Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla’s Crusade Against Communism
How a former actor and a steelworker-turned priest worked through the 1960s to fight totalitarianism.
The following article is the second 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. This second excerpt comes from chapter 10, “The 1960s: A Time for Choosing.” Read part one here.
Telling Off Khrushchev
In the 1960s, Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyła (who became Pope John Paul II) continued their upward trajectories. By the middle of the decade, Reagan was facing his “rendezvous with destiny.” The former actor had become a firm anticommunist and conservative Republican. Meanwhile, the fast-rising Polish priest was going head to head with communist authorities.
By the late 1950s, Ronald Reagan was making his opposition to Soviet communism more and more explicit. In 1959, when Nikita Khrushchev came to America, Reagan boycotted a 20th Century Fox banquet for the Soviet leader. By 1961, speaking out against the communist threat had become a passion for Reagan.
In January of that year, Reagan blasted communism in a speech to an audience at a Minnesota high school. He also went after government/socialized health care. He slammed the then 90-plus percent top federal income-tax rate. The left caught on: The St. Paul Federation of Teachers protested his appearance.
By 1961, speaking out against the communist threat had become a passion for Reagan.
In May 1961, Reagan publicly warned of communist infiltration. He said that the Communist Party had “ordered once again” a major assault on the motion-picture industry and television. Communists in Hollywood were “crawling out of the rocks,” he added. Reagan was undeterred.
“We in Hollywood broke their power once,” he affirmed.
Reagan’s rallying cry made its way into The New York Times, courtesy of a UPI correspondent. UPI covered many of Reagan’s talks, reflecting his increasing importance.
UPI was there again when Reagan warned of “Lenin’s maxim of two steps forward and one backward.”
That same month, Reagan wrote a piece for Human Events. In it he argued that the “ideological struggle with Russia” was the “number one problem in the world.” “The inescapable truth,” wrote Reagan, “is that we are at war, and we are losing that war simply because we don’t or won’t realize that we are in it.”
Ronald Reagan wanted to win.
In October he sent a letter to a Republican named Donald Bates. He wrote that Americans were “hungry for someone to tell Mr. Khrushchev off.”
That was what Ronald Reagan had been doing all year.
“A Time for Choosing”
Reagan was leaving acting behind, to aid in the Cold War battle facing his nation. By 1964, he had quit the Democratic Party and was campaigning for Barry Goldwater’s presidential bid.
The GOP was happy to have him. The Republicans needed all the help they could get in the 1964 presidential race. Few could sell conservatism with the polish of the former actor and ex-host of the popular TV show GE Theater.
And so, on the evening of October 27, 1964, Reagan gave a nationally televised speech. It was on behalf of the Republican presidential nominee. The speech would not save Goldwater. But it would launch Ronald Reagan as a major political force.
Reagan started the speech with a long presentation. He explained how American prosperity was being strangled by an excessive tax burden, one approaching a third of gross national product. He then moved to peace, war, and foreign policy:
We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening …
Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.”
America was freedom’s last stand.
Reagan attacked the mind-set of what would become known as détente. To Reagan, this accommodationist foreign policy amounted to “a conspiracy of silence.” It kept people from opening their mouths “about the millions of people enslaved in the Soviet colonies in the satellite nations.”
He warned his fellow Americans that they could not gain security “by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now enslaved behind the Iron Curtain, ‘Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we’re willing to make a deal with your slave masters.’” Instead, Reagan quoted Alexander Hamilton: “A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one.”
Using vivid imagery, he laid out the stakes:
If nothing in life is worth dying for, when did this begin — just in the face of this enemy? Or should Moses have told the children of Israel to live in slavery under the pharaohs? Should Christ have refused the cross? Should the patriots at Concord Bridge have thrown down their guns and refused to fire the shot heard ’round the world? The martyrs of history were not fools, and our honored dead who gave their lives to stop the advance of the Nazis didn’t die in vain … Winston Churchill said, “The destiny of man is not measured by material computations. When great forces are on the move in the world, we learn we’re spirits — not animals.” And he said, “There’s something going on in time and space, and beyond time and space, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.”
Reagan closed the speech by offering a stark choice. Invoking a 1936 FDR phrase, he said: “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We’ll preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we’ll sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.”
This powerful presentation instantly made Ronald Reagan a serious political player. Just two years later he would be elected governor of the nation’s largest state, California. Reagan’s political rise had begun.
A New Archbishop
Less than a week before Ronald Reagan’s “Time for Choosing” address, Karol Wojtyła likewise gave a major speech.
Wojtyła recently had been installed as archbishop of Kraków. Now, on October 21, 1964, the new archbishop was in Rome for the historic Second Vatican Council. His statement that day made it clear that he had a big future ahead. The topic would be a major theme of his papacy: human freedom.
Wojtyła made big contributions to the council’s debate. His fingerprints are on the statement that emerged: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. It’s one of the seminal documents of the Catholic Church today.
Wojtyła’s message was: True human freedom comes not in doing whatever one wants but in uniting oneself to the will of God. As biographer George Weigel characterized the message:
The closer human beings come to God, the closer they come to the depth of their humanity and to the truth of the world. Christian faith is not alienating; Christian faith is liberating in the most profound sense of human freedom.
Wojtyła believed that it was precisely this view of God and man that the Roman Catholic Church should present to the modern world.
