Thawing the Cold War

YOU WILL BE BROUGHT BEFORE RULERS AND KINGS

FOR MY SAKE, FOR A TESTIMONY TO THEM.

— MARK 13:9

Ever since Joseph told his brothers in Egypt, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good,"1 we have known that the Creator of the universe sometimes takes a hand in writing history according to His own pleasure. Billy Graham learned that lesson when he accepted an invitation to speak in Russia, but it wasn't much fun.

    Billy became the object of the severest and most intense criticism in the American press and media because of his visit to the Soviet Union in 1982. William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote, "Billy, won't you please come home?" The Chicago Tribune ended a discussion of "Billy Graham and Pig-Wrestling" with the comment: "Never wrestle with a pig; you'll both get dirty, and the pigs like it." Many critical editorials appeared, but I quote from only one, in The San Diego Union, May 14, 1982:

Dr. Graham, has permitted his good name and his ministry to be exploited for the benefit of Soviet propaganda. It was bad enough that Dr. Graham lent his name and presence to the Soviet-sponsored "Worldwide Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe." This affair was never destined to be anything

Page 232

more than a thoroughly manipulated component of the Soviet Union's patently duplicitous "peace offensive." Its purpose .... is to weaken Western defenses.

    But the real shocker came in the form of statements from Dr. Graham suggesting that he has no quarrel with the Soviet Union's record on matters of religious freedom.... The political and, yes, moral price he is being made to pay is much, much too high.

    Similar criticisms and attacks came from all across America. Some were unbelievably hostile. The cavilers seemed to take pleasure in rebuking a man who had hitherto been held up as a model of exemplary behavior and good citizenship. Protesters paraded in front of the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton, Illinois, carrying signs that read, "Billy Graham has been duped by the Soviets" and "Graham eats caviar as Russian Christians suffer in jails.'' The New York Times said, "Heaven only knows what Mr. Graham wanted to accomplish with his misguided denials of Soviet repression." Claims were made that even Russian Christians were "numbed and shocked by Graham's apparent lack of sensitivity to the persecuted." Dan Rather, the CBS newscaster, declared that Billy "was had — deceived and used."2

    After having read Billy Graham's remarks made at the World Peace Conference that drew this criticism, together with his explanation of those remarks, I can understand why Billy himself was shocked at the outburst of hostility that met him on his return to London from Moscow.

    Far back in the Eisenhower years when Senator McCarthy was accusing the State Department of being riddled with Communists, Billy Graham first sensed God's call to preach the Gospel behind the Iron Curtain. In 1959 we on the Graham team knew that he was making a quick trip to Moscow on a tourist visa. While there he met secretly with a half dozen Christians, knelt in Red Square and prayed, and then visited the empty Lenin Stadium, where a photo was taken of him in the bleachers praying.

    In 1977, after five years of difficult negotiations with Communist

Page 233

officials (skillfully handled by Billy's friend Alexander Haraszti and BGEA team members Walter Smyth and John Akers), the Iron Curtain cracked a bit. Graham paid a ten-day restricted visit to Hungary at the hesitant invitation of the Communist government. The response of the Hungarian people to his gospel message was beyond all expectation in a dictatorship. Wherever the crowds gathered, people started calling, "Billee! Billee!" A year later, in October 1978, when Billy paid a similar visit to Poland, it was with equally exciting and fruitful results.

    During the Hungarian visit Billy opened preliminary negotiations with Soviet Baptist leaders with a view to his long-prayed-for trip to Russia. Later in Washington, D.C,. Billy met with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and Metropolitan Philaret of the Russian Orthodox church. Further plans were interrupted when Leonid Brezhnev made his Christmas decision to invade Afghanistan with Soviet troops, and President Jimmy Carter responded by withdrawing American participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

    It was apparent during the early 1980s that the atheistic grip on Eastern Europe was gradually and quietly loosening. A motion picture produced in Soviet Georgia, Repentance, had a religious message at its core. It held that the church had been destroyed, and without it there could be no basis for civilized society. Eighty percent of Russians, it was estimated, viewed that film.

    Certainly the old days of Lenin and Stalin and Khrushchev were gone. But atheism was still in force, and the KGB was still all-powerful; and as Dr. John Akers has pointed out, Billy Graham was virtually alone among Western church leaders in having access to East European leadership.

    It was at this time (1982) that Patriarch Pimen, head of the Russian Orthodox church, issued his call for a peace conference of world religious leaders to oppose the threat of nuclear war. Despite the church sponsorship, the conference was obviously a Soviet Communist propaganda effort. Soviet leaders were aware that Billy Graham's presence would add prestige to their conference.

