FORMER US president Ronald Reagan tried to convert Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Christianity in an effort to end the Cold War.

The claim appears in a new biography of Reagan, The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan: A History of the Cold War by James Mann, an extract from which appeared in The Wall Street Journal yesterday.

Mann relies on recently declassified notes by aides who were present at meetings between Mr Gorbachev and Reagan. He says Reagan expressed dismay that his own son, Ron, did not believe in God.

Apparently embarrassed, or perhaps uninterested, Mr Gorbachev tried to change the topic.

Mann says Reagan met Mr Gorbachev several times in the company of senior aides before he tried, during his first "one on one" with the then Soviet leader, to convince him of the existence of God.

Mann says it was a "bold but questionable endeavour well beyond his mandate as president of the United States".

Notes of the meeting were taken by two Reagan aides. Those notes are now declassified, and stored at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California.

The Reagan-Gorbachev summits, designed to bring an end to the Cold War, took place between 1985 and 1988. According to Mann, Reagan noted Mr Gorbachev's use of the words "God bless" and wondered whether they were an expression of religious faith.

Mann says that when Reagan raised the issue of God with Mr Gorbachev, he promised the Soviet leader he would never admit that the conversation took place.

According to the notes, Mr Gorbachev told Reagan that "he, himself, had been baptised, but he was not now a believer, and that reflected a certain evolution of Soviet society".

The US president told one of his trademark stories about the widow of a young World War II soldier, who "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," Reagan said. "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."

Mann says Mr Gorbachev "tried to switch the subject" to greater co-operation in space, "but the president wasn't to be diverted".

Mann writes: "According to the transcript, Reagan told Mr Gorbachev that space was in the direction of heaven, but not as close to heaven as some other things that they had been discussing."

He told the Soviet leader that his own son, Ron, did not believe in God and "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."

Rudolf Perina, who was then the director of Soviet affairs on the National Security Council, told Mann in a 2005 interview that "Reagan thought he could convert Mr Gorbachev, or make him see the light".

A second note-taker, Thomas Simons, said he viewed Reagan's promotion of religion as a tactic to deflect Mr Gorbachev away from discussion of other substantive issues.

The attempt by a US president to convert a foreign leader was not unprecedented.

According to Mann, 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."