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Was There a “Divine Plan” to End the Cold War?
This article is adapted from the new book The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War.
A Catholic pope from Poland. A Protestant president from America’s heartland.
A priest and philosopher. A Hollywood star and politician.
At first glance, Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan seem to have little in common.
But look closer.
A careful examination of the pope and the president reveals many parallels. Some of these parallels involve biographical details. For example, their mothers both experienced major health crises when the boys were eight years old; their fathers died just two months apart in 1941; they both took unconventional paths to their positions of prominence.
The similarities run deeper, however. John Paul II and Reagan displayed a spiritual kinship that drew them to each other.
That kinship began with a shared understanding of the reinforcing relationship between faith and freedom. It comes as no surprise that the pope held this view. But this perspective animated Reagan as well. He did not take a narrow view of freedom as meaning merely “leave me alone.” As president, he spoke of the “twin beacons of faith and freedom” and said that “freedom cannot exist alone” without faith.
Yes, Ronald Reagan was a man of faith—a point many biographers have underestimated. It was God, Reagan maintained, “from whom all knowledge springs.” The president told a group of students in 1983, “When we open ourselves to Him, we gain not only moral courage but also intellectual strength.”
John Paul II certainly agreed with Reagan on that point.
The president declared (quoting Father Theodore Hesburgh of the University of Notre Dame), “Every person is a res sacra, a sacred reality.” Meanwhile, the pope said, “Every human being [is] somebody unique and unrepeatable.”
And both men identified the same paramount threat to faith, freedom, and human dignity: atheistic Communism. They saw Soviet Communism as a source of evil in the world—indeed, the great evil of the twentieth century.
Evil is not too strong a word to characterize the pope and the president’s view of Communism. President Reagan famously referred to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” John Paul II used similar language. In Poland, he suffered under two forms of totalitarianism—Nazism and then Communism. A decade before he became pope, he wrote of “atheistic ideologies” that represented “the evil of our times,” because they resulted in a “degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.”
Reagan certainly agreed with John Paul II on that point.
Of all the parallels between Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, the most striking involves their attempted assassinations. Just six weeks apart in the spring of 1981, the president and the pope took bullets from would-be assassins.
At the time, few realized how close both men came to dying. John Hinckley’s bullet missed Reagan’s heart by mere centimeters, while Mehmet Ali Agca’s barely missed John Paul II’s main abdominal artery. Had the bullets reached those targets, both Reagan and the pope probably would have bled to death before they reached the hospital.
These near-death experiences—this shared suffering—forged a singular bond between the pope and the president, one that historians have failed to appreciate.
Even before the shootings, John Paul II and Reagan had sensed their philosophical kinship. Before he ever became president, Reagan had identified the pope as an essential ally, someone who shared his principled aversion to Communism and could help rescue the millions trapped behind the Iron Curtain. In the words of his first national security adviser, Richard V. Allen, “Reagan had a deep and steadfast conviction that this pope would help change the world.”
But it was the assassination attempts that really brought them together. They began a rich correspondence, and when they met for the first time in the Vatican a year after the shootings, they confided to each other a shared conviction: that God had spared their lives for a reason.
That reason? To defeat Communism.
In private, Reagan had a name for this: “The DP”—the Divine Plan.
“The Designs of Providence”
While historians have underestimated the depth and importance of the bond between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, they have also failed to explore the notion of a Divine Plan.
Now, isn’t that to be expected? The story of the end of the Cold War is dramatic enough without bringing in questions about a divine hand in human affairs. Why even bother raising such questions?
The answer is: because both John Paul II and Reagan firmly believed in the Divine Plan and felt sure that they had been called to play their roles in it.
The Divine Plan drove both the pope and the president.
This is not speculation. Reagan spoke of “The DP” often, with family, friends, and aides. He and William P. Clark, his closest adviser dating back to the 1960s, with whom he frequently prayed, discussed God’s hand in events so often that the DP shorthand became a staple of their conversations. And Reagan didn’t hesitate to discuss his belief in Divine Providence publicly, including in speeches and in his memoirs. When a striking series of apparent coincidences occurred, Reagan looked to a heavenly hand for an explanation.
So did John Paul II. The pope became famous for saying, “In the designs of Providence there are no mere coincidences.” He also declared that “the destiny of all nations lies in the hands of a merciful Providence.”
You can’t understand Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan without understanding how much faith they put in the Divine Plan.
Nor can you understand how the Cold War came to such a swift and peaceful end without understanding their conviction that the Divine Plan had assigned them roles to help improve the lives of millions suffering under Communism.
Their Greatest Roles
Despite their unshakable faith and their belief in the Divine Plan, John Paul II and Reagan understood that humans retained free will and that therefore they needed the courage to act in the real world. The pope and the president both saw their mission as to try to do God’s will according to a Divine Plan.
In his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), John Paul II insisted that human beings must seek to do God’s will with the talents they have received. The pope wrote, “Anyone wishing to renounce the difficult yet noble task of improving the lot of man in his totality, and of all people, with the excuse that the struggle is difficult and that constant effort is required, or simply because of the experience of defeat and the need to begin again, that person would be betraying the will of God the Creator.” He concluded, “It falls to us, who receive the gifts of God in order to make them fruitful, to ‘sow’ and ‘reap.’ ”
Ronald Reagan believed this, too. After surviving his assassination attempt, he said, “Whatever time I have left is for Him.”
The pope and the president thus found themselves acting in a larger theo-drama, to borrow the apt description offered by one of the sources interviewed for our book, Bishop Robert Barron.
Both the pope and the president found meaning in their lives and in their ultimate platforms. On the global stage in the 1980s, they sought to defeat a terrible ideology.
It would require performances of a lifetime.
Paul Kengor is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including Dupes, 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative, and A Pope and a President. He serves as professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book, written with Robert Orlando, is The Divine Plan: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Dramatic End of the Cold War, from which this article is excerpted.
Robert Orlando is an award-winning writer and filmmaker. The founder of Nexus Media, he has been involved in the production, development, or release of more than a dozen film and documentary projects, including Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe and Silence Patton, released by Sony Pictures. He is the coauthor of The Divine Plan and wrote and directed the companion documentary film.
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