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The President and the Pope: Reading the Signs of the Times

Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II shared more than a distaste for communism. They shared an ability to read the signs of the times and act accordingly.

John Zmirak


So much has changed since 1981, when Ronald Reagan entered the White House, it actually strains the mind and imagination to recall what a different world it was. I wonder if my nephews and nieces have any conception of it. In 23 years, the map of the planet and the constellation of powers that sprawl across it have changed as radically as they did between 1917 and 1940, or between 1940 and 1963.

We've moved from a tense standoff between two superpowers with nuclear missiles on hair triggers pointed—absurdly, obscenely—at hundreds of millions of each other's civilians, to a globe dominated by a single, unchallenged nation, whose cultural, commercial, and military dominance seem incontestable, except by occasional acts of sabotage. As ugly as is the specter of terrorismand as a native New Yorker who lived through 9/11, I know—it pales to triviality compared to Mutual Assured Destruction.

It’s hard to imagine the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire without the election of a pontiff from the Eastern bloc, who profoundly understood the old appeal of Communism, its hopeless internal flaws, its manifold mutilations of man’s spirit.
From my early childhood until some time in 1989 I always assumed, in the back of my mind, that I knew how I would someday die: In a lightning flash, with perhaps 10 minutes warning, along with everyone I'd ever known, in the radioactive rubble of an extinguished civilization. I remember hoping not for a chance at escapethere'd be no escape—but for enough time to dash to the rectory for confession. (More likely, of course, for a general absolution pronounced over a weeping, desperate crowd.) Nowadays I worry that terrorists might—just mightget hold of a small atomic device, and I check the wind patterns to see if my neighborhood would be contaminated. It's an ugly thought, but compared to Armageddon... I'll take it.

The leadership of the late President Reagan is now being given much of the credit for ushering out the specter of thermonuclear war. And rightly so. It's only fitting that when a great man dies his contribution be magnified and memorialized. When Ronald Reagan entered office, respectable opinion, the foreign policy experts, the American military and our own intelligence services assumed that Communism would be with us indefinitelyif not forever. Ex-Marxist intellectuals, who'd only just begun to call themselves "neoconservatives," opined in books such as 1984 Revisited that totalitarianism was "irreversible," that the power of the leviathan state, underpinned by systematic ideology, could never be dislodged from a country, except by overwhelming military force—which would bring on a nuclear holocaust. Orwell's glum vision of the future: "a boot, crushing a human face, forever" appeared to be accurate for roughly half the human population. Meanwhile, the Communist tyrants kept on amassing military power, even as the West seemed less and less inclined to contest them. Europeans with Lilliputian armies gazed across the Iron Curtain, pondering whether they could accept "Finlandization," or come up with some form of "Eurocommunism" which might buy them safety and a measure of freedom-like the citizens of Hong Kong.

Amidst this creeping gloom, the combative anti-Communism of candidate Ronald Reagan seemed irresponsibleat worst a jingoism that would goad us into total war, at best a futile whistling in the dark. But today it is indisputable that the actions Reagan took early in his presidency helped push the Soviet system to the brink of its collapse: His military build-up, his covert and overt actions to aid anti-Communist movements around the world (including, it should be noted, the brutal Nicaraguan contras and the Islamic movements that gave birth to Osama bin Laden), and his willingness to pour America's wealth into a risky, unimaginably expensive "Strategic Defense Initiative"... the list is long, and could be multiplied. Reagan's multi-front guerilla war against the Soviets convinced their elites to give Mikhail Gorbachev his chance—to reform their system, they thought, to refit it for competition with a newly resurgent America. Though they knew far better than we (or even Reagan) how shaky their situation was, they little imagined how quickly events would shatter their empire, and leave the pieces littered across the face of Eastern Europe.