The timing of Wojtyła’s ascent up the Church hierarchy was ideal for Poland’s purposes. One year after the closing of the Second Vatican Council came a landmark in the life of Christian Poland: 1966 was Poland’s Jubilee. It marked 1,000 years since that country had been converted.
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, Wojtyła’s senior and Poland’s top Church official, was determined to celebrate Poland’s Christian achievement despite the communist regime’s fierce opposition to anything sacred. Back in 1957 he had initiated a nine-year “Great Novena” leading up to the anniversary.
The communists did everything they could to disrupt the festivities. They refused to permit Pope Paul VI to visit the country. They barred Wyszyński from attending overseas celebrations. “As always, communists wanted to compete with [the] Church,” writes Tomasz Pompowski, the Polish historian and journalist. “They would always try to invent secular holidays or redefine [the] religious dimension of any Christian holidays. For instance, on Easter they would talk about ‘Green [Agricultural] Holidays,’ trying to revive all possible pagan traditions allegedly of Slavic nations.”
And so in 1966 the Communist Party organized its own simultaneous celebrations.
As Wojtyła preached, communists unloaded a twenty-one-gun salute to honor Poland’s minister of defense. Wojtyła and his fellow believers waited patiently until the salute ended. Then he continued his sermon.
The Catholic Church’s celebrations started on April 14 and continued for weeks. At the shrine in Jasna Góra, Church officials installed a symbolic empty chair for the pope and placed a large framed portrait of him in it. More than a million people gathered for the open-air Mass. This, of course, showed up the communists for the repressors that they were. They were enraged. As Saint Thomas More once observed, the devil cannot stand to be mocked.
The communists did all they could to divert Poles’ divine devotion throughout the jubilee. The Communist Party marshalled a force of thousands of hired agitators. Communists held what Pompowski calls “mega-celebrations” inside the stadium in the town of Katowice. The main event was a soccer match between Poland and Hungary.
As Archbishop Karol Wojtyła preached during the April celebrations at the cathedral in Poznań, the communists unloaded a twenty-one-gun salute to honor Poland’s minister of defense. Wojtyła and his fellow believers waited patiently until the salute ended. The archbishop then continued his sermon.
The following day, the communists held a military parade outside the cathedral, complete with guns and goosesteps, tanks and artillery and missiles.
They also brought in busloads of “workers” and communist youth, who all shouted, “Down with Wyszyński!” They looked drunk. Władysław Gomułka, Poland’s communist leader, made a rare public appearance. Surely he could overshadow the cardinal and priests. But “not many people showed up to welcome Gomułka,” says Pomposki. “It was another propaganda disaster for the Communist Party.”
On May 7 Archbishop Wojtyła spoke at the Wawel Cathedral. The image of Poland’s revered Black Madonna was displayed. All night long thousands flocked outside and inside. In what one witness called “an unforgettable experience,” Wojtyła made a vigorous defense of religious freedom and protested the regime’s many restrictions on the life of the Church — and did so in his skillful way that infuriated the communist authorities.
The communist persecution persevered the next year, but so did Karol Wojtyła.
On October 14, 1967, Wojtyła broke new ground for the faith at Nowa Huta. This was a major steel town and a symbol of Poland’s working class, especially in the eyes of communists, who claimed the working class as their chosen people. The regime managed, planned, and engineered Nowa Huta to be the embodiment of a communist city: with newly constructed apartment complexes and, most important, no church.
Yes, communist authorities insisted that Nowa Huta be a city without God. “It was socialism’s answer to Catholic Kraków,” said Father Stanisław Dziwisz, later Pope John Paul II’s closest aide. “When they [the central planners] built it, they intentionally left no room for a church.”
But the people wanted a church. So, of course, did Karol Wojtyła, but communist authorities refused his and his flock’s repeated requests to build a church — something for which they needed permission from the high priests of Marx and Lenin. Workers had erected at the site where residents intended to build the church.
In 1967 the communists tore it down. Picture the scene: The secret police and their armed men ride to the sacred site in their government vehicles. A tractor is backed up to the giant cross. A Marxist henchman fits a thick noose for the head of the crucifix. The noose is tightened. The Communist Party functionary orders the tractor to start pulling. The cross falls to the ground with a loud thud. Communists cheer.
It was a perfect display of communist ideology.
Dziwisz would call this incident Karol Wojtyła’s “first test as a young, newly consecrated bishop.” Wojtyła skillfully sparred with the state’s atheistic masters. He held firm. And on October 14 he won his first victory in the battle when he, the former quarryman, hoisted an ax and a shovel and broke ground for a new church — the Ark of the Lord (i.e., Mary) — to be built where the communists had hauled down the giant cross.
This groundbreaking was no small achievement for Karol Wojtyła. Dziwisz described the Nowa Huta victory as “the beginning of a new strategy based on resistance. The resistance had a religious impetus.”
And it was a worker-anchored resistance. Really, one could view the victory at Nowa Huta as a precursor to the Solidarity movement’s resistance a decade later. The workers were emboldened, with Karol Wojtyła standing beside them.
Wojtyła had been emboldened himself that June, when Pope Paul VI made him a cardinal.
Thus, in 1967, both Karol Wojtyła and Ronald Reagan started in positions that would be stepping-stones to their ultimate offices, with Wojtyła joining the College of Cardinals and Reagan taking over as governor of California.
Communism remained a potent force, but the rise of these two leaders was a sign of better times ahead.