On March 30, 1981, just outside the Washington Hilton, right down the street from
the White House, Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of the United States, leader of the free world, was shot by a would-be assassin.
On May 13, 1981, just outside the Vatican, in the heart of St. Peter’s Square, Pope John Paul II, 264th occupant of the chair of St. Peter, leader of the world’s largest group of Christians, was shot by a would-be assassin. It was the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima.
These were, of course, shocking moments that rocked international headlines. We know today what an anxious world did not know then — that both men came perilously close to dying. Had they perished, the 20th century would not have ended as it did.
For Americans, for Europeans, for Protestants and Catholics, and for many others worldwide, the momentous and tranquil termination of the Cold War was the most remarkable event of the 20th century — a century in which more than 100 million people were killed by communist governments.
The American public got a taste of John Paul’s significance to Ronald Reagan when the nation’s new president, still recovering from the shooting, stepped to the podium to speak at Notre Dame University on May 17, 1981, only days after the pontiff had been shot. Reagan began his remarks by acknowledging not his own health but that of the Pope.
Next came a stunning statement in the president’s prepared text: “The years ahead are great ones for this country, for the cause of freedom and the spread of civilization,” Reagan said. “The West won’t contain communism; it will transcend communism…. It will dismiss it as some bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages are even now being written.”
Ronald Reagan saw Pope John Paul II as his partner in a battle that was spiritual as much as political. He also saw Poland as the crucible where the battle would be fought and could be won — and with the indispensable help of the Polish pontiff.
The Pope and the president would meet to discuss that joint mission on June 7, 1982. “It was always assumed the president would meet with the Holy Father as soon as feasible,” said Bill Clark, Reagan’s closest aide and a devout Catholic. “Because of their mutual interests, the two men would come together and form some sort of collaboration.”
Reagan had long coveted such an idea. Not only had he recognized as early as June 1979 that the Pope was key to Poland’s fate, but among his earliest goals as president was to make the Vatican an ally. The Reagan administration was the first to diplomatically recognize the Holy See.
The two men talked alone for 50 minutes in the Vatican Library. The attempted assassinations were raised right away. Cardinal Pio Laghi, the apostolic nuncio in Washington, later recounted that Reagan told John Paul: “Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened.” Clark confirmed that sentiment, saying that both men referred to the “miraculous” fact that they had survived. The two men, Clark said, shared a “unity” in spiritual views and in their “vision on the Soviet empire,” namely “that right or correctness would ultimately prevail in the divine plan.”
The June 1982 meeting was the first of many. A substantial effort and collaboration thus ensued. The major players included Clark, CIA director Bill Casey, Ambassador Vernon Walters and Cardinal Pio Laghi. That collaboration helped bring about the historic events of 1989. That year is remembered for the fall of the Berlin Wall. In truth, however, the collapse began earlier that year, in June, with elections in Poland — the first free and fair elections in the Communist Bloc. The communists did not win a single seat. Just a few months later, in November, the Berlin Wall fell.
The Cold War was over without a missile fired, without the nuclear Armageddon that everyone feared for so long. Extraordinarily, that entire totalitarian system, which destroyed so much and so many, went down peacefully. It was a testimony to the work of names like Thatcher, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Walesa, Havel — and Reagan and John Paul II.
These two men, a Catholic and a Protestant, a Pole and an American, at the Vatican and at the White House, stood out and stood together. They together resolved to stop the atheistic Soviet empire. It was a historic partnership and a historic victory.
DR. PAUL KENGOR is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision and Values at Grove City College. His latest book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.