My 2011 Register interview with former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, John O’Sullivan, on the legacy of Thatcher, John Paul II and Reagan.
How instrumental were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II in ending Soviet-led communism, and what lessons do they teach the world today in dealing with secularism and Islamist terrorism? To find out, we asked John O’Sullivan, author of The President, The Pope, and The Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.
In Rome in December for the launch of the Italian version of his book, O’Sullivan, a former Downing Street adviser to Thatcher and currently executive editor of Radio Free Europe, explained how these three leaders accelerated the end of the Cold War, how Reagan was instrumental in bringing John Paul II and Thatcher together, and whether leaders of similar caliber exist in the world today.
You mention in your book that John Paul II, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher had interesting aspects in common: They changed the course of history, yet they were three “middle managers” no one imagined could reach the top. How much did your research reveal the role of Providence in what they achieved?
I try to explain in the book the great difficulties of discussing the role of Providence in history, because, of course, Providence works through natural and human agencies. So, in a sense, probably the best way to do it is to describe what happened as best we know how and let the reader draw the inferences from extraordinary coincidences and so on.
In fact, I quote John Paul II at one point: that in the workings of Providence there are no coincidences. It did strike me as fascinating that these three people emerged at a time of great peril for Western civilization, Christianity and other things. All of them had a struggle to get there; they had to struggle to make an impact; almost immediately they entered their high positions, and all of them became the victims of attempted assassinations. Those assassinations came very close to success — with the Pope, the bullet passed just a short distance from his heart; the same was true of Reagan and maybe Thatcher — had she remained in the bathroom for another five or six minutes, she would have been killed.
How much did those failed assassination attempts give them impetus to continue their goals?
In the case of both Reagan and the Pope, it strengthened their conviction that they’d been placed on the earth for a great purpose. We know that because they said so. It didn’t have that effect on Lady Thatcher for an interesting reason. I said to her that the Pope and Ronald Reagan both felt the failure of the assassinations persuaded them they’d been saved for some great purpose. “Do you think you were saved for some great purpose?” I asked. And she said, “No.” When she said this, which I had been expecting, I thought I knew why, and so I said to her: “That’s interesting. Why?” And she said: “Well, five people died that night. Why would I be singled out? They were friends of mine” and so forth. I think that’s a nice human response actually, and then she went on to say it would be very inglorious of her to think that God was stepping in to do her a favor. But that, of course, is the wrong way of thinking about it — she might have been being saved for some great trial.
It’s very much a sort of Methodist approach.
Yes, exactly. In fact, I drew that conclusion. So, as I say, it did have the impetus in the two cases, but not in her case. On the other hand, all three had already embarked upon their destiny, so to speak, and so it sharpened that sense of destiny, but it didn’t really change things. It accelerated them, but didn’t change things.
You believe they all had a clear destiny mapped out.
Well, you know, we say God has a plan for everybody, but we also know we’re perfectly capable of frustrating God’s plan — by going to hell, for example!
Some critics of your book argue that the economic situation of the Soviet Union was such that the U.S.S.R. was always going to collapse and that these three leaders were inconsequential to that happening. Do you agree with any of this argument?
No, and history is on my side here. The economy of the Soviet Union had been about to collapse really since 1917. There had never been a successful period of economics, and that’s because the system itself had been incapable of producing the goods. It was incapable of motivating people and incapable of giving them a decent standard of living, of encouraging their human qualities and so on. So I think it was always doomed.
How had it, therefore, survived and, apparently, in some cases, prospered? Well, the West came to its assistance time and time again, and it was doing so in the ’70s. So, although the Soviet Union was always potentially on the verge of collapse, it needed something external, and that something was provided by these three leaders. In different ways, they undermined the Soviet Union, and, of course, in the case of Reagan, he straightforwardly set out to bankrupt them.
