The Evil Empire Collapses: Reagan and John Paul II, 1989 – 90

In this June 7, 1982, file photo, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and his wife, first lady Nancy Reagan, meet Pope John Paul II for the first time at the Vatican.

By Paul Kengor Published on August 1, 2017

The following is the fifth and final article in a five-part series of excerpts adapted from Paul Kengor’s new book, A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.

Anyone who witnessed the events of November 9, 1989, will not soon forget them. That day, East Germans confidently climbed the Berlin Wall. To have done so on any previous day since August 13, 1961, would have been unthinkable. East German guards would have shot them on the spot. But this time, those who scaled the wall were safe.

That was because communist authorities for the first time had permitted the free flow of people through East German border crossings. And the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

November 9, 1989, did not simply mark the fall of the Berlin Wall. That physical barrier manifested the Iron Curtain in concrete and barbed wire. Its collapse rang the death knell on an empire. Communist regimes throughout the Eastern Bloc would soon fall — as would, eventually, the Soviet Union itself.

Ronald Reagan’s Triumph

Ronald Reagan took deep delight in the events of November 9, 1989.

He had been calling for the fall of the Berlin Wall for decades. His first public statement to that effect came in his high-profile 1967 debate with Robert F. Kennedy. Most famously, he had called on Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” in 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate.

Now, the wall had fallen, less than a year after Reagan left the presidency. He could kick back and watch the collapse of the wider Communist Bloc with delight.

Just before he left the Oval Office, Reagan had met with Natan Sharansky. That dissident Russian Jew had first read Reagan’s warnings of an “Evil Empire” from a Soviet prison camp. Sharansky felt inspired that “the leader of the free world had spoken the truth.” He’d spread news of Reagan’s statement through Permanent Labor Camp 35. How? By tapping the message on the walls of his prison cell. Then, in 1986, Sharansky was among the political prisoners that Gorbachev released — after Reagan and his administration had applied intense pressure.

Once Poland held those elections, Gorbachev knew the communist game was over.

By January 1989, Sharansky was a guest at the White House, where President Reagan presented him with a Congressional Gold Medal. During the ceremony, Sharansky took Reagan aside. He told the soon-to-retire president if he was ever saddled by any “sad moments,” he should think about Sharansky’s “happy family.” He should remember all the people “who are free today not because of some good will of Soviet leaders but because of their struggle and your struggle.”

Poland Frees Itself

By the spring of 1989, something astounding was unfolding in Karol Wojtyła’s Poland. On April 4, after two months of negotiations with Solidarity and other opposition groups, Poland’s Communist Party countenanced something that was once inconceivable: free and fair parliamentary elections. The agreement:

  • abolished the position of general secretary in favor of a president,
  • officially recognized Solidarity as a political party, and
  • created a new upper chamber of the legislature to which all 100 seats would be put up for open election.

The elections happened on June 4, nearly a half century after Stalin had promised free and fair elections in Poland and FDR had put faith in the assurances of “Uncle Joe.” In effect, this Polish agreement marked the death of Warsaw’s communist regime.

As Poland’s June elections approached, Ronald Reagan, enjoying retirement in California, welcomed some Polish visitors at his Century City office near Hollywood. Chris Zawitkowski is an ethnic Pole who, after the Cold War’s end, became head of the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education. He brought along another Polish American and two Solidarity members who had come a long distance to meet their presidential hero. They came to express their gratitude and to ask for some advice. Zawitkowski asked Reagan, the master campaigner, whether he had any words of wisdom for the two Solidarity members as they readied for the June elections.

Reagan’s Best Friend

No doubt these gentlemen expected Reagan, who had won landslide political victories, to give political advice. Reagan, however, dug deeper. In a John Paul II–like affirmation, Reagan counseled the Polish campaigners, “Listen to your conscience, because that is where the Holy Spirit speaks to you.”

The men nodded appreciatively. They understood a little more about the man who’d helped free their nation.

Then the former president pointed to a picture of Pope John Paul II that hung on his office wall. “He is my best friend,” Reagan told the Poles. “Yes, you know I’m Protestant, but he’s still my best friend.”

