The Vatican and Westminster: June 7-8, 1982


On Monday, June 7, 1982 Ronald Reagan was in Rome. He was there as part of a brief trip to Europe. It was a straightforward trip lacking many stops, but in its simplicity, it contained unparalleled steps in the rhetorical and symbolic war against the Soviet Union.

For two seminal days in June 1982, Reagan made some of his strongest gestures to date, signaling to America and to the world his belief that Communism's days were running out.

With a media crush outside, as reporters jockeyed for position and at times literally tripped over one another, Reagan and the pope met at the Vatican, a little over a year after assassination attempts that almost took their lives. The day he was shot the pope had received a cable from Reagan, in which the president expressed his shock and prayers. Since then, the staffs of the two men had worked diligently to arrange a meeting between them. "It was always assumed the president would meet with the Holy Father as soon as feasible," said Bill Clark, among those most excited about the prospects, "especially after they both took shots . . . only a few weeks apart. I don't know if any one person said 'we have to see the pope.' It was just assumed because of their mutual interests that at some point the two men would come together and form some sort of collaboration."

Reagan had long coveted such an idea, and the events in Poland the previous December merely reinforced the importance of such a meeting. Not only had he long viewed the pope as the key to Poland's fate, but among his earliest goals as president was to officially recognize the Vatican as a state "and make them an ally."

Now, for the first time, the men spoke face to face inside the venerable Vatican Library. The subject of the shootings was broached. Pio Cardinal Laghi said that Reagan told the pope: "Look how the evil forces were put in our way and how Providence intervened." Bill Clark said that both men referred to the "miraculous" fact that they had survived; indeed, only later did we learn that both men had come perilously close to dying.

The Protestant and Catholic, said Clark, 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." That day, each shared their view that they had been given "a spiritual mission — a special role in the divine plan of life." Both expressed concern for "the terrible oppression of atheistic communism," as Clark put it, and agreed that "atheistic communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail."

Together they expressed a common vision to end the Cold War. As Reagan said, "We both felt that a great mistake had been made at Yalta and something should be done. Solidarity was the very weapon for bringing this about." It was an important unity, and in his dramatic 1992 story for Time magazine, Carl Bernstein reported that it was at this meeting where Reagan and the pope secretly joined forces not only to strengthen Solidarity and pressure Warsaw "but to free all of Eastern Europe." In that first meeting, wrote Bernstein, they consented to undertake a clandestine campaign "to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire." The two men "were convinced that Poland could be broken out of the Soviet orbit if the Vatican and the United States committed the resources to destabilizing the Polish government and keeping the outlawed Solidarity movement alive after the declaration of martial law in 1981." Reagan told the pope: "Hope remains in Poland. We, working together, can keep it alive."

Both leaders were convinced that a free, non-Communist Poland would be, in Bernstein's words, "a dagger to the heart of the Soviet empire." They were certain that if Poland became democratic, other Eastern European states would follow. A cardinal who was one of John Paul II's closest aides put it this way: "Nobody believed the collapse of communism would happen this fast or on this timetable. But in their first meeting, the Holy Father and the President committed themselves and the institutions of the church and America to such a goal. And from that day, the focus was to bring it about in Poland."

The Public Face

Reagan said that he left the encounter with a feeling of hope and dedication, knowing that a world which produced such "courage and vision" from a man like Karol Wojtyla, a survivor of adversity, was capable of "building a better future."

While the two figures clearly shared a bond over their recent experiences and distaste for Communism, there was very little that they were able to share openly. In his subsequent remarks to the press, Reagan said that he left the encounter with a feeling of hope and dedication, knowing that a world which produced such "courage and vision" from a man like Karol Wojtyla, a survivor of adversity, was capable of "building a better future." Telling the gaggle of frenetic media that he felt a dedication "to do all in one's power to live up" to the faith and values of the "free West," he then pointed to general "certain common experiences" of him and the pope which "gave our meeting a special meaning to me."

