Two of the most important figures in ending the Cold War with the defeat of the Soviet Empire were remembered, examined, and hailed at a daylong conference Wednesday at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.
“Ronald Reagan and John Paul II: The Partnership That Changed the World” brought together authors, historians, and associates of the 40th president, as well as people who knew and worked closely with the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years.
“Ronald Reagan greatly admired Pope John Paul II,” recalled Ed Meese, who served as counselor in the Reagan White House and as attorney general.
Even before he became a presidential candidate in 1980, Reagan did several radio commentaries highlighting John Paul’s visit to his homeland of Poland in 1979 and how the Communist dictatorship’s “entire civil government ceased to function,” according to former National Security Council staffer Paula Dobriansky.
After Reagan became president in 1981, he immediately asked national security adviser William P. Clark and CIA Director William Casey (both devout Roman Catholics) to arrange a meeting with the Pope.
When that meeting took place in Vatican City in June of 1982, Stephen Hayward, author of "The Age of Reagan," noted that at one point, Reagan asked the Pope how long he felt it would be before Communism was defeated.
“In our lifetimes,” the Pope replied without hesitation.
At that point, said Hayward, the president smiled, reached out to shake John Paul’s hand and told him: “Then we can work together.”
It is hard to believe today, but when Reagan and John Paul were coming to power, Communism appeared to be “on the march,” said John Lenczowksi, former Reagan White House staffer and now head of the Institute for World Politics.
“Following the North Vietnamese victory over the U.S.,” he noted, “there was a Communist coup in South Yemen. Marxist governments came to power in Mozambique and Angola, there was a near-successful coup in Zambia, and a pro-Communist regime in Nicaragua.”
“And the Soviets perceived us as increasingly weakening,” said Lenczowski.
Fearing that we were “one generation away from losing our freedom,” Reagan began the U.S. military buildup to put tremendous pressure on the Soviet economy. He also backed anti-Communist freedom fighters from Afghanistan to Latin America.
But Reagan also knew that, in Dobrianski’s word, “Poland was pivotal.”
The rise of the Solidarity labor movement in Poland and its strikes were going to be felt in Warsaw as well as in the Soviet Union. Through Voice of America broadcasts supporting Solidarity and through the moral witness given by the Pope, Poland’s Communist government was eventually toppled and Solidarity’s boss Lech Walesa was later elected president of a new nation.
Throughout Reagan’s presidency, Clark, Casey, and other top aides made sure Pope John Paul was regularly briefed on what the U.S. was doing in its policy toward the Soviet Union and its satellites.
“And because of those briefings, the Holy Father did not object to the U.S. nuclear deployment in the early 1980’s,” said Lenczowski, adding how the Vatican would be expected to say “beat swords into plowshares” over any nuclear buildup.
Organized by the White House Writers’ Group the conference was sponsored by Hudson Institute, The Ronald Reagan Institute, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the Polish National Foundation, The Heritage Foundation, and The Institute of World Politics.
At one point during the event, Hayward hushed the crowd with a powerful fact: Reagan and John Paul II, along with the third major Western figure in the Cold War, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, were targets of assassination attempts. All three survived, he said, “a sign, perhaps, of divine providence.”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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