Ronald Reagan’s best friend — Pope John Paul II.

One of Reagan’s guests, Solidarity member Antoni Macierewicz, offered the former president a gift. Like many Poles, Macierewicz once had been thrown in jail by the communists. While there, he busied himself with carving a special Madonna. The persecuted Solidarity member wanted Reagan to have the image of the Mother of Christ that he had carved under duress imposed by evildoers. Reagan accepted. He held the Madonna in his hands and said that he and Nancy would be proud to have it in their home.

Solidarity’s Victory

Reagan was likewise proud of what the Solidarity men and their colleagues achieved once they got back to Poland. In the June 4 elections, Solidarity candidates claimed every one of the roughly one-third of seats in the lower chamber of the legislature that the communists opened to balloting. And in the newly created upper chamber, Solidarity claimed 99 of the 100 new seats.

In short, Solidarity won more than 99 percent of available legislative seats. Communists did not claim one.

“As is always the case, once people who have been deprived of basic freedom taste a little of it, they want all of it.” —Ronald Reagan

In December 1990, Lech Wałęsa put a capstone on the victory over communism by emerging as Poland’s freely elected president.

The Dominoes Fall

The elections in June 1989 had repercussions far beyond Poland. Mikhail Gorbachev later said that once Poland held those elections, he knew the communist game was over. He had grasped that the emergence of Solidarity threatened not only “chaos in Poland” but also the “ensuing break-up of the entire Socialist camp.”

Both Ronald Reagan and John Paul II had seen Poland as “the linchpin in the dissolution of the Soviet empire” (in Bill Clark’s words). They were right. The dissolution began in Karol Wojtyła’s Poland, months before the Berlin Wall fell.

And it was just the start.

In Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, Prague, and even Bucharest, a series of inconceivable events would occur in 1989. Then, on February 7, 1990, the unthinkable happened again, this time in Moscow: the Community Party’s monopoly ended in the USSR.

That day, the Communist Party Central Committee agreed to Mikhail Gorbachev’s proposal to strike Article 6 from the Soviet constitution. That article had guaranteed the Communist Party’s iron grip on power for more than seventy years. The party leadership also accepted the plan for a Western-style cabinet system and presidency. General Secretary Gorbachev would become President Gorbachev.

An Answer to Prayer

It is crucial to understand that Gorbachev, still to this day, insists he was trying to preserve the Soviet Union. He wanted a better, kinder, gentler, non-Stalinist Soviet Union, but an intact Soviet Union nonetheless. And yet, by ending the Communist Party monopoly on power, Gorbachev was, whether he knew it or not, edging the Evil Empire closer to its tomb.

Ronald Reagan did know it. On December 5, 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall fell, Reagan spoke in Cambridge, England. There he demonstrated a shrewd understanding of what Gorbachev’s taste of freedom would bring. “As is always the case,” said Reagan, “once people who have been deprived of basic freedom taste a little of it, they want all of it. It was as if Gorbachev had uncorked a magic bottle and a genie floated out, never to be put back in again. Glasnost was that genie.”

Reagan said this a full year before Gorbachev’s resignation and the official dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The implosion of atheistic Soviet communism thrilled Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. It was no doubt an answer to prayer.

The Final Meeting

More than a decade earlier, Ronald Reagan had identified John Paul II as “the key.” Eight years earlier, the two leaders had met in the Vatican and agreed that their lives had been spared for the purpose of ending Soviet communism. Now, as that Marxist-Leninist empire collapsed, Reagan had the opportunity to reconvene with the pope.

Reporters at the time, and historians since, missed this meeting almost completely.

In September 1990, the former president made a victory lap of sorts, a trip to the former communist world to which he and Pope John Paul II had helped bring liberty.

Reagan embarked on a ten-day, four-country European tour. Fittingly, the trip started at the Berlin Wall. Cameras captured the former president with a hammer in hand, smashing the symbol of cold, dead atheistic communism. “It feels great,” he told reporters. “It’ll feel better when it’s all down.” He added: “I don’t think you can overstate the importance of it. I was trying to do everything I could for such things as this.”