In his press remarks, Reagan also stated that God had blessed America with a freedom and abundance that had been denied to less fortunate brethren. Since the end of World War II, he said, America did its best to provide those less fortunate with billions of dollars in food, medicine, and materials. "And we'll continue to do so in the years ahead." Shifting to contemporary Poland specifically, he pledged, "While denying financial assistance to the repressive Polish regime, America will continue to provide the Polish people with as much food and commodity support as possible through church and private organizations." Like the Church in its spiritual role, America would "seek to pursue the same goals of peace, freedom, and humanity along political and economic lines." Applying his Christian faith to the fight against Communism, Reagan cited a Scriptural rationale for U.S. aid: "Americans have always believed that in the words of Scripture, 'Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.' "

He concluded by asking the pope for his prayers "that God will guide us in our efforts for peace on this journey and in the years ahead." For his part, the pope closed: "With faith in God and belief in universal human solidarity may America step forward in this crucial moment in history to consolidate her rightful place at the service of world peace." It was a bargain that Reagan was happy to try to meet.

"Holy Alliance"

Although much of the correspondence within this historic partnership remains classified, with numerous documents fully redacted or not released at all, leaving a multitude of unanswered questions, this much is certain: The meeting launched a deliberate and coordinated effort on behalf of both the White House and Vatican to end Communism. The major players included Clark, Casey, Pipes, Ambassador Vernon Walters, Pio Cardinal Laghi, and Agostino Cardinal Casaroli. Clark's deputy at the NSC, Robert McFarlane, says that almost everything that had to do with Poland was handled outside of normal State Department channels and went through Casey and Clark. He adds, "I knew that they [Casey and Clark] were meeting with Pio Laghi [the apostolic delegate to Washington], and that Pio Laghi had been to see the president, but Clark would never tell me what the substance of the discussions was." Clark and Laghi met regularly to discuss developments in the Polish situation. Crucial decisions on funneling aid to Solidarity and responding to the Polish and Soviet regimes were made by Reagan, Casey, and Clark, in consultation with Vatican officials.

Working in close proximity to each other in Washington, a close relationship developed between Casey, Clark, and Laghi. "Casey and I dropped into his [Laghi's] residence early mornings during critical times to gather his comments and counsel," says Clark. "We'd have breakfast and coffee and discuss what was being done in Poland. I'd speak to him frequently on the phone, and he would be in touch with the pope." On at least six different occasions, Laghi came to the White House and met with Clark and Reagan. Each time, he discreetly entered the White House through the southwest gate to avoid the notice of the press.

Former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a strong anti-Communist and native of Poland, talks of Casey's role in the effort: "Casey ran it . . . and led it; he was very flexible and very imaginative and not very bureaucratic. If something needed to be done it was done. " Casey shared Reagan's sense that they faced a grand juncture, and that the pope could help enormously. In his biography of John Paul II, which he coauthored with Marco Politi, Bernstein wrote:

Intuitively, they [Casey and Reagan] understood what the pontiff might accomplish and how his acts might push forward their own global policies. . . . The highest priority of American foreign policy was now Poland, he [Casey] informed the Pope. In Washington, Reagan and Casey had discussed the possibility of "breaking Poland out of the Soviet orbit," with help from the Holy Father.

Intelligence, namely information-sharing, played a central role in the Reagan-Pope collaboration. The Reagan administration fueled an intelligence shuttle between Washington and the Vatican, through which Casey and Walters clandestinely briefed the pope on a regular basis. Between them, they paid fifteen secret visits to John Paul II over a six-year period. Walters visited at roughly six-month intervals.

Both Reagan and the pope eagerly anticipated the information gained from these briefings. The pope benefited from the mighty, long arm of U.S. technical intelligence, receiving some of the nation's most guarded secrets and sophisticated analysis. He was able to pore over satellite imagery that was detailed beyond his conception.

