When Reagan Met Pope John Paul II

by Steve Berry

On June 7, 1982, safe inside the Vatican behind closed doors, for the first time in history a pope and a president met alone. For 50 minutes Ronald Reagan and John Paul II spoke in private. To this day no one knows about what. No agenda existed, no recording was made, no notes taken. And what a pair they made. One man the leader of the free world, commanding the most powerful military and shepherding the most vibrant economy on the planet. The other the spiritual beacon of a billion-plus Catholics, millions of whom had lived for decades in eastern Europe under the harsh yoke of communism. Many books have been written about both men, that fateful meeting nearly always included. Some historians are convinced that a deal was made, an tacit agreement of cooperation, both men having survived an assassin’s bullet, both men sharing a common goal: the end of communism. It’s hard to conclude anything for certain. What we do know is that over the next 6 years Ronald Reagan and John Paul II brought the Soviet Union to its knees.

Reagan and John Paul II meet at The Vatican City
Monday, June 7, 1982

Ronald Reagan knew that the hand of God had brought him here. How else could it be explained? Two years ago he was locked in a bitter primary fight against ten contenders, vying a third time for the Republican party’s presidential nomination. He won that battle and the election, defeating the Democrat incumbent Jimmy Carter and claiming forty-four states. Then fourteen months ago an assassin tried to kill him, but he became the first American president to survive being shot. Now he was here, on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace, at the pope’s private study where the leader of nearly a billion Catholics waited to speak to him.

He entered the room and marveled at its modesty. Heavy curtains blocked the summer sun. But he knew that from those windows, each Sunday, the pope prayed with thousands of visitors in St. Peter’s Square. Sparse furniture, the most prominent being a plain wooden desk, more reminiscent of a table, with two high-backed, upholstered armchairs fronting each long side. Only a gold clock, a crucifix, and a leather blotter sat atop. An Oriental rug lay beneath on the marble floor.

John Paul II stood near the desk, regaled in papal white.  Over the past several months they’d secretly exchanged over a dozen letters, each delivered by a special envoy, both speaking to the horror of nuclear weapons and the plight of Eastern Europe. Seven months ago the Soviets had declared martial law in Poland and clamped down on all talk of reform.

In retaliation, the United States had ordered sanctions imposed on both the USSR and Poland’s puppet government. Those punitive measures would stay in place until martial law ended, all political prisoners were freed, and a dialogue resumed. To further ingratiate himself with the Vatican, he’d directed his special envoy to provide a mountain of covert intelligence on Poland, keeping the pope fully informed, though he doubted he’d passed on much that had not already been known.

But he’d learned one thing.

This cagey priest, who’d risen to one of the most influential positions in the world, believed as he did that the Soviet Union was destined for collapse.

reagan and pope john paul ii

President and Mrs. Reagan meet Pope John Paul II, The Vatican, Rome, 1982. Image is in the public domain via Wikimedia.com

He shook hands with the pope, exchanged pleasantries, and posed for the cameras. John Paul then motioned for them to sit at the desk, facing each other, a panel depicting the Madonna keeping a mindful watch from the wall behind. The photographers withdrew, as did all of the aides. The doors were closed and, for the first time in history, a pope and a president of the United States sat alone. He’d asked for that extraordinary gesture and John Paul had not objected. No official staff had been involved with the preparations for this private discussion. Only his special envoy had quietly worked to lay its groundwork.

So both men knew why they were there.

“I’ll come straight to the point, Holiness. I want to end the Yalta agreement.”

John Paul nodded. “As do I. That was an illegitimate concept. A great mistake. I have always believed the Yalta lines should be dissolved.”

On this first point his special envoy had read the pope correctly. Yalta happened in February 1945. Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill met for the last time, deciding how a postwar Europe would both look and be governed. Boundary lines were drawn, some quite arbitrary, others deliberate as appeasement to the Soviets. Part of those concessions entailed an agreement that Poland remain under the sphere of the USSR, with Stalin pledging to hold free elections. Of course, that never happened and the communists had ruled there ever since.

“Yalta created artificial divisions,” John Paul said. “I, and millions of other Poles, greatly resented that our homeland was given away. We fought and died in that war, yet it mattered not to anyone. We have suffered brutality for forty years, starting with the Nazis, then the Soviets.”

