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Daily News April 04, 2005

Pontiff OKd Reagan's nuke plans, diplo says

By James Gordon Meer

WASHINGTON - Pope John Paul II gave his blessing to the late President Ronald Reagan's plans to put nuclear missiles across Western Europe, a former U.S. representative at the Vatican said yesterday.

Though European leaders were "weak-kneed" about confronting the Soviet nuclear empire, Reagan won the Pope's support for matching the Communists nuke for nuke along the Iron Curtain, said Jim Nicholson, who served until recently as President Bush's ambassador to the Holy See.

The purpose of the pontiff's secret approval was to confront the Soviet Union's placement of its growing arsenal in Eastern Bloc states near free European nations, said Nicholson, now the Veterans Affairs secretary.

Nicholson said Reagan "regularly" sent military emissaries to show the pontiff satellite imagery of Soviet missiles spreading across occupied Europe.

"The Pope supported us in putting cruise missiles into Europe at that time, which few people know," Nicholson told "Fox News Sunday."

A top U.S. general who spoke Polish would be dispatched to the Vatican "regularly and lay this out and tell the Pope what was going on militarily," Nicholson recalled.

"And the Pope said to President Reagan, 'They are needed; you should do it,'" Nicholson said.

Experts and former defense officials said they were unaware of the Pope's backing of America's nuclear buildup in Europe - but were hardly surprised, given his anti-Communist stance.

"I think it's true," said Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress, who was a senior Pentagon official in the Reagan administration. "It does seem logical. That was a tough time to get the missiles in."

John Pike, a defense analyst at GlobalSecurity.org, said John Paul II was "thick as thieves" with the CIA in trying to bring down communism in his native Poland, and he might have endorsed the confrontation.

"I wouldn't put it past him" to support Reagan's missile plan, Pike said.

But one group it might have surprised was the U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, which denounced nuclear proliferation in the 1980s as immoral.

Copyright 2005, Daily News, L.P.