The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World
by John O’Sullivan
Regnery. 360 pp. $27.95
Ronald Reagan: Fate, Freedom, and the Making of History
by John Patrick Diggins
Norton. 493 pp. $35.00
Ronald Reagan’s reputation has lately been on an upward trajectory. No doubt there are millions of Americans who persist in thinking of him as the “amiable dunce” of Clark Clifford’s unfortunately unforgettable putdown. Or still regard him as a mere movie star who lucked into a dreamboat role in the White House and then spent eight years playing the President of the United States. But such views were always a caricature, and one that by now has largely been dispelled.
The publication of Reagan’s letters and diaries in recent years has gone a long way toward demonstrating that he was a man of both principle and substance. He surely made his share of mistakes along the way to and through his presidency. But it seems reasonable today to think of Reagan as a man of ideas who was far more serious about his convictions than are most politicians.
Questions remain, of course, about what he accomplished during his eight years in office, and especially about his role in ending the cold war and bringing down the Soviet Union. Two recent books, utterly dissimilar in many other ways, assign him a great deal of credit for these large events.
In John O’Sullivan’s account, Reagan shares the credit with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. O’Sullivan, a former high-level aide to Thatcher, a former editor of National Review, and a dazzling writer, notes the commonalities among the three figures. They all came to power at about the same time: the pope in 1978, Thatcher in 1979, Reagan in 1981. All were more conservative than the political cultures from which they emerged. All three survived serious assassination attempts. A strong personal affinity developed among them all.
The first major crack in the Soviet edifice was delivered by the pope in 1979, a year after his unexpected election. When Karol Jozef Wojtyla’s name was first floated in the Vatican as a non-Italian possibility, his superior in the Polish hierarchy, Cardinal Wyszynski, had rejected the idea, stating, “No, he’s too young, too unknown. He could never be pope.”
But Wojtyla’s ascension as John Paul II proved to be a major geopolitical event. It led Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, to commission a “threat analysis” of the implications. The conclusion was that a Polish pope could destabilize Poland and undermine Soviet rule throughout Eastern Europe. As if to bear out this forecast, shortly after his coronation, John Paul II paid a nine-day visit to his homeland, where he attracted crowds in the millions and left the Communist authorities looking awkwardly out of place.
The pope later aligned himself with the Solidarity movement based at the Gdansk shipyards, and the grip of the Polish government grew steadily more tenuous. When Solidarity leaders demanded a formal right to organize as an independent trade union, Cardinal Wyszynski cautioned them against pushing too hard. In a broadcast on Vatican radio into Poland, the pope gently disavowed Wyszynski’s remarks, after which the Polish bishops met in emergency session and explicitly endorsed Solidarity’s demands. They were then glumly accepted by the regime.
By 1981, Poland appeared to be in what Communists would ordinarily call a “pre-revolutionary” situation. Summoning Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski to Moscow, the Russians ordered him to proclaim martial law, which he did. The pope had advance information of the timing of this event; it had been picked up by American intelligence, and Reagan had passed it on. Although the denouement would take almost another decade to unfold, it had been set in motion.
Reagan and the pope were natural allies in the cold-war struggle. O’Sullivan shrewdly notes that although Reagan was nominally a Protestant, he was culturally a Catholic, and had always felt comfortable with tough patriotic clerics like Cardinal Krol of Philadelphia. Both Reagan and the pope saw Poland as the key to breaking up the Soviet empire. In addition, they had a common foe in Latin America, where “liberation theology”—a doctrine powerfully supported by left-wing Catholics all over the Western hemisphere—was being invoked to support Communist-oriented rebellions and regimes (as in Sandinista-run Nicaragua). Finally, both Reagan and the pope had a horror of nuclear weapons, and kept looking for ways to eliminate them.
Reagan’s perspective on nuclear weapons came as a surprise to his critics and even some of his fans. It is a fact, however, that early in his presidency, Reagan began thinking seriously about how to rid the world of them. His Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI or, to its critics, “Star Wars”), whose technology he proposed to share with the Russians, was in his mind a vehicle to liberate mankind from the threat of nuclear war.
Reagan’s desire to move in this direction surfaced most dramatically at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, which was expected by the American side to be a brief get-together for a later and better-prepared meeting in Washington. But the Soviet delegation, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, arrived with a broad package of arms-control reductions, featuring elimination of all intermediate-range missiles in Europe and a 50-percent reduction in all strategic missiles.
At some point, Reagan proposed, out of the blue, that they go further—and eliminate all nuclear weapons. Gorbachev instantly assented. But it then emerged that his agreement was conditioned on Reagan’s abandoning SDI, or at least limiting its development to laboratory tests. Reagan refused to yield, and the deal fell apart.
Many of Reagan’s closest supporters, including Margaret Thatcher, were horrified by the offer he had made to Gorbachev. Thatcher had stood firmly behind Reagan when he was planning to deploy intermediate-range Pershing missiles in Europe as a counter to the Soviet SS-20’s—a plan to which West European opinion was generally hostile. She had also publicly supported the development of SDI despite some private misgivings about its feasibility.
