The Atlantic and Its Enemies: a Personal History of the Cold War

Norman Stone’s masterly new account of the cold war makes its points by resort both to empirical fac

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.

This lyrically surreal description of the funeral of the Haitian president "Papa Doc" Duvalier in 1971 sets the tone for much of Norman Stone's highly personal history of the cold war. Often relying on first-hand observation, he captures, in the manner of a novelist, the fleeting epiphanies that accompany public events. His picture of the curious normality that for a time followed Duvalier's departure - the shopping expeditions Baby Doc's wife arranged for herself and her friends, the schemes to promote light industry in a poverty-stricken land by encouraging the sewing of baseballs - concentrates into a few lines the decadent and precarious way of life that Graham Greene described at length in The Comedians.

Stone's eye for the telling detail gives his account of the cold war years an edge of authenticity lacking from more conventional histories. The Eric Ambler-like story that he tells is closer to the shifts and turns of history than the poker-faced negotiations and wooden stand-offs that feature in academic studies and diplomatic memoirs. Stone himself became a character in the story when, in a tangled episode, he ended up in jail in Czechoslovakia for three months in 1964 after trying to smuggle a seeming victim of persecution out of the country in the back seat of a car. In a ten-page "Note", Stone describes his experience as being "in Prisoner of Zenda mode". However it may have felt at the time - he characterises his callow younger self as "An idiot. But useful" - it must have been an enlightening introduction to the farcical side of the struggle that would divide the world for another quarter of a century.

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 ("a catastrophe of ice and snow"), 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).

There can be no doubt that the version of events Stone presents will often infuriate progressive-minded readers on left and right. Belligerent neocons, as much as mild liberal meliorists, see history as an essentially redemptive process, in which humanity struggles to emancipate itself from backwardness and oppression. A fervent admirer of his fellow Scot David Hume, Stone sees things more realistically. A succession of contingencies, history is frequently tragic, but more often surreally absurd.

Stone applies this demys­tifying empiricism to the most memorable struggles of the past half-century. He presents a sympathetic account of American intentions in the Vietnam war - rather too sympathetic, to my mind, given the ongoing rerun of that disastrously misconceived adventure in Afghanistan. He may be on slightly firmer ground in suggesting that the toppling of Salvador Allende was not the simple struggle of light with the forces of darkness that has entered left-wing folklore (the US ambassador in Chile at the time of the coup was not personally in favour of American intervention). Equally, the fall of communism was hardly the spontaneous upheaval celebrated by the western right - as Stone reports, many of the demonstrations that preceded the collapse were orchestrated, not least in Romania, by elements within the communist regimes. If there is a moral to Stone's tale, it is that revolutions are rarely entirely unscripted; but history blunders on just the same. This may be a rather discomfiting view, and yet it has the merit of being true.

Stone does not pretend to be anything other than partisan, and there are occasions when he reneges on the admirably sceptical empiricism that shapes his view of historical events. "I am still not sure about the Whig Interpretation of English history," he tells us. Yet there is at times a distinctly Whiggish feel to his account of the "three-cornered battle" that was waged during the cold war years "between fascism, communism and what, for want of a more accurate word, we have to call liberalism, ie, the free-market-democracy of which the USA became the pre-eminent representative".

This is not because Stone falls into the trap of assuming historical inevitability. In the case of China, for example, he sees clearly that there was nothing in any way preordained about Mao's victory - the Nationalists made needless mistakes, while the Communists "were in effect saved by the Americans" when their puritanical and buffoonish envoys took against Chiang Kai-shek. Taiwan, "the alternative China", shows what the mainland might have been, had circumstances been different. Here, Stone is unfashionably right. The 16th-largest trading nation in the world, the small island of Taiwan has achieved a version of modernisation that is probably more stable than the post-Maoist regime by which it seems destined to be absorbed. But he goes astray when he writes: "The warts are horrible . . . but the Atlantic won, and is now spreading to, of all places, China."

Whatever the upshot of the extraordinary Chinese experiment, one thing is certain: China is no longer emulating any western model. Maoism was a westernising ideology; and although, for reasons of regime continuity, Marxism and, indeed, Mao are still officially revered, the west was dethroned in China when Maoism was rejected.

The cold war, besides being an old-fashioned geopolitical struggle, was a family quarrel among western ideologies. As is often the case, the end of the conflict did not leave the winner any stronger. Instead, it has left the west unsure of its identity, and outpaced by new versions of modernisation that have not bought in to the faddish cult of the free market. The defeat of communism during what Stone describes as "the high Eighties" was no small achievement. But the Eighties were also a time of illusion, an end point rather than - as fantasists such as Francis Fukuyama imagined - the prelude to a 1,000-year new world order. Beneath the loud, triumphal music, a sharp ear could not fail to detect the mocking laughter of the gods. It is a sound that echoes through Stone's rich, exuberant and melancholy book.

The Atlantic and Its Enemies: a Personal History of the Cold War
Norman Stone
Allen Lane, 668pp, £30

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead reviewer. His latest book, "Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings", is published in paperback by Penguin (£10.99)