Book: Reagan Tried to Make Gorbachev 'See the Light'

Published March 08, 2009

| Wall Street Journal

The question of whether Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was a religious believer preoccupied Ronald Reagan during their summits in the mid-1980s, the Wall Street Journal reports on the details of a new book.

The world leaders held a series of summits from 1985 to 1988, at which time the American president speculated to his aides that his Soviet counterpart, an avowed atheist, might be expressing religious faith through phrases like “God bless.”

Although discussing issues such as arms control and regional conflicts when in large groups of American and Russian officials, Reagan sometimes ventured off on more divine topics when outside the presence of senior advisors, James Mann’s “The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the End of the Cold War” reveals.

Mann writes that Reagan was convinced Gorbachev was capable of changing the Soviet system, and religion could be a catalyst, the Journal reported on its Web site Saturday.

According to a memo of their first one-on-one session in Moscow, which was based on notes taken by two Reagan aides now declassified and available at the Reagan Library in California, the U.S. president secretly tried to convince Gorbachev of the existence of God.

After reportedly telling the Soviet leader that the conversation would be considered entirely secret and that, according to the notetakers, “word got out that this was even being discussed, the President would deny he had said anything about it,” Reagan began to beg for religious tolerance in the Soviet Union.

Mann writes, according to the Journal, that Reagan asked Gorbachev, “what if he ruled that religious freedom was part of the people's rights, that people of any religion — whether Islam with its mosque, the Jewish faith, Protestants or the Ukrainian Church — could go to the church of their choice."

The author writes that Gorbachev deflected the question and insisted that religion was not a serious problem in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, according to the notes of the meeting published in the book and quoted in the Journal, said he had been baptized but was not a believer.

The book reveals that Reagan told Gorbachev that his son, Ron, did not believe in God either and said he had long yearned to serve his son the perfect dinner, have him enjoy the meal and then ask him if he believed there was a cook.

The book reveals one of the American notetakers took Reagan at face value and said, “Reagan thought he could convert Gorbachev, or make him see the light” in a 2005 interview.

The other notetaker, according to the book, said he viewed Reagan’s promotion of religion as, in part, a tactic to deflect Gorbachev away from discussion of other substantive issues.

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