The Billy Graham of the 1950s reflected the political mood of the United States of that era. His visceral anticommunism expressed itself during the Greater Los Angeles crusade of 1949 in his assessment of the looming Soviet threat.
“Sleek Russian bombers,” he said, were poised to strike America. “Do you know,” he thundered at wide-eyed listeners, “that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?” Communism, he said, “is a religion that is inspired, directed, and motivated by the devil himself who has declared war against Almighty God.”
For years, Graham stayed true to that course as a fire-breathing patriotic American orator. But by 1992, he was paying a respectful visit to one of the most tyrannical communist regimes on earth: North Korea. He made comments about the North Korean dictator that made many people roll their eyes in wonder. Kim Il-sung, Graham observed, was “a gentle and logical thinker. There are statues of him all over the place. The people there really do love him.”
Well, the people probably “really did” love Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong, and other communist tyrants of the 20th century. To demonstrate anything less might have secured a lifetime pass to their country’s labor camp system. So Graham’s views changed over time. How did this happen? And why?
Change in Strategy
The answer is not that Graham actually changed his view of what communism was. Until his dying day, he believed that communism was a malevolent attempt to usurp the sovereignty of God on earth.
But he changed in how he thought Christians should behave towards Communists—the people, not the ideology—and in how he thought the gospel should be presented to regimes that officially rejected Christianity. Graham came to believe that direct confrontation with wicked regimes would not work. His new approach to dealing with communist regimes was an extension of his approach to working for the propagation of the gospel with people whose Christian theology differed sharply from his own—and to the fundamentalists was sheer anathema.
Graham’s largest Eastern European crowds were in Romania, but when 150,000 gathered, the government would not let him speak. The crowd nearly rioted, and pressed in to see him. Graham ended up at a 45-degree angle, fearing for his life. ‘What a telling way to die,’ he said. ‘Dying by the crowds which did not hear the gospel.’
Graham aroused the ire of fundamentalist Bob Jones, founder of Bob Jones University, during the 1954 Harringay crusade in the UK and the 1957 crusade in New York by associating with liberal clergymen. Years later, in the 1980s, Graham agreed to attend a Soviet-sponsored Christian “peace” conference. On these occasions, he provoked immense displeasure among American Cold War Soviet-watchers.
During the 1960s, when America was tormented by its experience in Vietnam, Graham gave the impression of leaving the conduct of diplomacy, war, and peace exclusively to the White House, indicating few misgivings about this massive war in a distant part of the world.
But by the late 1970s, his worldview likely underwent significant change. In 1975, Graham seemed pessimistic about Christian freedom around the world. He speculated openly about the possibility that Christians in the West might experience persecution for their faith. Two years later, Graham was less alarmed by communism than by the rising threat of nuclear war.
What apparently contributed to a major shift in Graham’s view was a private briefing he received in the late 1970s from a senior official in the Defense Department. The official had come all the way to the Graham home in Montreat, North Carolina, to spell out to the Grahams the very dire consequences for America of a real nuclear war. It obviously was not a classified briefing because Graham did not have any government security clearances. But the facts seemed utterly grim. The Grahams were “appalled” on learning what would happen if a nuclear war were to occur, according to Graham biographer John Pollock. In light of those grim realities, the brittle verities of anti-communism may no longer have seemed so attractive.
In fact, complex negotiations for his first preaching visit to a communist country, Hungary, had been in process five years before Graham actually arrived there in the fall of 1977. When he announced his forthcoming visit earlier that year, Hungarian exiles living in the US sharply criticized Graham. His reply to them was almost identical to what he had said to the fundamentalists when they took him to task for his dalliances with liberal Protestants during the New York crusade of 1957. “I intend to go anywhere, sponsored by anybody,” he said, “to preach the gospel of Christ if there are no strings attached to my message.”