Vatican representatives and the pope were consulted on U.S. thinking in world affairs. This consultation, and subsequent influence, swung both ways: To cite just one later example, in February 1984, Vice President Bush held a fifty-five-minute meeting with John Paul II at the Vatican. He briefed the Holy Father on Lebanon, on his meeting with Soviet General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko the previous day, and more. Following those items, reported Bush in a cable sent to the White House Situation Room, declassified in July 2000, "I then asked him if he had any advice for us on Poland." Bush said that John Paul II reacted by discussing the Poland situation "for some time." "The Holy Father said people are getting hurt," said Bush, referring to the punitive effect of U.S. sanctions. The pope told him, "This must be changed." The pope said that both he and the Holy See agreed there should be a change in sanctions policy.

Vice President Bush has informed me of his recent meeting with you. I want you to know that I deeply appreciate your counsel and that, following upon it, I have decided to take the following steps concerning Poland.

The pope also told Bush of how Poles had suffered under totalitarianism. Even if Polish Communist leader Jaruzelski wanted to improve the situation, he was limited in what he could do. "He is limited by the neighborhood — namely GDR [ East Germany], Czechoslovakia, etc.," Bush translated. That meant the Reagan administration and Vatican needed to assist. Relaying the pope's words, Bush continued: "We must do something to help the [Polish] people. So many times in the past they have defended themselves against oppression."

As evidence of how Bush's report influenced Reagan, the president wrote a February 22 follow-up letter to John Paul II, also declassified in July 2000, which began:

Vice President Bush has informed me of his recent meeting with you. I want you to know that I deeply appreciate your counsel and that, following upon it, I have decided to take the following steps concerning Poland. Our Charge in Warsaw will inform General Jaruzelski, through a most confidential envoy, that we are prepared to lift the ban on regularly scheduled LOT flights to the United States, permit the resumption of travel under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Travel Fund, and begin an official — but highly confidential — dialogue. This dialogue would include all aspects of our relations and set forth what we would expect from the Polish side in return for positive actions on our part.

Clearly, the briefings, advice, and influence between Washington and the Holy See swung both ways. In the letter, Reagan linked his sanctions modifications to a positive Polish response; he also listed his own specific human-rights concerns:

These steps would, however, depend upon Warsaw's willingness to release the eleven KOR and Solidarity activists without any onerous conditions or harassment. I am also conveying to the General my strong interest in the situation of Lech Walesa and his family and my concern that they not be subjected to officially-inspired harassment. . . . I sincerely hope General Jaruzelski will respond positively to our approach and agree to take steps which will lead to the reconciliation in Poland for which we all hope and pray.

Finally, there were several meetings, not to mention an obvious special bond, between not just the principals but the two men at the top. Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II met together probably at least seven times. Some of the most telling moments from those meetings can be encapsulated into a single enduring image that Nancy Reagan describes as one of her favorites, captured by a photographer: "The pope is sitting with his head bent, listening, and Ronnie is half way out of his chair and talking to the pope, and his hand is out and his finger's out. Obviously he's telling him something. And you wonder, what in the world is Ronnie saying? The pope is listening very carefully to him."

It was a common image derived from two men who respected one another and engaged a world they yearned to transform. John Paul II told Nancy that there was a psychological and emotional tie between the two that he never had with another president. And it all started with that meeting on June 7, 1982.

In the years following the end of the Reagan administration, much of the discussion regarding the pope centered on the nature of this relationship between the two prominent men. The defining characteristics of the collaboration became a subject of dispute after Carl Bernstein's article, "The Holy Alliance," ran in 1992. Some on both sides of the Atlantic resented the implication that there was collusion unifying the two sides. One high-level Reagan foreign-policy official was so contemptuous of Bernstein's characterization that he unfairly maligned the former Watergate reporter as a "slimeball" and "scumbag. " This official apparently feared that such a term did a disservice by trivializing what happened, perhaps making it less believable to serious observers. He insisted there was no Holy Alliance, nor "conspiracy," but mainly "shared interests" — "two groups going down the same path." Likewise, one historian of this episode, a sympathetic one to both the pope and Reagan, personally told me that Bernstein's claim of a conspiracy of two is "horseshit."

