The Secret Cold War Partnership between Pope John Paul II and White House Revealed

Pope John Paul II broke out of the conventional papal mold in many ways that will engage generations of historians. Above all, he was the most democratic of any of his predecessors, always in close rapport with Catholic communities in every corner of the globe and possessed of an unfailing instinct for the times in which he lived. But the character of his papacy was also influenced critically by a chance episode that occurred more than a year before his investiture. This unreported episode and its epic aftermath are revealed here for the first time by debkafile‘s and DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence experts.
In January 1977, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as US President after defeating Gerald Ford at the polls. Cyrus Vance followed Henry Kissinger as secretary of state, the outgoing secretary moving to New York as a private consultant to governments, corporation heads and top financiers. Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski from Harvard and Columbia succeeded his fellow professor-cum-politician as the new president’s national security adviser.
The most signal achievement of Brzezhinski’s career was predetermined a year before he took office by one of his last experiences as an academic. In 1976, a Polish Archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, came to Harvard to deliver a lecture. So impressed was Professor Brzezinski, a churchgoer, that he invited the visitor for tea, during which they found much in common. The regular correspondence they embarked on, in Polish, continued for years after Wojtyla’s investiture as Pope John Paul II on October 22, 1978.
A candid glimpse behind the circumstances surrounding that event was afforded twenty years later by James M. Rentschler, a former US ambassador and staff member of the Carter administration’s National Security Council, in a recollection he wrote for the International Herald Tribune of October 30, 1998. Here are some excerpts:
“…an American president (Carter) inspired by the elevation of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as the first Pole to become Pope, began a secret initiative that some believed altered the course of the Cold War.
“The word came from David Aaron, deputy to President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Council chief, Zbigniew Brzezinski: ‘Zbig’s got the president excited about this. They sense an enormous sea change in East-West relations.’ Mr. Aaron made me his DP, ‘designated papist’. The White House wanted an entire planeload of VIPs for the October 22 investiture. Naming the co-heads was easy: They had to be the Speaker of the House, Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neil and the Polish-born Mr Brzezinski himself – both Roman Catholics, both heavy-hitters in Mr. Carter’s party. Second-draft choices were no-brainers too: Senator Edward Muskie and Representatives Clement Zablocki and Barbara Mikulski, all Carter loyalists and all of Polish origin.
“But next came the nightmare.
“Casting from a pool of thousands, a presidential delegation limited to 30 prima donnas, whose collective profile might reflect some ‘ideal’ religious, racial, political, professional, gender and secular mix (‘secular’ being code for big-bucks campaign contributor). A rainbow coalition it wasn’t.
“‘It’s the beginning of the end for communism,’ exulted Ms. Mikulski in Rome at a US Embassy lunch of rare oratorical exuberance. Some thought her toast measured more than a notch too high on the hyperbole meter, yet history proved her right. John Paul II’s courageous pilgrimages behind the Iron Curtain captured world attention from the start. Defying party orders, tumultuous East European turnouts soon made him communism’s liveliest scourge – and the Free World’s most valuable Cold War player.
“Meanwhile, state-supported terrorism was much on Mr. Brzezinski’s mind that radiant October day. …he slipped away from lunch into an adjoining room, where the CIA’s Rome station chief awaited him. Subject: tighter, tougher US-Italian security cooperation, with radical new tactics for combating Italy’s ruthless Red Brigades… In great secrecy Mr Brzezinski also initiated Mr. Carter’s historic Cold War move, working with the man whose power and influence inside the Holy See were second only to the Pope’s himself, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, a tough yet subtle negotiator privately known among his Curia as ‘Kissinger in a cassock’.
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“He and Mr. Brzezinski opened a private channel between the White House and the Holy See, which National Security Council operatives dubbed the Vatican hot line. It was a link that Jimmy Carter and John Paul II soon made operational with a personal correspondence of extraordinary breadth …an unprecedented exchange between an American Baptist president and a Polish-born Roman Catholic pontiff. “
Rentschler notes that the forty still-classified letters cover a range of highly sensitive issues: arms control, human rights, famine relief, popular unrest behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet atrocities in Afghanistan, the fate of Catholic missionaries in China, Cuban adventurism in Africa, the Middle East peace process, hostage-taking and terrorism. He adds that, although both correspondents were careful to respect the delicate dividing line between political and pastoral, “it was always… one which, …on the heels of certain peace-promoting activities flowing from… their shared views, might have required microsurgery to perceive.”
debkafile‘s intelligence experts add: Brzezinski’s 1976 tea with the Polish cardinal fathered American Cold War strategy which was, in a word, to prime the imperfectly-suppressed religious zeal pulsating in the Soviet Bloc masses as the West’s doomsday weapon in the Cold War. Pilgrimages by the Polish pope, with the help of secret agitators, were to rouse the multitudes to rise up against their atheistic oppressors. Once the Christians were on the march, Brzezinski proposed persuading militant Islam to join the mission of inflaming the Soviet Union’s teeming Moslems.
From the historical perspective, Brzezinski’s plan of operation was the most radical applied in the Cold War till then, short of armed conflict. In comparison, the Nixon-Kissinger detente policy was much less aggressive, confining itself to photographing a given situation and freezing the arms race, while letting the Cold War go on according to agreed ground rules. Brzezinski’s religious crusading offensive went outside those rules. It was moreover a form of combat in which the West held unbeatable cards. All Moscow Center’s national liberation and terrorist movements, Philby’s phenomenal double agents and moles and Yuri Andropov’s intelligence genius were useless to protect the USSR’s Achilles heel, the proletariat’s unquenched yearning for organized religion, in defiance of the most brutal efforts to stamp it out.
Brzezinski’s brainwave of harnessing religious zeal to beat communism had two extreme though opposite effects. The force of Christianity was a major factor in undermining Soviet communist domination of East Europe. Its lands turned around to embrace democratic change, a pro-Western orientation and a market economy in a still-evolving process. In Asia and the Middle East, Carter’s national security adviser resorted to fundamentalist Islam to defeat communism. The CIA-supported mujaheddin did indeed drive the Red Amy out of Afghanistan. But this same religious weapon eventually became a boomerang against America. It spawned Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, the Islamic jihadist terrorist movement dedicated to destroying the West and its values,.

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