The Great U-Turn and the Three Who Made It

The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, by John O’Sullivan; Regnery, 448 pages.

Cross-posted at Albion’s Seedlings

John O’Sullivan is a journalist with a fine sense of history. Thus it is appropriate that he should write a book about a time, and a set of people, who are now crossing the threshold between being the subject of journalism, to being the subject of history. Of the three — Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and John Paul II — two belong now to the ages, and Lady Thatcher has become less and less active as health issues reduce her speaking schedule. The students who will be entering university this year were born in 1988 — Reagan’s last year in office — and were two when Margaret Thatcher left government. They were sixteen when the white smoke heralding John Paul II’s successor issued forth over the Sistine Chapel; if they were not Catholics, and were incurious about current events, they might have barely registered his passing.

When I was their age, even though I was keenly interested in politics and current events, the names of the equivalent figures to me, Harry Truman and Clement Attlee, had the feel of ancient history, and so Reagan and Thatcher must seem to this generation. Yet the world they are inheriting has been profoundly shaped by each of these three, individually and synergistically. To those of us who experienced these changes as adults, we must now strain to remember exactly what public discourse under Jimmy Carter or Sunny Jim Callaghan was like. To those for whom that era is entirely historical, the assumptions that underlay that era must be as inaccessible as those of, say, the Albigensians.

Thus O’Sullivan has written the right book at exactly the right time in history. It can take advantage of the author’s first-hand experience with the subject matter — O’Sullivan was an adviser to Thatcher, a journalist covering the Reagan White House, and a Catholic layman active in conservative Catholic circles throughout John Paul’s papacy. (I should disclose that John and I sit on the Board of the Anglosphere Institute together, and that I have in the past written paid work under his editorship.) Yet it comes at a time when there are many people who know those years only as history. It is sufficiently far for those who had lived through them that a reminder of how great the changes have been is useful. Furthermore, the debate over exactly what the effects of those players’ roles have been is becoming historical, rather than political.

One of the book’s great virtues is the effort O’Sullivan has made to show exactly how far we have come in our assumptions since those days. Amazingly, the economics and political science professions accepted at face value, right to the end, the claims of the Soviet system to being modern, productive, and legitimate. In fact it was backwards, unproductive, and illegitimate in the eyes of its populations to a degree that even the most hostile anti-Communist sources scarcely imagined. Pre-1989 economists debated the degree of value added by Soviet-bloc factories to the raw materials they consumed; post-1989 economists had to invent the concept of value-subtraction to describe the reality of what took place. The value of the output of many Soviet-bloc factories was in fact less than the value of the raw materials that went in to making them, particularly when they used (in an astonishingly inefficient manner) Soviet-provided fuel.

Political scientists similarly accepted that the Soviet-bloc public broadly accepted the legitimacy of their regimes, and that (for example) nationalist and religious sentiments had become things of the past. Here not only liberal sources, but even conservative sources, had little inkling of how deeply the Soviet ideologies had rotted away, or how strong the “obsolete” sentiments supposedly superseded still were. It was only at the very fringes, in the exile literature, that something like the truth could be found. And as the academic and government specialists were almost unanimous in dismissing them, they were almost entirely ignored. In 1977, I was for a time dating a woman who worked for a small press publishing samizdat literature. A part of her duties was to help entertain visiting samizdat writers, and I ended up going along sometime. Drinking with Russians is an interesting experience, and should she ever have liver problems, she should claim it as a work-related illness. But what struck me was their claim that nobody in the USSR believed in Communism, from the bottom to the top, and that sooner or later it would collapse. I tended to believe it; hardly anybody else did. Fourteen years later, this assessment was proven right.

What the experts had believed in was “convergence” — that the western and Soviet systems were becoming more and more alike. By this theory, the Western economies were becoming more and more centralized and state-directed, while (pointing to small and hesitant market-oriented reforms attempted in the eastern bloc) the Soviet bloc would become somewhat more market-oriented. This would result in a gradual defusing of political tensions, a process of which detente was to be the start, and eventually the Soviet bloc and the West would jointly rule the world through a set of transnational institutions. This theory was so widely accepted that the duality of superpowers was generally written about as if it were the product of some sort of law of nature. Science-fiction writer Ursula LeGuin, for example, produced in that period two widely-read science-fiction novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both set in human solar systems with separate and distinct evolutionary and historical backgrounds, well into our future. Each of these worlds was politically metastable, and each was divided into a bureaucratic-capitalist sphere and an authoritarian-socialist sphere. So, although ostensibly set in worlds distant from us in time, space, and history, each, when read today, practically screams its origin somewhere between the Nixon and Carter administrations, louder even than orange shag carpet or disco suits. This is typical of the now-vanished mindset of that era.

