How Ronald Reagan and John Paul II Planned for the End of Communism
The following article is the fourth in a six-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 articles focused on five eras covered in the book. This excerpt comes from chapter 21, “June 1982: Face to Face in the Vatican.” Other articles in the series may be found here.
Ronald Reagan had long ago become convinced that “this pope would help change the world.” So he told his aide Richard Allen in June 1979. The two together watched news footage of the Polish pope’s visit to his homeland. Back then he had first committed to reaching out to John Paul II and the Vatican “to make them an ally.”
All Reagan had to do was get elected. It was no easy task. But Reagan made it look easy. In November 1980 he crushed Jimmy Carter, taking 44 of 50 states. He trounced the incumbent president by an Electoral College margin of 489 to 49.
Reagan Reaches Out to John Paul II
The president first reached out to the pope even before the assassination attempts that were made against both men in 1981.
The new Reagan administration made contact with the Vatican from the beginning. Richard Allen was national security adviser throughout 1981. He recalled that “we did indeed brief the Holy Father regularly.” CIA director Bill Casey met regularly with Archbishop Pio Laghi in Washington. On occasion he flew to Rome, secretly. The mission? To show the pope satellite photographs and other evidence of Soviet troop movements and missile installations in Eastern Europe.
Another key to the administration’s Vatican relations was roving ambassador Vernon Walters. He was a retired Army lieutenant general and former deputy director of the CIA. Reagan appointed one of his most trusted friends, William A. Wilson, as his personal representative to the Vatican. (Later he became the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. That was once the administration had established formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican).
Reagan “frequently would ask about the pope, expressing the desire to meet with him,” Allen remembered. Reagan’s first-year agenda items, especially working with Congress to implement his economic program, made overseas travel impossible. But both Poland and the pope were “very much” on the new president’s mind, Allen said. On “several occasions” that first year, Reagan received Philadelphia’s Cardinal Krol at the White House. The Polish-American Krol was close to the pontiff and perhaps was one of Reagan’s first channels to the Holy Father.
The Pope in Alaska
The president first reached out to the pope even before the assassination attempts that were made against both men in March and May of 1981. In February 1981, John Paul II took a nine-day trip to Asia, stopping in Anchorage, Alaska, for a three-hour layover. Reagan sent a message welcoming the pope to American territory, adding, “I only regret that your stay must be so brief that you will be unable to visit parts of the country that you have yet to see.” The pontiff cabled a response to the president as his plane approached Anchorage. “I send you my cordial greetings,” he said to Reagan, “and assure you of my prayers to God for you and all your fellow citizens.”
Since the assassination attempts, and especially since the communists declared martial law in Poland, Reagan and John Paul II had begun a rich correspondence. It signaled their growing partnership. Close aide Bill Clark wanted to advance it. He made it a priority to secure a meeting between his president and his pope. “It was always assumed the president would meet with the Holy Father as soon as feasible,” Clark remembered. “Especially after they both took shots in the chest only a few weeks apart… . Because of their mutual interests … the two men would come together and form some sort of collaboration.”
Time for the Men to Meet
So Clark and the White House team worked closely with the Vatican to arrange a meeting. They sought areas of collaboration against Soviet communism in Europe, and especially in Poland.
The White House found the perfect opportunity to get the president to Rome. Reagan was scheduled to make his first trip to Europe as president during the first week of June 1982. And so, on June 7, Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan would meet at last.