In 1970, the Russian dissident Andrei Amalrik published a short book, Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984? Another, more famous refusenik, Natan Sharansky, has said that when he was in a Soviet prison in 1984 and Amalrik’s prediction came up during his interrogation, his KGB guards laughed: “Amalrik is long dead, but we are still very much present!” Amalrik had died in 1980.
Well, as history would show, Amalrik was wrong, though only by a few years. He had believed the Soviet bureaucracy with its brutality, the USSR’s ethnic diversity, its economic stagnation and simmering social unrest would be the death of the Beast. All true. And he thought a war with China was imminent and would devastate Russia. That was wrong, of course, but substitute Afghanistan for China, and he looks more prescient.
Like most dissidents, Amalrik was frustrated by the Western policy of détente. Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter had all met with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to little avail, and all liberty-loving Russians (and their millions of allies behind the Iron Curtain) knew there could never be freedom of speech or religion or in economic activity as long as communism ruled.
Amalrik died just eight days after Ronald Reagan was elected as America’s 40th president, so he didn’t live to see how an alliance between Reagan and Pope John Paul II would become the force – joined to the others Amalrik had identified – that would lead to the Soviet Union’s collapse.
The story of that alliance is told superbly in Robert Orlando’s new documentary, The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War. And with Mr. Orlando, Prof. Paul Kengor (a sometime contributor to The Catholic Thing) has written a companion book that includes excerpts from interviews with the experts who appear in the film: Reagan aides Richard V. Allen and James Rosebush, religious leaders Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Bishop Robert Barron, as well as writers and historians Anne Applebaum, H.W. Brands, Douglas Brinkley, Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Monika Jablonska, Stephen Kotkin, John O’Sullivan, Craig Shirley, and George Weigel. (Full disclosure: Kengor, O’Sullivan, Shirley, Weigel, Dolan, and Barron are all acquaintances of mine.)
Mr. O’Sullivan wrote a superb 2006 book, The President, the Pope, And the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World, in which the anti-Soviet coalition is justly widened to include Margaret Thatcher. She plays a role in The Divine Plan as well, principally through Mr. O’Sullivan’s commentary, but as he points out, Mrs. Thatcher was a Methodist and uncomfortable with the idea that she was a participant in a mission ordained by God.
That is, however, the position of Messrs. Orlando and Kengor, and it’s probably God’s honest truth. If that “probably” seems an equivocation, it’s only because, like Mrs. Thatcher, I was brought up Methodist and am reluctant to assume that I’ve witnessed the intervention of God in contemporary history, although I certainly agree, as John L. Allen Jr. wrote recently, that John Paul II’s 1979 trip home to Poland “set the dominoes tumbling that would eventually bring down the Soviet empire.” That’s just history.
Yet the case for the hand of God directly ordering those events and the intersecting lives of Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla is very compelling. From humble beginnings, both rose to the most important leadership positions on earth. Both men were nearly killed by would-be assassins’ bullets – and just months apart.
Kengor and Orlando write that when historians shy away from the spiritual bond between these two men and their entwined destinies, they ignore the fact that “both John Paul II and Reagan firmly believed in the Divine Plan and felt sure that they had been called to play their roles in it.” [Emphases in the original.]
But it’s still more than that: the president and the pope also recognized these roles in one another. And “role” certainly is a keyword, in that both men began their adult lives as actors. And Reagan himself often referred to the “DP” in describing what he and the pope were up to fulfilling.
The script of the film, as such, is principally the off-camera narration spoken by actor Peter Reznikoff. But the substance of the documentary is those experts’ commentaries, which are reminiscent of the non-fiction aspect of Warren Beatty’s flawed but brilliant 1981 romance, Reds, about communist intellectuals in the dawn of the Soviet Era, except that Orlando’s witnesses actually know what the heck they’re talking about. They speak with objectivity and not out of the roseate fog of 60-year-old memories and lies doggedly adhered to. It’s a fascinating contrast: here are men and women in Orlando’s documentary speaking about the mystical action of God in history, yet it’s Beatty’s aging leftists who are lost in a haze of mystification. But maybe they’d been smoking the actual opium of the people.
Leftists often assert that history is converging on “progressive” ends – ends envisioned by a revolutionary cadre. The Divine Plan challenges us to see God’s intervention in events and reminds us of what may be achieved by men and women of faith who courageously seek His ends.
Was it faith that ended the Cold War? Well, consider that the USSR, one of the most brutally despotic and militaristic regimes in history, was brought to collapse without a single shot being fired (“proxy wars” notwithstanding). Eighty-million people died in the war that defeated Nazism. Lenin, Stalin, and their Soviet henchman also killed millions between 1922 and 1991, but the Evil Empire was ultimately defeated by a peaceful revolution. (Mikhail Gorbachev, the “the providential man,” also deserves much credit.)
I was struck watching The Divine Plan by Craig Shirley’s reference to Reagan as a “cultural Catholic,” a wonderful statement . . . whether or not it’s true. And it was marvelous to see my former National Review colleague, John O’Sullivan, become emotional quoting his former boss Margaret Thatcher’s remarks at Reagan’s funeral:
“We have one advantage Ronald Reagan never had: we have his example.”
True as well of St. John Paul II’s example. May both these great men inspire us in the trials ahead.
The Divine Plan will premiere on November 6, 2019 at Fathom Events one-night-only screenings at theaters across the country. Tickets may be purchased beginning today at the Fathom Events website. For more information about the film itself, click here.