From accommodation with Communism to pushing it into collapse, and from gradual motion to a more bureaucratic and managed capitalism to the entrepreneurial-led (and continuously accelerating) creative destruction of the past thirty years, the United States and at least some parts of the West have contradicted all the assumptions of the trends and destinations of social change of that time. Such assumptions were not so much received opinion but seemingly the ground assumptions from which all political, economic and social debate (outside of a few wild fringes) flowed. I still recall that in my introductory economics class at the University of Michigan in 1966, my teaching assistant (who must have been all of twenty-two or -three, and therefore far more sophisticated than me) responded to my invocation of the opinion of Milton Friedman by threatening to fail me on the spot for any further such mentions. (Twenty-five years later, I had the opportunity to relate this personally to Friedman, who laughed and said this wasn’t the first time he had heard such stories.)

The larger question remains, whence came the great U-turn of the English-speaking world? And are the three subjects of O’Sullivan’s book merely agents of inexorable social forces which, had they not existed, would have found other agents, or did this turn of events depend on the presence of these three people in their particular roles, and in their particular time and place?

It is plausible to say that it all would have happened anyway. Yet it is not clear why that would be the case. Both Reagan and Thatcher had made the assessment that the Soviet system had broken down and was merely coasting on inertia. This was very much a minority judgment at the time, as O’Sullivan demonstrates ably. There were alternative outcomes, sans Reagan and Thatcher. One would have been a prolongation of the status quo, with the Soviet regime propped up increasingly by Western credit. Assuming Gorbachev would still have been at the helm (and his accession was independent of Reagan or Thatcher’s presence in office), we can assume he would have tried to reform Communism and failed — we now know that the Soviet system was far more broken down that even he had assumed at the time.

The danger here is that failing regimes often lash out in desperate adventurism to stave off collapse. Like a collapsing star, the Soviet system first expanded, acquiring Third World clients that became further liabilities rather than assets. It’s entirely possible that the Soviet intelligence bureaucracy, never under very tight control from the Kremlin, might have adventured a bridge or two too far. Under a Carter or a Ted Heath, the Soviets might have succumbed to the “democracy trap”, in which weakness or confused signals from the democratic power is taken as acquiescence to an expansive move on the part of a totalitarian system — only to bring an unexpectedly strong response from the finally-awakened democracies, leading to war. The Argentine invasion of the Falklands (covered well by O’Sullivan) is itself an example of this trap — the Argentine junta undertook the operation to distract attention from its general failures in all other arenas, and they had read the British withdrawal of naval forces from the area as acquiescence to a coup de main.

With a weak or confused leadership at the helm in the US and the UK, it’s entirely possible that a desperate Soviet leadership (perhaps replacing a Gorbachev who had gone too far in his reforms, as indeed was eventually attempted) might have made an attempt at expansion or distraction that could have inadvertently sparked a nuclear exchange, even if it had only initially triggered a direct conventional clash between Soviet and Western troops. As we discovered later, Soviet doctrine called for automatic use of tactical nuclear weapons once a conventional engagement had escalated to a serious level.

Another alternative outcome might have been a direct turn to an aggressive nationalistic fascism by Soviet authorities, with no devolution of dissatisfied nationalities, or slackening of control in the Eastern European satellites. This would have amounted to an abandonment of the useless shell of Communist ideology but the retention of the full apparatus of repression. This could easily have led to major armed clashes in the satellites, in the Baltic nations, and in the Caucuses and the “‘stans” — the Muslim-majority republics of Central Asia. The objection will arise that this seems to be happening now, as Putin gradually disassembles the democratic structures put in place at the fall of Communism.

However, even the incomplete transition to democracy and the unravelling of the imperial structure of the satellites and former Soviet republics represents a substantial ratchet toward freedom, and one that will never entirely be undone. Eastern Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech and Slovak states, the Baltic states, and Slovenia have all made essentially complete transitions to democracy. Bulgaria and Romania have done better than expected, as has perhaps Ukraine. Of the rest of the non-Central Asian states, only Belarus is a substantial failure, and the Central Asian ‘stans are at least no worse than most of the rest of that region.

