaders such as Reagan and Thatcher stood firm against communism. It only remained for Gorbachev to reflect on and then realise the impossibility of the communist project for the Soviet Union (and the Cold War system) to come tumbling down. Monetarists and right-wing ideologues got it mostly right; critical intellectuals in the west got it entirely wrong. What happened outside Europe in the 1980s recedes into insignificance compared with Oxford’s decision not to award an honorary doctorate to Thatcher in 1985.
Stone is a learned man (though not always on the Cold War) and an entertaining writer. His pet issues, of which there are many, are discussed in ways that readers will find informative and sometimes surprising. One, though, borders on the scandalous: his preoccupation with the Chilean dictator Pinochet as his country’s saviour. According to Stone, while “said to have overthrown Chilean democracy and… initiated a reign of terror”, Pinochet’s “real crime was to show that the left had had its day”. This is not only wrong – the Chilean coup in 1973 probably did more to mobilise the international left than any other event of the 1970s – but it is also callous. To keep it personal: I just visited one of the Chilean military’s centres of torture in Santiago, now made into a museum of its victims. And Pinochet was a criminal, whatever politics you want to put into it.
Arne Westad is professor of international history at the London School of Economics and an expert on the history of the Cold War