Though Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan will be remembered as the pope and the president who defeated Communism, the exact nature of their relationship has remained elusive. Some journalists have posited a “holy alliance” between the two, with the CIA briefing the pope each Friday. Others, like George Weigel writing in National Review, have argued that “there was neither alliance nor conspiracy [but] a common purpose born of a set of shared convictions.”
Which view is more correct? The documentary record is incomplete, but clues to the answer may be found in formerly top-secret National Security Council files, now available at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. These materials reveal, often in granular detail, how the U.S. Vatican relationship evolved during Reagan’s first term. The documents describe the first contacts between the pope and the president; nuclear brinksmanship and disarmament; the Solidarity crisis in Poland; and Vice President George Bush’s private 1984 meeting with the pope.
These papers yield tantalizing snapshots of buoyant goodwill and tireless diplomacy on both sides. There was, sometimes, a de facto alliance between this president and pope. But relations were not so close that they could be taken for granted by the president’s men. In fact, the documents reveal a continuous scurrying to shore up Vatican support for U.S. policies. They also reveal a Vatican which acts politically, but always in a highly spiritual way.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the papers show that that, as late as 1984, the pope did not believe the Communist Polish government could be changed.
In February 1981, just over a year following his first triumphal visit to the U.S, Pope John Paul II planned to refuel for three hours in Anchorage, Alaska, en route home following a major pastoral trip to the Philippines, Japan, and Guam. National Security Council staffers recommended to Reagan, who had been in office only a few weeks, that he “establish an early, personal relationship with the Pope while welcoming him back to North American soil.”
On February 5, NSC staffer James M. Rentschler proposed that a “Nanook-of-the-North mission” be mounted during the pope’s Alaskan layover. Accordingly, when John Paul landed in Anchorage on February 25, the envoy-designate to the Vatican, William Wilson, handed him a letter from Reagan, stating: “…I hope you will not hesitate to use him [Wilson] as the channel for sensitive matters you or your associates may wish to communicate to me.”
On May 22, 1981, the pope’s 61st birthday, Reagan sent Congressmen Peter Rodino to Rome with a personal letter for the pope, who was still hospitalized after the attempt on his life. “The qualities you exemplify,” Reagan wrote, “remain a precious asset as we confront the growing dangers of the moment.” Yet by November, as U.S.- Soviet negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear missiles began in Geneva, Switzerland, relations between the White House and Vatican were strained.
The Vatican Academy of Sciences was preparing a study on the dangers of nuclear war and the pope was preparing letters to Reagan and Brezhnev, urging disarmament. On November 11, U.S. Secretary of State Alexander Haig appealed to the pope, through Cardinal Achille Silvestrini of the Vatican secretariat of state, not to morally equate U.S. and Soviet military might. The White House was worried, as Haig confided in a memo, about the “possible impact on support for defense programs needed in the west.”
“It would be misleading, we believe, to imply in any way that the U.S. and the Soviet Union are equally responsible for having created the conditions that pose a danger of nuclear war,” Haig wrote on November, 11, instructing Ambassador Wilson on the line to take with Silvestrini. “We would hope that His Holiness would give due weight to this consideration as he determines the most appropriate means of giving expression to the Church’s views. “
The Vatican would not budge, however. The pope’s November 25 letter on nuclear war, delivered simultaneously to Reagan and Brezhnev, implicitly blamed both the U.S. and the Soviets for moving the world toward Armageddon. The Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, attempted to diffuse the tensions in a December 15 visit to the Oval Office. But the White House did not reply to the pope’s letter for nearly two months, when Reagan finally tried to put the best face on what was clearly a diplomatic defeat. “Your words of encouragement were welcome as we begin negotiations with the Soviet Union in Geneva for the elimination of all intermediate range nuclear missiles,” Reagan wrote John Paul on January 16, 1982. “I reject, as you also do, Your Holiness, the doctrine that sees us as helpless creatures of inexorable fate.”
This was the low point of Vatican-White House relations during the Reagan years. Yet tensions over the nuclear issue soon evaporated, as the pope’s and the president’s men made common cause against a Communist crackdown in the pope’s homeland.
The Polish Crisis
On December 12-13, 1981, the Communist government of Poland arrested thousands of thousands of activists of the workers’ movement known as Solidarnosc, or Solidarity. Over the next weeks the White House and the Vatican consulted closely on the events in Poland by telephone, cable, and through diplomatic representatives. “We seem to be overloading the Vatican circuits of late,” Rentschler cautioned in one memo during this period. But a back channel for especially sensitive messages to the pope, established through his secretary, Father Stanislaw Dziwisz, in fact proved vital in coordinating Western sanctions against the Polish government and its Soviet sponsors.
“The United States will not let the Soviet Union dictate Poland’s future with impunity,” Reagan wrote the pope on December 29, 1981.
I am announcing today additional American measures aimed at raising the cost to the Russians of their continued violence against Poland. … Unfortunately, if these American measures are not accompanied by other Western countries, the Russians may decide to pursue repression, hoping to provoke a rupture within the Western world, while escaping the consequences of our measures. … I therefore ask your assistance in using your own suasion throughout the West in an attempt to achieve unity on these needed measures [economic sanctions on Poland and the Soviet Union]… I hope you will do whatever is in your power to stress these truths to the leaders of the West.
