Editor's note: By the spring of Ronald Reagan's first year in office, secret meetings with the pope and other Vatican officials were routine. Covert operations in Poland were ongoing and the Church and the White House began working in Central America and other regions where American hegemony and Christianity were threatened.
The first year of the Reagan presidency was, virtually everyone involved agrees, a disaster with respect to establishing a coherent, functioning American foreign policy -- except in the case of Poland. Two men became increasingly enmeshed in dealings with the Pope: Bill Casey, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and William P. Clark, former chief of staff to Gov. Ronald Reagan and now Reagan's personal trouble shooter at the State Department -- Alexander Haig's deputy, in fact, with the title of counselor to the secretary of state.
By the spring of 1981, Casey and Clark were frequently dropping by the residence of the Pope's apostolic delegate to Washington, Archbishop Pio Laghi, for breakfast, coffee and consultation; Laghi was coming to the White House through the "back door" at the southwest gate for secret meetings with Casey, Clark and, later the president.
"They liked good cappuccino," Laghi says of Casey and Clark. "Occasionally we might talk about Central America or the Church's position on birth control. But usually the subject was Poland."
Clark could see that Reagan was overwhelmed by issues that had never appeared on his mental horizon
before he entered the White House.
"I knew where he wanted to go on Poland, and that was to take it to its nth possibilities. The president and Casey and I discussed the situation on the ground in Poland constantly: covert operations, who was doing what, where, why, and how, and the chances of success." And the role of the Vatican.
Allen, Casey and the president began meeting regularly with the member of the American Catholic hierarchy closest to Pope John Paul II, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia. He served as an intermediary between the White House, Poland and the Vatican, and perhaps most important, he and the president developed a strong personal rapport.
Inelegantly but with absolute accuracy, Allen called Krol "the Pope's big buddy." Edward Derwinski, a Polish-American congressman from Illinois dispatched by the White House to Poland in 1981 to survey the situation, was amazed at how rapidly the relationship between Reagan and Krol progressed.
"From the start he hit it off well with the president," Derwinski said. "It was one of those things where the vibes went well. They were the same age. And he really understood the situation in Poland; he had an ability to interpret the situation in Poland properly. And he was consulted not only by the president but by the State Department, the NSC and the CIA." He also offered public prayers at two Republican national conventions.
Krol had first gotten close to Karol Wojtyla at the Second Vatican Council in 1962, where he served as undersecretary and spent many of his spare hours conversing and walking with the bishop from Krakow. At the conclave that elected Wojtyla Pope, Krol made sure that the North American Church was solidly behind the Polish cardinal.
His bond to the Holy See was intensely personal -- Krol's father had been born in Kiekierczna, near Wadowice, the Pope's birthplace, and he and Wojtyla had been elevated to the cardinalate together on June 21, 1967. In his speech accepting the red hat, Wojtyla had asked that special prayers be said as well for the other new Polish Cardinal -- Krol.
Both as a cardinal, and later in the Vatican, Wojtyla experienced a childlike delight in Krol's company. They sang Polish songs, danced, swapped tall stories from Polish folklore and joked across the table in a local Polish dialect.
Thus, Krol was in a position to do what no other prince of the church, or no other American for that matter, was in a position to do -- convince Wojtyla that the interests of Poland, the Vatican and America were in many ways parallel, and to overcome whatever unease Wojtyla might have about forming such a close relationship with an American president.
The relationship, rooted in anti-Marxist beliefs, which ensued between a temporal superpower and a spiritual superpower, was intensely collaborative, with great rewards on both sides, especially with regard to Poland and Central America.
Beginning in the spring of 1981, the Reagan administration maintained an intelligence shuttle at the highest level between the White House and the Pope, who was regularly briefed by Casey and by Vernon Walters, a former CIA deputy director. Between them, Walters and Casey secretly visited the Pope about 15 times over a six-year period to discuss matters of mutual interest.
The Pope's judgments, especially in regard to Poland and Central America, came to carry great weight in the White House, the CIA and the NSC and, above all, with Reagan himself.
Meanwhile, the Pope was the beneficiary of some of America's most carefully guarded secrets and sophisticated political analyses: information from satellites, from intelligence agents, from electronic eavesdropping, from policy discussions at the White House, State Department and CIA. And the U.S. received information from the pope.
Between 1981 and 1988, Walters says, he met the Pope at approximately six-month intervals, briefing him in virtually every aspect of American policy and providing intelligence assessments -- military, political, economic -- on any and all subjects of interest to the Vatican.
The range of subjects discussed by Walters and the Pope, as revealed in the classified cables he sent to the White House, State Department or CIA after each visit, was vast: Poland, Central America, terrorism, internal policies in Chile, Chinese military power, liberation theology, Argentina, the health of Leonid Brezhnev, Pakistani nuclear ambitions, conventional force levels in Europe, dissent in the Ukraine, negotiations in the Middle East, violence in Sri Lanka, American and Soviet nuclear weaponry, submarine warfare, Lithuania, chemical weaponry, "new Soviet technology," Libya, Lebanon, the famine in Africa, Chad, the foreign policy of the French government -- to name only a fraction of the more than 75 topics mentioned.
During this extraordinary period of Vatican-U.S. collaboration, the Pope's unrelenting opposition to abortion was reinforced by the Reagan administration in the most meaningful way -- millions of dollars in American aid to family-planning programs around the world were blocked on orders from the president, in deference to the Pope, according to the ambassador to the Vatican at the time.
Meanwhile, on the single most important arms-control issue of the era -- the introduction by NATO of a new generation of cruise missiles into Western Europe -- the Pope, through his silence, appeared supportive of U.S. policy. He did so despite the public opposition of his American bishops, and after lengthy briefings by Walters and Casey and the president's own appeals to the pontiff, Archbishop Laghi and Cardinal Krol.
Walters and Casey also gave the Vatican definitive intelligence information about priests and bishops in Nicaragua and El Salvador who advocated liberation theology and were active in opposing U.S.-backed forces there. On Casey's orders, secret payments were made by Lt. Col. Oliver North of the NSC staff and others to "establishment" priests in Central America who were loyal to the Pope, though there is no record indicating that Wojtyla knew of the payments. President Reagan, however, was aware of them.
THURSDAY: The evil empire crumbles and the alliance unravels.
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.