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Heed the pope’s warning on nuclear war — it’s saved us before


On Nov. 2, Pope Francis gave a mass for All Souls Day, a day that is traditionally commemorated by a papal visit to a cemetary in Rome. This year, however, the pope marked the day by traveling to Nettuno, Italy, specifically to visit the burial ground of 7,860 American soldiers who died liberating Italy during World War II.

The significance of his decision to visit an American cemetery was made clear when the pope stated that “the world once more is at war and is preparing to go even more forcefully into war.” He lamented that humanity had not seemed to learn the lesson that the fruit of war is death.

Pope Francis’s remarks were aimed at the conflict that the United States now finds itself in with North Korea. In August, President Trump threatened to rain down on North Korea “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” However, for once, it is not Trump’s bombastic remarks that should give us pause; the pope’s quiet warning should.

When even the pope is deeply concerned about the world being near the precipice of war, we should consider the fact that there is a historical precedent of a new pope delivering a similar warning that foreshadowed a major nuclear crisis.

From the moment Pope John XXIII began his papacy in 1958, he was especially outspoken on the topic of nuclear war. In a time when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were reaching a zenith, the pope released a tone-setting encyclical in June 1959 where he made clear that nuclear weapons made all of humanity vulnerable and defenseless. He wrote, “should another war break out nothing but devastating destruction and total ruin await both victor and vanquished.” He implored world leaders to, “above all, realize that war … can only have one result, vast ruins everywhere.”

Drawing the parallel to today, Pope Francis warned on Thursday that “humanity risks suicide” with the increased danger of nuclear war between the United States and North Korea. 

{mosads}Back in 1959, Pope John’s warnings about the increasing dangers of nuclear war were mostly ignored. Both U.S. and U.S.S.R. continued to antagonize each other verbally and militarily, the culmination of which led the Cold War conflict to erupt into a full blown nuclear crisis in October 1962.


When Pope John first learned of the Cuban missile crisis through Kennedy’s announcement of the American blockade of Cuba, he was terrified of what this might lead to. According to the editor of the Saturday Review, Norman Cousins, in a FOIA-obtained “Memorandum of Conversation with Norman Cousins,” found in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, the Vatican was “scared stiff at the time of the Cuban Crisis and felt that [they] should do everything possible to be available to head off a catastrophe.” Instead of allowing fear to immobilize him, Pope John’s instinct was to have the Catholic Church take on a larger role in international affairs.

Two days after the blockade was imposed, Pope John sent a message to the world via Vatican Radio, asking both the U.S. and Soviet Union to “avoid the horrors of a war, the appalling consequences of which no one could predict. Let them continue to negotiate.” He sent another message through backchannels to the White House and Kremlin explaining that the Vatican remained open to serving as a mediator between the two.

Recently declassified U.S. government documents from the time confirm that Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev did, in fact, take the pope’s message to heart. Cousins revealed to the White House what Khrushchev had told him during a later private meeting: “Pope John’s appeal during the missile crisis had carried considerable weight in his thinking. In fact, [Khrushchev said] it was the first ray of light in the fast-developing darkness.” An internal White House memo, the “Salinger Memo,” also found in the presidential library, confirms that the Kennedy administration recognized that “Pope John was making serious attempts to appeal to all the leaders of the world to settle their problems peacefully.”

History shows us that when even the pope recognizes the present danger of war and feels compelled to issue a warning, leaders should take notice. Today, Pope Francis is making the same appeal for peace and diplomacy that Pope John XXIII did more than 55 years ago. 

As President Trump visits South Korea, we hope that his administration recognizes that the last nuclear crisis this country faced was resolved peacefully only when both sides recognized that aggression and bluster was partly what got them into that dangerous position. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev understood that despite (or perhaps because of) the overwhelming power of their military forces, an actual nuclear war would leave both nations in ruins. 

While standing on the hallowed ground of an American military cemetery, Pope Francis raised the warning that war “shatters dreams and destroys lives, bringing a cold, cruel winter instead of some sought-after spring.” This past April, the pope also called on all leaders “to seek a solution to problems through the path of diplomacy.” One doesn’t have to be a Catholic to hope that Trump can accept the pope’s appeals for humanity and diplomacy like Kennedy and Khrushchev did in 1962. 

Allen Pietrobon teaches American history at Trinity Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in American History and Foreign Policy at American University, where he serves as an Assistant Director of Research at the Nuclear Studies Institute.

Tags Cold War Cuban Missile Crisis Donald Trump JFK John F. Kennedy Nikita Khrushchev Norman Cousins North Korea nuclear war Pope John XXIII Soviet Union–United States relations

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