A review of The President, the Pope, And the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O’Sullivan

It is hard to believe that this highly readable tale of the Cold War's endgame is John O'Sullivan's first book. A British-born conservative journalist, O'Sullivan was for many years editor of National Review, and before that a policy advisor to prime minister Margaret Thatcher (and ghost author of her very fine memoir). The story of the conservative resurgence in Britain and in the United States under Thatcher and Reagan is a familiar one, but it is still important to be reminded how crucial the statesmanship of these two remarkable figures was in seeing the Cold War through to its stunning yet virtually bloodless conclusion. Pope John Paul II is perhaps a less expected presence in this tale, but what makes O'Sullivan's account unique and gives it its effective narrative focus is the evolving set of relationships among all three figures. As is only to be expected in the case of leaders with such differing perspectives and responsibilities, these relationships were not without friction. But their collaboration proved to be more than the sum of its parts, and there can be little doubt that it contributed decisively to the Soviet imperium's confusion and ultimate ruin.

It is remarkable enough that this unlikely trio—seemingly marginal figures thought too American, too Catholic, or too conservative by their own particular establishments—achieved in quick succession the highest office available to each of them. That they were able to impose their authority quickly and effectively is truly spectacular. It is all the more sobering to be reminded that their collaboration was almost derailed before it had fairly begun. By an uncanny coincidence, all three of these leaders were victims of assassination attempts that could easily have succeeded. Reagan was shot by the deranged John Hinckley on a Washington street in March 1981 and gravely wounded—more so than was realized at the time or by many since (his doctors helped to paint a bright face on his condition). Pope John Paul was gunned down in St. Peter's Square in May of the same year by Mehmet Ali Agca, apparently a professional assassin who very likely had connections to the Bulgarian intelligence service, and through it to the Soviet KGB. In both instances, a few millimeters' difference in the bullets' trajectories would have meant death. In October 1984, a powerful bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army exploded in Brighton's Grand Hotel where Mrs. Thatcher was attending the annual Tory Party conference; five people were killed, including a Tory M.P. and the wife of a cabinet minister. One of the rooms of the prime minister's suite was virtually destroyed just a few minutes after she had been in it. O'Sullivan does not shy away from wondering whether a providential hand was at work in all this.

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The achievements of Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II cannot be appreciated except against the grim background of Western decline and demoralization in the 1970s. The American intellectual and political elite were demoralized by the crisis of "liberaldom" (O'Sullivan's word) brought on by the 1960s' cultural revolution, as well as by the oil price spikes of 1973 and '79, the fall of South Vietnam in 1975, and the growing Soviet menace. The author provides a withering portrait of the United States under Jimmy Carter's "post-American" administration, with its curious combination of "missionary zeal and practical failure." Carter congratulated the American people for overcoming their "inordinate fear of Communism" at a time when Soviet military power was at its zenith and the Soviets were on the march in the Third World, including in America's Central American backyard. At the same time, Carter seemed disposed to blame the sour mood of Americans oppressed by gas shortages, inflation, and high interest rates on some moral failure—the "malaise" of his infamous 1979 speech—on the part of the American people themselves. And the Carter Administration as a whole foundered on its inability to foresee or deal with the new threat on the horizon—Islamist terrorism in the form of the American embassy employees seized in Tehran by devotees of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

In Britain the statist consensus of Labour and the old Tories, abetted by a labor movement heavily influenced by orthodox Marxism, had driven the British economy into the ground. In 1975, in preparation for a visit to the United States by Thatcher as the newly elected Tory Party leader, Henry Kissinger reportedly said to President Ford that "Britain is a tragedy—it has sunk to begging, borrowing and stealing until North Sea oil comes in." As for the Catholic Church, for the first time its standing as a stalwart adversary of international Communism seemed unsure. Parts of the Church, particularly in Latin America, had begun flirting with "liberation theology," a Marxist perversion of Christianity that sought political power through revolutionary violence, while at the same time, the Vatican felt compelled to soften its diplomacy with the Soviet bloc in order to protect the faithful in Eastern Europe. (On top of this, the Church was weakened by internal divisions after reaffirming its teaching on artificial birth control.)

The first order of business for both Thatcher and Reagan was to fix their respective economies. For Thatcher, the key was to crush the power of the unions and privatize what was in effect a socialist economy. For Reagan, it was to curb inflation and jump-start economic activity through tax cuts. It is easy to forget the short-term pain these measures caused, especially America's deep 1981-82 recession; unflinching political leadership was indispensable to their success in both countries. And success it was, beyond the wildest imaginings even of sympathetic economic advisors and commentators—a 20-year boom that jolted Britain from its East German-style coma to become the fourth largest economy in the world, and in America's case, unleashed the entrepreneurial forces that ushered in the information age and the 1990s' stock market explosion. What's more, as O'Sullivan rightly emphasizes, the example they set deeply influenced the economic policies of governments and parties (including Britain's own Labour Party under Tony Blair) throughout the world, and continues to do so today.