A week later, Cardinal Silvestrini called in Ambassador Wilson and handed him a letter from the pope, pledging support for the U.S. sanctions. Though John Paul worried about the impact of sanctions on the Polish people, he would stand with the president, even if he could not say so publicly.
Wilson’s account of Silvestrini’s remarks, in a January 6, 1982 cable to Haig, offers a rare window on the Vatican’s philosophy of church-state relations.
The Vatican recognizes that the U.S. is a great power with global responsibilities. The United States must operate on the political plane and the Holy See does not comment on the political positions taken by governments. It is for each government to decide its political policies. The Holy See for its part operates on the moral plane. The two planes (politics and morality) can be complementary when they have the same objective. In this case they are complementary because both the Holy See and the United States have the same objective: the restoration of liberty to Poland.
The White House was ecstatic. “The Pope’s letter makes it clear that he supports our policies and shares our goals,” National Security Adviser William P. Clark wrote in a memo to Reagan January 11.
Reagan breached protocol, however, by referring to the pope’s confidential letter in a January 20 press conference–citing it to refute German press reports that the Vatican did not support the hardline U.S. stance on Poland. The Vatican backed away from Reagan’s statement, and Wilson had to sit down with John Paul to straighten matters out. “[T]he Pope made it clear he does in fact support our Polish policy, and sees his actions as complementary to ours,” an NSC memo on the meeting reported. “However, he cannot be as publicly forthcoming in expressing this support as we would wish.”
On February 23, NSC staffer Dennis C. Blair advised Clark: “You may wish to mention personally to the President that in the case of letters from friendly heads of state, it is safest to check with the sender before talking about the contents publicly.”
Bush and the Pope
On February 15, 1984, Vice President George H. W. Bush concluded a trip to Europe and the USSR by meeting with the pope in Rome. As he flew back across the Atlantic on Air Force 2, Bush recorded his impressions in a secret cable to National Security Adviser Bud McFarlane.
I just had a visit with the Holy Father which lasted about 55 minutes. The Holy Father looked well, spoke softly but with a great sincerity, leaning forward across the desk and looking right into my eyes. ….
I was received alone by the Holy Father [and] gave [him] our views on East-West with some emphasis on my meetings with [Soviet President Constantin] Chernenko yesterday. The Holy Father opined Chernenko was close to [former Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev; maybe that will be helpful. He [the Holy Father] was interested in lower [sic] of rhetoric. A lower tone of rhetoric, etc.
I then asked him if he had any advice for us on Poland. He discussed this for some time. … The most important problem is the question of human rights. … The government cannot be changed. Therefore you must influence [Polish leader General Wojciech] Jaruzelski to “have a more human face.”
In light of the credit that has since been given the pope for influencing Poland’s political evolution–an evolution widely seen as causing the collapse of the East Bloc and the end of the Cold War–his own assertion that the Polish government “cannot be changed” is intriguing. Perhaps it is a function of his greatness that this pope did not realize how powerful he truly was. Yet it is important to remember that his remarks were made a year before Gorbachev took power; and it was only with Gorbachev’s ascent that the Polish government could be changed.
The pope and vice president also discussed America’s worsening relations with much of the Muslim world. “I brought him up to date on Lebanon,” Bush recorded. “The Holy Father emphasized the importance of the Democratic character of the [Lebanese] state. He emphasized the need for coexistence between Christians and Moslems. He came back to the theme of coexistence several times.”
The Verdict of History
Among the more lasting impressions conveyed by these papers is the sheer deference showed by Reagan’s working-level staffers toward the pope, even when the two sides were at odds over policy. Admiration for this pope’s spiritual leadership has stripped Protestant White House staffers of any evident cynicism. They pun about a papal “missile” on disarmament, but are in dead earnest in their respect, and at times even reverence, for the Holy Father. Reagan himself, in his letters to Pope John Paul II, admits to being uniquely inspired by the leadership of the pope. The letters have an intensely personal quality, a warmth and light, which is striking when compared to the no less sincere, but far more formalistic, expressions of solidarity made by FDR to the World War II pope, Pius XII.
The geopolitical dynamic would of course soon change, during Reagan’s second term, with the 1985 ascent of Gorbachev. Historians will debate the extent to which Soviet changes were sparked by the insistence, of both Reagan and John Paul, on the fundamental importance of the dignity of the human person. But when the Soviets faced these two leaders of shared purpose and conviction, they faced their worst-case scenario: a moral-political meta-power. As Cardinal Silvestrini had said, “The two planes (politics and morality) can be complementary when they have the same objective.” That there was no formal Vatican alliance with the West only gave the pope’s moral stance all the more weight. Perhaps, ultimately, that was part of the essential genius of his policy.
–Mark Riebling is the author of Wedge: From Pearl Harbor to 9/11: How the Secret War Between the CIA and FBI Has Endangered National Security. He blogs here.