Many others also rejected the notion that there was a conspiracy between the two sides. Richard V. Allen was particularly hostile to the term, saying that when he once referred to the partnership as an alliance, he meant it as a metaphor not as a statement of fact. Similarly, John Paul II biographer George Weigel calls Bernstein a "journalistic fantasist," and states categorically that there was "neither alliance nor conspiracy," though there was "a common purpose born of a set of shared convictions." The gentlemanly Bill Clark also rejects the notion of a Holy Alliance or conspiracy: "[T]he idea that this was some sort of 'Holy Conspiracy' is overreaching a bit. There was no plot or plan between the two sides. . . . We knew we were both going in the same direction and so we decided to collaborate, particularly on intelligence issues regarding the Eastern Bloc." He adds: "There was a natural convergence of interests, which led officials at the White House to work together with their counterparts at the Vatican." "Primarily," Clark continued, "that cooperation involved the sharing of intelligence information. But no, there was not a formal alliance as such."

In the end, Clark dubbed the mutual effort a "successful collaboration" which took place "under Ronald Reagan's direction." This mutual effort was encouraged to flourish during Clark's tenure at the NSC, bringing the White House and Vatican closer together than at any other point.

Though some clearly do not like the term, it seems that this mutual effort was a "conspiracy" of sorts, especially when clandestine priests were on the ground and mutual aid was secretly provided by the two sides. It certainly seems fair to characterize it as an alliance, and even a "holy" one, being that it was one that the spirit-filled Reagan and spiritual father John Paul II pushed for the purpose of undermining Communism.

Regardless of the specific language used to describe it, the end result was that their meeting on June 7, 1982 forged an indelible bond, a sacred pledge to share information that would be mutually beneficial to both sides. And despite the clear obstacles, both men persevered in the hope that they might one day live to see the walls of Communism come tumbling down. It was a unique connection between two unique individuals, the like of which have rarely been seen in modern politics.

June 8, 1982: Westminster

The day after his historic meeting with the pope, Reagan left the Vatican reinvigorated with a spiritual zeal to undermine Communism. Filled with a sense of grander purpose, he flew to London, where on June 8 at Westminster he gave the most prescient speech of his presidency.

The day after his historic meeting with the pope, Reagan left the Vatican reinvigorated with a spiritual zeal to undermine Communism. Filled with a sense of grander purpose, he flew to London, where on June 8 at Westminster he gave the most prescient speech of his presidency.

While Tony Dolan was the speechwriter for the Westminster address, Reagan's hand — literally his pen — was apparent in every line as Reagan played a key role in the speech's language, ensuring that it embodied all that he preached. An early draft of the speech, probably the first, is dated May 19, 1982, and is on file at the Reagan Library. That draft, written by Dolan, was overhauled by Reagan, with the president removing numerous words, lines, and paragraphs and adding so much text that he could have received a coauthor credit. The May 19 draft was twenty-four pages long, with twenty-seven entire paragraphs that were removed by Reagan in addition to dozens of sentences and hundreds of words the president slashed.

Throughout the draft process, Reagan played this editing role, adding significant, well-known lines to the text. Few sections of the Westminster address were more memorable than the one Reagan penciled in to page fourteen of the May 24 draft: "What I am describing now is a policy and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other totalitarian ideologies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of its citizens." Very tellingly, Reagan opted for the word "policy" in addition to "hope."

The speech offered more: The president called upon Western allies to encourage democratic developments in Eastern Europe by assisting inchoate democratic institutions behind the Iron Curtain. He said he wanted Eastern Europeans "to choose their own way to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means." This effort, said Reagan, would constitute a "crusade for freedom."