Most press coverage of Reagan’s European trip was confined to his visit to the Berlin Wall. As a result, the cameras and microphones were absent for what was perhaps an even more powerful encounter: Reagan’s visit with John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo.

Happy Memories

This fifth meeting between Reagan and the pope was the first with Reagan out of power. It was a friendly and personal visit, not a state visit. USA Today was one of the only Western sources to bother reporting on the meeting. It ran only these three sentences: “Former president Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, finished up their European tour by visiting with Pope John Paul II at the papal summer palace outside Rome. The pope ended the 30-minute meeting with the words ‘God bless America,’ the Vatican said. No other details were released.” A UPI report added this: “Vatican sources said Reagan probably told the pope of his favorable impressions of changes in the Soviet Union.”

That was pretty much the extent of Western media coverage. But two decades later, in August 2012, I interviewed one of the people who went on the trip with the Reagans. Joanne Drake was longtime personal aide to Mrs. Reagan. Via Drake, I also asked Mrs. Reagan about the visit with the pope. Drake and Mrs. Reagan remembered that the meeting, which only the Reagans and Pope John Paul II attended, took place at 11 a.m. It lasted about an hour.

Mrs. Reagan recalled it as “a warm and wonderful meeting.”

The Reagans had just come from Berlin, Warsaw, Gdańsk, Leningrad and Moscow, conferring with Lech Wałęsa and the Gorbachevs, among others. I asked Mrs. Reagan whether her husband and the pontiff celebrated the collapse of communism and all that had transpired over the past year. She recalled that they “did discuss all of these people and places with the pope.” But more than two decades later, she simply could not recollect significant details beyond the fact that this was a warm, personal, friendly conversation. She reiterated that she had only happy memories of all their meetings and relationship.

This fifth meeting between Reagan and John Paul II would turn out to be their last. It is a shame that virtually nothing is known or recorded of this meeting, aside from Vatican notes that will remain sealed until 2065.

To God the Glory

We know from Mrs. Reagan that they did discuss the blessed events that had occurred in Europe over the past year. Surely these two men — Ronald Reagan and his “best friend” — acknowledged and thanked God for all that had happened since they took bullets more than nine years earlier.

This must have been a poignant moment. If only we knew more, and if only they knew it would be the last time they would see each other.

The Last Laugh

Many Western observers had laughed at Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. But high-level Soviet officials confirmed exactly what he said.

But at least the two men knew that they would no longer see the Evil Empire loom over the world. Once the communist collapse came, Russian government officials were eager to finally talk openly about their erstwhile empire. Andrei Kozyrev, President Yeltsin’s foreign minister, was quick to explain that it was a mistake to use the name “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”: “It was, rather, [an] evil empire, as it was put.”

Arkady Murashev, a young leader in Yeltsin’s Russia, told reporter David Remnick: “He [Reagan] called us the ‘Evil Empire.’ So why did you in the West laugh at him? It’s true!”

Sergei Tarasenko, the chief assistant to Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, offered a similar take: “So the president said, ‘It is an evil empire!’ Okay. Well, we [were] an evil empire.”

Genrikh Trofimenko was once director of the prestigious Institute for U.S. and Canada Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. He added a slight adjustment to Reagan’s description. What was his objection? Reagan’s “Evil Empire” label, said Trofimenko, “was probably too mild.”

Many Western observers had laughed at Ronald Reagan for calling the Soviet Union an Evil Empire. Or they had reprimanded him for his “primitive” analysis. But high-level Soviet officials confirmed exactly what he said. People also laughed at Reagan when he said that “the march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash-heap of history.”

Just nine years later, he had been proven right. The Cold War was history, and so was Soviet communism. Both were finished — dispatched to the ash-heap of history.

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  • stpetric

    Two leaders brought together by Providence during an amazing period of time. It’s important to remember also two other essential figures: Margaret Thatcher and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. May we not forget the evil in the overthrow of which they were instrumental.

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