A Pope and a President: A Review

The valiance and devotion of President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II defined the winning battle against global communism in the latter half of the 20th century. How these men interacted with each other and cooperated to take down the Soviet Union is masterfully presented in Paul Kengor’s most recent offering: A Pope and a President. From page one to page six hundred and forty-eight, Kengor manages to paint an ambitious portrayal of the President and the Pope. The necessary background, needed to understand the motivations of each man, commences from the sighting of Our Lady of Fátima in 1917, all the way to the Soviet domination of Poland which lasted forty-two years. Within the first two parts of the book, Kengor details the crimes against humanity against the Polish people by the atheistic communist government. From murder to torture to mass propaganda, the Soviet government wanted to exterminate the faith of Poland much like Nazi Germany wanted to exterminate the Polish people. It was in these conditions that John Paul II, born Karol Józef Wojtyła, managed to find his devotion to God and human rights. However, John Paul II originally wanted to be an actor, like Ronald Reagan.

The book strives to indicate many similarities between Reagan and John Paul II. Both had their fathers die at a young age, suffered many hardships, and both were deep believers in God. Kengor does a fantastic job portraying the parallels between the two men without it becoming melodramatic or kitsch. Reagan, who had a relatively easier life than Wojtyła, soon found himself facing the same communistic threat at home. A supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, he was shocked when many of his liberal friends were against criticizing the Soviet Union. While it was true that the imminent threat was Nazi Germany, Reagan was wise enough to see that soon the Soviet Union would become the next enemy of democracy. This foresight, as Kengor shows, was due in part to Reagan’s piety. He knew that Marxism specifically asks for the destruction of the church. Karl Marx once said: “Communist begins from the outset with atheism; but atheism is at first far from being communism; indeed, that atheism is still mostly an abstraction.” The Soviets tried to push their agenda in all of their conquered or occupied territories, and Poland was no exception. Reagan’s Christian faith heavily influenced his worldview and ultimately, the projects he decided to take on. Heartbroken when his first wife asked for a divorce, Reagan never looked back when he married Anne Frances Robbins, more famously known as Nancy Reagan. Ronald Reagan knew that one of the main reasons for the Pilgrims’ voyage was a desire for religious freedom, which led to the conclusion that America had to defend religious values not only at home but abroad. With the Soviet Union trying to destroy Christian civilization at all costs, Reagan knew he had to lead the crusade against Communism. Furthermore, Kengor foreshadows the Divine Plan (DP), which was molded in part by the struggles of the Polish people and John Paul II. This devotion to living morally brought him condemnation from his liberal friends and future historians. Just like John Paul II, Reagan found his devotion to human rights and the right to life from the Bible. Paul Kengor does not hold back when it comes to role religion played into the motivations of the two men.

When John Paul II became a priest, and later an archbishop, the book shows the many challenges other religious figures faced in Poland. Perhaps the book’s most engaging parts are when Kengor describes the lengths that the Soviet puppet government in Poland went through to slander religion. In one case, the secret police forged a letter between a priest and a female friend, trying to blackmail the priest by painting him as an adulterer. The communist government would also have controlled opposition when trying to shut down masses and other religious events. However, the communists did not always resort to misinformation. Father Jerzy Popieluzko was beaten to death so brutally that the only way to recognize his corpse was through his clothing. John Paul II had a huge torch to pick up when he became pope, and would always pay tribute to the martyrs of Poland. His resistance to international communism, however, also led to an assassination attempt in 1981. Kengor posits that the Soviet Union had a role in the shooting of John Paul II. Even the CIA does not explicitly state that the Soviet Union played a role and part of this leads to Kengor’s investigation. One of his main pleas is for the release of a document that has left only crumbs in the archives of the CIA and the Reagan presidential library. Like any good historian, Kengor knows the limitations of his work but continues determined to see the document face the light of day. Ultimately only a theory, although heavily bolstered by the most serious circumstantial evidence, is told in the book. However, the consequences of releasing such a document during the Cold War would have been enough to cause World War III.

After describing the life and struggles of both men, Kengor dives into the meetings Ronald Reagan and John Paul II had. Each meeting was filled with theological discussion on the Soviet Union and the role of America in taking down communism. John Paul II had a major interest in American history such that he fully understood the role religion played in the development of the United States. Reagan was so invested in the discussions that after meeting with John Paul II, he refused to take questions on the tax plans. Although Reagan was a Protestant, Kengor knew that the division between the faith of the two men did not carry much weight in these meetings. Instead, it ignited them, as both parties showed respect towards one another. Reagan knew that all faiths were welcomed in the White House, and essential in taking down atheistic communism.

The book’s scale and ambition are not only its major strengths but also the cause of its shortcomings. When discussing Reagan’s early life, Kengor describes the role the Venerable Fulton Sheen, an American Catholic archbishop, played in cultivating religious media in the United States. While Sheen undoubtedly played a significant role in upholding religious and conservative values, his extensive mention distracts from Kengor’s message overall. The book could have used less emphasis on Sheen, among other improvements. At certain parts, the book does not know if it wants to be about the failures of communism, the Cold War, or the development of Catholic doctrine. Certain details, like those about the martyrs of Poland and Reagan’s Hollywood career, add important background information while others, such as Sheen episode, seem to distract more than they should. For example, the sections on Catholic doctrine slows down the book, and the fact that it is in-between more interesting sections like beginnings of communism and the early of life of John Paul II doesn’t help. All the topics in the book are no doubt essential to understanding the meetings between Reagan and John Paul II. However, Kengor occasionally becomes a little too invested in them and goes off on a tangent.

Overall, A Pope and A President beautifully portrays the relationship between two defenders of Western civilization. Kengor is fully aware of the role conservatism played in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was conservatism and not liberalism that shattered the Iron Curtain in Europe. Ronald Reagan’s refusal to give in to communism’s demands is a lesson that many presidents can learn from. When Winston Churchill declared that England would never surrender against Nazi Germany, Reagan had the same attitude towards the Soviet Union. This is the attitude that allowed democracy and freedom to win in the Cold War. However, Reagan was not all blood and iron. Reagan was also a master communicator and his diplomacy led to meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev. These meetings resulted in a decrease in nuclear weapons, and these meetings were influenced by the conversations between John Paul II and Reagan. The Divine Plan was in full swing at the time the Soviet Union collapsed. In the end, diplomacy and military strength were only the final nails in the coffin of the evil empire. The Soviet Union’s collapse was so pathetic that Gorbachev ended up appearing in a Pizza Hut commercial. To Gorbachev’s credit, the Soviet Union did not burst into to civil war and its downfall was relatively anticlimactic. Communism’s failure and wickedness should come as no surprise to the readers of the book. Over a period of over seventy years, the Soviet Union pillaged, violated, degraded, and exploited many nations across its dominion. Poland bore the brunt of both Soviet and Nazi aggression in World War II, losing over a fifth of its population, and endured under communist oppression for many years after. However, it is undoubtedly the faith of the Polish people that allowed them to survive such hardships. Ronald Reagan and especially John Paul II knew this. Paul Kengor shows how their struggles and beliefs brought them together to take down atheistic communism for the benefit of all mankind.