The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World
By John O’Sullivan (Regnery, 334 pages $34.95)
Be not afraid! – John Paul II, 1978
You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning. – Margaret Thatcher, 1980
I urge you to beware the temptation of pride – the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil. – Ronald Reagan, 1983
John Paul II, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan personified their faith traditions. John Paul II was a post-Vatican II Catholic. He was profoundly influenced by the philosophical theology of personalism grounded in the doctrine of Imago Dei that sees every human person as created in the image of God and, therefore, of inestimable value. Margaret Thatcher was a Great Awakening Christian. She was shaped from childhood by a Methodist faith that taught, “Earn all you can, save all you can and give all you can,” modelled by her father, a grocer and mayor, and that sought solutions to the problems of humankind grounded in helping others toward self-reliance. Ronald Reagan was a Second Awakening Christian. His approach to life was informed by a “Campbellite” Scottish common sense realism and its post-Calvinist confidence in the ability of people of good will to reason and to work together in pursuit of the good on first principles.
John O’Sullivan served variously as an editor of the National Review, editorial consultant to the National Post and as an adviser to prime minister Margaret Thatcher. In this, his first book, O’Sullivan describes the leadership qualities of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, exercised individually and in concert, and how these led to the defeat of communist totalitarianism and to a renewed confidence in the West. O’Sullivan frames his account with “spiritual biographies” of the three.
He suggests that apart from recognizing how belief in God and how a faith commitment and perspective are central to each, we cannot understand their interpretations of contemporary events as they unfolded for a pope, a president and a prime minister, personally and globally. O’Sullivan implies, in turn, that the failure or refusal of many in the West to acknowledge the power of these commitments and perspectives effectively made the actions of this pope, this president and this prime minister incomprehensible and, even, seem nonsensical to them.
O’Sullivan opens his book with a description of what amounts to “a two-front war”: the expansionism and global ambition of Soviet totalitarianism on one side and the economic and cultural malaise of the West on the other. He offers a compelling account of the intransigence of what turned out to be the last gasp of Soviet ambition led by Leonid Brezhnev. This is put in counterpoint to John Paul II’s cultural challenge mounted against the Polish communist regime. O’Sullivan paints a picture of a pope who preaches, not a political, but a cultural confrontation of Polish communism. John Paul taught Poles to refuse to accept the communist status quo as anything but an interregnum to which they should respond by living as faith-integral Catholics whose first loyalty was not to an all-encompassing state, but to an all-encompassing faith. His first instruction was delivered in his inaugural homily as pope, when John Paul quoted the admonition of Christ to his disciples: “Be not afraid!”
The careers of Thatcher and Reagan are also put in context. It was not just counter-intuitive that someone of Thatcher’s public policy outlook could be elected prime minister, but as leader of her party. Britain was living in a post-Imperial twilight of regress from confidence in foreign policy and in Britons’ ability to compete with the world. The country that gave the world Adam Smith, the industrial revolution and (with the Dutch) invented capitalism was the sick man of Europe. But Thatcher advocated “the vigorous virtues” – Methodist virtues – of hard work, prudence, thrift and self-reliance. In 1970s Britain, Thatcher was deemed “too conservative.”
O’Sullivan traces the kernel of “the Reagan Doctrine” to the differing perspectives of Kissinger and Reagan on withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam in 1975. Reagan echoed Kissinger’s urging U.S. congressmen to approve military supplies, already promised to the Thieu regime. Both worried about the impact of withdrawal on U.S. alliances elsewhere and “the stain on national honour.” But Reagan differed sharply on the effectiveness, and even legitimacy, of détente as a defining foreign policy doctrine to inform dealings with the Russians for two reasons: the Soviets consistently got the better deal and, far more serious, détente gave an undeserved whiff of respectability and permanence to what Reagan considered to be “a form of insanity — a temporary aberration.” O’Sullivan calls this difference “an almost spiritual one.”
He describes at length the co-ordination of efforts between the three, although Thatcher and John Paul did not meet. Thatcher generally supported Reagan’s foreign policy approach and sometimes led the way. Even when they disagreed, there was affection. During a phone call as Thatcher argued her case, Reagan held up the receiver to those in the room and said, “Isn’t she wonderful?” Reagan lent military support to Thatcher for the Falklands War and Thatcher accepted INF missiles and allowed American planes to land on British soil. John Paul was convinced that Reagan was an advocate of disarmament and lent his moral support. Reagan channelled money and other support to Poland’s Solidarity movement and briefed the pope on the Russians. O’Sullivan interprets John Paul’s encyclical, Centesimus Annus (1991), as an endorsement of “the new economy” created by Reagan and Thatcher’s reforms, consistent with his personalist understanding of humankind. When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace” (1983), the first and second drafts equated pacifism and “just war” while the third and final draft – as a result of the Vatican’s intervention – “made clear that the just war tradition was the sole authentically Catholic one.”
One point of difference highlighted is the Reagan and Thatcher positions on “the Strategic Defense Initiative.” O’Sullivan argues that Reagan saw SDI as a means of eliminating nuclear arms and, therefore, made it a condition of disarmament. Reagan offered to co-operate with the Russians on SDI development, including sharing technology advances. But he refused to halt SDI research and testing, even in return for nuclear disarmament holus bolus , as offered by Gorbachev at Reykjavik in 1986. As the U.S. summit party departed Iceland on Air Force One, Reagan was told by Charles Zwick, “Ronnie, you just won the Cold War. They admitted they can’t compete. They don’t have the money to fight the dollar.” But Gorbachev himself had already publicly announced “the beginning of the end of the Cold War.” What he may not have realized was that this also signalled the end of the Soviet Union.
There are some historical footnotes uncovered by O’Sullivan’s access to secret, Soviet-era documents available to him by way of the Gorbachev Foundation archive, prior to President Vladimir Putin’s ending access to it in 2003. He also relied on Vladimir Bukovsky’s account, among others. O’Sullivan cites discussions the radical British unionist Arthur Scargill had with the Soviets and their funding his efforts in 1983 to shut down Britain and defeat Thatcher. Chilling are the accounts of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy’s advising the Soviet leadership on how to deal with Reagan and Kennedy’s overture to the short-lived general secretary Yuri Andropov!
Without using the term, O’Sullivan suggests that John Paul, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher’s survival of assassination attempts was providential. The loss of any of the three might well have delayed the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Empire. Those who would follow their models of leadership will do well emulate their faith commitments to that providence. In the words of John O’Sullivan’s adaptation of Lady Thatcher’s eulogy for Ronald Reagan: “We have an advantage that they never had. We have their example.”
Russ Kuykendall is a senior researcher at the Work Research Foundation and is the eldest of his parents’ six children.