tv The Presidency Ronald Reagan Communism Pope John Paul II CSPAN November 5, 2018 12:00am-12:37am EST
i know and the state of alabama it is hard for people of color to actually get to the voting polls because they are not allowed to bring their public housing id. they have to have a drivers license. the nearest one to some of them is 50 miles away. if you don't have a drivers license, how are you supposed to get there if there is no bus? >> c-span's cities tour profiles american cities. join is the first and third weekend of each month as we explore the american story. next, on "the presidency," ronald reagan's attorney general talks about his views on communism and his relationship with pope john paul ii at a conference organized by the white house writers group. the program was recorded as part of the hoover institution's
video series "uncommon , knowledge." post peter robinson moderates the conversation. it is just over half an hour. >> ronald reagan and pope john paul ii, a partnership that changed the world. today we are in washington at a conference devoted to that subject. with us today an eyewitness to , the relationship between president reagan and pope john paul ii, the former attorney general of the united states edwin meese iii. , [applause] peter: welcome to uncommon knowledge. i'm peter robinson, a graduate of yale and the university of california berkeley, edwin meese served as foreign affairs secretary for newly elected governor of california ronald reagan and then as chief of staff to the governor from 1969 until governor reagan left office in early 1975.
from 1981 to 1985, mr. meese served as counselor to the president. from 1985 until the end of the administration, he served as the 75th attorney general of the united states. mr. meese now holds an emeritus status as the heritage foundation's ronald reagan chair on public policy and emeritus as , a distinguished visiting fellow at the hoover institution. no one knew ronald reagan better, and this is ronald reagan on attorney general meese. if edw meese is not a good man, there are no good men. welcome. edwin: thank you. [applause] peter: i have two quotations, both from 1982. one is from office lessons are arthur/injured --
jr. r schlessinger in an ironic sense, karl marx was right. we are witnessing a revolutionary crisis, but the crisis is happening not in the west, but in the soviet union. how did ronald reagan of eureka college in illinois miss with a great historian of harvard -- how did ronald reagan see what he missed? edwin: ronald reagan went into the study of communism with an open mind and it was not determined by his ideology, as i suspect mr. schlessinger's was misguided by his own ideology. with ronald reagan, most people
don't realize ronald reagan was a voracious reader. he liked the study. he had studied the founding. he was well-versed in the constitution. he was well-versed in the bible. he had an enormous repertoire of information he used. that is why the discussion was given this morning about his speech writing. before he would do anything else, before the speech writers would get working, he would give the concept of the speech. then later on as they went, he edited based upon all the things he knew. one of the things he knew was communism. because in the 1940's when he was president of the screen actors guild, as he called it, his union, the communist party usa was trying to take over the movie industry. they wanted to use it for propaganda obviously. they were infiltrating the various unions. they tried to take over the screen actors guild. ronald reagan literally let all
-- literally led all of those unions in defeating the communists. that got him interested in the subject. he read a great deal about it, both domestic communism, communism theory, and international communism. he formed his own ideas by the time he became governor and already was talking about these ideas of how do we overcome what was then our enemy in the cold war. peter: i'm embarrassed to admit this, but the way you put it had never occurred to me before. we listened this morning to the panel talk about what communism was like. obviously for ronald reagan in hollywood in those days it was not like living in poland. but he had direct experience of them. edwin: yes, he did. even to the point where he would come to work armed because there were threats on his life. peter: a man with a plan. let me quote your 1992 memoir "with reagan." "reagan was more than simply
anti-communist. he was an anti-communist with a game plan." can you explain that? edwin: he actually had a strategy. he knew they were vulnerable from an economic standpoint. because so much of their national wealth was being put into supporting their military and their aggressiveness around the world. so he knew they were economically vulnerable. he also knew and had the strong belief that freedom will overcome oppression. so he knew it is very difficult , for any government, even a very oppressive government like the soviets had, to keep their people under wraps for a long period of time. ultimately the human spirit would result in people wanting to be free. he was sympathetic to the captive nations. these were not just russians who happened to have a soviet form of government. these were countries that had
