The Untold Story of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan: “Mary is central”

An interview with Dr. Paul Kengor about A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century.

Dr. Paul Kengor is a professor of political science at Grove City College (Pennsylvania) and the author of several best-selling books, including Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century; God and Ronald Reagan; God and George W. Bush; God and Hillary Clinton; The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and Takedown: From Communists to Progressives.

Dr. Kengor is widely recognized for his scholarly work about the American presidency, the Cold War, and the history of communism. His most recent book is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI Books, 2017), which chronicles in great detail the largely untold story of the friendship of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, and how they worked together to fight the great evil of the twentieth century: Soviet communism.

Dr. Kengor recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his new book.

CWR:The title and subtitle don’t indicate it, but your book is many ways about a Marian apparition. In fact, it begins with an important event that took place 100 years ago. What was it? And why is it so central to your account of Pope John Paul II and President Reagan and their fight against Communism?

Dr. Paul Kengor: Mary is central. In fact, to that end, I have a confession to make. This began as a book about Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and Mikhail Gorbachev. When it was about those three men, with Mary central to the story, my personal-secret working title for the book was “Three Men and a Lady.” I eventually removed Gorbachev as the third man, though he’s still very much a major player. But the Lady, however, always remained—a hovering presence. And yes, she’s the Blessed Mother—or, even more pointedly, she’s Our Lady of Fatima.

I start the book with a dramatic opening: May 13, 1981. It was on that date that Pope John Paul II was shot. Of course, it was the Feast Day of Our Lady of Fatima, dating back to the first Marian apparition in Fatima on May 13, 1917. John Paul II immediately was struck by the irony of those two dates. “Two thirteenths of May!” he said. He would come to see a direct connection, especially once he requested to see and then read the Third Secret of Fatima on July 18, 1981 when recovering in Gemelli Clinic from the shooting. As Father Dziwisz would later put it, “When he was finished [reading the Third Secret], all his remaining doubts were gone.” In Sister Lúcia’s vision, “he recognized his own destiny.” He became convinced that his life had been spared thanks to the intervention of Our Lady.

So, I start the story with May 13, 1981, and thus inevitably must next go back in time to May 13, 1917. The latter is my prologue and the former is chapter one of a 38-chapter book.

Mary’s presence in this story will not surprise Catholics and John Paul II aficionados, but it will surprise non-Catholics and Ronald Reagan aficionados. And all readers, Catholics and non-Catholics, will be a little shocked at the Reagan interest in not only Mary generally but Fatima specifically. I was certainly fascinated by it, and it’s something that I completely missed in Reagan’s faith story when I wrote God and Ronald Reagan in 2004, which was a year before I came into the Catholic Church.

CWR: You’ve studied and written about Communism for your entire career. How would you summarize the effect of Marxism and Communism on the 20th century?

Dr. Kengor: One word: Deadly. Over 100 million dead victims in the 20th century alone. Actually, the true numbers are closer to 140 million. That’s more than double the combined death tolls of World War I and II. And the total dead are a tiny number compared to the countless more who suffered persecutions and even tortures without death. Some were bloodied and others weren’t. Some, like Cardinal Mindszenty in Hungary, ended up (in the description of Fulton Sheen) as “dry martyrs.” And some, like Pope Pius XII, had their character assassinated rather than their body, with Moscow smearing Pius with the hideous, slanderous label “Hitler’s Pope.” I spend about a hundred pages in the book chronicling those “persecutions and errors.” They form part two of the book. It’s quite sickening to revisit all of that pain, but it must be done in order to grasp the evil that John Paul II and Reagan passionately knew had to be defeated.

All of those crimes and “errors” were, of course, predicted by a Lady from Fatima. And all of them signaled how and why the Soviet empire truly was what Ronald Reagan described it as: an Evil Empire.

CWR: More specifically, what effect and impact did Communism have on Karol Wojtyla and Ronald Reagan, especially during their formative years?

Dr. Kengor: Both of them battled communists in their formative, early adult years. Reagan did so in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Back then, Reagan had been an FDR Democrat, a self-described “hemophiliac liberal,” or bleeding-heart liberal. He also had been repeatedly duped by self-proclaimed “progressive” pals who were, in reality, hardcore Marxists, Stalinists, and closet members of Communist Party USA—who quite literally (no exaggeration) swore a CPUSA loyalty oath to Stalin’s state. They lied to Reagan, used him, exploited him, hoodwinked him, and made him look like a fool—like a useful idiot, to borrow Lenin’s language. Reagan later admitted all of that. He would say to friends as president in the 1980s: “I still have scars on back from fighting communists in Hollywood.”

As for Karol Wojtyla, who likewise had been an actor in those same years, he encountered communists in an even more vicious way, as they took over and annihilated his beautiful homeland in the late 1940s. He saw their brutality in ways that Reagan did not personally experience. Sure, Reagan had to sleep with a Smith & Wesson, and he had faced some serious threats and scary, close calls, but Karol actually lost friends who had bullets fired into their skulls by communists.

And what especially rattled both of these men, a faithful Protestant and a faithful Catholic, was the hatred of religion by these communists. They recognized that communists wanted to kill not just men but God, not just the body but the soul.

