The eternal optimist, Reagan was convinced that Gorbachev was capable of changing the Soviet system, and he thought the key to such a turnaround might be religion. Finally, during their fourth summit meeting in 1988, Reagan launched into a private conversation with Gorbachev, one that he promised the Soviet leader he would deny had ever taken place.
It was during the first one-on-one session in Moscow that Reagan engaged in a bold but questionable endeavor well beyond his mandate as president of the United States. According to the memo of their conversation, which was based on notes taken by two Reagan aides and has now been declassified and made available at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Reagan secretly attempted to persuade Gorbachev of the existence of God...
...He told Gorbachev that what he was about to say would be considered entirely secret. According to the notetakers, Reagan told Gorbachev that "if word got out that this was even being discussed, the President would deny he had said anything about it."...
...Once he was alone with Gorbachev, the president began with a plea on behalf of religious tolerance in the Soviet Union. He praised Gorbachev for easing slightly the rules for the Russian Orthodox Church. According to the notes of the meeting: "The President 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."
Gorbachev deflected this question. He insisted that religion was not a serious problem in the Soviet Union. According to the notes, Gorbachev told Reagan that "he, himself, had been baptized, but he was not now a believer, and that reflected a certain evolution of Soviet society." There might have been some "excesses" in repressing religion immediately after the Soviet revolution, Gorbachev said, but times had changed. His program of perestroika was designed to expand democratic procedures, and it would extend to religion. Reagan then ventured further, taking a step that quite a few Americans would have found objectionable. The president switched from seeking to persuade Gorbachev of the value of religious tolerance to promoting a belief in God. Reagan did so by telling one of his trademark stories. According to the notes of their meeting:
The president said he had a letter from the widow of a young World War II soldier. He was lying in a shell hole at midnight, awaiting an order to attack. He had never been a believer, because he had been told God did not exist. But as he looked up at the stars he voiced a prayer hoping that, if he died in battle, God would accept him. That piece of paper was found on the body of a young Russian soldier who was killed in that battle.
Gorbachev tried to switch the subject. Perhaps the United States and the Soviet Union might open the way for greater cooperation in space, he told the president. But the president wasn't to be diverted. According to the transcript, Reagan told Gorbachev that space was in the direction of heaven, but not as close to heaven as some other things that they had been discussing.
As the meeting ended, Reagan became even more direct and personal. He noted that his own son Ron did not believe in God either. "The President concluded that there was one thing he had long yearned to do for his atheist son. He wanted to serve his son the perfect gourmet dinner, to have him enjoy the meal, and then to ask him if he believed there was a cook."
Of the two American notetakers who were present for this extraordinary conversation, one took Reagan's effort at face value. "Reagan thought he could convert Gorbachev, or make him see the light," said Rudolf Perina, who was then the director of Soviet affairs on the National Security Council in a 2005 interview.
The second, Thomas Simons, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said in an interview three years ago that he viewed Reagan's promotion of religion as, in part, a tactic to deflect Gorbachev away from discussion of other substantive issues. Reagan's proselytizing was extremely unusual for an American president, but not entirely unprecedented. Nine years earlier, Reagan's predecessor Jimmy Carter had stunned his aides when he asked the South Korean dictator Park Chung Hee about his religious beliefs and then told Park, "I would like you to know about Christ." Religion had been a continuing theme underpinning Reagan's views of the Soviet Union. He had observed the impact of the Catholic Church in Poland, he had talked with his friend Suzanne Massie about an upsurge in religious sentiment in the Soviet Union, he had speculated to Colin Powell that Gorbachev might be secretly devout. The secret one-on-one conversation in Moscow reflected Reagan's continuing belief that the Soviet system's repression of religion left it vulnerable to ideological challenge. It embodied his hope that Gorbachev was capable of changing the system.