In the event, the preaching tour—the word “crusade” was not used, out of deference to the feelings of Hungary’s communist rulers—was a dramatic success, with thousands of Protestant Christians attending the final, open-air camp meeting, many of them pilgrims from other parts of the Soviet empire, including the Soviet Union.
“I have not joined the Communist Party since coming to Hungary, nor have I been asked to. But I think the world is changing,” he said at the conclusion of the Hungarian visit. “There is religious liberty in Hungary. … The church is alive in Hungary.”
Soon other countries in Eastern Europe opened their doors. In 1978, he visited Poland, preaching in a church near Krakow just four days before the resident cardinal, Karol Wojtyła, was elected Pope John Paul II.
His visit to the second communist state in a year seemed to have further intensified his antinuclear leanings. On his return, he supported a petition of liberal Protestants urging the US to sign the Salt 2 arms control agreement with the Soviet Union. “Why can’t we have peace?” he asked rhetorically, adding that he favored the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. To underline how far his thinking had evolved, he said that he now thought that President Truman had “made a mistake in dropping that first atomic bomb” on Japan.
“I wish we had never developed it,” he said of the bomb. “I have seen that we must seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race.”
The Soviets must have been listening to this carefully, for in 1982 they obviously thought they had scored a major propaganda coup by persuading Graham to attend a conference that had all the markings of a typical Soviet “peace” propaganda campaign. The conference was called “World Conference of Religious Workers for Saving the Sacred Gift of Life from Nuclear Catastrophe.” Could Billy Graham not know that he was being totally manipulated by Moscow? Both from TV commentators and from prominent figures in the foreign policy establishment, Graham received vigorous criticism.
It wasn’t his first trip to the Soviet Union. He had visited the country as a tourist in 1959. But it was far more controversial, primarily because while Graham was enjoying the caviar laid on by his Soviet hosts (“I’ve had caviar with almost every meal I’ve eaten”), seven Siberian Pentecostals—“the Siberian Seven”—were holed up in a crowded basement apartment in the US embassy in Moscow. Graham duly visited them, but he was stung by their frosty attitude toward him and their refusal to pray with him. Further comments he made on freedom of religion in the Soviet Union (“I have not personally seen persecution”) caused students even at his alma mater, Wheaton College, to carry placards reading “Billy Graham Has Been Duped by the Soviets.”
But 19 years later, at least one major journalistic critic of that day had changed his tune. “Graham’s efforts contributed to the fall of communism, and in no small way,” said Dan Rather in a 2001 interview. “He was right; I was wrong, big time.”
Graham came to believe that direct confrontation with wicked regimes would not work—at least it would not work in the sense of opening the door to Christian evangelism.
What Graham’s Moscow visit achieved was the overcoming of the last reservations about having Graham preach on the part of the harsher communist regimes of Eastern Europe.
Between 1982 and 1985, Graham conducted preaching tours in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Romania. When Graham arrived in Romania in September 1985, he quite gratuitously thanked the regime for giving “full and genuine freedom to all religious denominations.” If he had been awake during his pre-visit briefings, he would surely have heard somewhere or other that Romania was one of the most unpleasantly repressive states in the entire Communist bloc, especially toward religious dissidents.
Events during his trip certainly reinforced that message. The authorities sabotaged his preaching repeatedly through cutting wires to loudspeakers or severely limiting attendance. But at the climax of his visit, a sermon preached at the Orthodox Cathedral in the city of Timisoara, a city of predominantly Hungarian ethnic composition, a crowd estimated at 150,000 was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic that the country’s dictator canceled a scheduled meeting with Graham out of irritation. Nicolae Ceaușescu may have had a premonition of how his regime would end. It was protests by Protestants in Timisoara that started the cascade of events that led to the dictator’s arrest and execution at the end of 1989.
Billy in China
Before all that happened, Billy Graham visited China, where his wife, Ruth, was born and spent her childhood.