been free before they had been taken over by the soviet movement. peter: i want to go back to this point because it is so basic. it is the kind of thing that is likely to be forgotten. that is the extent to which ronald reagan and holding these views and acting on them stood out. richard nixon, henry kissinger, the order of the day was detente. when gerald ford became president after nixon resigned, he refused to meet alexander solzhenitsyn because of fears of offending the soviet union. jimmy carter gave a speech at notre dame in which he talked about overcoming our, -- overcoming our "inordinate fear of communism." and then, this is absolutely the dominant mode of thinking in both parties. nixon, carter, then in 1977, ronald reagan is a former governor. he has not declared for
president yet. they are talking about foreign policy, and ronald reagan says would you like to hear my theory of the cold war? of course, governor. my theory is simple. we win and they lose. the question is, what gave him whatever it was, the courage, the inside? how did he so self confidently place himself in opposition to the entire mindset? edwin: he was not just being facetious as some people accused him at the time. what he was saying is, i have a strategy which is not just giving in or allowing a moral equivalency between marxism and freedom. it is a matter of knowing their vulnerability, both from an ideological standpoint and from an economic standpoint. it was his feeling that they can be beaten and that freedom can win. in other words it was a believe , in the system that had been the foundation for american
thought and american political thought since the 1780's. he felt that what we knew in this country, our sense of freedom, that ultimately that can overcome even the tyranny of the soviet union. peter: you write in "with reagan," you describe the elements of the president's thinking, and you write, "it followed that the united states and the western world should stop retreating before the communist challenge and begin competing in ernest against the soviets." again explain. ,edwin: it was an idea of competing in number of ways. it was not to engage in military action. that is the last thing ronald reagan wanted to do or felt was necessary to do. but to compete in terms of economics. to compete in terms of information. to compete in terms of persuasion of people. to support resistance movements in the communist world. to support leaders.
in other words, to actually let people around the world know that marxist leninism is not ordained and is not going to succeed, whether in fact there can be strong, nonmilitary, but nevertheless ideological -- in some ways striking sense of patriotism and in some ways, faith that there are a number of ways in which to compete with and ultimately overcome the communist regime. peter: the strategic defense initiative, or sdi. you held the first meetings on that subject in your office in the west wing, and then in an televised address on march 23, 1983, the president announced the initiative. research that might lead to a system that would enable us to destroy incoming ballistic
missiles before they could reach their targets. no longer mutually assured destruction, but defense against incoming missiles. how did that fit into the president's game plan? edwin: ronald reagan always said, and this goes back to his days as governor, that a nuclear war could not be won and should never be thought. -- fought. the destruction of any such kind of conflict would be -- would wipe out not just one nation, but perhaps many nations. that is why he felt we must be able to do something better than that. he had met with edward teller, for example. peter: the great physicist. edwin: when he was governor. teller was at the university of california. he talked with him and others, and that was why when a group of people who had been working on this idea also, that's why we had this meeting in my office with some people who were very interested in this subject.
as a result we put together a conference with the governor, then with the president in 1982, with edward teller. that led to his idea being fleshed out into an actual strategy. the next step was to talk with the joint chiefs of staff. within the military there's always a lot of competition for budget dollars. there was resistance in certain areas of the pentagon. but ronald reagan, as he had them develop a strategic plan for our defense said i want you to also look at the idea of a strategic defense initiative, a ballistic missile defense system. they came back eight months later with their plan. one of the things they said that as we have looked into it, the joint chiefs believed that the strategic defense initiative, a way of combating nuclear war through missile defense is not only militarily necessary, but it is also morally necessary.
