Pope John Paul II and President Reagan Brought Down the 'Evil Empire' Together

William P. Clark, one of President Ronald Reagan’s most trusted advisers, was also an acquaintance of Pope John Paul II, who died April 2 at age 84. During Reagan’s eight years in the White House, Clark helped the two world leaders form a lasting bond that played a significant role in the fall of communism. Clark is a fourth-generation Californian who was Governor Reagan’s chief of staff. He later served on the state’s Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. After Reagan was elected President, he served as deputy secretary of State, national security adviser and secretary of the Interior. Today he is chief executive of the Clark Co. and senior counsel to the law firm of Clark, Cali & Negranti. Clark, an active Roman Catholic layman, spoke to the Catholic World Report in November 1999 about Reagan’s relationship with the pope. A portion of the interview is reprinted here.

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President Reagan and Pope John Paul II are frequently paired as the two men most responsible for the fall of communism. Do you agree with that assessment? CLARK: Yes. I firmly believe that President Reagan and Pope John Paul II are most responsible for the fall of the Soviet empire, which had enslaved 300 million people prior to its surrender and dissolution. The two men shared the belief that atheistic communism lived a lie that, when fully understood, must ultimately fail. Both men were initially underestimated. Observers did not at first perceive their strength of intellect, courage and vision. But each was successful in translating a personal vision into an underlying policy and implementing the strategy to defeat Soviet aggression and oppression. In the case of President Reagan, he first understood the deceptive nature of the appeal of communism back in the 1950s, while he was serving as president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, a leftist union and one infiltrated by Communists. The pope likewise recognized the evils of communism in his earliest days as a student. There have been widespread reports about collaboration between Pope John Paul II and the Reagan Administration–particularly involving the growth of the Solidarity movement in Poland. Can you comment on the extent of that collaboration? Was there a deliberate political alliance against communism? CLARK: When Ronald Reagan became President in January 1981, Poland–the geopolitical lynchpin of Soviet rule in Central Europe, and the largest and most important member of the Warsaw Pact (that is, beyond Russia itself)–had begun to slip from direct Soviet rule, because of the growing influence of the Solidarity movement. During his first visit to Poland in 1979, John Paul II–the first Polish pope–had encouraged a crowd of 5 million Poles to move toward moral, spiritual and political freedom. So there was a natural convergence of interests, which led officials at the White House to work together with their counterparts at the Vatican. Primarily that cooperation involved the sharing of intelligence information. But no, there was not a formal alliance as such. We also worked together to generate strong diplomatic pressure upon the Soviet Union, to convince the leaders in the Kremlin that they must refrain from invading Poland–from doing what the Soviet Union had done to crush the earlier freedom movements in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. We in the Reagan Administration were prepared to recommend the use of force if necessary to stop such an invasion following the imposition of martial law. So to answer your question, yes, there was a successful collaboration under Ronald Reagan’s direction. Bill Casey, Dick Walters, Cardinal Pio Laghi and I played extensive roles in that collaboration. [At the time, William Casey was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Vernon “Dick” Walters was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Cardinal Pio Laghi was the papal nuncio in Washington.] Yes, the unraveling of the Soviet empire began at the hub that was Poland, and resulted in the ultimate rebirth of freedom in that country and, by 1987, in seven bordering countries. A recent CIA study of this period concludes that in Afghanistan the Soviets lost face. In Poland they lost an empire. How would you compare the President and the pope? Do you think they shared common personal characteristics, or a common political outlook? CLARK: The pope and the President shared the view that each had been given a spiritual mission–a special role in the divine plan of life. Both are deeply prayerful–in Reagan’s case, without public display. Several times, President Reagan applied to himself the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I am frequently forced to my knees in the overwhelming conviction that I have no place else to go.” These common characteristics became apparent on the occasion when the two men came together at the Vatican in June 1982, to pray together and to talk about life. That meeting, you may remember, came after each man had survived a near-fatal assassination attempt–in two shootings that took place just six weeks apart. The two men discussed the unity of their spiritual views and their concern for not only the terrible oppression of atheistic communism, but also for the excesses of unbridled capitalism. Ronald Reagan never attacked capitalism as such–nor has the Holy Father, really–but rather he often reminded business and commerce leaders that the private sector must act more aggressively to meet public needs, since the alternative is an unhealthy government paternalism. Both considered the assassination attempts as wake-up calls, driving them onward even more forcefully in their respective leadership roles. Consequently, the world witnessed an increasing courage and action, on the part of both men, in the war of good against evil. As a politician, Ronald Reagan always enjoyed tremendous personal popularity–even when he took positions that were highly controversial. Can you explain his extraordinary rapport with the American public? CLARK: I can try. Ronald Reagan has consistently been underestimated. He has also been subject to frontal attacks by outspoken elements of the academic and media elites. But the principles he upheld are now, belatedly perhaps, being adopted by many campaigning politicians. And the public has always loved and respected him, both in and out of office. (In fact, at the White House we often observed that news reporters felt the same way, only to have their editorial departments change the emphasis, tenor, or slant of their stories.) The American public has seen something very special about him, and the Russian diplomats with whom I dealt while I was in Washington saw the same thing. Ronald Reagan would not vary from the truth of his principles. These were always firmly rooted. Those of us who began with Ronald Reagan in the 1960s, when he first entered government, found him predictable in his decisions. He firmly believed, and counseled us, that we could accomplish almost anything together, if we did not concern ourselves with the question of who might receive the credit. He was never persuaded by–and at times did not even wish to hear–the results of political polls. He would admonish us, “Let’s do the right thing, and the good politics will follow.” While he often challenged the words and actions of his political adversaries, I cannot recall an unkind word that the President uttered against another person. I cannot think of any personal attack he ever made on anyone in the many years I worked with him. I believe that the public–which he frequently asserted was far wiser than the government–saw Ronald Reagan for what he truly was and will always be.