This review appeared in the March 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to the monthly print edition, click here.
The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World
By John O’Sullivan
(Regnery, 448 pages, $27.95)
OTHER WRITERS HAVE NOTED the timely emergence of an American president, a Polish pope, and a British prime minister in the late 1970s and early 1980s and their critical role in leading the West to a peaceful resolution of the Cold War. But it has remained for the Anglo-American journalist and editor John O’Sullivan to write the definitive history of how Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher worked together, openly and not so openly, to bring about what most experts agreed was impossible — the swift dissolution of the Soviet Union and Marxism-Leninism.
To write such a multi-faceted story, you would want a polymath: an American familiar with Reagan’s special genius for combining principle and pragmatism, a Brit who could explain how Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history, and a Roman Catholic who understood why the Soviets were so worried about the impact of a Polish pope on their empire. You would seek someone with a keen historical sense and a flair for biography — and the ability to integrate smoothly the myriad accomplishments of three major figures of our times. If this paragon also had a smooth, accessible writing style, that would be a heaven-sent bonus. It would be impossible, of course, to find someone who could do all of the above-unless you could persuade John O’Sullivan to write The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, his first but not I hope last book.
O’Sullivan begins his admirable study by making the arresting point that the times seemed to have by-passed Reagan, Thatcher, and Karol Wojtyla, who embodied such seemingly “fading” virtues as faith, self-reliance, and patriotism. But the unexpected death of the Italian John Paul I led to the election of the Polish John Paul II in 1978; Jimmy Carter’s monumental ineptitude at home and abroad prepared the way for a conservative alternative in Reagan in 1980; and Britain’s accelerating economic decline coupled with a series of often violent strikes in the winter of 1978-79 brought the country to the edge of anarchy. Thatcher offered a strong purgative — economic liberty, traditional Christian values, patriotism, and a strong attachment to the United States and like-minded nations — and in May 1979 was elected prime minister.
In the ensuing chapters, O’Sullivan deftly traces the interactive careers of the three leaders. There were, for example, the attempted assassinations: Reagan narrowly escaped death at the hand of John Hinckley on March 30, 1981; John Paul II barely survived an attempted assassination only 43 days later, on May 13. Three years later, on October 12, 1984, Thatcher miraculously escaped an IRA bomb intended to kill her unscathed (five people died in the blast). Not widely understood at the time was that both Reagan and John Paul II almost died from their wounds. Each, according to O’Sullivan, had the same explanation for his survival: “One hand fired and another hand guided the bullet.”
All three individuals were self-confident charismatic leaders who achieved greatness through dedication and hard work. Each believed that he had been created for a purpose. For Reagan it was to hasten and bring about the collapse of Communism. For John Paul II (at least in the political realm) it was his diplomatic offensive for religious liberty behind the Iron Curtain, especially in Poland. Thatcher was determined to transform “the sick old man of Europe” (a familiar epithet for Britain) into a dynamic land of enterprise and prosperity.
Although Reagan and John Paul II met more frequently than is generally supposed (there were at least seven meetings, according to informed estimates), it is the friendship between Reagan and Thatcher that receives the author’s closest attention. Reagan was one of the first Americans to call and congratulate Thatcher on her being elected prime minister, and Thatcher was the first major foreign leader to be invited to Washington in 1981 by the newly elected Reagan. From the first, they hit it off personally and politically. Both sought personal tax cuts to encourage enterprise, believed that the best way to limit the size of government was to control spending, fought inflation through monetary policy, and were committed to reversing national decline.
For their part, Reagan and John Paul II believed that “Poland was the key to the unraveling of the Soviet empire.” And so the president and the pope cooperated, openly and not so openly, to help keep the Solidarity trade union alive throughout the 1980s until, as O’Sullivan writes, it won the first free elections in Poland’s postwar history and became “the first free postwar government amid the general collapse of the Soviet bloc.”
Meanwhile, Thatcher and Reagan worked closely together in the early 1980s against the unilateral disarmament policies of the left in Britain and on the European continent. As a counter to several hundred Soviet SS-20s aimed at Western Europe, NATO proposed the deployment of a similar number of American cruise and Pershing missiles. There were massive demonstrations against deployment in major European cities, but the West, led by Thatcher and Reagan, stood firm. General elections were held in Britain, Holland, Belgium, and Italy in the fall of 1983, and the peaceniks were decisively defeated everywhere.
O’SULLIVAN’S SKILL AS A REPORTER comes to the fore in his dramatic description of the several Reagan-Gorbachev summits, most notably the one at Reykjavik. He goes to the heart of the fierce debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative by explaining that Reagan regarded SDI not as one facet of the nuclear deterrent but as “the central element in a global system of nuclear arms reduction.” In order to reduce stockpiles on both sides, Reagan insisted, “missile defense would have to be available to all nuclear powers.” Conservatives as well as liberals criticized the president’s position — liberals because they were wedded to the idea of Mutual Assured Destruction, conservatives because they were convinced you could not “trust” the Communists with such knowledge.
But Reagan pointed out that a system of agreed global defense would protect everyone against what he called “some madman… secretly set[ting] out to produce some [nuclear weapons] with the idea of blackmailing the world.” Reagan’s argument, writes O’Sullivan, foresaw scenarios like those we face today: “an Iranian bomb, a nuclear device in the hands of al Qaeda, even the risk of an accidental launch by a nuclear state.” Reagan, the author insists, was no utopian dreamer: He sought not a flawless defensive shield but a prudential “mix” of missile defense and nuclear disarmament.
In summing up the individual and collective achievements of the president, the pope, and the prime minister, O’Sullivan states that Reagan won the Cold War without firing a shot; revived the U.S. economy, which went on to enjoy more than 20 years of consecutive economic growth; restored the spirit of America; and established a “new conservative dominance in American politics” based on small government and low taxes.
John Paul II, besides helping bring down the Soviet empire, bequeathed to Pope Benedict XVI a Catholic Church that was large, growing fast (particularly in the Third World), and becoming more orthodox. According to O’Sullivan, Thatcher’s reputation is higher in the rest of the world than in Britain, but even in her native land the Iron Lady’s policies that defeated inflation, restored British industry, and helped win the Cold War are “almost universally regarded as correct.” Still she bears the burden of the vehement opposition and even hatred they aroused, especially among the liberal intelligentsia.
In an elegant coda to his marvelous book, O’Sullivan writes that it is “a spiritual element that best explains [Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul] and their achievements.” All three, he says, “taught and embodied the virtue of hope…. In very different styles, all were enthusiasts for liberty.” And they were confident they would win.
Conceding that we face very different problems today than the president, the pope, and the prime minister did, O’Sullivan argues there is every reason to hope that we can overcome them. After all, he writes, adapting what Lady Thatcher said in her eulogy of President Reagan: “We have an advantage that they never had: We have their example.”