In the 1950s, he had signed onto the Crusade for Freedom; now, he was resurrecting and spearheading it. "[L]et us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny," he urged. Forecasting a simultaneous splurge in democracy, he assured people that "around the world today, the democratic revolution is gathering new strength." He went on to say that "in the Caribbean and Central America, sixteen of twenty-four countries have freely elected governments. And in the United Nations, eight of ten developing nations which have joined the body in the past five years are democracies." He offered: "This is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace. It may not be easy to see, but I believe we live now at the turning point."

As he had at CPAC six months earlier, Reagan spoke of a crossroads — a "turning point." He then turned his attention to what he saw as the source of darkness:

In an ironic sense, Karl Marx was right. We are witnessing today a great revolutionary crisis. . . . But the crisis is happening not in the free, non-Marxist West, but in the home of Marxism-Leninism, the Soviet Union.

It is the Soviet Union that runs against the tide of history by denying freedom and human dignity to its citizens. It also is in deep economic difficulty. . . . The dimensions of this failure are astounding: a country which employs one-fifth of its population in agriculture is unable to feed its own people.

Calling on more evidence of the economic crisis, Reagan borrowed material he had used in his radio addresses from the 1970s:

Were it not for the tiny private sector tolerated in Soviet agriculture, the country might be on the brink of famine. These private plots occupy a bare three percent of the arable land but account for nearly one-quarter of Soviet farm output and nearly one-third of meat products and vegetables.

Overcentralized, with little or no incentives, year after year, the Soviet system pours its best resource into the making of instruments of destruction.

The constant shrinkage of economic growth combined with the growth of military production is putting a heavy strain on the Soviet people.

What we see here is a political structure that no longer corresponds to its economic base, a society where productive forces are hampered by political ones.

The decay of the Soviet experiment should come as no surprise to us. Wherever the comparisons have been made between free and closed societies — West Germany and East Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, Malaysia and Vietnam — it is the democratic countries that are prosperous and responsive to the needs of their people.

Here again was Reagan's foreknowledge of the calamity coming to the USSR, served up in 1982 when others were claiming the USSR was fine. He perceived economic failures that were in fact abounding and getting worse, and he was hoping to exacerbate the problems through his administration's burgeoning economic-warfare efforts.

Next, he shared his mutual goals of spreading democracy and reversing Communism:

We must not hesitate to declare our ultimate objectives and to take concrete actions to move toward them. We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings. The objective I propose is quite simple to state: To foster the infrastructure of democracy — the system of a free press, unions, political parties, universities — which allows a people to choose their own way, to develop their own culture, to reconcile their own differences through peaceful means. . . .

It is time that we committed ourselves as a nation — in both the public and private sectors — to assisting democratic development.

I do not wish to sound overly optimistic, yet the Soviet Union is not immune from the reality of what is going on in the world. It has happened in the past: a small ruling elite either mistakenly attempts to ease domestic unrest through greater repression and foreign adventure, or it chooses a wiser course — it begins to allow its people a voice in their own destiny.

Then came the talk of that "plan" that Reagan had penciled in, that "hope"; it was followed by a Reagan prediction and a challenge:

What I am describing now is a plan and a hope for the long term — the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people. . . .

For the ultimate determinant in the struggle now going on for the world will not be bombs and rockets, but a test of wills and ideas — a trial of spiritual resolve: the values we hold, the beliefs we cherish, the ideals to which we are dedicated.

I have often wondered about the shyness of some of us in the West about standing for these ideals that have done so much to ease the plight of man and the hardships of our imperfect world. . . . Let us be shy no longer — let us go to our strength. Let us offer hope. Let us tell the world that a new age is not only possible but probable. . . . What kind of people do we think we are? And let us answer: Free people, worthy of freedom and determined not only to remain so, but to help others gain their freedom as well. . . .

Let us now begin a major effort to secure the best — a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation. . . . Let us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.

Lou Cannon, who spent his career in newsrooms, rightly notes that the Western press derided the Westminster Address as "wishful thinking, bordering on delusional." In London, Andrew Alexander, a Daily Mail columnist, protested: "To be invited to defend ourselves against Communism is one thing. To be asked to join a crusade for the overthrow of Communism is quite another."