CWR: What essential insights did the two men share about Communism and how it should be resisted and could be defeated?

Dr. Kengor: In answering that, I’ll go to the words of one of my mentors, Bill Clark, whose biography I published through Ignatius Press ten years ago. (The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand, 2007.) I dedicate this book to Bill Clark.

Clark said that the two men shared a “vision on the Soviet empire”—namely, “that right or correctness would ultimately prevail in the divine plan.” Both agreed that “atheistic communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail.” It would be “part of the DP,” said Clark—what he and Reagan referred to as “the Divine Plan.” Each played a role in what Clark called “the war of good against evil,” and each was inspired by the other’s “increasing courage and action” in that war against “the terrible oppression of atheistic communism.”

CWR: You dedicate this book to Bill Clark. Why?

Dr. Kengor: This book really developed from a pivotal conversation I had with Bill Clark one day at his ranch near Paso Robles, California. It was through Clark that I set off on an investigation into a possible Soviet role in the attempted assassination of John Paul II, which is an overarching theme of this book, and where I report a lot of totally new information that people will find of very high interest. When I worked on Clark’s biography, we spent numerous days together as he recounted his past and we excavated material from his home office, his town office, and the dusty boxes inside the tack room of his barn. When we weren’t sitting together, we were chatting by phone, usually daily. A turning point came when I asked him this question one day in the summer of 2005: “Bill, did Reagan ever suspect a Soviet role in the shooting of Pope John Paul II?” He responded slowly: “Well, Paul, . . .”

I was so engrossed that I neglected to push the button on my handheld audio recorder. And there it began. We spent a lot of time on that issue. The original manuscript of my Clark biography for Ignatius Press included about 3,000 words on Reagan, Clark, and shooting of the Holy Father. To my disappointment, Clark asked that I remove this material from the manuscript. He didn’t know for sure whether the Soviets had ordered the shooting and thus didn’t want to go on the record. “I don’t want the focus of attention to be on a part of the book for which we are not absolutely sure and clear,” he told me.

He didn’t want even an iota of speculation. I told him we didn’t need to speculate. I merely wanted to note his and Reagan’s reasonable suspicions of a Soviet role in the shooting. I tried to persuade him. I was disappointed, but I honored his request. In agreeing to be his biographer, I had promised him that I’d honor his wishes to exclude information he wasn’t comfortable disclosing. We made the final decision on July 6, 2006. Yes, I recall the exact date. I wrote it down in my notes. The published version of The Judge retained only a few words on the assassination attempt.

Clark knew he was depriving me of a significant story. But he also looked at me with a wry smile and said, “Of course, this might be something you could use one day in another of your books.” He repeated the thought later: “This will eventually come out. And you have enough here for another book.”

As usual, he was right. He was very wise. If anyone embodied the virtue of prudence, it was Bill Clark. It turns out that I needed much more time to interview people, declassify documents, and piece together much more. And the rest is history—in the form of this book.

CWR: And what did you learn about the Soviet role in the shooting of John Paul II on May 13, 1981?

Dr. Kengor: I learned that Moscow ordered the hit. It was organized by the Soviet GRU—that is, Soviet military intelligence—and with the approval, knowledge, and go-ahead of Yuri Andropov at the KGB. I’m not the first to report that, but I am the first to report that the CIA, under the careful direction of Bill Casey, launched a super-sensitive investigation and learned and confirmed the role of the Soviet GRU. I also learned that Casey briefed Reagan on this. I even give the exact date and time when I believe Casey briefed Reagan. Further, I was told that Casey briefed the Holy Father, who asked that this information be kept quiet. By this point—it was mid-1985—John Paul II saw no positive value in public affirming what everyone suspected anyway. Gorbachev had just been selected as general secretary, and John Paul II saw far more promising times ahead. I say much, much more on this in the book. That’s the longest chapter, actually. It’s too much to try to summarize here.

CWR: You’ve written a book about Reagan’s faith, but you note how you learned some things in researching this book that you didn’t know before. What were they? What was his view of the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith?

Dr. Kengor: Two words: “Ave Maria.” Ronald Reagan picked that hymn to be sung at his funeral service at Washington National Cathedral in June 2005. He had picked it a decade earlier, before his mind started fading from Alzheimer’s. I found that choice utterly fascinating, as did Bill Clark, who was overwhelmed with tears as he heard it belted out by Ronan Tynan inside the cathedral that afternoon. We tried to figure out why Reagan picked that hymn. I asked Mrs. Reagan, Michael Reagan, even Ronan Tynan. I’ll let you read the book for possible answers to that and other Reagan interests in the Blessed Mother. In fact, get this: Reagan was interested not only in Fatima but even Medjugorje. He and one of the Medjugorje seers even tried to reach one another in 1987.

