A Future Pope and a Future President Take Up the Fight Against Communism
For young Karol Wojtyła, like young Ronald Reagan, there was a great ideological struggle awaiting.
This article is the first 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. The book is based on nearly two decades of archival research. This series will feature five articles focused on five eras covered in the book. Here is part one.
An Illegal Priest in Poland
The young man was 26 years old. He knelt before a cardinal, a prince of the Catholic Church. It was November 1, 1946, All Saints’ Day. Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha had defied the Nazis through World War II by running an underground seminary, and now he was defying the Communists. There, in his private chapel, Sapieha ordained just a single priest. But that priest was Karol Wojtyła.
As Wojtyła knelt he held a white candle. Cardinal Sapieha asked Wojtyła to be “perfect in faith and action” and “well-grounded in virtue.” It was a call to a kind of sainthood. A call he would answer.
Wojtyła lay face down on the floor, arms outstretched, embodying the cross itself. The brethren chanted the Litany of the Saints. He rose to kneel again. The cardinal laid his hands on the young man’s head, conferring the Holy Spirit on him as Jesus had on the apostles. The faithful sang “Come, Holy Spirit,” in Latin: “Veni, Sancte Spiritus.”
The cardinal anointed Wojtyła, praying:
The blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, descend upon you: that you may be blessed in the Priestly Order and may offer propitiatory sacrifices for the sins and offense of the people to Almighty God.
Wojtyła had seen sacrifices of another kind. He’d watched friends and loved ones and fellow priests be murdered by Nazis for defying their wicked policies. But another regime of anti-Christ now occupied his country. Many more sacrifices were surely still to come.
Wojtyła solemnly assented: “Amen.”
The young man had just taken a huge burden upon his shoulders. He could scarcely imagine how heavily it would press on him. Or the path that lay ahead.
A Liberal Actor in California
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, a thirty-something actor took a very different road. No one could have imagined how his path would converge with the priest’s. But like Karol’s, it began in a church.
Ronald Reagan had returned from military service and resumed his film career. He also became a popular after-dinner speaker. Reagan still thought of himself as an FDR liberal. For an entertainer, he gave talks that were remarkably tied in to politics and international affairs. He spoke eloquently and often of the evils of fascism, the monster the Allies had just slain.
Then a religious figure in his life refocused his attention. There was another, and growing, totalitarian threat. Reagan woke up to it one evening, after speaking for the men’s group at the Hollywood Beverly Christian Church, his church at the time.
After the talk, the pastor, the Rev. Cleveland Kleihauer, approached Reagan. He thanked Reagan for his usual fire and brimstone against Nazism. Then he reminded Reagan that the fascist menace was safely dead. Another danger could replace it: Soviet communism. “I think your speech would be even better,” Kleihauer said, “if you also mentioned that if communism ever looked like a threat, you’d be just as opposed to it as you are to fascism.”
Reagan admitted that the reverend was right. As a good liberal, he had not given much thought to threats from the far left. Nonetheless, Reagan understood his minister’s point.
In his next appearance he took Kleihauer’s advice. Reagan addressed a “local citizens’ organization,” one of the many that Hollywood’s closet communists peddled to friends as a “progressive” group. Giving his standard talk, Reagan torched the fascists whom America had vanquished in the war. The “progressives” roared their approval. By his own description, Reagan was a smash.
But Then, a New Line
But then, following Kleihauer’s advice, the young actor closed with a new line: “I’ve talked about the continuing threat of fascism in the postwar world, but there’s another ‘ism,’ communism, and if I ever find evidence that communism represents a threat to all that we believe in and stand for, I’ll speak out just as harshly against communism as I have fascism.”
The applause stopped. The smiles fell away. A nonplussed Reagan awkwardly exited the stage — to dead silence.
The addition of a single line to his popular speech had turned him into a flop. Reagan had just learned a key truth about the political left. The progressive circles he traveled in were happy to denounce Nazism. But they did not want to hear a word against communism.
The incident showed Reagan how naive many on the left were about communism. He would soon see how many progressives saw anti-communists as the real enemy. He would also learn that for at least some progressives, the problem was not simple naiveté: They actually approved of communism.