Of course, the bellicosity and bravura of early Reagan are only part of the explanation for why the continents shifted. Another force which moved the earth was provided by another man now in the twilight of his life—Pope John Paul II. Some of us remember the cover of Time magazine that celebrated the end of Communism, depicting Ronald Reagan together with the pope. It's hard to imagine the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire without the election of a pontiff from the Eastern bloc, who profoundly understood the old appeal of Communism, its hopeless internal flaws, its manifold mutilations of man's spirit.

This pope had helped form the Catholic workers' movement that finally discredited Communism in Poland; that nation's long, non-violent resistance to its oppressive government created the template for other countries, and the failure of its government to crush Solidarity emboldened reformers across Eastern Europe. Where other countries' reform movementsdriven by a passion for Western liberties or old-style nationalism—had foundered and failed, Solidarity, empowered by supernatural hope and faith, and restrained by miraculous charity, would triumph. And the rest of the tyrannical regimes would falllike so many dominoes.

Reagan and Pope John Paul II shared a clear-eyed apprehension of reality, a vision of human dignity, and an intellectual openness which allowed them to read the signs of the times, and act accordingly.
When we reflect on the profound gift to peace and liberty that was the end of the Cold War, it's important to remember that magazine cover, to hold on to both the forces that impelled the destruction of Communism—the twin powers of Church and State. Of course, there was concrete cooperation between the U.S. government and the Vatican; Reagan poured money through the A.F.L.-C.I.O. into the coffers of Solidarity, even as Pope John Paul restrained the excesses of Marxist clerics throughout Latin America. The two men worked together on social issues as well; it was Reagan who reversed almost 30 years of official U.S. support for coercive population control, and legal abortion around the world. But there was a deeper convergence between these two great men; they shared a clear-eyed apprehension of reality, a vision of human dignity, and an intellectual openness which allowed them to read the signs of the times, and act accordingly.

Here I would like to warn against those men who'd lightly claim Reagan's mantle today on behalf of an aggressive foreign policy. Today men such as William Kristol and his compatriots, who call themselves "neo-Reaganites," urge us on to conquer and subjugate the nations of the Islamic world, to "drain the swamp" of terrorism. They point to Israel as the proper example of how to deal with violent attacks upon civilians, and urge upon us the short-sighted ruthlessness which now prevails in Gaza and the West Bank—and which once "kept order" in Johannesburg. When Pope John Paul, along with virtually all his bishops and most serious Catholic thinkers, disagree, they're accused by American hawks of "softness," idealism, or crypto-pacifism, of sharing in the European "loss of nerve"the same "squeamishness" which leads Europeans to abstain from capital punishment.

I remember the disgust some loudly Catholic columnists expressed when a prominent cardinal, speaking on the pope's behalf, said that even the captured Saddam Hussein should be treated "with dignity." The same disdain which greeted that suggestion informed the policies towards lesser Iraqi prisoners: Such contempt for "liberal" niceties of Christian ethics created the abuses at Abu Ghraib. That disgrace to the American military has helped sow seeds of terrorism whose fruits we will reap for years to come, and will goad any future Iraqi government into reflexive anti-Americanism. Nice work, boys.

On the surface, today's neoconservatives seem to be acting in the tradition of early Reagan, the man who resoundingly rejected the temporizing policies of Jimmy Carter, who willingly contracted a vast deficit in order to fund a military build-up, who crammed Pershing missiles down the throat of European public opinion, while shipping guns to "freedom fighters" whose tactics included terrorism, who joked that "we start bombing in 15 minutes."

But it's important to remember what Reagan did nextwhat he did throughout his presidency. As he watched the Soviet response to his firm resolve, as he saw what had seemed to be an invincible Evil Empire begin to shudder at its core, he did something of which contemporary hawks seem incapable: He learned. Not that he had been wrong, but that the situation had changed. He absorbed new information, and acted accordingly. When the Polish government cracked down on Solidarity—but proved incapable of exterminating the movementReagan knew that the other side had lost its nerve. This wasn't Stalin's empire—which would have liquidated Poland without blinkingbut the monster's creeping, failing shadow.