Also, I must add that Reagan had immense respect not only for John Paul II but the Roman Catholic Church. He was surrounded by Catholics among his closest staff: Bill Clark, Bill Casey, Al Haig, Dick Allen, speechwriters like Peggy Noonan, Tony Dolan, Peter Robinson, and many more. In his personal life, his father was a lifelong Catholic, though some claim he was an apathetic Catholic (I’m not so sure about that). His brother Neil, became very devout, and, along with Neil’s wife, Bess, was a daily communicant. Reagan’s ex-wife, Jane Wyman, came into the Church on the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception, December 8, 1954, along with their children, Maureen and Michael. Jane Wyman was converted by Loretta Young and Fulton Sheen. Jane Wyman became so devout that in the 1980s she had a stipulation into her contract for the TV show “Falcon Crest” that a priest be on set every day to give her the Eucharist. Jane Wyman actually became a Third Order Dominican nun, buried in the habit. Imagine that.

So, Ronald Reagan was very pro-Catholic. Robert Reilly, who served as President Reagan’s liaison to the Catholic community, quipped to me, “We considered Reagan an honorary Catholic.” Reilly told me that Neil Reagan, when once asked whether there was anything else he could wish for his brother—given he had been a movie and TV star, governor, and president—responded, “Yes, I wish he would become a Catholic.”

Bill Clark used to tell me that Ronald Reagan understood Catholicism better than most Catholics that Clark knew.

And no doubt, John Paul II sensed and saw and greatly appreciated that.

CWR: Both men were nearly killed in assassination attempts in the early 1980s. Do we know if they discussed those events with each other?

Dr. Kengor: Think of two dates in 1981: On March 30, 1981, just outside the Washington Hilton, Ronald Reagan, 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, leader of the world’s largest group of Christians, was shot by a would-be assassin. We now know today what an anxious world did not know then: both men came perilously close to dying. The pope and the president would meet to discuss that joint mission on June 7, 1982, at the Vatican—a little over year since the assassination attempts.

Reagan had coveted that idea as early as June 1979, when the pope visited Poland. He estimated then and there that the pope was “the key” to Poland’s fate and to the potential fate of the wider Communist Bloc. Among his earliest goals as president was to officially recognize the Vatican as a state, reach out to the Holy Father, and (as he put it) “make them an ally.”

In June 1982, the two men talked alone for 50 minutes in the Vatican Library. The attempted assassinations against them were raised right away. Both referred to the “miraculous” fact they had survived. They believed their lives had been spared for a special purpose, which they translated into a joint effort to take down atheistic Soviet communism. And their dagger to make that happen would be Poland—the wedge that both men believed could pierce and ultimately split the Soviet empire.

Bill Clark was there. He described that day to me as a “wonderful day” and a transformative one. He said that that day “gave the president and pope the ability to form a very personal relationship from then on.” The meeting led to real action. Reagan and John Paul II translated their lofty divine mission into a practical policy mission to sustain the Solidarity movement in Poland as the potential wedge that could split the USSR’s empire.

CWR: The matters of the consecration of Russia to Mary’s Immaculate Heart and the Third Secret of Fatima are still quite controversial in many Catholic circles. What do you think happened, based on your research, and why is there still so much controversy and confusion?

Dr. Kengor: As to the Third Secret, to be blunt, some were hoping for the Apocalypse. They were hoping that the Third Secret predicted the End Times. Of course, this isn’t because they morbidly wanted the world to explode in giant nuclear-mushroom clouds, but because they want Jesus to come again and straighten out this painfully insane world. In that sense, with the Third Secret “merely” predicting the shooting of a pope who didn’t die, I think some people were oddly let down.

Now, that said, I walk through this very carefully in the book: Sister Lucia told the Vatican several times, very specifically, that the Third Secret had been fully revealed and that John Paul II’s consecration of Russia to Mary’s immaculate heart had been done properly and successfully. I have full chapters in the book on each of those two events. To me, the issue seems resolved.

CWR: How would you describe the friendship between Reagan and John Paul II? And how might history been different without that friendship?

Dr. Kengor: Had these two extraordinary men perished from the shootings in March and May 1981, the 20th century would not have ended as it did. For Americans, for Europeans, for Protestants and Catholics, and for so many others worldwide, the momentous and tranquil termination of the Cold War was the most remarkable event of the close of the 20th century, a century where over 100 million people were killed by communist governments. And Ronald Reagan and John Paul II teamed up to seek precisely that historic victory, an outcome that they perceived as not only historical but spiritual. For both men, the Soviet empire was not a mere empire, but an atheistic empire, an “Evil Empire.”

In that, Ronald Reagan saw Pope John Paul II as his partner, as his “best friend”—as Reagan would (quite remarkably) put it. Yes, Reagan actually said that. In the book, I have the time, the place, the context, the witnesses. And Nancy Reagan said equally strong things about her Ronnie’s “closest friend.”

Their collaboration helped bring about the historic events of 1989-91, from the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Communist Bloc to the disintegration of the Soviet Union—the Bolshevik Russia that plagued a century with its persecutions and errors. They won the Cold War without a missile fired—along with the help of key names like Thatcher, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Walesa, Havel.

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. And the way they did it—and the larger, higher forces involved—is, I believe, the extraordinary untold story of the 20th century.

About Carl E. Olson 1033 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind", co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.

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