A friendship forged in faith helped change the world
On Nov. 5, 2001, not quite two months after the 9/11 attacks, Lech Walesa spoke at Western Carolina University. Walesa was famed for his resistance to communism in Poland and the Soviet Union, and was the founder of Solidarity, a trade union seeking an expansion of its negotiating power and the establishment of fundamental human rights within Polish communism. Along with Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, and Mikhail Gorbachev, Walesa was a key player in the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Because Walesa was a hero of mine — he had suffered imprisonment and death threats for his stand for freedom — I obtained a press card and covered the event for the Smoky Mountain News. Walesa spoke to those assembled through an interpreter, stressing the importance of maintaining democracies and of opposing those who, like the 9/11 terrorists, sought to attack those democracies.
After Walesa spoke to the general audience, the moderator invited the press to ask more questions of Walesa in a nearby room. I envisioned myself at the back of the room, with reporters and camera crews from North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee all thronging in front of me.
Instead, the only media present were a crew from Asheville’s local television station, a reporter for the university’s paper, one or two local writers, and me. Needless to say, I was more than a little stunned by this lack of interest, even in that desperate time of terror threats and preparation for war.
For me, and for millions of others, particularly those living in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the greatest political event of the last half of the twentieth century was the downfall of communism in Europe. Before 1989, I remember having many discussions with family and friends about communism in that part of the world, and how it was my opinion that my grandchildren might someday see freedom come alive in those countries. Three years later, my opinions were as dead as Russian communism.
Because of the storm of daily news in our technological age, we sometimes jump too quickly from event to event, seeing triumphs and disasters through our daily papers and online sites rather than taking a longer view. Many people today, particularly the younger crew, have probably never heard of Lech Walesa, Margaret Thatcher, or any of the others associated with this great transformation.
In A Pope and A President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century (ISI Books, 2017, 637 pages), historian Paul Kengor has given us a vivid reminder of the struggle between the United States and the USSR in the final decades of the Cold War, examining in particular the strong alliance between Reagan and the Pope, an alliance that eventually brought half a dozen oppressive governments crashing into ruins.
A Pope and A President should please readers ignorant of these historical events as well as those knowledgeable about them. The former will find in Kengor’s book a great deal of background information — a short history of twentieth century Russia, mini-biographies of Reagan, John Paul II, and others, the many diplomatic meetings of the time, the treaties, the gambits employed by both sides to gain the upper hand — all in prose that reads as easily and with the same excitement as a good novel.
Those already familiar with the world-shaking events of the late 1980s will also benefit from reading A Pope and A President. Kengor, a professor at Grove City College, has written more than a dozen books on the Reagan and communism. In his latest book, he takes a different perspective than many other historians by examining the close association of the pope and the president, a friendship brought about not only by their mutual disdain for communism but also by a shared belief in God.
Because Ronald Reagan rarely attended church and because some of his biographers have overlooked his religious beliefs, Reagan’s deep faith may come as a surprise to some of us. (And I very much include myself in that number). Kengor, who has written another book on Reagan and faith, approaches the man from a different angle than other biographers, showing us that Reagan regarded his battle against communism as a crusade, a war to bring both civil and religious liberties to oppressed peoples.
And it was undoubtedly the deep faith of John Paul II and Reagan that forged the bond between them. The two men meet extensively during the Reagan presidency, conversed privately, and corresponded more than some of the Reagan aides would have wished. After the assassination attempt on John Paul II, just months after John Hinckley shot Reagan, the president developed a growing interest in John Paul’s Marian beliefs, particularly regarding the miracle of Fatima in 1917. Though of different religious backgrounds — Reagan was raised as a member of Disciples of Christ and died a Presbyterian — each man lived a life of prayer and spiritual belief.
That this alliance between president and pope had an enormous effect was echoed that day at Western when I asked Lech Walesa how much influence Pope John Paul II wielded on events in Poland. “Before the Pope first visited Poland, I had 10 supporters,” Walesa replied. “After the Pope left Poland, I had 10 million supporters.”
Two thumbs up on A Pope and A President.