For example, he kept a careful watch on the price of gold because he knew that was a useful source for them. His military buildup was designed to say to them: “If you do what you want, you can’t match what we can do.” And they reached that conclusion themselves.
Gorbachev complains to the Politburo soon after he becomes a major figure that Singapore exports more in value every year than the entire Soviet Union. Everyone knew the system was being pushed to the breaking point by Reagan in that way, by the Pope spiritually, and by Mrs. Thatcher in a very interesting way: She demonstrated the recuperative powers of a free society and a free economy. She took over an economy in very desperate circumstances, and, in a sense, by offering it the benefits of liberty, and I think a sensible monetary policy, she saw the British economy get up off its deathbed. By the time she left office, it was the fourth-largest economy in the world.
So, all these ways undermined the system. To sum up: It was a system that had lots of internal weaknesses, but it required the application of strong external pressures to exploit those external weaknesses to bring it down and to bring it down peacefully rather than violently.
But some argue that the arms race was a very dangerous way to bring Soviet communism down. What is your view on that?
Well, first of all, the arms race was instituted by the other side. They planted SS-20s all over Europe, and if they didn’t want an arms race, they could have avoided one.
Reagan is interesting in this regard, and this was something the Pope realized about him. Whenever he saw he was going to have a quarrel with another person or power, he would go to them and say: “Look, we should be friends. There’s no need for us to have a fight. We don’t want one, but if you insist on having one, we will have one, and we’ll win it.” He wrote a handwritten letter to [Leonid] Brezhnev [leader of the Soviet Union 1964-1982] not long after he became president, in which he said “there is no reason for us to quarrel.”
[The idea was] the Russians and Americans may respect each other, get on well together personally, so let’s just work together for our peoples. The Soviets rejected this out of hand. Reagan had to mount quite a fierce battle with the State Department and others, Al Haig, to get it through, but he sent it, and he received a perfunctory reply of a kind of ideological agitprop kind. So Reagan thought at that point: Well, they want a fight. By the way, he did exactly the same thing with the Cubans, before helping to start the Contras. He sent an envoy to tell the Cubans to tell the Nicaraguans that, provided they gave democratic freedoms to their people, he wouldn’t try to get rid of the regime. They contemptuously rejected it because, at the time, they thought they were on the winning side.
So Reagan thought he was justified in establishing the Contra army to put pressure on them. By the way, one of the things that emerges in the internal discussions of the State Department is that he is very keen to avoid bloodshed and damage to civilians.
Baroness Thatcher is the only one of the three leaders still alive. How does she view all this, looking back? Does she regard herself as being part of the three?
Well, she liked my book, and she came to my book launch. In fact, it was the only book launch anyone there had attended in which the subject of the book signs the book as well as the author! So the answer is: Yes, she does.
I ask because a few years ago, when she took a tour of John Paul II’s tomb, she enthusiastically said that if it weren’t for this man, Soviet communism would still be around.
Well, as you said yourself, although now an Anglican, she’s very Methodist in her attitudes. Methodists are very much against getting above yourself and so on. She does recognize she’s a great prime minister, that people have come to regard her as a great prime minister, and she’s proud of that in an acceptable and legitimate way.
What can we learn from all three of them today?
I think of them as messengers of hope in their different ways. Michael Foot [leader of Britain’s Labour Party during the Thatcher government] once said that one of the best things about Margaret Thatcher was her strong sense of optimism. And she was, in a sense, optimistic. But I prefer the word “hope,” because optimism is a disposition and very often a silly and foolish one. But Mrs. Thatcher was somebody who recognized that an element in hope is effort. You don’t just hope something’s going to happen; you embark on projects in a hopeful way.
Of course, you rely on the grace of God, but anyway, you have to do something, and I think all three of them were in that frame of mind. You could accomplish great things, with the help of God, but also you have to put your back into it.
Is this characteristic lacking among leaders today, do you think?
