BOOK REVIEW 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
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. 
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. 
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.  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. 
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