Had Reagan chosen instead to greet his opponent’s admission of weakness with threats of military force, it’s entirely possible that reform would have been choked in the Soviet Union.
When the Soviet Communist party replaced the bellicose Yuri Andropov with the would-be reformer Gorbachev, Reagan learned: He saw that his enemy was sick, sick unto death, and need only be waited out. To the rage and disgust of neoconservatives (read back issues of Commentary to see how they denounced Reagan himself for "going soft" and becoming "another Jimmy Carter") the president engaged Gorbachev in arms control negotiations, all the while quietly supporting the forces of democratic resistance in Poland and elsewhere. His optimism and confidence fueled in him a genuinely conservative patience and prudence, which made possible the peaceful implosion of the world's second superpower, almost without the firing of a shot. Had Reagan chosen instead to greet his opponent's admission of weakness with threats of military force, it's entirely possible that reform would have been choked in the Soviet Union—or even that its elites would have chosen to go down fighting. And none of us would be alive to write or read about it....

So to fans of Ronald Reagan who've become disillusioned by the apparent "softness" of the pope, I'd say: Imitate that heroic president, and like him learn from experience. However philosophically committed Reagan was to halting the Communist threat, he was able to recognize when that threat was proving illusory, where its rattling of a saber signaled only weakness. Supremely confident both in himself and in America's long-term strength, he never mistook mere stubbornness for resolve, or pig-headedness for courage. These are lessons we should apply, starting today, in our struggle against radical Islam and terrorism.

When we see that there are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, no traces of cooperation with Al-Qaeda, and little prospect of creating an American-style democracy there, we should learn and act accordingly. We should clean up the mess we made as best we can, and get out as quickly as possible-returning the country to its inhabitants, with the tacit acknowledgement that however wicked was their old ruler, we never had any right to be there in the first place. (There is reason to believe that this is what President Bush has finally decided to do, thanks to political pressure—thank the Lord that we live with a system where such pressure can be exerted, through free speech and free elections!)

Ronald Reagan showed his willingness to learn when he pulled our forces out of Lebanon, responding sensibly to unacceptable American casualties run up in a pointless, futile mission—just like our war in Iraq. Without a real pretext for war, an imminent threat to our country or our allies, or any mandate from the international community, our invasion was left with only a single justification: overthrowing a tyrant who'd made the mistake of thwarting our will, and who sat atop oil reserves. That doesn't make a just warnot by Christian standards, anyway. Mussolini had as good a case for invading Ethiopia.

However philosophically committed Reagan was to halting the Communist threat, he was able to recognize when that threat was proving illusory, where its rattling of a saber signaled only weakness.
On a deeper level, we should learn from the events of the past three years how weak are the enemies of civilization. We should see in their ruthlessness, their need to target civilians, their crouching in caves and attacks on commuter trains, a profound admission of weakness. Unable to take on our military might, they choose to attack the helpless. Caught up in a bizarrely reactionary world-view which every day loses ground to the evangelical secularism of the West (let's decide how to heal that another day), they do not produce great popular art that will keep the allegiance of their peoples; they send packets of anthrax to The National Enquirer. Powerless to build a society which maintains spiritual values amidst modern technology, they sabotage the oil pipelines of their very own countries, and massacre the engineers who keep their electricity running.

These are not the actions of an organized, enormously threatening conspiracy that threatens our freedom; they are the death-rattle of an extremist cult, like Jim Jones' last broadcasts from Jonestown. They should be countered as Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul countered the withering ideology of Communism: With force where it makes sense-that is, where reason and evidence, not forged documents and wild conjecture, tell us that it's the wisest policy. With flexibility and prudence, with confidence and decency—in other words, with the virtues that the late Ronald Reagan and the great pope John Paul displayed as they exorcised Stalin's ghost.

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June 14, 2004

John Zmirak (http://zmirak.blogspot.com) is a contributing editor of The American Conservative (www.amconmag.com) and Godspy.

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06.15.04   Godspy says:
Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II shared more than a distaste for communism. They shared an ability to read the signs of the times and act accordingly.

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