A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century
by Paul Kengor.
ISI Books, 2017.
Hardcover, 638 pages, $23.66

The twentieth century was a bloody century characterized by upheaval, loss of lives, and political tensions. Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College, opens this remarkable book by taking a cue from two events that took place in 1917—the Marian apparitions at Fatima in Portugal and the Russian October Revolution.

A century removed from these events, it is pertinent to look at the backdrop they provide to the twentieth century and the lives of two of its leading persons—Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyla, later Pope John Paul II.

The author argues that one cannot ignore the apparitions at Fatima, regardless of what one believes, since both Reagan and Wojtyla believed there was some divine force underlying important political and historical developments. In particular, Pope John Paul II “connected the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Fatima to his attempted assassination and to the crimes of communism.”

The Fatima children recorded three prophecies. The first was the “earthly hell” of the Great War, which was followed by an even deadlier war. The second prophecy claimed that Russia would spread its errors throughout the world. Three months later, the Bolshevik Revolution shook the world; it persecuted believers and spread its version of atheistic communism. The third prophecy was not revealed until the year 2000: “it envisioned another communist crime: the assassination, or at least an attempted assassination, of a man, robed and hated in white—that is, a pope.”

The author sets out a two-fold aim for the book: to explore the extraordinary events that both individuals faced and to outline the crimes committed in the name of communism throughout the twentieth century. He skillfully fulfills both aims.

Kengor argues that while historians have given both men due credit for their role in ending the Cold War, “few appreciate the depth or significance of the bond between the president and the pope.” This bond was strengthened by shared common goals, regular communication, and a “deep spiritual bond.”

Both Reagan and Wojtyla grew up and came to adulthood in a period of ideological conflict. Wojtyla studied for the Catholic priesthood in an underground seminary and experienced the destructive dangers of totalitarianism as he saw Nazism, and later Communism, destroy his beloved Poland. Tyranny provided a rude awakening; it exemplified the dangers of an all-powerful state that can control and kill large segments of the population. It was the embodiment of the “culture of death.”

The Catholic Church provided an antidote to these ideologies, and it was through the church that Wojtyla was to make his mark. He was ordained in 1946. Two weeks later, he left Krakow for Rome and further graduate studies in philosophy. He was awarded two doctorates and lectured at both the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and the Catholic University of Lublin before being named Auxiliary Bishop of Krakow in 1958.

Ronald Reagan was born in a humble household to a Catholic father and a Protestant mother. From a young age, he joined his mother at the local Disciples of Christ congregation. After an early itinerant life, Reagan settled in Hollywood where he began a modest film career, which was interrupted by the Second World War.

After the war, Reagan returned to Hollywood. During this period he became known for his powerful after-dinner speeches—often politically oriented. He subscribed to the liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and took every opportunity during his speeches to denounce Fascism and Nazism. After one such a speech, the Rev. Cleveland Kleihaur pointed out to Reagan that Fascism and Nazism were defeated while Communism was still a menacing threat. This observation ignited Reagan’s dormant anti-communism.

The early 1950s were a period of rebirth for Ronald Reagan. After his painful divorce from Jane Wyman in 1949, he married Nancy Davis in March 1952. In 1954, he began hosting “GE Theatre”—a weekly show that gave Reagan a wider audience and “emboldened him as a crusader against communism.”

He viewed the fight against communism as a constant war with “subversion, propaganda, and deliberate infiltration” as its weapons. The enemy did not need traditional weapons—it was “doing so well without them.” He began to view the Democratic Party as one that favors appeasement. In 1962, Reagan switched his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. In 1964, he joined Barry Goldwater’s campaign. His “Time for our choosing” speech made him a national sensation and a rising star of the conservative movement.

Less than a week later, Karol Wojtyla was installed as Archbishop in Krakow. In 1967 he was promoted to the Sacred College of Cardinals. In October 1978, after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, the College of Cardinals gathered in Rome to choose his successor. The choice fell on Wojtyla, who took the name John Paul II in tribute to his predecessor. His election stunned Moscow; the new Pope’s native Poland was a bastion of the Catholic faith and “despite the communists’ best efforts to repress the Church, Poland had a huge number of religious vocations, including tens of thousands of priests, with another 5,300 to come in seminaries.”

In June 1979, President Reagan was moved as he watched reports of the Pope’s visit to his home country. That sense of connection would grow stronger after both the President and the Pope suffered assassination attempts in 1981.

Kengor argues that, due to the strengthening of the Solidarnosc (“Solidarity”) movement, Moscow was preparing to invade Poland in March 1981. The assassination attempt on the life of Ronald Reagan on 30 March 1981 halted these plans after Washington made a show of strength and unity. He bases this account on the eyewitness testimony of a U.S. Army intelligence technician working in Field Station Berlin. Other sources seem to confirm the veracity of some of these reports. Arthur Rachwald suggests that an invasion may have been in the offing since there was a military build up on the Soviet-Polish border. The Soviet army, however, withdrew after the Polish Government reached an agreement with Solidarnosc over a threatened strike. This agreement was reachedon the same day as Reagan’s assassination attempt.

On 13 May 1981, another bullet was fired. Mehmet Ali Agça tried to kill Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square. There was a strong suspicion that the orders to assassinate the Pope came from Moscow itself. The alleged link between Agça and the Bulgarian Secret Service gave some weight to this claim. At the time of the shooting, however, Agça was known to have helped both right-wing and left-wing extremists. Kengor believes that this ambiguity “was ideal for Moscow’s disinformation apparatus: even the slightest connection to the right could be amplified to frame the young man as a ‘right winger’.” The book provides a thorough investigative account and presents some convincing evidence that links the shootings to some form of intervention from Moscow.

President Reagan and Pope John Paul II met for the first time in the Vatican on 7 June 1982. During this meeting, they “confided their conviction that God had spared their lives a year earlier for the divine purpose of defeating the communist empire.”

More united them than these political aims. Coming from radically different intellectual backgrounds, both shared a similar understanding of the relationship between faith and freedom. Both believed that freedom cannot flourish without freedom of worship.

The efforts of both Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, together with the goodwill of Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev, went a long way to establish the foundations of religious freedom in the USSR. Kengor rightly reminds the reader that “who gets credit for religious freedom in Russia is less important than the freedom so many gained.” Reagan and Pope John Paul II also agreed on the “sanctity of human life”—they both understood that “the right to life is the first and most fundamental of all human freedoms, without which other human freedoms cannot exist.”

Kengor’s work highlights the prophetic role played by these two great individuals. Three decades removed from these events, it is easy to forget how tense the situation was. To many, the notion of publicly challenging the USSR and questioning its moral and philosophical deficiencies was tantamount to madness.

Reagan was derided mercilessly for having the courage to label the USSR as an “evil empire.” His famous remarks at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin—“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall”—were initially cut out by his speechwriters. Speechwriters were equally displeased with his frequent references to God and religious freedom. Ultimately, his boldness paid off.

It is equally easy to forget that much of the intelligentsia believed that there was some moral equivalence between the U.S. and the USSR. Conventional wisdom propagated this lie. However, conventional wisdom is often trite and rarely wise. Kengor rightly concludes that “according to the conventional wisdom of the time, seeking to bring down the Soviet empire was quixotic at best, dangerously delusional at worst. But a pope and a president achieved just that.”  

André P. DeBattista is an independent researcher and columnist. He has worked on various research projects in the fields of political science, governance, and international relations. In 2013 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He tweets @APDeBattista.