A War Prevented: Pope John XXIII and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The Holy See is the oldest continuing international organization in the world. Its Secretary of State office was established in 1486, and that is also when its first permanent representatives were established in Venice, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, and France. Today, the Holy See maintains diplomatic relations with 176 states. It is also the only Permanent Observer State at the United Nations, and it participates in various internationals conventions and agreements. While it is officially neutral, it is not silent.

The Holy See’s diplomatic prowess was tested severely during the twentieth century. Nevertheless, it played a crucial role in maintaining world peace, especially during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Holy See and the Soviet Union had a very strained relationship. After World War II, Catholic leaders in the new areas of Soviet control were suppressed. Priests, bishops, and cardinals were given show trials and sent to prisons. Eventually, the Soviets engaged in covert activities to undermine the papacy itself by promoting the slander of Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope.” Despite all this, the Vatican continued to influence Soviet leaders. In fact, Bl. Pope John XXIII helped bring the superpowers back from the edge of war in October 1962 – 49 years ago last month.

On October 11 of that year, Pope John opened the Second Vatican Council. In the speech that he gave that day, he said: “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

Three days later, American spy planes discovered that the Cuban and Soviet governments had begun to build bases in Cuba for a number of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear missiles. They would have the ability to strike most of the continental United States. President Kennedy was furious. On October 22, he went on television to explain the situation, and he moved the defense readiness condition to Defcon 2 for only the second time in history.

Kennedy insisted that the missiles had to be removed. When Khrushchev refused, the American president set a blockade around Cuba. Khrushchev, in turn, authorized his Soviet field commanders to launch tactical nuclear weapons if Cuba were invaded by the U.S. As the Russian ships approached, the blockade stood firm and ready, and the world came closer than ever to Armageddon. Millions watched the showdown on television.

Kennedy, the first (and still so far the only) Catholic president, then sent a message to Pope John XXIII. After reading the president’s note, the pope drafted a message, copies of which were delivered to both the American and Soviet embassies. The following day, John read his message on Vatican Radio. It said:

We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity. That they do all that is in their power to save peace. They will thus spare the world from the horrors of a war whose terrifying consequences no one can predict. That they continue discussions, as this loyal and open behaviour has great value as a witness of everyone’s conscience and before history. Promoting, favouring, accepting conversations, at all levels and in any time, is a rule of wisdom and prudence which attracts the blessings of heaven and earth.

The next day, the Pope’s message appeared in newspapers all around the world, including Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist party. The headline in that paper said: “We beg all governments not to remain deaf to this cry of humanity.”

With his plea, Pope John XXIII had given Khrushchev a way out. By withdrawing now, he would be seen as a man of peace, not a coward. Two days later, Khrushchev, an atheist who was in the middle of a propaganda war with the Vatican, agreed to withdraw the missiles. (Kennedy also secretly agreed to withdraw American missiles from Turkey.)

Pope John’s role in the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis is often overlooked, but it was very important. It also helped move the world in a positive direction, consistent with the Second Vatican Council that was then taking place. Soviet and American leaders signed a nuclear test ban on July 25, 1963. President Kennedy called that “the first step down the path of peace.” The two nations also set up a “hot line” for emergency messages between Washington and Moscow.

It was not known by the public at the time, but on September 23, 1962, just a month before he helped pull the world back from the brink of war, an X-ray revealed that Pope John XXIII was suffering from an advanced case of stomach cancer. He knew he was dying. He passed away on June 3, 1963. He was proclaimed blessed on September 3, 2002. The cause of his sainthood is still underway.

Ronald J. Rychlak


Ronald J. Rychlak is the associate dean and MDLA Professor of Law at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He is the author of Hitler, the War, and the Pope (Revised and Expanded) (2010) and Righteous Gentiles (2005).

  • Sarto

    They say that in a game of chicken, it is the sane man who gives up first. Kennedy was prepared to go all the way. The Russian was the sane one.

  • Christopher Manion

    In the late 1980s – 1987 or 1988 — at a senate hearing, Jesse Helms — invoking Ronald Reagan’s principle of “trust, but verify” — asked the Chief of Naval Operations if the U.S. had ever verified that the Soviet missiles had in fact been removed from Cuba.

    The answer was “no.”

    • pammie

      Mr. Manion , I always look forward to reading your political commentary which is usually spot on. Count me as a fan….if you are indeed the well known writer that is.

      • Sarto

        I remember the Cuban Missile crisis well. I was a young man in Seattle, waiting like most of the others, to die. The line for confession went for blocks around the Catholic churches.

        Looking back now, I can see the blatant immorality of the thing. Kennedy had willed the deaths of hundreds of milions of innocent people. Until Kruschev did the same thing and backed down, Kennedy was the most evil man in the history of the whole human race, because he was prepared to push the button over nationalism and economic theories that will be utterly irrelevant in a hundred years or so.

  • Sarto

    Oops! Until Kruschev did the SANE thing and backed down. Kennedy was the madman in this story.

  • John Zmirak

    Read Donald Kagan’s “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace” to see how Kennedy’s uncertainty and lack of preparation during his previous summit meeting with Krushchev led the Soviets to think him a weakling whom they could challenge with this gambit–to which he overreacted with a threat of nuclear war. This story points to the tragic consequences of electing the wrong man president. I could imagine Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich making similar mistakes… not Mitt Romney, Ron Paul or Michelle Bachmann, however.

  • Jacques

    The story is too beautiful to be true. Indeed Pope John sided with the Soviets almost from the beginning of his pontificate. He took the opposite course of his predecessor Pius XII who was fiercely anticommunist because he wanted to invite orthodox observers for the council Vatican II. With that aim he signed an infamous agreement with the commies at Metz (France) commiting himself that no condemnation of the communism would be issued by the council, thus forbidding any bishop, although they were many, to even dare to address the issue of communism during the council.
    So the council was flawed from the beginning: It was called to address the challenges the Church was actually facing, and the Pope himself prevented to even speak about the main one the RCC faced.
    His successor Paul VI took the same course, not hesitating to abandon the catholic faithfuls who were persecuted beyond the Iron curtain.
    Sad times for the Church and those who trusted in their popes.

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