they really gave him the assurance he was on the right track with sdi. i might say that if the nation had pursued sdi with the same energy and enthusiasm he gave it during the rest of his term as president, i think today we would have a very robust system already deployed and a lot safer in view of what is happening around the world with two nations that now have nuclear capabilities which were not even contemplated as potential nuclear opponents at that time. peter: north korea and -- edwin: and iran. peter: the new york times called the strategic defense initiative, i'm not making this up, a pipe dream. margaret thatcher had doubts about it at the time, but in her
memoirs, she wrote, looking back on it, ronald reagan's original decision on sdi was the single most important of his presidency. can you explain what the new york times meant, what they thought they meant, when they referred to sdi as a pipe dream? edwin: the new york times as is often wrong, let's put it that way, charitably. [laughter] [applause] edwin: they were so wrapped up in this whole idea of detente and also quite frankly not really believing the communist -- soviet communism was as much of a threat. they were part of that detente group that felt that even the moral equivalency ideas were not foreign to the new york times. that was why they just had no confidence in it whatsoever. with margaret thatcher, it was interesting. because basically the whole idea
of a hedge against war and the nuclear balance and those kinds of things were something that in europe was very much the basic idea and the basic foundation of the defense system at that time. just as nato was going to be installing potentially nuclear weapons in europe to combat what the soviet union already had there, that concept. one of the things she was worried about as i read the materials later was she was worried that somehow this would violate or would degrade that sense of nuclear balance that was preventing war in europe. i think the more she learned and as indicated by what they mentioned there, i think she really came to understand what ronald reagan had in mind. his idea was that we have technological capabilities that
were never thought of one generation ago, particularly the generation that preceded his. look at all the things that have happened there. why can't we put that same energy and good thinking and same exploration into something that would prevent nuclear war in the future? peter: correct me if i am mistaken. it was also quite an aggressive move. you can't do something like the strategic defense initiative , the research unless you have a buoyant economy and technical dynamism of a kind the soviets could never match. edwin: that is correct. the strong economy was one of the major strategies he had in dealing with the soviet movement. remember when he took office in 1981 we had three major problems. number one, we had the deepest economic crisis since the great depression. secondly we had a national , security threat and we had a
great deal of jeopardy potentially because on the one hand we had an increasingly aggressive soviet union. they had already captivated a good deal of eastern and central europe. they were operating there, or their satellites were in africa. we had a soviet bastion in cuba, 90 miles off our shore. we had a marxist bastion in nicaragua. that was subverting el salvador. our own hemisphere was now under attack. it was really a very serious situation. that is why ronald reagan was so intent of, number one, getting a strong economy. number two, while the soviets were more aggressive, our military had declined considerably in the aftermath of the vietnam war. another important thing was to take on the military and build up the military to where we had traditionally been.
-- traditionally been since world war ii. finally, he believed it was necessary to engage the soviet union on a moral plane. that is why the evil empire speech and the focus of evil, that sort of thing, he felt that was important to raise those issues as it was to do the economic and military and diplomatic strategies. peter: once again from your memoir, "a vivid example of the reagan strategy was the liberation of poland. reagan conducted this effort in concert with pope john paul ii, a native of poland, who the president greatly admired." let me ask a word or two about the relationship between those men. ronald reagan is raised in a small -- we have heard his father was catholic, but his mother was a member of a small protestant denomination, the disciples of christ. although i think everyone around
him understood he was a man of faith, organized religion -- he did not go to church often as president. he said it was because of the disruption of the secret service. sure enough, but also organized religion seems not to have played a central role in his relationship with god. and then ronald reagan admires and cooperates with or coordinates actions with the leader of the biggest -- the most organized denomination that exists. explain what is it in john paul ii that a protestant kid from the midwest appreciates? edwin: first of all, ronald reagan had a very strong faith. he had been involved in church activities as a kid. his mother was very active in her church. she made sure he was very active all the way through high school
years before he went to college. he was a very active member of that church. beyond that he was very well , read. he had an encyclopedic knowledge of the bible. paul has written about ronald reagan and his religious faith. one of the things that was pointed out, ronald reagan had more allusions to biblical topics and biblical verses in his speeches than all the other presidents put together. religion was an important part of his life. the reason you did not see much about it was he never wanted anyone to think he was using his religion for political purposes or that he was showing off how religious he was. i suspected the actions of previous presidents might have had something to do with that aversion. life, everydayly conversation and it has been , very interesting within the last month now to have believe
it or not in the washington post copies of the letter he wrote to nancy's father as he was dying to give him almost a capsule version of his religious faith, hoping that was something -- davis would be hopeful to him before he passed on. peter: december 13, 1981. martial law is declared in poland. they cut of communications with the outside world. they arrest 6000 members of solidarity, on and on a goes. -- it goes. the president and pope john paul ii meet in 1983. there is coordination of some kind. that is what i want to ask you about. edwin: actually it is june of 1982. peter: i misspoke, june of 1982. there is a decade. solidarity regains legal status in 1989.
