Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is a monthly e-publication from The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere.
This month’s “V&V Q&A” features an interview with Dr. Paul Kengor, executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. Dr. Kengor’s latest book is “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” (ReganBooks, October 2006).”
Q: Dr. Kengor, the title of your new book is The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism. Why have you called Ronald Reagan “The Crusader?” Isn’t that rather provocative?
Dr. Paul Kengor: Yes, it is, but the label isn’t mine. I got it from the Soviets—you can blame them—and from Reagan. In researching this book, I read thousands (literally) of articles from Soviet media archives. I found hundreds of examples of Soviet officials referring to Reagan’s intentions vis-à-vis the USSR as a “crusade” and dubbing him the “crusader.” It was not uncommon in Moscow in the 1980s to open the pages of Pravda or Izvestia and be struck by headlines like “20th Century ‘Crusaders’” or “The Washington Crusaders: The ‘Ideological War’ Declared by Reagan Against Communism and Socialism.”
One of my favorites was a July 28, 1983 Pravda article, which explained: “The ‘crusade’ declared by U.S. President Reagan is not just talk. It is an action program aimed at … ‘rolling back’ communism. That is, a program of all-around struggle against world socialism.” That was one of the few accurate pieces of reporting in the Soviet press. I love the title of the article, which was called simply, “The Great Truth of Our Time.” Why was this “The Great Truth of Our Time,” according to the Soviets? Because they understood that they were targets. Reagan was seeking to kill Soviet Communism, to undermine the USSR through a series of over a dozen actions and strategies, which he hoped would produce a peaceful collapse, certainly not nuclear Armageddon.
Importantly, Reagan himself used the word “crusade” to describe his intentions to undermine. I document in the book that he adopted the label not in, say, 1981, when he was inaugurated, but in 1950, when he was still an actor in Hollywood, and a liberal Democrat, albeit an anti-Communist liberal Democrat.
Q: Did Reagan see this as a religious crusade?
Kengor: No. Reagan used the term to convey what he called a “crusade for freedom,” which is no different than how FDR used the same word during World War II. This was not a religious crusade by Reagan to, say, spread Christianity to the Soviet Union. Now, having said that, Ronald Reagan badly wanted to see the USSR turn from its atheistic ways, to halt what Mikhail Gorbachev rightly described as the Bolshevik “war on religion.”
Marx had dubbed religion “the opiate of the masses” and said that “communism begins where atheism begins,” while Vladimir Lenin said that religion was “abominable,” “a necrophilia,” and said that Christianity was akin to venereal disease. In the book, I quote a document just found in the Soviet archives, a December 25, 1919 letter in which Lenin issued this order on Christmas: “To put up with ‘Nikola’ [the religious holiday] would be stupid—the entire Cheka must be on the alert to see to it that those who do not show up for work because of ‘Nikola’ are shot.”
For these and other reasons, Reagan judged the USSR an “Evil Empire.” So, a crusade for freedom in the USSR would have the crucial added benefit of taking down the 20th century’s most destructive atheistic empire. Clearly, Reagan hoped for that. This was not, however, a crusade to bring Christianity to Muslims, for example, or to Jews or other non-Christians.
Q: Speaking of Muslims, your book shows how Reagan was committed to aiding the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, the anti-Communist Muslims who were fighting to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan.
Kengor: Exactly. Reagan’s goal there was freedom, that crusade for freedom. He certainly had no intention to convert Muslims in Afghanistan. The only conversion he had in mind in Afghanistan was a conversion from Communism to liberty, not from Islam to Christianity. This was also true for Jews throughout the Soviet Union, for whom Reagan wanted to win the freedom of emigration. Reagan was a devout Christian but was first and foremost committed to freedom, including religious freedom.
Q: Some say that by supporting the Mujahedin, which led to the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, especially thanks to our Stinger missiles, Ronald Reagan gave us Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban. How do you respond to that?
Kengor: That is a common perception which stems from over-simplification. The Reagan administration goal was to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, not to create the Taliban. More pointedly, while it is true that many of those who later made up the Taliban came from the Mujahedin, it is equally true that many of those who opposed and helped to remove the Taliban also came from the Mujahedin. Those anti-Taliban forces included the former Muj fighters who comprised the Northern Alliance, the crucial Afghan coalition that fought alongside U.S. troops in the October-November 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. To charge that “Reagan gave us the Taliban and Osama” would be as unreasonable as asserting that Woodrow Wilson produced Hitler. It would be less of a stretch to blame the Soviets for giving the world the Taliban and Osama, via the utter ruination, brutalization, and chaos caused by the Red Army invasion.
Ultimately, the emergence of the Taliban can be blamed only on the Taliban.
Q: What about Reagan’s relationship with the Pope and Poland? That’s another theme in the book, too lengthy to describe here. In short, though, both Reagan and Pope John Paul II believed they had survived assassination attempts in March and May 1981 because God spared them to confront atheistic Communism and to unravel the Soviet empire, beginning with the Pope’s homeland of Poland, which they felt could be the wedge to crack the entire Soviet bloc. In a fascinating private moment in his office in the spring of 1989, described to me by one of the four people meeting with Reagan that day, Reagan pointed to a picture of the Pope on his wall and said, “He is my best friend. Yes, you know I’m Protestant, but he’s still my best friend.” The relationship was not just professional but personal. They changed history together.
Q: When you wrote God and Ronald Reagan, Reagan’s faith was obviously the central theme of that book. It looks like it’s a theme in The Crusader as well. It is a theme and a thread, naturally woven through the narrative because it was naturally a part of Reagan’s life and thinking. I’ll give just one example that was shared with me earlier this year by the Reverend Louis H. Evans, the longtime pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, who was the Reagan’s new pastor when they first arrived in Washington: Evans met with Reagan on Easter Sunday 1981, shortly after the president returned home from the hospital after recovering from the bullet fired into his chest by John Hinckley. Reagan told Evans that as he laid on that operating table dying, nearly bleeding to death, he felt God tell him that if he didn’t at that moment forgive the “confused young man” that shot him, he would not survive. Reagan forgave him immediately.
He survived, of course. His survival meant he could put Soviet Communism in the crosshairs—the crosshairs of the crusader, one might say. In that sense, Reagan could now play the role of assassin.