As for Russia itself, it is better than expected by the pessimists, although substantially worse than hoped by the optimists. Although freedom of the dead-tree press has been gradually curtailed by Putin, Russia has gone onto the Internet, which is now sufficiently integral to the Russian economy that it is not likely to be rooted out. Thanks to the dismantling of the Soviet empire, millions of ethnic Russians now live beyond the borders of the Russian state, and almost three million of those live in states (the Baltics, Cyprus) that are part of the EU (these “Eurorussians” outnumber several nationalities whose languages are official EU tongues — perhaps they will be pushing soon to have Russian made an official EU language.) This has resulted in an “” — a Russian-language Internet that is substantially beyond the control of Putin’s censors.

This and other structural speedbumps on the road to complete authoritarianism will probably prevent any sliding all the way back to Soviet imperial days. Russia over the next few decades is more likely to resemble the Mexico that emerged after 1928 and the institutionalization of the Mexican revolution — a corrupt, crony-ruled state spreading the rents from its oil wealth, strong-arming those who try to disturb the cozy (for the rulers) status quo, but maintaining at least formal democracy and a market-economy structure. It will likely be too preoccupied with its demographic crisis, its Muslim insurgents, and its encroaching Chinese neighbors to be a huge threat to anybody outside of its own near abroad.

Looking at alternative outcomes to the Reagan-Thatcher-John Paul II world, it is hard to see how any other leaders in any of the three seats of power could have done better, and very easy to see how they could have done worse — all the way to outbreak of nuclear war. Therefore, while leaving any actual theodicy to more venturesome commentators, it is easy to see why some considered the advent of these three leaders (and their not-statistically-likely serial survival of assassination attempts) to be providential. Since I find theodicy to be too problematic to consider (if God does move human events directly, there’s far too much moral dark matter assumed in the problem for we poor three-dimensional observers to be able to draw any conclusions from it), I think O’Sullivan spent either too much time or too little discussing that possibility. If we assume we cannot intuit divine knowledge or intention in specific human events, then that is all one can really say about the matter; if we assume one can understand such things, then the events O’Sullivan discusses would be one of the principal theological events of our century, and could easily merit not just the bulk of O’Sullivan’s book, but a library full of books.

It is the addition of John Paul II to the list of ose who truly mattered that is O’Sullivan’s particular contribution. There are many studies of Reagan’s presidency, and Thatcher’s prime ministership, and quite a few studies of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. To view John Paul together with the two political figures adds a missing dimension, and I think a substantially more complete picture of the great U-turn that took place in the 1980s. The critical impact of John Paul was to force the intelligentsia of the West to readmit a moral dimension in opposing and ending the Soviet system. By the 1970s, the intellectual world of the West had developed a wide agenda of human-rights advocacy, and a network of activists who exhibited great concern about the people of Zimbabwe and South Africa, but to whom the inmates of the Soviet empire were more an embarrassing inconvenience than worthy of solidarity. O’Sullivan documents the non-violent and largely non-confrontational, but steady pressure placed on the Soviet system by first the Catholic clergy of the occupied nations, and ultimately the Pope drawn from among those astonishingly brave and unrelenting heroes. As O’Sullivan documents, the indifference of the human-rights establishment spurred the emergence of a parallel, impromptu human-rights movement in solidarity with Poland and the rest of the Soviet empire, that ultimately made part of difference in its extinction.

At times the detailed discussion of the theological issues facing Catholicism in that era can be heavy going for non-Catholic readers. However, O’Sullivan successfully demonstrates that in fact the turn away from a trendy, shallow, and wrong-headed “liberation theology” was an important component of the changes that marked the Eighties. O’Sullivan argues, I believe successfully, that John Paul’s contribution was furthermore an essential component of these changes; that there was a synergy among Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II that would have been much less had any of the three been absent. Reagan by himself would have been powerful and effective, but he would have changed a nation, not a world. Thatcher affected that both through reviving Britain and through using the power of a revived Britain on the world scene. But Reagan and Thatcher were both primarily political leaders, and had it merely been the two of them, the changes of the Eighties would have been confined to the political realm. The addition of John Paul II moved the action from the Anglosphere alone to all Europe, the whole West, and ultimately the world, and moved it from the political sphere alone to a much wider sphere. Merely by being a Pole, he helped move the “other Europe” from the shadow into the light, and changed the definition of Europe in modern times. By being the Pope that he in fact was, he changed the Roman Catholic Church, and ultimately the world, in ways that politicians, no matter how virtuous, alone could never do.

In examining this synergy and in offering this chronicle of a critical time of change, John O’Sullivan has made a unique and worthwhile contribution to the discussion of this era.

14 thoughts on “The Great U-Turn and the Three Who Made It”

  1. Thanks for this very interesting review – I also saw this book mentioned approvingly by Steve Sailer.

    I may well read it sometime, but I am very skeptical about the inclusion of the pope with Thatcher and Reagan – and from the summary it sounds like there may be a considerable element of Roman Catholic propaganda going on here.

