WASHINGTON – The passing of Pope John Paul II (search) and President Ronald Reagan (search) in the same year underscores a great coincidence of history: Nearly three decades ago, two men shared the same view of communism and the same vision of ending it, and they both stepped onto the world stage at roughly the same time.
"What the two men shared is that they were simply unimpressed with communism's claim to represent human nature and to represent inevitability," said Radek Sikorski, former Polish deputy foreign minister.
In 1979, shortly after becoming pope, John Paul went back to Poland, which was firmly under the thumb of the Soviet Union (search). He gave the crowds an unmistakable message of hope.
"He told them 'be not afraid.' It was all couched in biblical terms but the political allusions were very clear," Sikorski said.
In a country where the government did not permit large gatherings outside its control, people poured into the streets. The banners of the Solidarity (search) trade union movement waved before the pope. The display represented the exact reason why the communist government would like to have prevented the pope's trip but could not.
"They would probably have a mass revolution on their hands," said Janusz Bugaski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) East European Project. "On the other hand, letting the pope into Poland was a risk for them because the pope was able to mobilize people, people felt they could come out in the streets without supervision by the state, by the Communist Party, they suddenly felt emboldened and empowered."
Not long after the trip, Ronald Reagan won the U.S. presidency and started challenging the Soviet Union and its domination of Eastern Europe by diplomatic, military and political means.
Though it isn't clear how much the two men cooperated, they delivered a one-two punch to communist domination. President Reagan pressured it from the outside while the pope's efforts undermined it from within.
"When these forces came together eventually it was irresistible, and I would say almost inevitable, because of the internal pressures within the communist system and the external pressures that the whole edifice would collapse," Bugaski said.
Click in the box near the top of the story to watch a report by FOX News' Jim Angle.