The timing was serendipitous: The country was moving rapidly toward liberalization. In the halcyon years before the crackdown in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Prime Minister Li Peng made some astonishing admissions during a 50-minute meeting with Graham inside the party compound of Zhongnanhai. China needed “moral power,” he said, in order to develop effectively and modernize.
He admitted to Graham that the constitutional rights of religious believers in China had not always been observed. No Chinese leader had ever admitted as much previously. But neither Graham nor anyone in his entourage seemed to grasp the significance of this admission.
Violations of those same rights took place right in the middle of Graham’s visit, however, when a prominent Chinese house church evangelist, Peter Xu Yongze, was arrested on his way to a scheduled meeting over tea with Graham. Before finally being able to leave China and obtain asylum in the US, Xu was to spend several years in prison, ironically confirming the truth of Li’s admission.
Did Graham’s visit have any discernible effect on communism in China? Looking back through the bloody lens of the Tiananmen Square massacre, it is hard to think so. Yet journalists who covered the Graham visit seem to have been strikingly affected by it. Adi Ignatius, then The Wall Street Journal‘s Beijing correspondent, recalled later, “What I remember is the elderly women who were just thrilled, talking enthusiastically about Graham’s visit. The year 1988 was really a thrilling period, to me the most thrilling period. It kind of led to what happened later…”
That said, did Graham’s forays into the communist world, starting in 1977, really contribute to communism’s ultimate collapse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, as Dan Rather thought they had?
Romanian Christians themselves, discussing the events with Graham’s daughter Anne Graham Lotz, have credited Graham’s visit in 1985 with playing a decisive role in the ouster of Ceaușescu. Without Graham’s controversial trip to that Soviet peace conference in 1982, it is entirely possible that the doors of those three Eastern European regimes, and Romania’s, might never have opened.
Graham’s North Korea trip in 1992 was, in its way, the logical development of the trend of meetings with communist leaders in their countries that Graham had first embarked upon in 1977. Graham had often observed that he thought personal relationships might contribute more to improving understanding between nations than formal diplomatic efforts did.
Apparently, his meetings with North Korea’s quirky tyrant Kim Il-sung in 1992 went successfully enough for Kim to invite Graham back in 1994. By this year, however, tensions were roiling with the US over the Pyongyang regime’s refusal to co-operate with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s desire to inspect North Korea’s nuclear facilities.
Graham’s presentation to Kim of a message from President Bill Clinton insisting on North Korean openness to such inspections nearly torpedoed the visit at the beginning. Graham’s interpreter, Stephen Linton, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries to South Korea, said that Kim “gestured dramatically” to express his annoyance at the description of Clinton’s comments.
But after the initial conversational spat, Graham apparently deployed his considerable charm and persuasiveness to depict Clinton to Kim in warm, friendly terms that did indeed soften the initial hostile impression of Clinton and the US that Kim had received.
In Moscow in 1992, Graham had made the unusual assertion at an Orthodox cathedral that he had experienced three “conversions” in his life: to Christ as Lord and Savior, to the principle of racial justice, and to “work for world peace for the remainder of his life.” The “world peace” conversion hardly survived his visits to the communist world in the 1980s and beyond. But nor did the communist regimes themselves. In a curious way, Graham’s willingness to use the “peace” language of the communist world seems to have secured him an open door to preach there. But to preach as an evangelist and not as a prophet. Had he really been a prophet, he might never have been invited back.
Criticizing his Moscow visit in 1982, National Public Radio’s Bill Moyers opined, “It’s never easy to sup with power and get up from the table spotless. That’s why the prophets of old preferred the wilderness. When they came forth, it was not to speak softly with kin and governors, but to call them to judgment.”
But throughout his long evangelistic career, Billy Graham was always an evangelist and never a prophet. It’s just possible that he achieved far more by evangelizing among the Communists than by prophesying against them. The proof, after all, is that in contradiction to Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto, communism no longer haunts Europe.
David Aikman is the author of Billy Graham: His Life and Influence (Thomas Nelson) and Jesus in Beijing (Regnery).