    During negotiations with Metropolitan Philaret over Billy

Page 234

Graham's participation, Dr. Haraszti made a sensational statement that is recorded in William Murphy's biography:

I don't compare Dr. Graham with the patriarch or the pope, because Dr. Graham is not the head of a church. He is the head of all Christianity... in a spiritual way. The pope cannot preach to all the Protestants, but Billy Graham can preach to all the Roman Catholics. The patriarch cannot preach to all the Roman Catholics; they will not listen to him. But Billy Graham can preach to all the Orthodox, and they will listen to him, because he is above these religious strifes. He is a man of higher stature....

    My purpose at the moment is not to inquire as to whether Billy should or should not have appeared and spoken in Moscow at the Communist-sponsored world conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe. Instead, I will give my opinion of the speech Billy made there, which I have read. Of all the sermons and addresses I have ever heard by Billy Graham or read in print over a period of forty years, his speech delivered on May 11, 1982, at that "peace conference" was to me his finest.

    It was titled "The Christian Faith and Peace in a Nuclear Age," and it stamped Billy not only as a committed Christian but as a lover of peace and a world statesman of quality.3 In my judgment it out-distances the anti-nuclear utterances I have read that keep emerging from both the United Nations Organization and the World Council of Churches.

    The real significance of Billy's visit to Moscow in 1982 can best be understood from the perspective of later developments. He worshipped in Baptist and Russian Orthodox churches and made friends with many Christian leaders. In the years that followed he was invited to preach in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. In 1984 he returned by invitation to the Soviet Union, and this time he spoke fifty times in four cities: Moscow, Leningrad, Tallinn, and Novosibirsk. He met with government and Christian leaders and

Page 235

was used of God to lead thousands of Russians into the kingdom of God.

    Meanwhile astonishing changes were taking place in the leadership of the Soviet government. Brezhnev died in 1982 and was succeeded briefly as general secretary by Andropov and then by Chernenko. By early 1985 both men were dead of natural causes, and in March Mikhail Gorbachev took over the seat of government.

    Gorbachev soon embarked on new Soviet policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), which together opened the door to many new attitudes in his administration. Although Gorbachev himself remained a convinced Marxist, he lifted the ban on religious activity for the first time in seven decades and gave great encouragement to the leaders of the churches.

    President Ronald Reagan held summit meetings with Gorbachev, and in 1988 he invited the Soviet leader to Washington, D.C. Billy Graham was the only clergyman present at Gorbachev's arrival, and later he became an invited guest at the state dinner held in Gorbachev's honor at the White House. In the following year, to the amazement of the whole world, the Berlin Wall was demolished, and the Soviet Union broke up after seventy-two years of tyranny.

    In October 1992, God answered the prayer Billy had offered back in 1959. He was invited to conduct a three-day evangelistic crusade in Moscow. It was held not in Lenin Stadium, but in the Olympic Stadium, which twelve years earlier had been the site of the Olympic Games that the United States had boycotted.

    Joining in the invitation originally extended by Patriarch Pimen were Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal, Lutheran, and Adventist churches, 150 in Moscow and 3,000 in the surrounding country.

    What a crusade! Each night eager Muscovites filled the 38,000-seat stadium to hear Billy. On the first evening inquirers coming forward signed 10,641 cards of commitment; on the second evening 12,628 signed. On the closing Sunday afternoon 50,000 persons had jammed into the stadium. Another 30,000 stood outside where a huge television screen with audio echoed what was happening. The number of cards signed was 19,417.

Page 236

    As one reflects on the momentous historical changes in the closing years of the twentieth century, it is difficult to assess Billy Graham's actual involvement in those changes. Rather than dispute the distribution of credits, I would be more interested in going back to that other question: Was Billy's visit to Moscow back in 1982 the "mistake" that the American media and much of the public took it to be?

    Billy Graham has stated publicly many times in recent years that God has told him to work and pray for world peace. That was, in my opinion, the clear and undoubted motivation that sent him to the Soviet Union, and it was certainly in line with Jesus' seventh Beatitude: "Blessed are the peacemakers."4

    As I said at the beginning of this chapter, God has a way of changing the way we look at history, "You meant it to me for evil," said Joseph to his brothers, "but God meant it to me for good."

    Dan Rather of CBS, who has been one of Billy's critics, said in 1990 on television:

Before anybody else I knew of, and more consistently than anyone I have known, of any nationality, race or religion, Rev. Graham was saying, "Spirituality is alive in the Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist states. We may not see it very often, we may not hear it very often, we may not see or hear it at all, but it's there, and I know it's there." Frankly, there were those years when I thought he was wrong or that he didn't know what he was talking about, and it turns out he was right.5

    Edward L. Plowman, a Christian journalist who accompanied Billy Graham on all his trips to the Soviet Union, wrote several articles stoutly defending Billy's mission and pointing out how his words had been misconstrued and misrepresented. Plowman today is convinced that Billy's ministry behind the Iron Curtain was "part of an overall plan of God."

