Paul Kengor’s A Pope and a President is unusual in that it is also a theo-history, taking seriously the religious events of the 20th century. Written with academic rigor and in a brisk, readable style, it is a God’s-eye view of the hidden events of the 20th century and the actions of Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, which were responsible for ensuring that we had a 21st century at all…
A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century by Paul Kengor (648 pages, ISI Books, 2017)
Looking back, it all seems like a bad dream. It is hard to believe that there was once such a thing as the Soviet Union, that communism was once considered a serious international force and that it all could have collapsed so quickly and vanished like a bad smell. Many of those who still bother to think about such matters doubtless consider the process inevitable, but that is rather like assuming the elimination of slavery in the 19th century was inevitable. Grove City College professor of political science Paul Kengor reminds us in A Pope and a President that the collapse of Soviet communism was anything but inevitable. Rather, it was the result of concerted efforts on the part of a small but dedicated group of influential people who were willing to buck the Zeitgeist, recognize evil for what it was and work assiduously to defeat it. History has shown that they succeeded, perhaps beyond their wildest dreams. Yet, without their efforts, it might not have happened.
According to Dr. Kengor, a biographer and student of the life and career of late President Ronald Reagan, much of the credit for these efforts goes to our 40th president. But in his new book, Dr. Kengor also considers the efforts of other agents in this fight—particularly, Pope St. John Paul II. Dr. Kengor presents us with parallel biographies of two men who, despite their differences, displayed a number of striking similarities and, it appears, were working in much closer cooperation than their contemporaries realized. Dr. Kengor’s work is unusual in that it is also a theo-history, taking seriously the religious events of the 20th century, such as the apparitions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima and elsewhere. Contemporary historians will doubtless balk at this approach, but, to this reviewer, the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union cannot be explained by anything other than the actions of a merciful Providence. Written with academic rigor and in a brisk, readable style, A Pope and a President is a God’s-eye view of the hidden events of the 20th century and the actions of those responsible for ensuring that we had a 21st century at all.
Dr. Kengor’s thesis is that the fall of Soviet communism was the product of coordinated efforts on the part of Reagan and St. John Paul II. As such, he spends much of the book presenting details of their lives and careers. While the two met in person only a handful of times, it is now clear that they were in frequent contact during the critical years of the 1980s. Moreover, they enjoyed a genuine friendship. Reagan once surprised a group of Polish Solidarity Party members during their 1989 visit when he pointed to a portrait of the Pope on his office wall and said, “Yes, you know I’m Protestant, but [John Paul II] is still my best friend.”
Dr. Kengor’s parallel biography presents their many similarities. Both came from small families: father, mother and brother (Reagan, though raised as a Protestant, had a Catholic father). Both had mothers who suffered major health traumas when they were eight, and fathers who died in 1941. In their youths, both suffered serious illnesses or injuries, giving them time to meditate during lengthy convalescences. Both were athletic and interested in acting; both gave up acting reluctantly but found that their acting experience helped make them telegenic and exceptionally good communicators. Both grew up very religious and had a pronounced mystical streak, a strong belief in divine Providence and the idea that all things happen for the good. Both drew core convictions from their religious backgrounds: belief in the sanctity of life, the understanding that individuals are more important than the state, a love of liberty tempered by the realization that true liberty comes from religious faith, a belief in subsidiarity and limited government and so on. Both men experienced Nazism and communism to one degree or another, and both considered these ideologies an affront to all they held sacred. But both became “positive anti-communists,” stressing alternatives to communism rather than just simply condemning it. Both rose to prominence in unconventional ways, which caused many people to underestimate them, but which also gave them a different perspective on world problems and a willingness to address these problems in original ways. Both were shot within six weeks of each other and barely survived, and both came to view their survivals as a sign that God had spared them to carry out a special task on earth.
