The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed The World by John O’Sullivan

During ten years three leaders shared the pursuit of one objective. The ten years spanned 1979 through 1989, the three leaders were Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, and the one objective was the downfall of the Soviet Union and its sponsorship of communism world-wide. This is the story ably told by John L. O’Sullivan in The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed The World.

Theirs is a story of what a handful of leaders can accomplish despite separation into different organizations, different locations, and different internal concerns and dynamics. That a signal accomplishment resulted is impressive. That it was positive and affirming on a global scale was miraculous.

O’Sullivan weaves together caplets from the lives of Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II during the 1980s. In some cases these episodes are directly and naturally joined because the three worked hand-in-hand on specific events. The Soviet failure to dominate Poland was an event where the three leaders worked seamlessly together. In other instances, such as American-Soviet arms negotiations, the three leaders didn’t formally collaborate but rather held loosely aligned thoughts and attitudes.

It’s a tough assignment to follow three people over a decade, each in a different setting. O’Sullivan is effective for the most part. At book’s end, you’ll likely agree that the trio was a key aspect of the fall of Communism. However, you will also probably think that the book trekked back and forth over the same years perhaps a little too often. It would have been better, I think, for the story to be told as time unfolded, with a smaller amount of repeated back-and-forth time traveling overall.

For leadership, the story of Reagan-Thatcher-Pope John Paul II shows the inner workings of leaders who work across organizational lines. The task is formidable, even remarkable when you consider the challenges of being a leader inside just one organization, one set of followers. To cooperate and collaborate with two more is startling. Leaders in these circumstances must see both the commons and the burdens.

The first common was vision and values. Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II promoted freedom and liberty. Their backgrounds, while dissimilar, showed how each leader worked to resist unbridled governmental power. The other common—the second common—was the fount of such power. For these three leaders, the Soviet Union was the acknowledged source of communism across much of the world. Each of the three had varying degrees of exposure to Soviet Communism; Pope John Paul II lived it in his native Poland, Thatcher lived next to it and among occasionally communist-leaning policies in England, and Reagan dealt with it temporarily while leading the actors’ union in Hollywood when Communists sought to take control of the organization. Regardless of their proximity to Communism, all three leaders agreed that the philosophies and practices of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin were antithetical to liberty and freedom in all its forms, political, social, economic, and religious.

This pair of commons rubbed up against three burdens. Each of the leaders had to decide whether or not to come to the aid of at least one of the remaining duo when hard times arrived. Thatcher endured withering domestic opposition when her economic policies proved unpopular. Reagan was a cheerful supporter. Reagan was the target of intense disdain as he sought to upgrade American missiles in Europe. Thatcher stood by him. The pope at any given moment lacked the material muscle of Communist enemies. Reagan and Thatcher reiterated their approval of his actions. Each leader had to help his or her beleaguered colleague.

Another burden was disagreement. The reality of disagreement was clearest in Thatcher’s reaction to Reagan’s handling of the Grenada crisis in 1983. Thatcher didn’t fully endorse Reagan’s tough-minded decisions to invade the Communist-run island and rescue American medical students. Reagan understood that he had to mend their relationship after his effectual rejection of her urging of non-military options. Characteristically, he helped defuse personal tensions with humor, genuine charm, and mutual respect.

Lastly, complexity added to the burdens. The trio of leaders did not succumb to the argument, an immensely sensible argument, that issues were complex and thus the outcome or solution would assuredly be equally complex. Each of the three leaders operated in environments where persuasive people explained why simplicity wasn’t possible, why simplicity would make things worse. Reagan best expressed the three leaders’ approach to the knots and nuances of dealing with Communism: “we win, they lose.” In Reagan’s case, his opponents howled back that this simple statement only proved his ignorance, his inability to grasp complexity.

As clear as the trio’s mutual accomplishment was, O’Sullivan could have deepened the reader’s insight with a short section on other historically significant leadership alliances. The efforts by Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in World War II would reinforce the importance of Reagan, Thatcher, and the Pope’s actions to end the Cold War.