He agreed. “I also believe that Solidarity is the way to end Yalta.” That tear in the Iron Curtain happened two years ago at the Gdansk shipyards, the first non-communist-controlled trade union ever allowed. Now over nine million Poles were members, one-third of the entire workforce. A scrappy electrician named Lech Walesa served as its head. The movement had acquired power, force, and appeal. So much that last December the Polish government had imposed martial law to quell it.

Read more about Reagan’s presidency and his air strike on Libya here

“They made a mistake trying to quash Solidarity,” he said. “You can’t allow something to exist for sixteen months then, just as it catches on, reverse course and outlaw it. The government has overestimated its reach.”

“I have made overtures to the Polish authorities,” John Paul said. “We must open talks on the future of Solidarity and the end to martial law.”

“Why fight it?”

And he watched as this novel overture registered. His special envoy had urged him to broach the subject, thinking that the Vatican would be receptive.

A grin came to the pope’s lips. “I see. Let them be. All they are doing is alienating the people. So why stop it?”

He nodded. “Any rebuttal the government mounts to Solidarity is a cancer. Let it grow. Every word in opposition the government speaks just makes the movement stronger. All Solidarity needs is money to keep it alive, and the United States is prepared to supply that.”

The pope nodded, seemingly considering what he was proposing. That was far more than Reagan’s people had been willing to do. The State Department strongly disagreed with the tactic, saying the Polish regime was stable, solid, and popular. They provided a similar assessment for Moscow and the USSR.

But they were wrong. He said, “Pressure is building every day from within, and the Soviets have no idea how to deal with that. Communism is not equipped to handle dissent, short of dishing out terror and violence. The only morality Moscow recognizes is what will further its own cause. Communists reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime. To lie. To cheat. To do anything they want. No political system like that has ever survived. It’s inevitable their system will collapse.” He paused. “But we can hasten it.”

John Paul nodded. “The tree is rotten, all it needs is a good shake and the bad apples will fall. Communism is evil. It prevents people from being free.”

14th Colony - 9781250119629

That was another sentiment his special envoy had reported, and what he’d been hoping to hear. Never had a pope and a president conspired in this way, and never could either of them admit it had happened. The church openly forbade itself from interfering in politics. Recently the world had seen evidence of that when John Paul scolded a priest for resisting a papal order to resign a government position. But that did not mean the church was oblivious to oppression. Especially when it hit so close. Which was more proof that God was clearly at work here. At this precise moment in human history the storm seemed centered on Poland. For the first time in 450 years a non-Ttalian, a Pole, occupied the chair of St. Peter. And nearly 90 percent of all Poles were Catholic.

A screenwriter could not have imagined it better.

The Soviet Union was about to be gripped by a great revolutionary crisis. He could feel it coming. That nation was not immune to revolt, and Poland was the pivot that could send everything over the edge. Cliché as hell, but right on target. As with dominoes, one country falls— they all fall. Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and all of the other Soviet satellites. The entire Eastern Bloc. One by one they would drop away.

So why not provide a push?

“If I may,” he said to John Paul. “I was once asked, how do you tell a communist? The answer is easy. It’s someone who reads Marx and Lenin. But how do you tell an anti-communist?” He paused. “It’s someone who understands Marx and Lenin.”

The pope smiled.

But it was true.

“I agreed to this private talk,” the pope said, “because I wanted us to have the opportunity to be honest with each other. I thought the time had come for that. So I must ask, what of the cruise missiles that you wish to deploy in Europe? At present, you are presiding over an unprecedented rearming of America, spending many billions of dollars. This concerns me.”

His special envoy had warned him about this reservation, so he was prepared to reply. “There is no one in this world who hates war and nuclear weapons more than I do. We must rid this planet of the scourge of both. My goal is peace and disarmament. But to accomplish that I have to use what’s at my immediate command. Yes, we are rearming. But I’m doing that not only to make America strong, but also to bankrupt the USSR.”

He could see that John Paul was listening.