  2. O’Sullivan is Catholic (I am not) and the book is written from the viewpoint of one well-informed about Church politics. However, it is not a “Catholic book” in the sense that one must be a Catholic to agree with its main arguments. It works on the level of discussing the purely secular effects of the Pope’s actions.

  3. I was born in 74, so my childhood was framed by the 80s. Since the fall of Communism I have consistently witnessed the “packaging” of the 1980s fall of Communism being attributed to the combined forces of Reagan and Thatcher and the Pope.

    The Pope’s role was never packaged in a religious or sectarian way but in a very matter of factly secular political way… it using the Polish population’s Catholicism culture as a force against communism.

    I think it’s silly to view the book as “propaganda” for the Church as a Church since such a view is so out of left field and contrary to everything that has come before it.

    I’m sure I could have phrased this a bit better and my argument is probably muddled.

  4. This is only a peripheral point, but among our Polish friends, it seemed clear that nationalism and Catholicism were intertwined in a powerful way – thus, a Polish Pope was empowering. That this particular Pope was who he was intensified what was already there. (I’m not a Catholic nor am I Polish.) For them following the faith itself was a political stance.

  5. The point I think I’m not communicating correctly is that the Pope was appealing to Catholicism as the traditional culture and perhaps to generic Christianity as a shield against atheist Communinsim but I never viewed it as an effort to make the RCC be jockeyed specifically and distinctly something that it didn’t have a claim to in Poland (not on a theological point of view vs Protestantism).
    Plus not forgetting the Pope was Polish. I contend that if Poland was Luthern he would have appealed to Luthernism (if there is such a thing)

    So I guess I’m saying I dont see the use of the Catholic Church was done in a way to better position itself vis a vis other denominations… I see it as using something that was universal in Poland as a weapon against the Soviets. Like some would say we had done in afghanistan in the 80s with the Muslims.

  6. I am only going on he basis of James C Bennett’s review, which I liked (which is why I commented), and think the basic thesis of the sea change in the 1980s is clearly true and greatly under-appreciated. Clearly the Pope had a key role in Poland and, I guess, some other Eastern Bloc states, leading to the revolutions of 1989.

    But Reagan and Thatcher were modernizers, they liberated dynamic change: economic growth, specialization, increased upward social mobility, turnover of jobs and so on. They had ‘conservative’ elements, of course, but their main contribution was increased dynamism.

    Pope JP II was not a dynamist – we was a very conservative stasist (using Virginia Postrel’s distinction) – I guess he was trying to restore what he regarded as the proper state of the world, and hold it there.

    In the event, Roman Catholicism of the JP-II hierarchical, ultramontaine type has been all but blown-away by the forces of modernization unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan (eg. As Ireland and Spain modernized rapidly in the 80s and 90s so Catholicism withered; RC membership in the UK is less than half what it was just 10 years ago).

    So, it seems a bit misleading for O’Sullivan to link the Pope with Thatcher and Reagan on the basis of what was a momentary coincidece of interests vis a vis Eastern Europe; because, even in the medium term (leave aside the long term) they were pulling in opposite directions.

  7. Doesn’t the old saw run “some people are born great and some people have greatness thrust upon them”?

    Communism was antithetical to Christianitay (and it almost goes without saying that any Pope’s outlook would reflect that). No doubt the College of Bishops considered JPII’s Polish roots a positive factor when they selected him; in the opposition to communism, generally, and especially in Poland, when he was elected. They were certainly wild for him back home.

  8. “There are many studies of Reagan’s presidency, and Thatcher’s prime ministership, and quite a few studies of the Reagan-Thatcher relationship. To view John Paul together with the two political figures adds a missing dimension, and I think a substantially more complete picture of the great U-turn that took place in the 1980s”

    I’m most interested in the exchanges between John Paul II and William Casey.

  9. Zen:

    You may find this interesting.

    His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of Our Time
    Carl Bernsteign and Marco Politi
    Doubleday, 1996
    182 pp. Cloth: $37.95


    To the fury of the Soviet leadership, the pope put this approach into practice for more than two years before the Reagan administration took office in January 1981. Thus the Bernstein/Politi claim that communism was defeated by a secret “Holy Alliance” forged between John Paul II and President Reagan during a June 1982 private audience in Rome is out-of-sync historically. The authors’ interviews with former Rea-gan administration officials and some useful digging in recently released Soviet archival materials add interesting detail to the story of the 1980s. But their telling of the tale is frequently overwrought.