Thatcher had met Gorbachev before he took power, and forcefully conveyed to Reagan and others her impression that this Soviet leader was different from all the others. But like many conservative critics of Reagan, she believed it was folly to eliminate nuclear weapons when the Russians had enormous superiority in conventional forces. She felt betrayed by his offer: “There was no place where you could put your political feet. No place where you were certain you could stand.”
One can only speculate about how things would have unfolded if Gorbachev had accepted the proposal on Reagan’s terms. Among the many questions left hanging: if the U.S. and USSR had abandoned all their nuclear weapons, what about China and other nuclear powers? The offer to Gorbachev was obviously problematic, and Reagan was fortunate that it was spurned. Here as elsewhere, as O’Sullivan demonstrates in this enormously readable account, the man led a charmed life.
This is also the view of John Patrick Diggins, a professor of history at the City University of New York. Like O’Sullivan, Diggins believes that Reagan played a pivotal role in transforming the world, seizing the opportunity to move beyond “containment” and put a permanent end to the cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
Diggins proceeds to characterize Reagan as “a thoughtful, determined man of character and vision,” a leader who “may be, after Lincoln, one of the two or three truly great presidents in American history.” Given that Diggins’s own political orientation is left-liberal, such hyperbole seems astonishing. It becomes even more so as Diggins’s argument unfolds. Or perhaps the right word is unravels.
Diggins is a practitioner of intellectual history, and misses no opportunity to relate Reagan’s behavior to the world of ideas, especially the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Tom Paine. In some measure, their connection to Reagan is obvious. Emerson’s essay on self-reliance, then as now still being thrust on millions of high-school students, undoubtedly gave Reagan some talking points in his years of arguing about big government and the evils of welfare. It is also hard to dispute that the President had what Diggins calls a “Paineite passion for liberty.”
But there is a fatal lack of clarity in this exercise. In Diggins’s repeated references to Emerson and Paine, we are never sure whether we are being told that (a) President Reagan behaved as he did because of insights gleaned from their writings, or (b) simply that his behavior seemed broadly consistent with their principles. In either case, it is not particularly clear what Emerson and Paine have to do with the collapse of Communism.
In Diggins’s discussion of how that collapse came about, moreover, Reagan’s ideas are somewhat mixed up and misrepresented. To a considerable extent, they end up sounding like the ideas of Diggins himself.
Among the ideas to which Diggins is committed are the folly and perfidy of neoconservatism and all its outlets (not excluding COMMENTARY). In 2003 he fired a lengthy blast at neoconservatism in the liberal American Prospect, and the message of that article has been carried over to this biography. Diggins’s main point is that Reagan’s neoconservative advisers were unrealistically fearful of Soviet military might, and darkly suspicious of any efforts to negotiate with the Russians. In the story line that follows from this, Reagan became a peacemaker only because in his second term he finally chose to break away from the “neocon hard-liners” on his staff who counseled “victory, not peace,” and instead decided to negotiate with the Russians.
Venturing into nuclear strategy, Diggins bemoans the cold-war “doctrine of deterrence,” and cheers on Reagan when—on his analysis—the President opts instead for “dialogue.” Or, in another formulation, for “conversation over escalation.” Richard Pipes, the Harvard historian who was formulating American policy toward the Soviet Union on the National Security Council, is a special target. In Diggins’s crisp summary: “Reagan wanted to prevent war, Pipes to prepare for it.” Oh? Reagan did not want to prepare for war? What was that $2 trillion military buildup all about? And who exactly chose to hire Richard Pipes?
A more parsimonious analysis of Reagan’s willingness to negotiate might have related it not to an epiphany about the evils of neoconservatism but to the observable fact that, in Gorbachev, he finally had an adversary worth talking to.
For a work by a respected historian, Ronald Reagan is extraordinarily sloppy, replete with stunning factual errors. Zbigniew Brzezinski is identified at one point as Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of State. (He was national-security adviser.) Diggins has the Bolsheviks closing down Russia’s constituent assembly in 1917. (It happened in 1918.) He states that Nancy Reagan’s astrologer was trying to figure out why, beginning in 1840, every President elected in a year ending in zero had been killed in office. (This was not true of Harding or FDR.) He conflates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943 with the 1944 Warsaw uprising of the Polish Home Army. (Referring to Stalin’s decision to have the Red Army pause on the Vistula, enabling the Germans to crush the Home Army, Diggins says the victims were Jewish. Warsaw’s few remaining Jews had been annihilated a year and a half earlier.)
But the main sloppiness of Ronald Reagan resides in the elaboration of its central premise. It may seem odd that an intellectual historian would have so much trouble with his own thesis, but it ultimately emerges that Diggins may not really believe what he says at the outset about Reagan’s key contribution to the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war.
In his introduction, Diggins squarely rejects the common view that Reagan was a lucky bystander, that the USSR was crumbling anyway, and the President just “happened to be in the right place at the right time.” Yet as the book progresses, he takes a completely different tack. “The process of liberalization that Gorbachev introduced in Moscow,” Diggins writes at one juncture, “eventually brought down the entire edifice of the Communist state.” At another junction, he declares that “It was not Western policy that caused the breakup of the Soviet Union but the failure of the political process within the Soviet Union.”
Reagan’s reputation will undoubtedly survive these wobbles. Diggins’s reputation as an intellectual historian may not fare so well.