Someone picking up this book about the collapse of what Ronald Reagan so fittingly dubbed an "evil empire" might wonder about its subtitle: "The Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century."
Extraordinary? Absolutely. It was indeed such an astonishing change that right up until it was happening few would have believed it possible.
But untold? There have been plenty of other books, articles and videos about the collapse of the Soviet communist empire, including works that, as this one does, appropriately credit Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan for its demise.
However, not until "A Pope and A President" by Paul Kengor has this story been told as well and in such thorough and fascinating detail.
This book superbly captures and perfectly portrays the profound depth of the bond between John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. This is key. You cannot understand why Soviet communism collapsed unless you have a good grasp of just how extraordinarily deep was the bond that existed between those two great leaders of the 20th century. It unleashed a power that was a nightmare for Soviet communism and a dream come true for tens of millions who craved freedom.
While campaigning for president, Ronald Reagan intensely followed news coverage of the pope's June 1979 nine-day return visit to his homeland, his first since becoming the first Slavic pope. Bells rang throughout Poland when the pope arrived. Twelve million people - one third of the country - turned out to see and hear him in person. Young people held up wooden crosses. Crowds chanted, "We want God; We want God."
Witnessing what was happening in Poland, The New York Times editorial board declared: "As much as the visit of John Paul II to Poland must reinvigorate and re-inspire the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, it does not threaten the political order of the nation or of Eastern Europe."
Witnessing what was happening in Poland, Ronald Reagan saw things very differently. He was deeply moved and shed a tear "of pride, of admiration, perhaps of astonishment at what he was witnessing" said Richard Allen, his national security adviser who watched news coverage with him. Then and there Mr. Reagan said that the pope was the key to the fate of Poland, a wedge into the very center of the communist domain.
Where the combined brain power of The New York Times' editorial board gleefully saw no threat to Soviet domination, Ronald Reagan wisely perceived signs of a great opportunity for the cause of freedom.
Witnessing what was happening in Poland, the Soviet leadership saw the pope as a grave threat they needed to eliminate.
Forty-four days after the attempted assassination of President Reagan on his 41st day in office, on May 13, 1981, a Turkish Muslim leftist terrorist, an exceptionally gifted assassin named Mehmer Ali Agea, raised his 9-millimeter semiautomatic and fired four rounds at the pope as he passed very close by him in an open vehicle during a public audience in Saint Peter's Square in Rome.
Agea had been recruited for this mission by the Moscow-controlled Bulgarian intelligence service which provided the planning, support, equipment and accomplices. The plot to kill the pope was, Mr. Kengor establishes, a decision made by the Soviet leadership and overseen by Soviet intelligence.
It was a miracle that the pope wasn't killed - a literal miracle in the pope's view. He believed that the reason why four shots fired by such an exceptionally skilled assassin at such a close range failed to take his life is because the Mother of Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, intervened to alter the paths of the bullets.
He was certain it was no coincidence that this occurred on the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, a day recalling the day in 1917 that began with a series of Marian apparitions to three children in a tiny town in Portugal, the last one marked by what came to be known as the "Miracle of the Sun," which was witnessed by more than 75,000 persons.
This book is a work of historical investigation, not a religious apologetic, Mr. Kengor notes. But Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan were both mystics who believed their lives had been spared for a reason and believed they owed it to God to do all they could to fight to defeat the evil that is communism. This is important to understand and Mr. Kengor gets it.
The book may be repetitious at times, but there is a great deal of important and interesting information packed into this very well researched work. It makes a reader appreciate just how fortunate we were to have this particular pope and this particular president at that point in history.
• Fred J. Eckert, a former Republican congressman from New York, served as U.S. ambassador to Fiji and to the U.N. Agencies for Food and Agriculture under President Ronald Reagan.
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A POPE AND A PRESIDENT: JOHN PAUL II, RONALD REAGAN, AND THE EXTRAORDINARY UNTOLD STORY OF THE 20TH CENTURY
By Paul Kengor
ISI Books, $29.95, 648 pages