When Ronald Reagan took office on Jan. 20, 1981, the first strategic contacts between the American government and the Pope had already occurred. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, had represented the U.S. at Wojtyla's accession to the throne of St. Peter in 1978.
In 1976, Brzezinski, then a college professor, had attended Archbishop Wojtyla's lecture at Harvard and was impressed. "Why don't you have tea with me?" he said afterward. Later they corresponded regularly, exchanging opinions with the knowledge and ease of men who had known the same history and intuitively understood the nuances of Polish life.
By late 1980, Brzezinski, a Catholic, had begun an official dialogue with an important Papal emissary, Cardinal Jozef Tomko, head of the Vatican's propaganda ministry, in which Poland and the infant Solidarity movement figured prominently. Brzezinski wanted John Paul II to know that there were sources of money, equipment and organizational support in the U.S. -- particularly from the American labor movement -- that were committed to Solidarity's cause. This, in turn, had sent the new Pope a crucial signal: That the fragile force represented by Solidarity could count on America as it became more of a threat to communist orthodoxy.
Without revealing many specifics, Brzezinski informed Tomko of a covert CIA operation, secretly authorized by Carter, to smuggle anti-communist books and literature into Eastern Europe and parts of the USSR, such as the Ukraine and the Baltic states, where dissident nationalism was spreading.
Brzezinski and Tomko discussed various ways in which America and the Vatican could use propaganda and pressure to promote basic human rights -- economic, political and religious -- in Poland without provoking Soviet-ordered repression. This
had been the focus of the Pope's own meeting with Carter on June 21, 1980, in the Vatican (although Solidarity had not yet been founded), a session that led Brzezinski to make a half-joking observation: "It became clear to me that Wojtyla should have been elected president and Carter should have been elected pope."
In the first week of December 1980, Brzezinski telephoned the Pope to warn him of the threat of an imminent Soviet invasion. He outlined the extent of the vast military buildup taking place on Poland's borders: "We have various ways of knowing in great detail what the Soviet high command is doing." As Brzezinski spoke, he was looking at satellite photos of tents being unfolded next to Russian field hospitals on the Polish border.
Now Brzezinski asked the pope to use his bishops to get Western European governments with large Catholic populations to support an ultimatum threatening the Soviets with economic, political and cultural isolation if they intervened in Poland. The Pope agreed. Neither man had to elaborate on the reluctance of most Western European nations to confront the Soviets over events in the USSR's "sphere of influence" -- or to jeopardize their lucrative trade with the Russians.
The Soviets were, meanwhile, being given a series of dire warnings by both Carter and Reagan, lest they believe that the interregnum between the election and Reagan's inauguration could be exploited in Poland. Brzezinski had also been in touch with Indira Gandhi, whom Leonid Brezhnev was due to visit, telling her the U.S. would sell advanced weapons to China if the Soviets invaded Poland. As it turned out, the Soviets retreated. To reassure the Pope, the Soviet politburo sent Comrade Vadim Zagladin to Rome to say that, for the present, there would be no intervention.
Upon taking office in January 1981, Reagan asked to be kept up to date on everything that was happening in Poland. In the first week of the new presidency, Richard Allen, Reagan's national security aide, and CIA Director William Casey came up with a formula for keeping the question front and center in the Oval Office. They redesignated the president's daily intelligence brief, inserting a separate section, unusually detailed with extensive reportage devoted to Poland. Increasingly, information from the Vatican and its apostolic delegate in Washington were an essential part of it. Brzezinski had kept his White House credentials and was retained by the Reagan administration as a consultant on Poland, a position that involved John Paul II.
Brzezinski later noted: "We involved the Pope directly . . . I can't go into details, not as long as he is alive. Casey ran it. . . . He continued everything we did (in the Carter administration) and expanded it. . . . If something needed to be done, it was done; to sustain an underground effort takes a lot of effort in terms of supplies, networks, etc. And this is why Solidarity wasn't crushed. . . . This was the first time that Communist suppression didn't succeed.
TUESDAY: Reagan's Catholic Mafia.
From the book "His Holiness: John Paul II and the Hidden History of our Time" by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. Copyright 1996 by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell, Inc. Published by permission of Reader's Digest. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.