Churchill might have put it this way: Poland was their finest hour. Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II kept in close communication during the tense standoffs between Soviet officials and Polish resisters in the 1980s. Reagan used his national security apparatus, including the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Administration, to help the pope better work with Polish resisters in foiling Soviet and Communist Poland attempts to crush popular opposition to government policies. Thatcher joined with Reagan in seeing that the pope had vital intelligence reports and analysis of expected Soviet moves and counter-moves.

Another comparison struck me as I read the book. Pope John Paul II’s lifetime experience in Poland resembled the struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men were Christian, indeed Christian leaders. Both men believed in nonviolence. Both men faced an adversary that would use all means possible to crush freedom. Both men were relentless. Both advanced their cause by extending outward through alliance. Both men saw their efforts begin to push change in the world around them. Good historical work could be done by examining these two leaders in light of each other.

As a reader, you might be surprised at the extent to which the papacy and the American presidency interacted on an international issue in the 1980s. Reagan and Pope John Paul II kept in very close contact on strategy, tactics, goals, and resources during the decade. It’s likely that as documents are declassified, we will see still greater evidence of the degree to which the two entities collaborated against the Soviet Union. I’d like to know, again in some sort of brief treatment by O’Sullivan, if this interaction was entirely new or at least comparatively new. I’m guessing it’s the latter but wouldn’t be startled to learn it’s the former.
The fruits of Poland’s freedom and later the downfall of Communist Soviet Union would never have happened if Reagan hadn’t made a fateful decision. It was a decision to do nothing, to not act, even when utterly justified in acting. I’m referring to the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II by a Soviet-funded and Soviet-planned conspiracy out of Bulgaria. Reagan certainly knew of the plot’s origins and its strategic intent. He could justifiably have used the incident against the Soviet Union—much as the Soviets did to the U.S. on a lesser scale in the late 1950s with the downing of an American spy plane. Reagan didn’t. He kept quiet about it. He used the incident to reinforce his view of the Soviets as brutal and inhumane, but he didn’t push the event as a new piece on the global chessboard. Not even ten years later he sat down with Gorbachev and hammered out an agreement to wipe out a full class of nuclear weapons—all because of what he didn’t do earlier in the decade.

The action not done. The step not taken. The impulse not followed. That requires wisdom, a broad and sweeping confidence that avoids arrogance, and the calm of simply knowing with complete certainty that you’re right. I’ve just described a leader deciding not to do something, and I’ve also summarized much of the bond between three remarkable leaders who worked together during the 1980s to make this world a better place.

They overcame a lot of opposition. Some of it may be new to you. U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy met with and advised Soviet officials on how to OPPOSE and DEFEAT Reagan in negotiations. That’s right, you read it correctly. Kennedy sought to have the formal leader of his own nation defeated and rejected by its de facto enemy, and he worked actively to have it so. In my mind, given the context and stakes of the time, Kennedy’s actions were a step away from treasonous.

Finally, O’Sullivan included a revealing exchange between two American newscasters in 2004. They were Bernard Shaw and Wolf Blitzer, two prominent figures on the cable news network, CNN, during the 1980s. On the day after Reagan died, they had this dialogue:

Shaw: “The news media, and how we failed to thoroughly cover and communicate the very essences we’re talking about, possessed by Ronald Reagan. What I’ve been reading and what I’ve been hearing, I did not get during his two terms in office. Or did I miss something?

Blitzer: I think you’re on to something, Bernie.

Shaw: I think we failed our viewers, listeners, and readers to an appreciable extent. I can’t quantify it, but I’ll, I’ll put it there. Because I certainly missed a lot.
Blitzer: I think you’re absolutely right, Bernie. We’ve learned a lot more about this presidency

in the years that have followed Ronald Reagan’s two terms in office. And I suspect as more of his diaries, more of his papers, more of his speeches, more information is released by the presidential library in Simi Valley, we’ll learn even a great deal more.”

This book is part of that pattern.