“You’re correct. We are spending billions. The Soviets will have no choice but to match us, spending that much and more. The difference is we can sustain that spending and they can’t. When the United States spends money on government projects, those funds make their way back into our economy through wages paid and profits made. When the Soviets spend, it’s just a drain on their treasury. There’s no free market. The money simply goes out and doesn’t return. Wages are controlled, profits are regulated, so they have to constantly generate new money just to pay their bills. We recycle ours. They can’t match us dollar for ruble, year after year. It’s impossible. They’ll implode.”

He could see that the pope was intrigued.

“Communism has never attained the legitimacy of public support. Its rule depends solely on force, supplied by terror. Time has worked against them, as does the world, which has changed. Communism is just a modern form of serfdom, with no advantages that I can see over capitalism. Do you realize, Holiness, that less than one family in seven owns a car in the USSR? If a person wants to buy a car, there’s a ten-year wait for delivery. You tell me, how can a system like that be deemed stable or solid?”

John Paul smiled. “The regime stands on a cracked foundation. It always has, from the beginning.”

“I want you to know that I am not a warmonger. The American people are not bent on conquest. We want a lasting peace.”

And he meant that. Inside his coat pocket he carried a plastic-coated card with codes that could be used to launch a nuclear arsenal. Just outside sat a military aide toting a black leather satchel that could make that happen. All totaled the United States owned 23,464 nuclear warheads. The Soviet Union stockpiled 32,049. He called them the tools of Armageddon. Just a handful of those could destroy all human civilization.

His goal was that they never be used.

“I believe you,” the pope said. “Your envoy made a good case for you on that point. She is a bright woman. You chose her well.”

He hadn’t chosen her at all. Al Haig had made that selection from among his attachés at the State Department. John Paul was right, though. She was young, smart, and intuitive— and he’d come to rely on her judgment when it came to the Vatican.

“So long as we are being frank,” he said, “let me say that you sell yourself short. You are also engaging in a bit of deception. That priest you scolded on the runway in Nicaragua, in such a show of anger. You told him to quit his government post, but he defied you. And he still defies you. I suspect that man is now an excellent source of Vatican information on what the Sandinistas are doing. And who would suspect him, after such a public admonition.”

John Paul said nothing, but he could see that his conclusion was correct. The Sandinistas were nothing but Soviet puppets. His people were already working on ways to rid Central America of them, as apparently was John Paul.

“We must have a farsighted policy,” the pope said. “One that stretches across the globe and favors justice, freedom, love, and truth. Peace must always be our goal.”

“Without a doubt. I have a theory.” And he now thought it would be okay to share it. “To me, the USSR is essentially a Christian nation. Russians were Christians long before they were communists. If we stay this course, I think we can tip the balance where the Soviet people will revert to Christianity, allowing those long-held ideals to eclipse communism.”

He wondered if the pope thought he was pandering. Based on his special envoy’s visits he’d been provided with a detailed personality assessment. John Paul valued order and security, preferring to deal in known entities. He lived by reason and thought, in clear no-nonsense terms. He was repelled by ambiguity, impulsiveness, and extremism, always thinking everything through before deciding. But he particularly despised being told what someone thought he wanted to hear.

“You believe this?” the pope said. “In your heart? Your mind? Your soul?”

“I must say, Holiness, that I am not a man who attends church regularly. I don’t even consider myself overtly religious. But I am spiritual. I believe in God. And I draw strength from those deeply held beliefs.”

He truly meant that.

“You and I share a common bond,” he said.

John Paul clearly realized the connection. Last year, within two months, both of them had been shot. All three bullets were fired from close range, barely missing their aortas, which would have meant certain death. His lodged in a lung, while John Paul’s two rounds passed right through, yet incredibly spared the vital organs.

“God saved us both,” he said, “so that we can do what we are about to do. How else can it be explained?”

He’d long thought that every person possessed a divine purpose. A plan for the world outside of human control. He knew that this pope also believed in the power of symbolic acts and the role of providence.

“I agree with you, Mr. President,” the pope said in a near whisper. “We must do this. Together.”

“In my case, the shooter was simply insane. But in yours, I would say you owe the Soviets.”