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When asked once what his vision was for the Cold War, Reagan responded: "We win, they lose." It is still not widely understood how radically the president was willing to depart from the entrenched mainstream of American foreign policy thinking in an effort to bring down the Soviet Union and put an end to the Communist experiment—an experiment he was convinced was contrary to human nature and thus fundamentally unsustainable. Reagan had a better understanding of both the strengths of his own country and the weaknesses of the Soviet adversary than did the American national security establishment (and, for that matter, many of his own advisors). He believed that Western experts grossly overestimated the size and health of the Soviet economy (he was later proved correct), while underestimating the potential of the captive nations to resist their Soviet masters. Reagan proceeded very deliberately to devise and implement a grand strategy intended to capitalize on these conditions.

In the first place, the United States launched a campaign of virtual economic warfare against the Soviet Union (perhaps not sufficiently highlighted in O'Sullivan's account), including such measures as covert interference with Soviet efforts to steal Western technology, collusion with the Saudis to depress the price of oil (the main source of Soviet hard currency), and efforts to curtail Soviet access to Western bank loans. The massive military buildup Reagan also initiated at the outset of his administration was understood as an integral part of this strategy, forcing the Soviets to shoulder the economic burden of adding to an already unsustainable level of defense spending.

Equally important, however, were the steps Reagan took to renew ideological warfare against the East. U.S. overseas broadcasting was revitalized and ramped up, and a major initiative was launched to promote democratic institutions throughout the world. But more than that, the president took it upon himself to speak directly to the Soviet empire's oppressed populations. Using language that had not been heard from an American president since the early Cold War, if indeed even then, he called that empire "evil" and predicted, with a fine twist of irony at the expense of the Soviet founding father, that Communism would end on the "ash heap of history." His refusal to acknowledge the Communist system's legitimacy, and his message of hope to the Eastern peoples, were profoundly subversive, and meant to be so. Unlike the American foreign policy establishment of the day, Reagan saw no merit in contributing to Eastern Europe's "stability" under Soviet rule.

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The beginning of the end for the Soviets was Poland. There, the rise of the Solidarity movement offered the Reagan Administration a golden opportunity to begin the "rollback" of the Iron Curtain. The fascinating question is whether the Cold War would have played out as it did without the remarkable intervention in Polish affairs in the early 1980s by Pope John Paul II, the first Polish pope. As Archbishop of Krakow over the previous two decades, John Paul (then Karol Wojtyła) had ingeniously frustrated Poland's Soviet rulers with a carefully orchestrated "cultural resistance" that escaped retaliation while exposing the fragility of the totalitarian occupation. O'Sullivan's detailed account of the parallel and occasionally intersecting efforts of Washington and the Vatican to nurture and protect a Polish opposition movement is the strongest part of his book.

O'Sullivan is also good on the arms control and nuclear policy issues that were so central to the U.S.-Soviet relationship in this crucial period. This is one of the few areas where policy disagreements between the United States and Britain led to personal confrontations between Reagan and Thatcher (another had to do with the American invasion of Grenada in 1983). Reagan's nuclear abolitionism and his support for ballistic missile defense did not go down well with the prime minister or the other NATO allies, who feared they would lead to a "decoupling" of the U.S. and Western Europe and increase the latter's vulnerability to Soviet conventional attack. O'Sullivan recounts a telling exchange during a Reagan-Thatcher meeting in July 1985. Responding to her argument that deep reductions in nuclear weapons would "expose a dramatic conventional imbalance" and thus require an expensive buildup of conventional forces, Reagan replied: "Yes, that's exactly what I imagined." This politically explosive comment went no further at the time. But Reagan predicted essentially what has occurred in the intervening years, as advances in conventional precision strike technologies have permitted the United States to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons to very near zero. It is also clear that Reagan's nuclear abolitionism, dictated by a deeply felt moral conviction, was an important factor in gaining the pope's tacit support for American military policy, in spite of the vocal hostility to it by many in the Catholic hierarchy.

If anything is missing from O'Sullivan's account, it is a sense of the tremendous obstacles Reagan faced in implementing his vision within his own government. (The book is somewhat more attentive to Thatcher's constant struggle with the Tory "Wets.") That mistakes were made—the Iran-Contra scandal notably—is not surprising given the factionalism and free-lancing that dogged the administration from the beginning. Some have faulted the president for not doing more to bring order to his own house. Yet Reagan had a long view, he knew his own strengths and limitations, he did what he had to do, and the rest is—history. Along with the prime minister and the pope, this president has shaped our own world in ways we tend to take for granted, but which John O'Sullivan wants to make sure we do not forget.