President Reagan and Pope John Paul II

They were two of the giant figures of the last half of the 20th century — Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II — and they had many things in common. Both were trained actors whose craft had taught them the power of words to change minds and hearts. Both came to eminence through unconventional routes, and against the grain of a lot of the common wisdom. Both had a healthy skepticism about the conventions that surrounded their offices, and both intuited that diplomats, no matter how skilled, might have a professionally ingrained caution that blinded them to certain opportunities for bold action. Both survived assassination attempts and came to a deeper understanding of life-as-vocation as a result.

Now, in Reagan’s Secret War: The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster (Crown), husband-and-wife team Martin and Annelise Anderson shed new light on the Reagan-John Paul II relationship by using previously classified U.S. government files.

The outlines of the story are reasonably well known: John Paul first came to Reagan’s attention when the Pope’s epic first papal pilgrimage to Poland in June 1979 set in motion what eventually became the Solidarity movement—a movement Reagan, an old union leader, instinctively appreciated. Shortly after his inauguration, President Reagan sent his friend (and future Holy See envoy) William A. Wilson to Anchorage, Alaska, where the Pope’s plane was refueling, to greet the pontiff on Reagan’s behalf. We also know of the two leaders’ subsequent meetings in both Rome and the United States, and of Reagan’s determination to push U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Holy See through a U.S. Senate nervous about residual anti-Catholicism in some parts of America.

There has also been a lot of nonsense written about the relationship, primarily by Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, who for years perpetrated a “Holy Alliance” conspiracy theory, according to which the two men entered into a secret bargain to bring down communism. As the Anderson’s book confirms, this was, and is, pluperfect nonsense, as is the claim (often heard in the 1980s) that John Paul II had agreed not to criticize either U.S. missile deployments in Europe or U.S. policy in Central America in exchange for Reagan administration support of Solidarity.

The new revelation about the relationship in the Andersons’ book is that the Pope and the President had an extensive correspondence, involving dozens of letters back-and-forth, which Professor Martin Anderson told me were by far among the most interesting of all the Reagan letters he had examined. Among the letters referenced in Reagan’s Secret War is a January 1982 letter from the White House to the Vatican in which Reagan shifted the subject of the exchange from events in Poland (which had just been put under martial law) to his hopes for genuine disarmament, not just arms “control,” at the talks about to begin with the Soviet Union in Geneva.

Indeed, the Andersons’ book makes clear that, somewhat to the consternation of many of his close advisers, Ronald Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist: he really did believe, as he often said, in ridding the world of nuclear weapons. His instruments for doing so—ramping up U.S. missile capability to demonstrate that America couldn’t be outmuscled, and the strategic defense initiative as an insurance policy—were bitterly criticized by the liberal arms controllers, whose influence on the deliberations of the U.S. bishops as they prepared their 1983 peace pastoral was, to put it gently, considerable. But as the Andersons demonstrate, it was Reagan who was the true radical in this business: the man who wasn’t satisfied with simply managing an arms race, the man who wanted to put the nuclear genie back into the bottle. Historians of U.S. Catholicism will thus be grateful to the Andersons for clarifying just how mistaken some of the policy assumptions underlying “The Challenge of Peace” were.

In my own conversations with the late pontiff, John Paul often asked how President Reagan was doing and was saddened to learn that Alzheimer’s disease had robbed him of even the memory of being president. An extraordinary pair of men; may they both rest in peace.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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  • SeanReynoldsNZ

    Anyone remeber Neville Chamberlain? If no one knows who I am talking about, then that tells you a lot about historical perspective and who gets remembered in history.

    Neville Chamberlain’s most famous statement was after a peace conference in 1938 where he sold the Czechs into Nazi slavery was “Peace in our time”. He may well have meant well, but all he was doing was trying to put out the Nazi fire by smothering it with gasoline.

    At the same time there was another man in the British Parliament who was opposed as being a warmonger. He wanted to take the Nazis on and defeat them. He was roundly criticised for his stance throughout the 1930s. Eventually Chamberlain was forced to resign as Prime Minister in 1940 after France was defeated and Great Britain was facing the prospect of Nazi invasion. (The Yanks under FDR STILL were sitting on their hands and were not interested in joining the war at this stage: Some American “heroes” such as Charles Lindbergh were even suggesting that the USA should side with the Nazis). Anyway, the only person in the British Parliament that King George VI could find to form a government that would have the support of the opposition as well as the majority was the warmonger. His name was Winston Churchill.

    The man who was committed to the cause of peace sold a nation into Nazi slavery and depleted his country’s armed forces, even as the Nazis were breaching the Treaty of Versailles and ramping up their war machine. The man of peace refused to act against a real aggressor, resulting in a longer and bloodier war than was necessary. The warmonger fought the war that was started, and ultimately brought peace to Europe in 1945.

    Question: Which man is considered the greater in history?

    Here ends the lesson.

  • Joe DeVet

    Lest we forget…that same time frame brought us an economics pastoral, penned by a committee chaired by the eminent Rembert Weakland. This document was shot through with misconceptions about economic principles and came to similarly flawed policy recommendations. At about that time, one of the apparatchiks of the USCC, as it then was, commented to a friend that this organization was the “religious arm of the Democratic Party.”

    The Church must be exquisitely careful in commenting on politics, economics, and I’ll say in passing ecology, that we not be too hasty to bank prematurely on popular theories, lest they result in supporting embarrassing and harmful proposals. In doing so we destroy our moral authority for the primary task, that of proclaiming the gospel.

  • Maybe Reagan was the “second Catholic President.”

  • goral

    Indeed as someone with great insight said. ‘Many who are without are within, and others who are within are actually without’.
    Catholicism in America has been more bolstered by those who are without.

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