More to NATO than Plato: The Atlantic World and the Cold War in Early American History

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A Map of New Belgium, New England, and Some Parts of Virginia, by Nicolas Visscher (1618–1679).

Adam Nadeau
University of New Brunswick

In 1949, the French historian Fernand Braudel completed his first book, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Piecing together a history of the sixteenth-century Mediterranean that transcended religious and national boundaries, Braudel ushered in the enduring trend of utilising sea and ocean basins as frameworks of historical analysis. Over the next few decades, a series of early American historians would likewise centre their work around maritime space, following European commerce and politics out of the Mediterranean Sea and across the Atlantic Ocean to America, where, in the late eighteenth century, Florentine republicanism, English common law, and the European Enlightenment merged to create the United States, the New World ‘Empire of liberty’ that was to inherit global hegemony in the mid-twentieth century.[1]

Though quick to incorporate cultural, demographic, and social studies of the region, the Atlantic World was initially conceived as a political-economic project, a heuristic device that accounted for the continuity between European and American imperialism. As a result, twentieth-century American historians were very much the products of their time, constructing an Atlantic World that reflected the bifurcated international climate of the post-war era. In doing so, however, their stories tended to neglect the historical interconnectedness that existed between early modern Eastern and Western Europe.

Ironically, just as Braudel was writing to counter notions that the Mediterranean had been a backwater, Western Europe and North America were politically and militarily reorganizing themselves around the Atlantic Ocean. In 1949, the same year that The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World was published, twelve of the modern incarnations of the historical Atlantic powers in Italy, Iberia, France, the Low Countries, and Britain, along with their former colonies in Canada and the United States, formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an intergovernmental military alliance of collective defence against the Soviet Union. Turkey joined soon thereafter in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955. In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, the Soviet Union spearheaded the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, institutions analogous to NATO and the European Common Market in the West.

In the wake of the post-war partition of Europe and the onset of the Cold War, the Atlantic Ocean basin was reconceptualised as an exclusively Western European space. And historians, in a sort of primitive accumulation, began to pull chapters from various Western national histories for incorporation into a larger Atlantic World narrative, one with its ultimate destination in the New World. It was during this period that the medieval Norse expeditions to northeastern North America gained widespread acceptance among American scholars, and it was Americanists with their careers rooted firmly in the Cold War who reframed the story of colonial America by emphasizing how migration from France, Germany, the Low Countries, and Scandinavia was as central as that from the British Isles.[2] The emergence of Atlantic history, as David Armitage aptly puts it, thus ‘owed more to NATO than it did to Plato.’[3] Continue reading “More to NATO than Plato: The Atlantic World and the Cold War in Early American History”