Paul  Kengor

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."