a couple of quotations once again. richard allen, the president's first national security adviser. "the relationship between reagan and the pope was one of the great secret alliances of all time." john paul ii's biographer. "the claim that the men entered into a conspiracy to bring the downfall of communism is journalistic fantasy." how do you characterize what took place between the white house and the vatican and those two men? edwin: it is interesting that even last night there was a little bit of a dispute about what this was. it is somewhere between dick alle and george weigle.
biggest back to faith. it was that faith which made him admire the pope, particularly this pope because you had a very strong person on behalf of his faith, on behalf of his church, and that the whole thing, what he had done up to that time, ronald reagan admired. and admired him as a leader of his church. think fornatural, i him to admire that kind of leadership. but beyond that, what you had was two people, both leaders, one him across secular world, one in the religious world, with parallel interests. when those parallel interests were obvious as what happened in poland where they were under attack, if you will, it was logical for ronald reagan, particularly with his ideas about defeating communism, to cooperate. what you have is parallel
interests. it was not some deal or as carl bernstein wrote, it was not an alliance or treaty or anything like that. what it was is two people with interests in common who were cooperating. as they cooperated, learned to trust and appreciate and like each other. peter: he sat -- you sat on the national security council for all eight years of the administration. let me ask a couple of questions. if i'm asking for classified information, just slap me. a couple of questions. how many times did you believe there was a credible threat that the soviets might roll into poland? edwin: i think -- there was always that possibility. i don't remember it at any time particularly during the year , 1981 where that appeared to be an imminent threat. peter: i see.
edwin: the soviets always had large military forces in they always were using them to oppress or at least be a threat to a whole number of nations. the balkan countries and several others. the idea of an imminent threat i don't think was, at least, i can -- can't remember that being talked about. peter: prior to ronald reagan taking office, the military buildup -- of course had barely begun by 1981. did that change the psychology? was there some sense in which the american -- was there some sense in which ronald reagan as presence would have made the soviets think twice from the military point of view? edwin: i think the probability for the answer is yes. peter: but we don't know. edwin: the soviet union,
brezhnev was on his last legs. as ronald reagan said, when it came to whether or not he would need with a soviet leader, he says i would meet with them brezhnev was on his last legs. t they kept dying on me. in 1985 he got a live one in gorbachev. that was very important. because at that time, gorbachev was a diehard communist, no question about it. but he also understood the west that are than his predecessors. i think he realized the united states by the time he became general secretary, he realized the american military was going to be the most powerful military in the world and it was a force was enough so that the soviet union did not have military superiority, which they had until that time. peter: one more question about your years on the national security council. we read here, this book, that book, another article. to my understanding, it is a
kind of impressionism. i want to ask you to fill it in. bill casey with the cia is making sure solidarity -- he is working with the afl-cio to make sure solidarity gets funds, copy machines, and so forth. then judge clark and his successors as national security advisers are giving information to the vatican. they are sharing information. the vatican diplomatic core has sources we don't have. vernon walters, former general, act as a kind of emissary. he went to the vatican in the range of a dozen times. the coordination is constant. and at quite a high level. there's a lot going on between the reagan white house and the john paul ii vatican. peter: -- edwin: yes. peter: all right. if you wish to elaborate, get into it. edwin: it was a logical follow-up to do this.
to provide the ways in which without using military force we could strengthen those forces which were combating marxism and which were constantly moving towards organizing people in the various countries under the oak -- under the yolk of the soviet union and organizing resistance and ultimately organizing a situation where it would not be possible for the soviet union to continue, particularly with their aggression, let alone to maintain where they were at that particular time. it was a way in which to carry out the strategy ronald reagan had. moral engagement, making it very clear through the diplomatic contacts with the soviet union we would not stand for any more aggression, even if it meant using military force. it is never plainly said in those words. but it is very clear we would not take more aggression such as they had in afghanistan. thirdly, we would do everything we can to roll back the previous
soviet aggression. that was where the assistance information insistence, , intelligence assistance, information to people revving up , radio free europe, all of those kinds of nonmilitary ways in which to provide resistance to the soviets. >> if i may, a couple of last questions. when you visited washington for president reagan's funeral, mikael gorbachev was asked if ronald reagan won the cold war. his reply was, that's not serious. the article in the washington post continued, the changes gorbachev brought to the soviet union were undertaken not because of foreign pressure, but because russia was dying under the weight of the stalinist system. the soviet union just fell in under the weight of its own rotten system and it would have done that if ronald reagan had never been born. how do you answer that?