    “There is no question,” Bernstein and Politi write, “that the pope offered [former CIA Director William] Casey his blessing” after one meeting in the early 1980s. No doubt he did, but that is precisely what he does dozens of times a day to those with whom he meets. Our authors find “equally stunning” the fact that “the CIA director and the supreme pontiff entered into a highly intimate, spiritual conversation.” But why should this be a surprise, given John Paul II’s fifty-year commitment to pastoral ministry with both the lowly and the mighty?

    And then there is the depiction of the pope as intelligence link with U.S. Special Ambassador Vernon Walters in November 1981: “‘What is this?’ asked the vicar of Christ,” studying a photograph. “‘Heavy equipment, Holy Father’–military vehicles, personnel carriers, tanks, for use by Polish security forces.” While there is, undoubtedly, a fascination in imagining John Paul II hunched over satellite intelligence photography with Walters, there is no reason to think that what the authors hyperbolically describe as an “intelligence shuttle at the highest level” between Washington and Rome had a significant impact on the pope’s analysis of–or approach to–the struggle for freedom in east central Europe. John Paul II thinks about these matters in rather different terms than those employed by diplomats, military officers, and spy masters.

    Bernstein and Politi’s “Holy Alliance” hypothesis is, in short, an exaggeration that distorts the singularity of Wojtyla’s approach to the churnings of history. That the Vat-ican and the White House had certain common interests in east central Europe is plain; that both the pope and the president suspected (against the counsel of their more traditional advisors) that the communist emperor had no clothes seems clear; that U.S. policy under Reagan and Vatican “Ostpolitik” under John Paul II were mutually reinforcing seems to have been borne out by events. But this does not amount to a “Holy Alliance” in the sense of an intimately coordinated effort to bring communism to its knees. The Bernstein/Politi hypothesis is thus an interesting reminder that viewing history through exclusively political-economic lenses fails to capture the human and moral texture of great events–a cautionary tale for anyone trying to discern the contours of a coming century in which questions of religion are sure to play a dominant role.


  10. hi James,

    That was very interesting, thank you. From what I recall ( I may be wrong) Casey was an active Catholic as well as an anti-Communist. On his side, John Paul II undoubtedly had much intelligence to share given the Catholic hierarchy in Poland’s networking with Solidarity and his own prior role as a Church leader in Poland.

    Vernon Walters pops up everywhere it seems.

  11. Good discussion, folks. I took all the Russian/Soviet history and polisci courses I could in college and grad school (history major, 1971 – 1982) and it was obvious that the vast majority of the experts were totally invested in notions of the permanency of the USSR.

    That would be interesting enough as a matter of history, but I’m worried that some of the same unimaginative and misinformed people, even those who had the good sense to be anti-Soviet–i.e. Drs. Rice and Gates–have now been given responsibility for setting policy in a world that’s changing quickly and profoundly.

    On the other hand, maybe they can be more flexible about the future possibilities now in a way they couldn’t be about the USSR.

    (I still have lefty friends and acquaintances who haven’t quite forgiven me for finding Aslund and other critics of the USSR persuasive and prescient way back when. They’re happy to say they were anti-Soviet and looking forward to the collapse of the Iron Curtain, now, but they weren’t then, and even now I hear low-key whining about how “all this wouldn’t have happened if only we hadn’t been so beastly to the Communists.”)


  12. The blog, EU Referendum (which is great btw), made a post about this top if anyone is interested

    Intro exceprt:

    Sometimes it is hard to believe that my generation can recall a time, not so long ago, when the United States had a great President, the United Kingdom a great Prime Minister and the Catholic Church a great Pope. As it happens, I am an admirer (without being a Catholic, so no accusations of conspiracy, please) of the present Pope and think that the Catholic Church will probably do well under his leadership. I have less faith in the incumbents of the other two positions.

    John O’Sullivan’s book “The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister”, subtitled “Three Who Changed the World”, published last year in the US is now available in Britain. It covers the last years of the Cold War, the period when, with extraordinary fortuity, the West was led by three giants.

    There is, as O’Sullivan points out in the book (and did so again at the British launch last week), a curious parallel between the three. For various reasons they and all around them were convinced that they would not be able to reach the top position in their chosen field for somewhat peculiar reasons. Partly the reasons had to do with age (Reagan) or sex (Thatcher) but partly it was because they were too much of what they were supposed to represent. Reagan was “too American”, Thatcher was “too Conservative” and Karel Wojtyla was “too Catholic”. Not much room for the middle ground there.

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