On Monday, June 7, 1982, President Ronald Reagan arrived in Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, a little over a year since both men survived near-fatal assassination attempts. The two shared not only a commonality of personal experiences but also of political interests—interests that each felt could change the boundaries of the world and the course of history.
The two discussed how they might together reverse the Cold War division of Europe begun by Joe Stalin after World War II. They were certain the Pope’s Polish homeland held the potential to crack the entire Soviet bloc—to free all of Eastern Europe—with Lech Walesa’s Solidarity labor movement providing the wedge. “Solidarity was the very weapon for bringing this about,” Reagan told the Pope, who quickly nodded. They agreed to commit resources to keeping Solidarity—and hope—alive in Poland. “Hope remains in Poland,” said Reagan. “We, working together, can keep it alive.”
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.”
How much of this did we know at the time? None of it, and the media awaiting the pair outside was told as much.
Though Reagan was less than candid before the microphones outside of the Vatican that day, he was an open book when he arrived in London the next day, where he gave his Westminster Address.
There in London that Tuesday, June 8, the American president spoke of a crossroads—“a turning point.” “It is the Soviet Union,” assured Reagan, “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.”
Here was Reagan’s foreknowledge of the USSR’s coming calamity, served up when Soviet experts in American universities were claiming the USSR was fine. Reagan, they said, should not be so arrogant.
Yet, Reagan believed America needed to be confident in expressing the superiority of its free-market, democratic system. He said at Westminster: “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.”
He struggled to understand those Western leftists who chided him for daring to judge the American experiment better than the Frankenstein monster created by the Bolsheviks: “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,” said Reagan. “Let us be shy no longer…. 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…. [L]et us move toward a world in which all people are at last free to determine their own destiny.”
Reagan then, as he had the day before with John Paul II, spoke of a “hope,” which he now publicly translated into a plan: “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 …. 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.”
Dramatic as those words ring today, they were downright shocking in 1982. Lou Cannon, then the White House correspondent for the Washington Post, recalls that the 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 the Soviet interpretation. Pravda described Reagan’s words as a declaration to undermine the USSR—a rare moment of truth in its pages.
But Pravda was wrong as usual in its response to Reagan’s bravado. “Journalist” Georgi Bolshakov issued a warning to Reagan: “[I]f the U.S. Administration supposes … 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.”
The stage was set, as history waited in anticipation. Who would find vindication: Ronald Reagan or Pravda? Twenty-five years ago this week, the stakes could not have been higher. Of course, we now know how it turned out, to the delight of a few hundred million inhabitants behind the Iron Curtain—a thought worth remembering this June 2007.