There was no doubt about how the Soviets interpreted Reagan's words. Official spokesmen described the address as a declaration to destroy the USSR. Writing in Sovetskaya Rossiya, S. Volovets said the speech showed that Reagan had "declared an ideological 'crusade' against atheistic communism." Volovets parroted the line of the Moscow Domestic Service, which said the "notorious speech" threatened to impose upon the rest of the world the American way of life — that is, it sought to "impose" freedom.

The pages of Pravda were likewise certain about what Reagan had in mind. Vitaliy Korionov warned that Reagan and his merry band of "latterday crusaders" had malicious intentions toward the Soviet bloc: "The new 'crusade' is essentially a whole system of methods geared to undermining the socialist community." He was right, and had merely mimicked the just-released CPSU Central Committee report to the twenty-sixth Party Congress, which explained the U.S. effort this way: "It employs an entire system of means geared to undermining the socialist world and causing it to disintegrate."

Warsaw's Communists saw this as a bad thing. Little did they know that in their zeal to frighten Poles with Reagan's words, they had uplifted them.

Pravda did not like this American bravado, and responded with some swagger of its own. Bolshakov issued a warning to the Reagan team: "[I]f the U.S. Administration supposes that by means of force and ideological sabotage it will succeed in 'changing history,' let it remember that its numerous predecessors in the sphere of organizing 'crusades' against communism finished up in the very place where Washington resolved to dispatch Marxism-Leninism — the garbage heap of history."

Indeed even before Reagan made the speech there were rumblings about his new strategy in the Communist press. The day of the Westminster Address, Poland's Domestic Service released an appraisal of Reagan's overall strategy, in which it judged that Reagan had made an unequivocal choice "to go on the offensive," as part of a "global campaign for democracy," which included the development of "appropriate institutions for the realization of this task." Warsaw's Communists saw this as a bad thing. Little did they know that in their zeal to frighten Poles with Reagan's words, they had uplifted them.

Each word in this analysis by Poland's Domestic Service was right on the money, as was a July 1982 editorial in Pravda that said that Reagan specifically had issued "an open call to 'undermine' socialism in the USSR and the other socialist countries."

In short, Reagan subversion was becoming the theme in the Communist press for 1982. It was that year, summed up Pravda, that Reagan publicly launched his crusade against the USSR.

Despite the criticisms that would be lobbed at him in both the Western and Communist presses, Reagan remained resolute. There had been nothing accidental in the Westminster Address, but instead from start to finish it was a deliberate attempt to send an unmistakable message to the Soviets and to the world. It was a message that he had been advancing for four decades, and it was a speech that would be the embodiment of that image for years to come. That moment at Westminster saw Reagan uncover the full extent of his rhetorical arsenal, as he went headfirst in announcing his intentions to attempt to change history.

Though the Soviet press found itself up in arms over Reagan's confrontational language, words were merely a precursor of events to come. Emboldened by the speech and his meeting with the pope, Reagan returned home determined to take the next step in his crusade. The first half of 1982 was just the beginning of his assault on the USSR's Communist infrastructure during that year. Over the course of the next six months, the economic campaign against the USSR would shift to high gear, as the Crusader's war against Communism would move from speeches to action.


Paul Kengor. "The Vatican and Westminster: June 7-8, 1982." Chapter Ten in The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006): 132-145.

The foregoing is excerpted from The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism by Paul Kengor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022

Reprinted with permission of the author, Paul Kengor and HarperCollins Publishers.


Paul Kengor is associate professor of political science at Grove City College, in Grove City, Pennsylvania and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution. He is the author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2006), God and George W. Bush: A Spiritual Life, and the best selling God and Ronald Reagan. He is co-editor, along with Peter Schweizer, of Assessing the Reagan Presidency (Rowman-Littlefield, 2005). Paul Kengor is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Contact Kengor at

Copyright © 2006 Paul Kengor

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