fmr. ag meese: just by looking at the facts. what would have happened if it had not been for ronald reagan, the united states having built up its strength and so on, the other things, the soviet union might have fallen on the weight of all of its wrongdoing, economic wrongdoing, military buildup, all that. it would have taken two, 3, 4 decades and may not have ever happened. one of the things the soviets would have done and gorbachev would have done if he followed his predecessors, as soon as there was armed resistance or popular uprising, he would have called in the troops and put it down. ronald reagan did was create a situation in which the soviets could not continue as they had neither with aggression or with captivating other nations perpetually. but also the fact that gorbachev
was not able to maintain the soviet primacy over these other countries perpetually. that's why i think if it were not for ronald reagan, it would have been perhaps several decades before the soviets would have fallen, or maybe never. one of the things they would have done is utilized their force that in order to get more resources in that sort of thing, they were already working on things technologically with pipelines to improve their economic situation, which ronald reagan stopped. the economic warfare along with the information war for -- warfare was what led to their demise. the wall coming down to popular resistance in 1989 and the implosion of the soviet union in 1991. >> attorney general meese had a private meeting with pope john paul ii.
i have already as he tells what happened at the national security council. can you let us in on what you and the pope discussed? fmr. ag meese: it was a great meeting. the opportunity to meet this great man, and everything that has been said about him is true from my standpoint. while about him, but also reading about him. he knew god had taken care of the church by having a leader such as that at that point in history. the opportunity to talk with him for 15 or 20 minutes was a great privilege for me. we talked about some of the things -- again, our countries had in common. that was the morality view. a topic very much on his mind, something we were concerned about in the justice department. we talked about the drug problem in the united states. we also talked about how some of the catholic bishops, which you
heard about last night, how there were problems with them. >> in the united states. fmr. ag meese: in the united states, doing things which were an amicable to what ronald reagan was trying to do in other areas. the pope said, sometimes even bishops make mistakes. it was a great conversation. i remember it vividly. >> did you walk out of that meeting as lutheran as you were when you walked in? [applause] -- [laughter] fmr. ag meese: i believe i did, but a lutheran with a greater appreciation for the head of the catholic church. >> nobody under 30 can remember a single event we just talked about. think of your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren. what do they need to hold on to? can you sum up ronald reagan, what he meant to the country and
the world? can you sum it up in a couple sentences? what do they need to hold onto? fmr. ag meese: the fact that what our founders of the united states had in mind as the basic principles in the foundation for their thinking, the sense of freedom, the sense of responsibility, those kinds of concepts are as important today as they were two centuries ago and will be over the next centuries in the future. they have to know our history. history is important. ronald reagan studied history minutely. he was able to incorporate the origins of the country into almost everything he did. that is why his concern about the constitution, why he was concerned about appointing judges who would be faithful to the constitution, it was part of his being. we have to have young people understand our history, but also understand what freedom
is all about and to have some idea of what happened during the cold war so they can understand why it was so important to free poland and the other captive nations. if they have a misunderstanding of history and the perspective on why that's important, the freedom of other peoples of the world, strategic to continue freedom in this country, they will have the background they need. it is not happening in our education systems. at the high school, even the grammar school level, and the higher education level, this is the greatest challenge we have as far as providing future generations with the basic understanding they need of our history and the principles and the both moral and also patriotic foundations, which have gotten us to this point in our history and the history of the world.
>> edwin meese iii, thank you. [applause] >> next, on the presidency, a discussion about ronald reagan's cold war politics from a conference titled ronald reagan and john paul the second: the partnership that changed the world. speakers include to formal -- two former national security council staffers that served under reagan. the white house writers group organized this event. >> the ambassador has held a number of prominent positions in diplomacy and academia, serving as the national security council's director of soviet and european affairs during the ministry should of george w. bush -- administration of george