The situation leaders face today is something different, but I do think during the period until the financial crash [of 2008], leaders themselves didn’t know quite why they were succeeding. There was a period of great creativity and prosperity launched by the end of the Cold War.
You have the disappearance of barriers, the abandonment of foolish economic ideas of a socialist kind that held people back. You have the arrival in the world of about 2 billion new workers. There was all this good coming out, this tremendous burst of prosperity, and I think if you were leader at the time, you’d be less than human if you didn’t take some credit for it.
But I think Tony Blair has almost admitted that he’s not quite sure why it all went so well in his time. I think it’s because of what Reagan and Thatcher did — they laid the foundations, and the Pope, too. When you had this crash, which was the result of foolish policies in general, they suddenly woke up to the fact that they didn’t really know what they were doing. They were standing by while the tremendously successful revolution was going on.
Who are the equivalents of Reagan and Thatcher today?
Well, there aren’t any real equivalents, and there never will be, because everyone’s different and they face different challenges.
Among the leaders in politics whom I think of highly: in the non-Christian world, Lee Kuan Yew [prime minister of Singapore 1965-1990], often criticized for being an authoritarian but someone who has enormous achievements to his credit in creating Singapore. There are things I disagree with him about, but he is obviously a great man, and his impact in the world has been very beneficial, even if you may disagree with some of his attitudes. I would say in Western politics: Well, in Australia, there’s Tony Abbott, the Australian leader of the Liberal Party, a tremendous figure, and I greatly admire him. He has a very good chance of becoming prime minister. I think highly of several Hungarians, like Viktor Orban [current prime minister].
And in the United States?
There are good people there, but one of the things we have to remember is: We don’t know until they’re in positions of great authority how good they’re going to be.
I was very critical of Mrs. Thatcher early on, and I did think Reagan was potentially a great man, but as great as he turned out to be, no, I didn’t think so. The Pope was impressive from the word Go, but did I think in 1978-1979 that he was going to have the impact on the world that he had? No, I didn’t. I was impressed by what happened in Poland, but I thought it would be confined to Poland. Until people get the opportunity to exercise their talents to the full, you really don’t know what they’re going to be like.
Historians say his trip to Poland in 1979 was crucial to ending the Cold War, beginning a chain of events that would bring down communism in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. Do you agree with that view?
There’s no doubt about that: It changed the world. It was the beginning of the end of the communist world. They sensed its importance beforehand, and to be fair to them, they felt very early on that the Pope was a threat.
Can you tell us a little more about how you describe John Paul II’s relationship with Reagan in the book?
He [Reagan] is the pivotal figure in the book, not in history, but in the book, because he brings the Pope and Thatcher together. The Pope and Thatcher meet each other several times. She respects the Pope, and he seems to respect her, but there’s not a close relationship.
There’s a very close relationship between Reagan and Thatcher and between Reagan and the Pope, and so he is the figure who brings these two together, and I think all of that goes back to the meeting they had in the Vatican, in 1982, when Reagan falls asleep at the public event, but then subsequently they go off on their own for an hour. We still don’t know the full truth of what happened in these private meetings. He had several with the Pope, seven I think, and it’s been kept under wraps, but we’ll know more.
At the end of the first one, the Pope came out and met two cardinals, the secretary of state and [Cardinal] Silvestrini, and he tells them that Reagan is a good man and really believes in disarmament, that he’s really against nuclear weapons, and so forth. Now, we all know that now, but at the time, the picture of him was of a trigger-happy cowboy. This represents the moment in which the Pope, in a sense, decides that Reagan is a man whose moral intentions in foreign policy are good Christian moral intentions. He may make mistakes, and he may not always do what we would do, but his motivation will always be the same.
So it becomes possible to the Pope, in good conscience, not to join the campaign against Star Wars, not to take a much more critical view of the Sandinistas than he might otherwise have done. … So the Vatican policy in those years is much friendlier to American policy than people were expecting, and that goes back to Reagan and the Pope.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.