Hal Colebatch continues his special four-part series looking back on the collapse of what once seemed to be a monolithic and global threat to societies everywhere.
Thirteen million Poles saw the Pope personally during his 1979 visit, and probably very nearly the whole of the nation saw him on television. To turn out to greet the Pope was both an act of praising God and the Church and of defying the regime. Nothing like it had happened in the Communist world before. Again to quote The Lord of The Rings, they had woken up and found that they were strong. When the Pope returned to Rome, the Communist rulers of Poland heaved a sigh of relief that the visit had gone no worse: there had been no open rebellion, and it was now over. But whether they realised it or not, their regime was now a standing corpse.
On October 2, 1979, Pope John Paul II addressed the United Nations. He defended religious freedom everywhere in the world, but the thrust of his words were pointed at the Soviet bloc.
US Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who witnessed the scene, recalled that for the first time when such a speech was being made, the Soviet delegates “looked fearful rather than bored.”
Six weeks later the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union approved a special plan to discredit the Pope, working through left-wing Catholic organisations.
The KGB was instructed to show through the various publications, including religious ones, which it controlled or influenced in the West that “the leadership of the new Pope, John Paul II, is dangerous to the Catholic Church.”
Whether the Turkish terrorist Mehmet Ali Agca was then targetted to assassinate the Pope by the KGB, either directly or through Bulgarian intelligence, is unproven, but is at least highly probable.
Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of Britain in 1979, a month before the Pope’s visit to Poland, succeeding the nonentity James Callaghan.
The now-retired Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, telephoned to congratulate her but was not put through: the Downing Street switchboard was not sure if this over-the-hill ex-politician was quite important enough.
She would be strengthened in her anti-Soviet position shortly after by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The British government arranged for Blowpipe anti-aircraft missile launchers to be supplied to the Afghan resistance fighters and pressured the US to supply the more effective Stinger missiles.
Visiting Britain in October, 1979, the Pope travelled to Southern Ireland. Since the IRA, which had stepped up its campaign of bombing atrocities, claimed to be acting on behalf of Irish Catholics, this could have been a fraught situation for the Thatcher government (her close friend and advisor Airey Neave had recently been killed by an IRA bomb, as had Earl Mountbatten). But at Drogheda, scene of an anti-Irish and anti-Catholic atrocity committed by Cromwell, the Pope ringingly denounced the IRA violence: “On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and return to the ways of peace … violence destroys the work of justice … further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love and the values you claim to cherish …”
Many hundreds more were to die, Margaret Thatcher herself would escape assassination, like the Pope and the President, by a margin so narrow as to seem miraculous, and the violence has not ended yet.
But no IRA terrorist could claim to be acting for Catholicism or with the sanction of the Catholic Church again.
In fact, of course, the Church had long denounced the IRA, which far from being a Catholic organisation, was Marxist, and had Soviet finance, support and weapons.
But this put the seal on the matter. The Pope’s words also helped cement the alliance of understanding which was gradually forming between these great leaders that the time had come to say “Enough!” to the “long drawling tides of defeat.”
In Poland in 1980 strikes spread and an independent Trade Union was formed. Determined yet peaceful, and drawing strength from Rome, it was, said O’Sullivan, “An almost text-book implementation of the Pope’s theory of cultural resistance. The Pope’s visit [had] made the people aware that they were a united Catholic nation and need not be divided by Communist-enforced fear and lies.”
The Soviets backed a military coup in Poland under the Quisling General Wojcich Jaruzelski but this could only keep the lid on temporarily.
No longer could they, as they had done in Hungary in 1956, and elsewhere throughout their Empire, send in Red Army tanks to drown resistance in blood. Totalitarianism was losing its teeth.
I was in England for much of 1983-85, and reading such great writers as Colin Welch on what was happening in Poland, I felt the first faint intimations of what my friend and teacher professor Patrick O’Brien had said to a pessimistic gathering in Perth in 1979: that in the Soviet bloc something was going to give.
The murder of the Solidarity-supporting Priest Jerzy Popieluszko by three state security agents gave the cause a new martyr and figure of inspiration. His eloquent sermons had attracted thousands.
Here, in a Communist-ruled nation, he had openly told the people that defiance of authority was an obligation of the heart, of religion, manhood and nationhood. To quote O’Sullivan again: “The mass of Poles had absorbed the Pope’s subtle techniques of cultural resistance. They demonstrated their hostility to Communism not by riots but by openly showing their allegiance to God.”
An America outraged by the humiliations into which it had been led by the defeatist Jimmy Carter elected Ronald Reagan, then aged 70, to the Presidency in 1981.
Two years later he sent US marines to the West Indian island of Grenada to oust the Cuban-backed Communist regime which had seized power there. Grenada was a tiny place but the event was of huge symbolic significance – for the first time ever Communism had actually been “rolled back.” It was possible. It could be done.
The Thatcher government showed its mettle by responding to the Argentine invasion of the Falklands with a full-scale military counter-attack, aided by help from Ronald Reagan, and, in Chile, by the anti-Communist General Pinochet, help which was probably a factor in making victory possible.
Not to have so responded so would have been to broadcast a signal of surrender to the world.
Thatcher and Reagan would reinforce and encourage one another in determination to not merely stand firm and hold the line, to delay the tide of history, but to go on the offensive, to reverse that tide of retreat, and to have the values of democracy win.
Many others, great and small, would play a part in what happened. A little later Jim Baen assembled a group of science-fiction authors, space-scientists, computer engineers, military men and astronauts to form The National Citizens’ Space Advisory Council.
From their brain-storming sessions and those of the High Frontier group came the idea of the Strategic Defence Initiative. And President Reagan listened to them.
The Soviet Union would mobilise its propaganda fronts to attack the SDI as a threat to world peace while trying desperately to build its own, only to find its economy, already in a downward spiral, was being pushed into collapse by the effort.
“Gorbachev’s first official speeches promised no change, but in private he told his wife, the day before his appointment: “We can’t go on living like this anymore.”
In the Soviet Union Brezhnev died and the withered blood-soaked hands of Andropov and Chernenko briefly held power.
They were succeeded by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. His first official speeches promised no change, but in private he told his wife, the day before his appointment: “We can’t go on living like this any more.”
Whether or not Gorbachev knew from the start what his role in history would be, whether he thought a little window-dressing would suffice to set things right, or whether be simply tried to give the Soviet Union a further lease of life by instituting reforms, we cannot be sure.
Gorbachev was also promoting more reform-minded officials. Their actual degree of reform-mindedness may have been very moderate, but it was a great advance on the dinosaurs of the past. In 1981, the average age of Politburo members was 71 – men whose minds had been been thoroughly molded by the time Stalin died. By 1990 it has fallen to 55.
But the guillotine descending on Communism was falling quicker now.To be continued.