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The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World Paperback – September 23, 2008
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About the Author
John O'Sullivan was special advisor to Margaret Thatcher; met (and as a journalist covered) President Reagan on a number of occasions both official and private; as well as wrote about and had the privilege of an audience with Pope John Paul II. A distinguished international journalist, he has been associate editor of the Times, editor in chief at National Review, and editor in chief of United Press International. He is currently a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.
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This is the story of three disparate personalities and their unlikely (and synchronous) rises to power. The elderly B-movie actor. The school-marmish scold. The non-Italian Catholic living under the thumb of officially atheistic communism. Together, they defeat the scourge of communism while simultaneously rescuing their respective polities from the slow death spiral of the 60s and 70s, whether than be Reagan resurrecting American swagger and putting the U.S. economy on sound footing, or Thatcher curing Britain of Euro-sclerosis, or the Holy Father rescuing the Catholic church for the suffocating forces of modernism and "reform."
This is an essential history of late 20th Century America and Great Britain. It is an essential history of the recent Catholic church. It is also very much a history of Poland, for it is that land that it is at the center of this narrative. Ronald Reagan always believed that the key to ending the Cold War lay with Poland. And it is events in Poland, from the papal visits, to the strike at the Gdansk shipyard, from the martial law of Jaruszelski, to the rise of Lech Walesa and Solidarity, that shape this story. Reagan's insight into the centrality of Poland proved astonishingly right.
This book is not just for us Republicans. For example, one Carter Era figure prominently and positively figures in events here: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's national security advisor. Brzezinski has not gotten enough credit for seizing control of events in Poland from the late Carter administration through the Reagan administration. This book gives him delayed credit.
Two (minor) criticisms of this book. First, the Holy Father drops out of the narrative, for the most part, in the last third of the book. More Pope, please! Second, the equation of the bombing of Mrs. Thatcher's hotel in 1984, does not really parallel the 1981 assassination attempts on President Reagan and Pope John Paul II. It's a reach that doesn't work. But these are very minor blemishes on a masterful book.
The academic left, though, has generally rejected the Great Man Theory and looks to economic, technological, and other factors to explain history. To them, the role of the individual in history is insignificant compared to the role that these "forces" play. What they forget, of course, is that economics, technology, and culture are all created by individuals. So arguing that "forces" rule history and that individual's are irrelevant is inherently irrational.
In reading The President, The Pope, And The Prime Minister, it's easy to see where John O'Sullivan comes down in this debate. He clearly believes that individuals play a vital role in history, and considering the three individuals he profiles -- Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher -- it's hard to argue with him.
The hyopthesis of O'Sullivan's book is fairly straightforward. Three individuals who, in the years just before they came to power, were believed to be outside of the mainstream of 1970s era thinking worked together, sometimes at cross purposes and often not consciously, to change the world by putting in place forces that led to the downfall of the Soviet Empire and the remaking of the world.
As O'Sullivan makes clear, the spark was lit in October 1978 when the Catholic Church did the unthinkable by electing a non-Italian Pope for the first time in over 450 years. And not only a non-Italian, put a man who came from behind the Iron Curtain and who had spent much of his career as a priest and bishop resisting tyranny, first from the Nazis and then from the Communists. His election set off a firestorm in Poland that led directly to the formation of Solidarity and its preservation through nearly a decade of martial law.
O'Sullivan also pays considerable attention to former President Reagan, his dealings with the Soviet Union, and, most interestingly, his view of the role of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. Though it was not generally known at the time, and goes against what was being said about Reagan by his critics and even some of his supporters, it has become fairly clear in the years since he left office from the release of private writings that Reagan despised nuclear weapons and pursued a policy that had as its conscious goal their eventual elimination. While some might consider this attitude naive (after all, you can't put the nuclear genie back in the bottle), it sheds a new light on his approach to negotiations with the Soviets and the SDI program. Reagan knew that the Soviets could not compete with America technologically, and that they would never give up their nuclear arsenal willingly. So, he essentially played a waiting game until the "correlation of forces", to borrow a Marxist phrase, were such that that Soviets had no choice but to make a deal in a last ditch effort to save first their empire, and then their very existence.
Reagan told John Paul about his views on nuclear weapons, the Soviets, and the future of Europe early on. And the Holy Father clearly supported these views, as evidenced by the fact that while Catholic Bishops in the United States often spoke out against U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s (sometimes to the consternation of the Vatican), the Holy See rarely did.
O'Sullivan's perspective on Thatcher, and her relationships with Reagan, the Pope, and the Soviets are interesting especially given his connections to the British Conservative Party. What is clear, though, is that even Thatcher herself, clearly one of Reagan's closest friends in world politics, had no idea just how idealistic he was.
This book isn't ground breaking academic research, but it offers an interesting perspective on the life, times, and historical impact on three people who clearly changed the world for the better.
A very interesting book that shows how personal connection matters and actually can make all the difference. We see it today with the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine that personal connection and investment in personal relations are important.
President Raegan, Prime Minister Thatcher and the Pope were able to find common ground through shared personal beliefs that came down to personal freedom for every human being. This also applied to the thinking of Gorbachev and he can therefore not be left out of the equation. One could say that he was handed the arguments of persuasion to get things moving in the USSR.