John Paul II, Reagan, and the ‘Divine Plan’ to End the Cold War
Scene 1: Washington Hilton, March 30, 1981, 2:27 p.m.
President Ronald Reagan has just completed a speech before the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
A crowd gathers outside the hotel to catch a glimpse of the president before he climbs into his motorcade. One young man in the crowd, John Hinckley, has other ideas. The deranged Hinckley has decided to make a dramatic bid for the attention of a Hollywood actress named Jodie Foster, his obsession.
Reagan hears what sounds like firecrackers. Suddenly, amid screams, Secret Service agent Jerry Parr shoves Reagan into the back seat of the presidential limousine. Parr lands on top of the president. “Jerry, get off,” Reagan says. “I think you’ve broken one of my ribs.”
But the pain does not come from Parr. It comes instead from a razor-sharp bullet that has sliced near Reagan’s heart—a bullet Hinckley had fired from his revolver.
At Parr’s command, the driver abandons the plan to return to the White House and whisks Reagan to George Washington University Hospital. The president is bleeding severely.
Ronald Reagan is in mortal danger.
Scene 2: Saint Peter’s Square, Vatican City, May 13, 1981, just past 5 p.m.
Only six weeks after the shooting of President Reagan, Pope John Paul II is riding in a small, white, open-air Fiat, better known as the Popemobile, greeting the thousands who have come to cheer him.
One man in the crowd has been waiting all day for his chance. Twenty-three-year-old Mehmet Ali Agca of Turkey carries a Browning 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun.
As the pontiff draws close, the trained assassin lifts the gun and fires four times. He hits the pope in the hand and in the abdomen. John Paul II collapses into the arms of his aides. “Mary, my mother; Mary, my mother,” he says.
Security officials get the pope into an ambulance and rush him to Gemelli Hospital. Rome’s brutal traffic makes the task almost impossible, but the ambulance finally reaches the hospital, with only minutes to spare. When the patient arrives, doctors find that he is bleeding severely. His blood pressure is plummeting.
Father Stanisław Dziwisz, who caught the pope in his arms after the shooting, administers last rites.
John Paul II is dying.
Agca and his Bulgarian and Soviet handlers have set out to kill the pope.
But the Divine Plan has something else in store.
A mere six weeks separated these two assassination attempts. Both the president and the pope nearly died.
At the time, however, reports downplayed the severity of their injuries, largely because even their staffs did not understand how grave their conditions were. The official word from Washington suggested that Reagan remained in stable condition and that, in the words of the secretary of state just after the shooting, “there are no alert measures that are necessary at this time or contemplated.” Similarly, Vatican Radio reported that John Paul II was “not in serious condition.” In reality, the pope’s physicians still listed his condition as “critical” ten days after surgery.
“We now know that both [shootings] were life-threatening,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan told us in an interview. “By the tiniest measurements available to human calculation, the bullets missed vital organs.”
Dolan was right: Hinckley’s bullet landed just short of Reagan’s heart and nearly ruptured a valve. Agca’s shot missed John Paul II’s main abdominal artery by “the merest fraction of an inch,” papal biographer George Weigel reports. Just as remarkably, the bullet managed to miss the spinal column and every major nerve cluster along the way. Even still, the pope’s abdomen suffered so much damage that doctors had to remove nearly two feet of intestine.
A Matter of Mere Centimeters
In each case, a matter of mere centimeters made the difference between life and death. Both the pope and the president were fortunate not to have bled to death even before they reached the hospital.
Once doctors began to attend to them, Reagan and John Paul II desperately needed blood transfusions. Reagan required eight pints of blood; John Paul II, six pints. After the pope’s body rejected the first transfusion, doctors in the hospital donated their own blood.
Both men came close to dying, only to survive and resume their positions of leadership. If you want to understand the depth of the bond they formed, you must look to the assassination attempts in the spring of 1981.
“The Hand of God”
Ronald Reagan and John Paul II suffered strikingly similar near-death experiences. And they reacted to those experiences in strikingly similar ways.
Specifically, they both saw the hand of Heaven in their ultimate survival.
Before his surgery, as he struggled to breathe, Reagan began to pray. “But,” he later wrote in his diary, “I realized I couldn’t ask for God’s help while at the same time I felt hatred for the mixed-up young man who had shot me. Isn’t that the meaning of the lost sheep? We are all God’s children and therefore equally beloved by him. I began to pray for his soul and that he would find his way back into the fold.”
After the surgery, Reagan “seriously began to think that there was some destiny here,” biographer H. W. Brands told us in an interview. “That there was some divine purpose. That God had spared him for a reason.”
A number of sources have confirmed that Reagan expressed his certainty that God had intervened to save his life. Those sources include family members like his children Maureen and Michael, and close White House advisers like Bill Clark, Kenneth Duberstein, and Lyn Nofziger.
Reagan’s diary entry from April 11, the day he left the hospital, shows that he had the Divine Plan on his mind. He concluded the entry by writing, “Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him in every way I can.”
Ending the Cold War
As Reagan recuperated in the White House, he began to consider how he might end the Cold War. Could halting the arms race with the Soviet Union be the special purpose for which he had been saved? Writing in his memoir years later, he recalled that moment of reflection: “Perhaps having come so close to death made me feel I should do whatever I could in the years God had given me to reduce the threat of nuclear war; perhaps there was a reason I had been spared.”
This sense of the Divine Plan inspired Reagan to take action. He wrote a long letter to Soviet general secretary Leonid Brezhnev. National Security Council and State Department staffers completely rewrote the president’s message. At first the president seemed inclined to acquiesce, but then longtime aide Michael Deaver reminded Reagan that the American people had elected him, not some State Department bureaucrat, to be president.
Reagan agreed. “You know, since I’ve been shot,” he told Deaver, “I think I’m going to rely more on my own instincts than other people’s. There’s a reason I’ve been saved.”
Reagan mailed his original letter. Even as he expressed his desire for negotiations between the two superpowers, he displayed clarity of principle. “I must be frank in stating my view,” he wrote Brezhnev, “that a great deal of the tension in the world today is due to Soviet actions.” And in a handwritten cover letter, Reagan reminded the leader of the Soviet totalitarian empire, “Government exists for [people’s] convenience, not the other way around.”
The president mailed that letter on April 24, only a week after he had met with Cardinal Terence Cooke, archbishop of New York. During a visit on Good Friday, the Catholic cardinal told the Protestant president, “The hand of God was upon you.” Reagan told the cardinal what he had previously confided to his diary: “I have decided that whatever time I have left is for Him.”
Mother Teresa Visits
Not long thereafter, Mother Teresa reinforced the divine sense in President Reagan. During a private White House meeting on June 4, the nun told the president that she and her fellow Sisters of Charity had stayed up for two straight nights praying for him after his shooting. This comment humbled Reagan, but then Mother Teresa went further: “You have suffered the passion of the cross and have received grace. There is a purpose to this.”
And what was the purpose of his suffering? “This has happened to you at this time because your country and the world need you.”
This statement moved Reagan; the Great Communicator remained speechless. Nancy Reagan cried.
Reagan adviser James Rosebush witnessed the exchange. “I’ll never forget the day,” Rosebush told us in an interview. “This saintly person told the president that she felt that his life had been spared for a specific purpose. And I could see that the president, it wasn’t something that he took as praise. It was something that the president took as a confirmation for him, that he had a role in history to play.”
“Because of your suffering and pain,” Mother Teresa told Reagan, “you will now understand the suffering and pain of the world.”
This article is excerpted from Paul Kengor and Robert Orlando’s new book, The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War.