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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.