Editor’s note: This article first appeared at The American Spectator.
Both my country and I lost a great friend and freedom fighter this week: Herb Meyer, an unsung hero of the Cold War. He received the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal for his November 1983 memo predicting a Soviet collapse and victory for the United States. “If present trends continue,” wrote Meyer, “we’re going to win the Cold War.”
Meyer’s bosses, Bill Casey and Ronald Reagan, were all ears. In that endeavor, Meyer was the indispensable man to his beloved mentor and CIA director, Bill Casey.
Sad I was to hear of his death, it was no surprise. I had been praying for Herb and dreading the news for months, ever since a terrible bike accident last September 25 left this brilliant man, of excellent mind and body, and barely into his 70s, unconscious and incapacitated. Herb’s son, Tom, of whom he was so proud, told me months ago that his dad’s life effectively ended that day. I feared that was the case.
The piece that The American Spectator published from Herb in July 2018 might have been his last, one of many articles he penned in rare moments of down-time when he wasn’t flying everywhere giving lectures on the state of intelligence and the world. (Click here for one of his final speeches.)
Herb liked to note that he got his start writing obituaries. They were so good that wags would tell him they regretted they hadn’t died when Herb was writing obituaries. I always regretted the day I would write Herb’s obituary, because I knew it wouldn’t be adequate. Besides, he used to rib me that I’d be writing his biography one day. I’d ask about some historical gem or try to yank some secret from his CIA days, only to have him (half) joke: “I’ll tell you when you write my biography.”
I told him that, no, he needed to do that — that is, write his story. He told me he didn’t have the time to start memoirs. I told him he’d better, before it’s too late. I’m sure he figured he had plenty of time. He didn’t.
I have written tributes to Herb in the past, here at The American Spectator, in other sources, in my books on Reagan and the Cold War, for which his insights were invaluable. There were countless occasions when he would email or call in response to articles I did. I’ve missed that witty correspondence over the last 10 months. It will be hard to reconcile myself to the fact that those communications are permanently finished, and that he’s no longer available to tap for information. That’s what happens when we lose great minds like Herb’s — storehouses, irreplaceable repositories of information. He often told my students that our biggest problem as a nation and culture, in America and the West, is that we’ve forgotten what we already knew.
To that end, I want here to disclose something historically significant, compliments of Herb, and which I’ve long known I could fully divulge only upon his death, though I figured that wouldn’t come for many years.
It was from Herb that I learned that we had learned — specifically, Bill Casey, Ronald Reagan, and a very small group around Casey and Reagan — that the Soviets were behind the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, and that Casey and this tight-knit crew reached that dramatic conclusion in an extraordinarily classified CIA report that still has not been released.
It took time for me to extract that information from Herb. Going back through my notes these last couple days, I found my first record in an August 6, 2007 email, in which he responded to my inquiry about the shooting of the pope: “Yeah, I know a lot about this subject. I was in it up to my elbows.” That was the limit to what he could put in writing. He told me to call to discuss. He was traveling the next three weeks. We finally connected on August 31, from his home.
“Look, I know what happened with the pope,” he told me, again tight-lipped.
That began many days of digging before it was clear to Herb that I had figured out what happened with the pope. Still, because of the extreme secrecy, he would not confirm anything by email or phone.
Finally, that changed on February 5, 2009, when Herb was on our campus of Grove City College, at my invitation, to give our third annual Ronald Reagan Lecture. It was a typical freezing Western Pennsylvania February day. We were about to hop into my conversion van to drive from a private dinner of about 30 people, held at a dining room that the college refers to as “Old MAP,” on our way to the pre-lecture reception at 5:45 at Pew auditorium. It was only the two of us.
By this point, we had become friends. Amid numerous emails and phone calls, I didn’t badger him about what he knew on John Paul II. If he wanted to tell me, he would. I left it in the hands of Herb, and perhaps Providence.
With a grin, Herb suddenly noted that we had not resolved the “pope issue.” As we stepped into the car, I smiled and said I was quite aware of that. I told him that I was confident I had figured it out, laying out the pieces of the puzzle I had been assembling. He nodded with an impressed “Hmm.” As we pulled out to drive across campus, Herb said to me flatly: “The Russians did it.”
He had heard my argument and knew that I knew — or at least as much as I could know without confirmation from one of the individuals who personally read the CIA report that Herb had read over 20 years ago. He also knew that the Italian Parliament had recently come to the same conclusion in an official report.
“The Soviets did it,” he told me. “They shot the pope.” That was the conclusion of the CIA’s investigation. He quickly added that I could not quote him.
Herb then told me about the moment they all learned the truth for the first time. He was in a room with a handful people: Bill Casey, Bob Gates, Jim McMahon—a CIA establishmentarian who, Herb noted, was “stunned” by the reality that the Kremlin could have been so vicious as to try to murder the pope.
Herb reiterated that the finding is contained in a still-classified report, located somewhere, and that he had “never, ever seen anything that classified.” Herb quipped of the report’s sensitivity: “The last thing I saw, we were burning out the eyes of the girl who typed it.”
Herb would continue to tell me more on later occasions. Most notable, he said it was the Soviet GRU, military intelligence, that carried out the hit on the pope. It was not a KGB job.
“That’s what threw off everyone,” Herb said, “because everyone looking into whether the Soviets did it looked at the KGB, and pinged their KGB contacts for information, but found nothing. In fact, the KGB knew nothing because it wasn’t involved.”
I ultimately weaved together this information for my 2017 book, A Pope and a President, carefully not mentioning Herb Meyer as my key source. Intensely interested parties wanted to know who told me about the CIA finding of Soviet culpability. Most figured it was Bill Clark, Reagan’s closest aide, who was like a grandfather to me (I was his biographer). It wasn’t Clark. It was Herb Meyer.
One wonders what other gems Herb was keeping to himself, maybe for those elusive memoirs one day. We’ll never know.
The last time I saw Herb was at my good friend Bo DiMuccio’s house, when Herb returned to Grove City for our 10th annual Reagan Lecture. A group of us smoked cigars, had drinks, and talked about life and the world. The conversation continued to the front porch of the house where Herb was staying in Grove City, though Herb was tired out and went to bed early. It was a special night. It was the last.
Herb Meyer, Cold War prophet, agent of victory in the epic defeat of an Evil Empire, man of great stories, knowledge, and secrets. And a really good guy. Requiescat in pace.
—Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and chief academic fellow of the Institute for Faith and Freedom at Grove City College. His latest book (April 2017) is A Pope and a President: John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, and the Extraordinary Untold Story of the 20th Century. He is also the author of 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative. His other books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.