    Ken Garfield, religion editor of the Charlotte Observer, told me that what really demolished the Soviet Union was "the joy of faith and the desire for freedom" on the part of the Russian people. He added that "Billy Graham was a contributing factor in helping them

Page 237

to give expression to that joy and that desire, and was in fact one of the first to do so."

    Dr. Carl F.H. Henry, founding editor of Christianity Today, agreed. He said to me, "From the vantage point of the ultimate collapse of the Communist empire, it is apparent that Billy Graham's ministry made a contribution at least indirectly to that collapse. In any case the Bible teaching is clear: God in His sovereignty overrules. As a Christian, you do what the Spirit tells you to do. Billy did and he went."

    William Martin, author of A Prophet with Honor: The Billy Graham Story, told me that Russian Christians today have acknowledged to him that Billy Graham's role was helpful.6 "Billy was the point man in Russia," Dr. Martin said. "Some mistakes were made, but instead of defending himself, he kept his mouth shut. As a result he was able in 1992 to conduct a public crusade in Moscow, which for years had been his long-term goal."

    Someone once said that "God became tired of Napoleon." Perhaps the same could be said of Communist leaders. Whatever the reason, the fact is that in our own time the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the Iron Curtain lifted, and millions of people in eleven time zones are breathing freely again. Ukrainians, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Armenians, Georgians, Moldovans, Mongolians, and many others are finding a new identity and are again free to worship openly the Lord they love.

    Did Billy Graham really help thaw the Cold War? Did he make a difference as he rode around Moscow in Soviet limousines with Communist officials? God knows. He keeps the books. It is now acknowledged that some of those officials were secret believers. Former President Richard Nixon said in 1990, "There's no question that he (Billy) helped bring about the peaceful liberation of Eastern Europe and some of the present opposition to communism in the Soviet Union." And about the same time President George Bush, at a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., is reported to have said (referring to the Cold War) that Billy saw what God was doing long before the politicians did.7

    The clearest statement of the truth in this controversial matter

Page 238

was made to me by Richard G. Capen, Jr,. former publisher of the Miami Herald and vice chairman of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, and more recently U.S. ambassador to Spain under President Bush. Mr. Capen is also a board member of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Here is what he said:

If the American media criticized Billy Graham for going to Moscow back in 1982, it was because they did not see what he saw or sense what he sensed. Dr. Graham was aware of a spiritual undertone in the populace of the Soviet Union that had been suppressed by a closed society. When he went to participate in the peace conference, it was because he recognized an opportunity to be a beacon of hope to the people of God in Russia.

    He also sensed a spark of spiritual vitality not only among the Russians, but among all the peoples of Eastern Europe. As a person of some international stature himself, he determined to fan that spark. To Billy Graham it was a God-given calling. It was definitely not a mistake to make the trip to Moscow, as the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire has proved without a doubt.

    In recent years Dr. Graham has undertaken a similar ministry in North Korea, where as in Russia there is a strong spiritual element in the population. His visits to Pyongyang have built a bridge that the media and the politicians have yet to cross.8

    When Billy Graham sat in the empty Lenin Stadium back in 1959, he prayed to God that he might be allowed to come back and preach the Gospel to the Russian people. When he finally returned in 1982, he may have expected some criticism at home, but he had no idea of the beating he would take. God heard him and sent him anyway. As Joseph said to his brothers in Egypt, God meant it for good. And it was good. Thousands of children of Mother Russia are now going to heaven.

    Weeping is for a night, but joy comes in the morning.9 My wife, Ruth, and I visited the former Soviet Union in 1996, and judging

Page 239

from what we saw and heard, I can believe that the memory of Billy Graham's friendship is enshrined in the hearts of millions of Christians in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states, Hungary, Romania, Poland, and the other East European countries.

Chapter 27  ||  Table of Contents

1. Genesis 50:20.

2. William Martin, A Prophet with Honor (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 491-96.

3. This speech was delivered in Moscow, then capital of the U.S.S.R., May 11, 1982, by Dr. Graham at the world conference "Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe." Its text was published in full in Christianity Today, June 18, 1982.

4. Matthew 5:9.

5. From documents at the Billy Graham Training Center, The Cove, Asheville, North Carolina. Also from Martin, A Prophet, 616.

6. Telephone conversation, August 21, 1996.

7. From a national telecast aired the week of December 2, 1990, titled "Billy Graham in Eastern Europe."

8. Telephone conversation with Mr.Capen, August 21, 1996.

9. Psalm 30:5 (KJV).

Chapter 27  ||  Table of Contents