I should issue a health warning to left-wing intellectuals of all hues who chance upon this volume, for it may cause them mild bouts of apoplexy. For John O’Sullivan has chosen to write about a decade of great events, brought about by three people of great stature; it could be called “Ten Years that Shook the World”, in strict contrast to another book that detailed the Bolshevik rise to power. The author is very well placed to do so, having covered the Reagan presidency as a Washington columnist, having been a special adviser to Margaret Thatcher and having written extensively on John Paul II and the Catholic Church’s international influence. Currently he is editor at large for the National Review.
To this exhilarating account he brings his own shrewd, informed political judgments. In contrast to the depressing accounts of wars and rumours of wars that we read daily in our newspapers, we are treated by O’Sullivan to an alternative: the spectacle of good men, and a woman, shaping their times for the better.
Above all, this book gives the reader hope, hope that the cynical world of politics – and the weary world of Church politics – can be transcended by a real, deep-founded Christian vision, enunciated by those of faith and courage.
In the early 1970s no one would have predicted the pontificate of Polish prelate, Karol Wojtyla; still less might they have considered ex-actor, ex-Governor Reagan of California as a future US President; and they would have dismissed the possibility of a little-known politician, Margaret Thatcher, becoming the first woman prime minister of the UK. Yet in 1978 John Paul II was elected pope, in 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and in 1981 Reagan became president. “Events,” as the late Harold Macmillan mordantly put it, aided this process. John Paul I had died suddenly; the “winter of discontent” and the unions had brought the UK to its knees; and the signal failure of the Carter administration made the way clear for a Republican victory.
All three inherited a widespread malaise and sense of decline; for the Pope it lay within the Church, for the others within the world. All three vigorously opposed the pessimism surrounding them: “Be not afraid!” were the Holy Father’s opening words on the balcony of St Peter’s on that memorable day of 16th October. Reagan had long enunciated his own conviction about Communism, stating “my theory of the Cold War is that we win and they lose”. And Margaret Thatcher brought her own firm belief in traditional virtues, such as self-reliance, trustworthiness and initiative, and her equally strong views on economic liberty and patriotism – all later encapsulated as “Thatcherism” – to her role.
O’Sullivan reflects on the attempts on the lives of all three leaders, suggesting that (in contrast to Sarajevo) “it was the failure of assassination that may have altered history”. Everyone knows the drama of the Pope’s near-death; what is less known is the grave condition of Reagan after Hinckley’s shooting. Because of his courage in walking into hospital, although in great pain, and his jokes with the doctors – “I hope you are all Republicans?” – its gravity has been played down. Thatcher, too, only just escaped the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Tory Party conference. Such attacks will focus the thoughts of serious-minded people. John Paul II and Reagan believed providence played its part; Margaret Thatcher, of humble Methodist stock, who lost close friends and colleagues in the bombing, wept later.
The author also shows how the chemistry between individuals can have far-reaching consequences. He details the friendship between Reagan and Thatcher, their warm, though differently expressed, relations with the Holy Father and the relationship of all three to Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet leader. The Pope was to describe him as “a providential man”. Thatcher, in her own somewhat regal fashion, announced after her December 1984 meeting with him at Chequers, “I like Mr Gorbachev. We can do business together”. And Reagan, in his deceptively laconic style, remarked after the Geneva Conference of 1985, “I think I can work with this guy.”
O’Sullivan’s sub-title is simply “Three who changed the world”. Today, with other urgent problems such as the Iraq war and the terrorism of Islamist fanatics, it is easy to forget the frigid reality of the Cold War and Communist imperialism, which haunted and dominated the post-war Western world. In June 1982 Reagan had an historic meeting with John Paul II. Both men were at one in their view of the “evil empire” (Reagan’s words) and both men were committed to working to ensure the freedom, political and religious, of the captive peoples of that “empire”.
Reagan commented that “we both felt a great mistake had been made at Yalta” – when the destinies of millions had been decided against their will by the great powers. He knew that being publicly truthful about the reality of Communism would give hope and self-expression to countries behind the Iron Curtain. In her turn, Thatcher was regarded by ordinary eastern Europeans as a symbol of opposition to Communism. Once given a tumultuous welcome by the shipyard workers at Gdansk, the Iron Lady wept again.
It is also easy to forget the extraordinary spectacle, which O’Sullivan reminds readers, of the closing days of the Soviet empire, when one by one with reckless speed the countries of Eastern Europe defied their masters and chose democracy. On 12 September 1989, Poland established its first post-war democratic government; two months later the Berlin Wall came down; by spring 1990 the “evil empire” had shrunk beyond recognition. Yet again, it is not widely grasped that Reagan, in the words of Charles Moore, former editor of The Daily Telegraph and currently writing Margaret Thatcher’s biography, was the “greatest nuclear disarmer who ever lived”. He believed that the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), on which nuclear deterrent theory was based, was immoral – even mad? – because the suffering it would inflict was unjustifiable. In his own creative, intelligent way he advocated and stuck to in the face of much opposition, a Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) which changed the whole nature of the nuclear debate.
Not the least of this book’s strengths is the way it lightly but steadily shows how left-wing, liberal theorists have been confounded in their estimates of all three protagonists in this dramatic decade. Reagan was dismissed as an “amiable dunce”. Now – witness his funeral – he rivals the reputation of FDR and, to my mind, equals that of Lincoln. Margaret Thatcher, once described to me as “evil” by the wife of an Oxford professor and dismissed by the Mistress of my old Cambridge college as “not vulgar, just low”, is ranked alongside Churchill and seen as the greatest 20th century peacetime prime minister. The title “John Paul the Great” gives some sense of the historical importance of the late Holy Father.
Again, the author employs a light but mocking touch to dismiss some petty players: “Environmentalists… were whoring after strange gods, notably Gaia” and referring to “Labour’s foreign policy herbivores”. We learn that in the waning days of Communism “there sprouted all kinds of Marxists – Thatcherite Marxists, Singapore Marxists, even Pinochet Marxists.” Clearly, doctrinaire Soviet apparatchiks and humourless left-wing apparatchiks deserve each other.
Above all, this book gives the reader hope, hope that the cynical world of politics – and the weary world of Church politics – can be transcended by a real, deep-founded Christian vision, enunciated by those of faith and courage. In their individual ways John Paul, Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had the confidence to defend civilisation. I showed this book to a friend of impeccable, wishy-washy, liberal instincts. “It’s a very partisan account” he said. “What writer isn’t?” I countered, adding after a pause, “But is it true?”
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks in the UK.