Decades later, after his presidency, Reagan thanked the Reverend Kleihauer for the “wake-up call.” That moment, prompted by a man of God in a house of God, proved to be the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s long crusade against communism.
Saluting a “Soviet America”
Reagan was getting a quick tutorial on the hidden forces at work in Hollywood. People who cloaked themselves as compassionate “progressives” were conspiring in secret to create a Soviet-directed American state. They were dedicated to what their leader, Communist Party USA general secretary William Z. Foster, called a “Soviet America.” The Marxist poet Langston Hughes put it this way: “Put one more ‘S’ in the USA to make it Soviet. The USA when we take control will be the USSA.”
Reagan would later admit that in this period he was duped over and over by communists masquerading as his “progressive” pals. “The communist plan for Hollywood was remarkably simple,” an awakened Reagan explained. “It was merely to take over the motion picture business … [as] a grand world-wide propaganda base.”
Communists knew that the film industry could be a tremendous source of propaganda. Vladimir Lenin said that “of all the arts, for us the most important is cinema.” Grigori Zinoviev, head of the Soviet Comintern, ordered that motion pictures “must become a mighty weapon of communist propaganda and for the enlightening of the widest working masses.” In March 1928 the Soviets held their first Party Conference on Cinema.
By the 1940s, noted Reagan, American films dominated 95 percent of the globe’s movie screens, with a worldwide audience of “500,000,000 souls.” Reagan wrote: “Takeover of this enormous plant and its gradual transformation into a communist gristmill was a grandiose idea. It would have been a magnificent coup for our enemies.”
A Transformed Reagan
By the end of this period, Reagan was transformed. He would no longer be easily misled by closet Marxist-Leninists who had sworn a loyalty oath to Moscow. “I pledge myself to rally the masses to defend the Soviet Union,” they affirmed upon joining Communist Party USA. “I pledge myself to remain at all times a vigilant and firm defender of the Leninist line of the Party, the only line that ensures the triumph of Soviet Power in the United States.”
Liberals today portray the so-called Hollywood Ten, a group of blacklisted screenwriters and directors, as innocent victims of delusional McCarthyites. In fact, every member of the Hollywood Ten was secretly a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party.
Reagan, as head of the largest union in Hollywood, the Screen Actors Guild, knew these people. At one point, he had been used by all of them.
Now he was chastened, aware, unafraid. Reagan soon began supporting Dr. Fred Schwarz’s Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, attending rallies and giving speeches. He also began to appear at rallies for Gen. Lucius Clay’s Crusade for Freedom. The Crusade called less for containment of the Soviet empire than actual “rollback,” the very goals Reagan would one day pursue as president. At Crusade for Freedom rallies, Reagan said he wanted to free the “captive peoples.”
The captives included the men and women of Karol Wojtyła’s Poland.
“I Have a Lot to Talk About With the Lord”
One fellow freedom fighter who would have prized Reagan’s resistance to communism was Karol Wojtyła.
In 1958, Reagan appeared on the cover of TV Guide for the first time. That same year the thirty-eight-year-old Polish priest became auxiliary bishop of Kraków. On July 4, the failing Pope Pius XII made Wojtyła the youngest bishop in Poland. He must have sensed the importance of this rising young man in a communist-dominated country full of Catholics.
Wojtyła happened to be in Warsaw when word of his elevation came through. Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński at the primate’s office gave him the news. Struck by the magnitude of the appointment, Wojtyła sought the Lord’s presence in quiet isolation. He went straight to a nearby convent. The sisters did not know who he was. But, recognizing his cassock, allowed him inside, escorted him to their private chapel and left him alone to pray.
After a while, the nuns grew concerned when they realized that the young priest had not left. They peeked inside to check on the stranger and saw him lying face down in front of the Tabernacle. Hours passed, and the priest still had not left. One of the sisters gingerly walked inside and said to the prostrate figure, “Perhaps father would like to come to supper?” The priest answered, “My train doesn’t leave for Kraków until after midnight. Please let me stay here. I have a lot to talk about with the Lord.”
He did indeed, and the conversation would continue for the next forty-plus years.
For this young Pole, like a young Reagan, there was a great ideological struggle awaiting, one in which both men saw God as their partner — and eventually saw one another as partners — in fighting the good fight against the evil that was atheistic Soviet communism.