That task, of course, was the destruction of Soviet communism. Dr. Kengor does not share the tendency of many of Reagan’s contemporaries (and others today) to look upon Reagan’s referral to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire” with bemused indulgence at best. Rather, Dr. Kengor is an accurate historian who recognizes all the atrocities that entity committed and the blight it cast across the 20th century. After all, no honest biographer can hope to understand who John Paul II was and what motivated him without acknowledging the suffering communism inflicted on his Polish homeland. One of the chief evils of communism is its hatred of religion, and Dr. Kengor consistently juxtaposes this evil with the effect it had on the Catholic Church, and he also places it in the context of the major religious events of the century. The book opens with a serious consideration of the apparitions at Fatima in 1917, which sets the tone for the whole work. While not all readers will accept these as valid, Dr. Kengor notes that it is clear that John Paul II did, as did Reagan, and that one cannot understand their motivations otherwise. Many other great Catholic figures of the century appear in these pages in turn: St. Faustina Kowalska, József Cardinal Mindszenty, St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Ven. Fulton Sheen, St. Teresa of Calcutta and others—all of whom reinforce the theme that the 20th-century struggle against atheistic communism was one of the greatest battles in Church history.
Reagan described his joint efforts with John Paul II unofficially as the “Divine Plan,” a major element of which was to encourage freedom of religion in the USSR. Dr. Kengor goes into great detail about the political events of the 1980s, starting with John Paul II’s trips to Poland, which were arguably the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. Even the attempted assassinations had special divine and human significance. According to Dr. Kengor, Reagan’s happened just as Russia was poised to invade Poland to help crush Solidarity and reinforce martial law. Faced with the political consequences of a military attack after an attempt on the life of the U.S. president, the Soviets allegedly backed down. Dr. Kengor believes the assassination attempt on John Paul II was orchestrated by the Soviets—specifically the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, rather than the KGB, its state security agency, as is popularly supposed. It led the Pope to examine the Third Secret of Fatima, which he interpreted as an attempt on his life, and later to dedicate his efforts to the consecration of Russia, as had been requested at Fatima decades earlier.
Of those who found the contents of the Third Secret of Fatima somewhat underwhelming when they were publicly released in 2000, Dr. Kengor asks them to consider the times: Had the assassination been successful, and had evidence for Soviet responsibility been available, the end result could have been what followed in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914: another world war. But Reagan and John Paul II both survived, and the assassination attempts brought them closer together. The rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, a Soviet leader with whom Reagan believed the U.S. could negotiate, proved to be the final factor. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 eliminated an entire class of nuclear missiles, and when the USSR ended its policy of suppression of religion a year later, it was only a matter of time before the entire edifice collapsed.
A Pope and a President is not a perfect work. Dr. Kengor’s strength is at the same time his weakness: By focusing so closely on Reagan and John Paul II, he gives the impression that the defeat of the USSR was entirely their work, when in reality it was a team effort—Margaret Thatcher, for example, is mentioned only twice, which seems a dreadful oversight. But it is a very good work, and there are some important lessons we can take from it. One is that we should always recognize evil for what it is and refuse to accommodate it. Reagan said it best when he told his foreign-policy advisor, “My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple, and some would say simplistic. It is this: We win and they lose.” When many more “sophisticated” minds instead stress cooperation or non-confrontation, it is worth remembering that John Paul II inherited a Vatican bureaucracy committed to Ostpolitik, and Reagan an American one committed to détente. Both had to work around a lot of their own so-called supporters to achieve their aims.
Another lesson the reader can take away from Dr. Kengor’s book is to see the truth clearly because many people are selectively blind when it comes to their own politics. People would cheer Reagan when he gave anti-Nazi speeches after World War II, but the cheers stopped when he started claiming that communism was a worse threat. Years earlier Pope Pius XII had a similar problem trying to explain this to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Elites in the U.S. intelligence community refused to explore the possibility that Moscow might have been behind the assassination attempt on the Pope, and it was only the humble Italian police who kept up the investigation. This blindness can manifest as an unnatural credulity as well as demonstrated by the willingness of people to accept uncritically the Soviet-encouraged smear of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.”
Finally, it is important to remember that the fight is never over. A mere eighteen months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, John Paul II remarked, “There exists a danger of replacing Marxism with another form of atheism which, in the name of liberty, tends to destroy the roots of human and Christian morality.” Freedom without faith degenerates into license, which is exactly where we find ourselves now. The USSR rests on the ash heap of history, but its ideological fellow-travelers are still with us. It is, however, worth celebrating the victories and lauding the heroes who are responsible for them, such as John Paul II and Reagan. As Dr. Kengor puts it, “They rewrote the ending of the story of the twentieth century.”
Republished with gracious permission from the New Oxford Review (May 2018).
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Editor’s note: The featured image, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.