Pope John Paul II once said that, “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” That is one way to explain why a Polish pope, dedicated above all to defending the dignity of the human person, would step onto the world stage just as the most powerful country on earth was about to elect a president, Ronald Reagan, unwaveringly committed to the cause of freedom. One became the spiritual leader of the world; the other the political leader of the free world. Both of them joined forces to overthrow Communism.
On June 7th, 1982, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II met for the first time at the Vatican Library, where they talked for about an hour. As John O’Sullivan, a senior speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher, observed: “It is almost certain that both men were entirely candid. Each saw the other as a natural ally, and this could have been their only opportunity to compare notes in person … What was important—and it turned out to be very important—was that Reagan had convinced the pope that he was sincerely committed to peace and disarmament and that these commitments would shape his policy.”
The first meeting ever between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan was very important for each of them “as both men displayed a calm but settled determination to trust their own instincts rather than conventional wisdom of those in Washington and the Vatican who imagined themselves more realistic about world affairs,” according to the American author, George Weigel.
Journalist Carl Bernstein supposes that “in that meeting, Reagan and the Pope agreed to undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire … Both the Pope and the President were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the U.S. committed their resources to destabilizing the Polish [Communist] government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981.” The American politician and the Roman pontiff strongly believed that Solidarity could crack the Iron Curtain and overturn Communism. In The Pope and The President, historian Paul Kengor exclaims: “Reagan and the Pope translated their divine mission into a practical mission to maintain Solidarity.”
Reagan and John Paul II were apparently rather different, but in reality they were quite similar. They both detested Marxism and the Soviet Union. They both opposed the Yalta agreement which had consigned half of Europe to the Communist yoke. According to Weigel: “They both believed that Communism was a moral evil, not simply wrong-headed economics. They were both confident of the capacity of free people to meet the Communist challenge. Both were convinced that, in the contest with Communism, victory, not mere accommodation, was possible. Both had a sense of the drama of late twentieth-century history, and both were confident that the spoken word of truth could cut through the static of Communism’s lies and rouse people from their acquiescence to servitude.”
There were other poignant similarities between them. Both world leaders survived assassination attempts. They both were horrified by the prospect of atomic war. Finally, they both were actors who believed in the power of the spoken word. As Weigel puts it: “The fact that they were both actors made a great difference—not only in terms of communication skills, but even more importantly in shaping how both men looked at the human condition and its possibilities. The president and the Pope never discussed their respective theatrical careers in any depth. They didn’t have to. Each recognized in the other a shared sense of the drama of late 20th-century life and of Communism’s role in that drama.”
John Paul II and President Reagan considered Communism a moral evil, an offense to human dignity, and a danger to people’s freedom. In their own way, they used the power of the Word to confront evil. It took moral courage to do it, but the evil was easy to identify; it had a face and a name. It was a totalitarian Communist system which denied the existence of God and thrived only when human dignity was violated. The pope and the president fought that evil by refusing to compromise with it, and by speaking simply and with clarity about what they stood for. Theirs was the theater of “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil”.
Reagan “‘greatly’ sympathized with Poland for a number of reasons; among them, no other country lost as high a percentage of its population in World War II,” said Bill Clark, his second national security adviser. The president knew that no other people endured like the Poles almost 50 years of totalitarianism, first under the Nazis and then the Soviets. Reagan “blasted this ‘Communistic atheism’ that had preyed on Poland following World War II.”
Further, according to American writer Peter Schweizer, “Reagan was certainly mindful of the role the Church could play in bringing freedom to Poland.” He trusted that Poland with its strong Catholic Church and the Polish commitment to God would defeat the Communist regime. In 1978, Poland received a great boost from God: John Paul II arrived onto the world scene. An astute observer remarked, “To Reagan, this pope represented the best of both worlds—unwavering faith in God and strident anti-Communism.”
The declaration of martial law in Poland on December 13, 1981, was a turning point for the Reagan administration. Dr. Paul Kengor explains: “The first concrete step came on January 20, 1982, when the president officially designated January 30 as Solidarity Day in the United States, a time for Americans to show ‘special affinity’ with Solidarity. ‘I urge the people of the United States, and free peoples everywhere,’ exhorted Reagan, ‘to observe this day in meetings, demonstrations, rallies, worship services, and all other appropriate expression of support. We will show our solidarity with the courageous people of Poland’.”
Ronald Reagan immediately took action, upon the imposition of martial law in Poland, to support Solidarity and roll the Soviets back. Reagan’s administration provided financial aid, equipment, and propaganda material to the underground movement. The president also imposed economic sanctions on Poland, which eventually would force the Communist government into liberalizing its policies.
There were many existing obstacles to overcome for both John Paul II and Ronald Reagan on their way to defeat Communism. However, they never gave up on their plan. The pope and the president fought Communist evil by refusing to compromise with it. Their faith gave them a strong common ground to persevere against Marxism-Leninism. They both believed they were called by God to do good works for world freedom.
Ultimately, Communism collapsed. In his Holy Alliance, journalist Bernstein quoted a cardinal who was one of the pope’s closest collaborators: “Nobody believed the collapse of communism would happen this fast or on this timetable. But in their first meeting, the Holy Father and the President committed themselves and the institutions of the church and America to such a goal. And from that day, the focus was to bring it about in Poland.” Later, what we saw in the Soviet space was the domino theory in action. The USSR imploded; the captive nations gained their freedom.
Thus, the meeting of two powerful minds brought significant change into the world. As John O’Sullivan aptly summarizes: “Reagan and John Paul certainly cooperated to help free Poland and Eastern Europe from Communism. But there is an explanation for this cooperation that is far more plausible that a ‘conspiracy’ or ‘deal’: both Reagan and John Paul II were firmly anti-Communist, and they saw the Polish and European situations in much the same way.”
Reagan and John Paul II provided the key to victory. They fulfilled its mission. Communism crumbled and was transformed; the Soviet Union imploded. Karol Wojtyła and Ronald Reagan made sure of that.
These two great men are no longer with us, but our need for moral clarity and moral leadership, which they amply provided, remains.