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     Jan 23, 2007
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Faith and risk in the Cold War
The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister by John O'Sullivan

Reviewed by Spengler

John O'Sullivan's account of the Western victory over communism should have a place in the medicine cabinet of every literate family, as an antidote to the stultifying academic drivel and the self-serving bureaucratic memoirs that may cause choking.

O'Sullivan's Cold War, spent in part advising British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher), was strange, even miraculous. Who could have predicted that a broken-down movie

star, a grocer's daughter from the English provinces and a Polish priest would become the improbable protagonists of the great conflict of the 20th century's second half? Perhaps because their own rise to power was so implausible, bearing the burden of uncertainty came naturally to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Karol Wojtyla.

Interweaving these three improbable stories produces a narrative that is strange, even uncanny. The sense of the uncertain, even the miraculous, that O'Sullivan conveys sets his book The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister apart from many others reporting the same events. Especially convincing is the parallel that O'Sullivan draws between the faith with which pope John Paul II offered stern moral resistance to the Soviet Empire in Poland, and the faith that led Ronald Reagan to offer the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) as an alternative to the horrid doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

According to the academic Standard Version, the sclerotic Soviet Empire was bound to decline and the dynamic West was bound to win. That is the misleading message of the Standard Version, offered most recently in a one-volume summation by Yale Professor John Lewis Gaddis, complete with back-cover blurbs by the men least likely to tell you what really happened - Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft. [1]

On the contrary, the victorious triumvirate of the West put at risk their own lives - each suffered an assassination attempt - as well as the lives of entire nations. Great commanders place the burden of uncertainty upon the enemy. Reagan was less the great communicator than the Great Destabilizer, subverting the principle of strategic balance that had ruled US thinking since the late 1940s. By the same token, John Paul II turned away from the cautious diplomacy of the Vatican Curia to offer resistance to the Soviet Empire, to the horror of the Vatican's equivalent of Kissinger, the late cardinal Agostino Casaroli.

A millimeter or so's deviation in the path of two pistol bullets allowed Reagan and John Paul II to survive. Thatcher was a hotel room away from an Irish terrorist bomb. O'Sullivan agrees with the pope's judgment that his escape was miraculous, and thinks the same applies to the president and the prime minister. Mystical thinking of this sort is not likely to impress the mandarins of the academy, but indicates the right frame of mind to judge the events of 1979-89. Faith drove the actions of the great risk-takers of the West; it was faith that enabled them to take risks. From any other standpoint, their most important acts seem arbitrary, even reckless.

Reagan restored America's strategic superiority and crushed Soviet hopes of dominating Western Europe, whose industrial strength the Russians hoped to tap to compensate for their own economic weakness. Moscow, moreover, knew that it could not compete with the United States in the field of missile defense. Ultimately the Soviets accepted their strategic defeat without a fight - but no one knew that they would do so at the outset. Reagan and his people operated in full knowledge that by setting out to win the Cold War, they risked provoking a very hot one.

The story has been told before, and well, for example by Peter Schweizer. [2] Reagan and his national-security team, headed first by Richard Allen and then by William Clark, set out with malice of forethought to bring down the Evil Empire. The Russians could not hope to match US arms spending in quality as well as quantity, especially after their hopes faded of dominating Western Europe. Most of the documents, prominently including National Security Directive 75, have been declassified at least in part and published.

In US politics, this was the equivalent of Babe Ruth pointing to the left-field bleachers and batting the next pitch. [3] Reagan's people made no secret of their conviction that communism could be rolled back, and not merely contained. Their greatest worry, not an idle one, was that Moscow might fight. How do I know this is true? As Alexander Pushkin said in the prologue to "Ruslan and Ludmila", I was there, and I also drank the mead.

At the time, O'Sullivan dryly observes, America's most prestigious economists insisted that Russia's economy was a success; Reagan's view seemed hallucinatory to respectable academic opinion. Today, the same respectable academic opinion insists that the Soviet economy would have collapsed on its own, with or without Reagan, Thatcher or John Paul II.

That is what we hear from the "dean of Cold War historians", Professor Gaddis of Yale. He writes:
It was no source of strength for the USSR to be sustaining a defense burden that may well have been three times that of the United States by the end of the 1970s, when its gross domestic product was only about one-sixth the size of its American counterpart ... The USSR under [Leonid] Brezhnev's faltering rule had become incapable of performing the most fundamental task of any effective strategy: the efficient use of available means to accomplish chosen ends. [4]
On the contrary: the Soviets very nearly won, by holding a gun to the heads of the West Germans. Gaddis does not take into account that economic power flows out of the barrel of a gun. If the Soviet Union blackmailed West Germany and other European nations into meeting its economic requirements, its military expansion would return a dividend. That is precisely how the key players in Germany viewed matters in 1981, when Reagan took office.

The US showed no interest in meeting the Soviet challenge, so the Germans individually and collectively had made their deals with Moscow. That was true of the circle around German chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Russia's proposed natural-gas pipeline to Western Europe was to be the Trojan horse for economic integration of German industry with the weak Russian economy.

Assigning prime minister Thatcher a role equal to that of the president and the pope in Western leadership seems a stretch, but Thatcher was the first conservative to gain office during what he calls the "nightmare years" of the 1970s and reverse the tiller. As an inspiration to US policy, Thatcher cannot be overestimated. O'Sullivan's Anglo-centric account, though, assigns great importance to Britain's 1982 Falklands War with Argentina, a trivial affair in the great scheme of things.

Strangely, he does not mention some truly decisive events, such as the 1982 Israeli turkey-shoot of Syria's Russian-built air force over the Bekaa Valley in 1982, which demonstrated the vast superiority of US avionics, and convinced the Russians that they could not win an air war against the United States.

O'Sullivan shines in reporting the Soviet Union's campaign to subvert and dominate Western Europe, and the complicity of Western European social democrats and leftist parties in this effort. Russian military strength on the European front dwarfed that of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. If Russia had launched a conventional or nuclear attack on Germany, NATO doctrine called for the United States to retaliate with a nuclear 

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