Reagan met John Paul II

The White House during the 1980s.  By Rainer Halama (Own work). Imagine in the public domain via http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) via Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia.com

The CIA had learned of a connection between John Paul’s would be assassin and Bulgaria, one that led straight to Moscow. The White House had provided that information to the Vatican. True, conclusive proof was lacking, but the idea had been to end Solidarity by ending its spiritual and moral leader. Of course, the Soviets could never afford to be directly implicated in a plot to kill the leader of a billion Catholics.

But they were involved.

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men,” John Paul said. “Revenge would be a bit un-Christian, would it not?”

He decided to keep to the Bible and Romans. “Never take your own

revenge, but leave room for the wrath of God.

“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink. For

in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

That they would.

This priest had witnessed Nazi atrocities. Karol Wojtyla was there when Poland suffered that unimaginable horror, working with the resistance. After the war he’d then done what he could to thwart the Soviets as they prolonged Poland’s suffering. By all accounts John Paul was a heroic figure, an extraordinary man, learned and courageous.

People drew strength from him.

And he was in the right place at the right time with the right thoughts.

“The moment I fell in St. Peter’s Square,” the pope said. “I had a vivid presentiment that I would be saved, and this certainty never left me. The Virgin Mary herself stepped in that day and allowed me to survive. That I believe, with all my heart. And may God forgive me, but I do owe the Soviets. Not only for what they may have done to me, but for what they have done to so many millions for so long. I forgave my would-be assassin. I went to his cell, knelt and prayed with him, and he wept for his sin. Now it is time for those who sent him to know their sin, too.”

He saw resolve in John Paul’s strong eyes, which seemed ready for the fight. He was, too. At seventy-one he’d never felt better. His whole countenance had revivified after the assassination attempt, as if he’d truly been born again. He’d read what the pundits were saying. Expectations for his presidency seemed low. In past decades, the sheer weight of the job had annihilated many good men. Kennedy died. Vietnam drove Johnson from office. Nixon had been forced to resign. Ford lasted only two years, and Carter was sent home after one term. Critics called Ronald Reagan a reckless cowboy, an old actor, a man who relied on others to tell him what to do.

But they were wrong.

He was a former Democrat who’d long ago switched parties, which meant he did not fit into any clear political mold. Many feared and distrusted him. Others held him in contempt. But he was the fortieth president of the United States, intent on remaining in office seven more years, and he planned to use that time for one purpose.

To end the evil empire.

That was exactly what the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics represented.

But he could not do it alone. Nor would he have to. He now had an ally. One with two thousand years of experience dealing with despots.

“I’ll keep the pressure on from my end,” he said. “Both political and economic. And you from yours with spiritual encouragement. Another trip to Poland would be good, but not quite yet. In a year or so.”

John Paul had already visited his homeland once, in 1979. Three million people came to mass in Warsaw’s Victory Square. As a candidate for the White House he’d watched that spectacle on television, while the man in white descended from the papal plane and kissed the ground. He remembered vividly what the pope told his countrymen over and over.

Be not afraid.

And he realized then what the religious leader of a billion people could accomplish, particularly one who held the hearts and minds of millions of Poles. He was one of them. They would listen to what he had to say. But the pope could never be obvious. Instead, the message from Rome must always be one of truth, love, and peace. There is a God and it is everyone’s inalienable right to freely worship Him. Moscow would ignore that at first, but eventually it would respond with threats and violence and the startling contrast between the two messages would speak volumes. And while that happened America would encourage reform in the Eastern Bloc, finance free-market reforms, and isolate the Soviet Union both economically and technologically, slowly but surely leading them into bankruptcy. They would play to the paranoia and fear communism loved to exploit in others, but could not handle on its own.

A perfect two-front war.

He checked the clock.

They’d been talking about fifty minutes.

Each seemed to clearly understand both the task and their individual responsibilities. Time for the final move. He stood and extended a hand across the table.

The pope likewise rose to his feet.

He said, “May we both successfully carry out our responsibilities to mankind.”

The pope nodded and they again shook hands.

“Together,” he said. “We will eliminate the USSR.”

STEVE BERRY is the New York Times and #1 internationally bestselling author of eleven Cotton Malone novels, and four standalones. He has 20 million books in print, translated into 40 languages. With his wife, Elizabeth, he is the founder of History Matters, which is dedicated to historical preservation. He serves as a member of the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board and was a founding member of International Thriller Writers, formerly serving as its co-president.

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