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Cold-war religious fronts against the Soviets in Poland and Afghanistan?

The first phase of the war in Afghanistan, which forced the USSR to retreat, is claimed to have begun as part of “a secret initiative” by the US and the Vatican to use religion to weaken the Soviet Union. It is depicted as a pincer movement of Catholic dissidents rousing Poland in the west, and Islamic insurgents expelling the Red Army in the south. Today the Vatican is happy to take credit for the first, but doesn’t mention the second.

In 1976, a Polish Archbishop, Karol Wojtyla, visited the US and had tea with a Polish-born American, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Though the following year saw changes for both of them, they kept in close touch: Brzezinski was appointed President Carters national security adviser and Wojtyla was elected pope.

Brzezinski “had intuited before others the strategic importance of Poland as the Achille’s heel of the Communist colossus.” [1] He convinced President Carter that the new pope, John Paul II, was the key to bringing about “an enormous sea change in East-West relations”. [2] And Brzezinski’s assessment proved correct. He would later say, “I believe that Pope Wojtyla first of all strengthened the confidence of the Polish nation, convincing citizens that their disapproval of Communism was universally shared and that the entire world and the Catholic Church supported Poland. This had an incredible transformative effect — it was an impressive catalyzer of energy.” [3]

Accordingly, when Brzezinski went to Rome in 1978 as part of the American delegation for the papal investiture, he used the opportunity to begin some quiet diplomacy. An insider’s account of this new initiative glimpse is given by James M. Rentschler, a staff member of the Carter administration’s National Security Council who would later serve as US ambassador to Malta. In his memoir he notes that:

John Paul II’s heritage was among the Carter Administration’s few lucky breaks. Brzezinski skillfully exploited his own Polish birth, his Catholic faith, and a private strategic hunch to open a special channel with the Holy See, ensuring direct White House access to the Pope himself. It was a link that my NSC buddies and I inevitably dubbed ‘the Vatican Hot Line’ – and its existence altered the Cold War's course.

In great secrecy he initiated what historians, I was later certain, would see as a major Cold War move, working with the man whose power and influence inside the Holy See were second only to the Pope’s himself. Meet Agostino Cardinal Casaroli, Vatican Secretary of State – a near-septuagenarian whose manner was mild, even wispy, but whose subtle negotiating skills, a mixture of toughness and tact, had led veteran Curia-watchers to call him “Kissinger in a cassock.” He and Zbig were busy hooking up the Vatican Hot Line, that Brzezinski brainchild whose contributions toward Soviet Cold War defeat would be the luckless DEACON’s least-known achievement. [DEACON was the Secret Service code name for President Jimmy Carter.] A flurry of Yours-in-Christs soon filled that private channel, and when Pope John Paul II replied in kind, the correspondence covered an extraordinary spectrum of sensitive issues [...]. [4]

The passage below presents an unproven theory about Vatican diplomacy — that religious zeal, both Catholic and Muslim was encouraged in order to help undermine the USSR. It would be hard to prove the collaboration of two very secretive organisations, the Vatican and the US State Department. However, the Vatican has a known record of collusion with other governments, especially rightwing regimes.  

Excerpt from  
The Secret Cold War Partnership between Pope John Paul II and White House Revealed” [5]
DEBKAfile, 2 April 2005 

[...] Brzezinski’s 1976 tea with the Polish cardinal [Wojtyla] 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. [...]

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 Mujahideen did indeed drive the Red Army 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.


1. Andrea Tornielli, “A pact between the Vatican and the White House against the soviet empire”, Vatican Insider, La Stampa, 20 June 2011.

2. James M. Rentschler, “Hooking Up the Vatican Hot Line”, International Herald Tribune, 30 October 1998.

3. Andrea Tornielli, “A pact between the Vatican and the White House against the soviet empire”, Vatican Insider, La Stampa, 20 June 2011.

4. James M. Rentschler, A Reason to Get Up in the Morning: A Cold Warrior Remembers, 2008.

5. This is now behind a paywall at


Richard Bernstein, “Did John Paul Help Win the Cold War? Just Ask the Poles”, New York Times, 6 April 2005.

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