Peace on Earth: Connecting the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vatican II

In the space of four days I’ve blogged about two events marking their 50th anniversaries this year: the Second Vatican Council (which started October 12, 1962) and the Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 16 of the same year). In different ways, they were among the most important events of the 20th century, but I’d never thought of them in conjunction with each other. Yet it seems clear that the Thirteen Days of the crisis magnified the concerns of the pope who called the council, and his response to nuclear brinksmanship, the possibility of a perpetual arms race, and doctrines of deterrence predicated on “mutually assured destruction” shaped one of the most important documents to come out of Vatican II.

NY Times Headline from the Cuban Missile CrisisBy the 16th, when JFK was first briefed on the Soviet missiles in Cuba, coverage of the council at the Vatican had moved off the front pages of major American newspapers, but the New York Times nonetheless carried four stories from Rome on pp. 16-17 of its issue that day. Remarkably, it wasn’t until six days later that the Times carried a front page story even hinting at “crisis air” in Washington. The next day, of course, things were different: after Kennedy’s televised speech, