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From the December, 2007
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Western Troika by Joan Frawley Desmond

Western Troika

The President, The Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World
by John O’Sullivan
Regnery, 2006
(360 pages, $27.95, hardcover)

reviewed by Joan Frawley Desmond

In The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister, John O’Sullivan, National Review editor at large and a veteran British journalist, describes the parallel and intersecting goals and experiences of John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

His special contribution is the juxtaposition of his protagonists’ inspired public moves with once secret commentary from Politburo meetings. He shows that while Western diplomats—in the Vatican as well as Washington—fumed at the displacement of a decades-old strategy of tolerant engagement with Moscow, Soviet leaders grasped the danger posed by the three leaders’ new refusal to accommodate the totalitarian lie.

John Paul II was the first to make his move. During his years as a Polish church leader he had honed a strategy of “cultural resistance” that essentially ignored the Communist state, and drew disparate social and religious groups into a broad debate on the construction of a “civil society” that would provide an alternative to the totalitarian system.

As pope, he possessed a global forum in which to present his message of cultural transformation. Following his election in 1978, he traveled to his native Poland and urged his fellow countrymen to “be not afraid.” They must put aside the habit of self-censorship and conduct their daily lives “as if” they were free.

President Reagan had developed his own plans for Moscow even before he took office in 1981: “We win and they lose.” Prime Minister Thatcher, who was late to grasp the possibilities and never developed a personal relationship with the pope, still backed the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland and rallied Western European support for Reagan’s plan to use economic sanctions and the arms race to impoverish the Soviet state, thus hastening its day of judgment.

Distinct Spheres

Yet John Paul responded cautiously to Reagan’s overtures. For Rome, much was at stake: the protection of the small gains made on behalf of the church behind the Iron Curtain, and the danger of entangling the Holy See’s diplomacy with Reagan’s unpopular and potentially destabilizing effort to match the Soviet nuclear arsenal that targeted Western Europe.

Though raised a Protestant, Reagan was a “cultural Catholic” who believed—after the 1981 attempt on his life—that Providence had a special purpose for him. In O’Sullivan’s view, this made him the ideal American president to strengthen US cooperation with the Holy See.

Historically, anti-Catholicism had constrained US relations with the Vatican: The United States did not establish full diplomatic relations with the Holy See until 1984. Reagan appointed several high-profile Catholic emissaries who traveled regularly to the Vatican throughout his presidency.

O’Sullivan notes, as have others, that he sought to assuage John Paul’s doubts with personal meetings and secret briefings in which the pope was given classified information. Over time, the pope came to believe in Reagan’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, a position that worried Thatcher and many of the president’s advisors.

Yet John Paul understood the difference between a president and a pope. Elected pope during a time of increased politicization within the church, he sought to clarify the responsibilities of the clergy and of the laity, ordering all priests and women religious who held elected office to step down from their posts.

Direct responsibility for political decisions lay with elected officials. Meanwhile, the church must labor to establish the foundation that would foster the development of great leaders who acted with virtue.

Indeed, his attempt to foster the nonviolent overthrow of the Soviet state cannot be strictly defined as a “political strategy,” writes O’Sullivan, though the pope clearly sought to engage political leaders in both the East and the West. Among the enslaved peoples of Eastern Europe, he sought to affirm their inalienable dignity as children of God and bolster their desire to live in the truth. Thus he “wage[d] a campaign for human rights and religious freedom in the Soviet bloc.”

Re-imagining the Future

O’Sullivan delights in the intricacies of back-room policymaking, while this reader occasionally longed for a more expansive view of the times. Still, the book deepens one’s appreciation for the protagonists’ capacity to re-imagine what seemed to be the settled direction of world history—and then to act on that vision with great prudence.

The irony, judging from O’Sullivan’s research, is that the grumbling old men who ran the Evil Empire saw it coming before the West did.


Joan Frawley Desmond is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is a recent graduate of the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family.

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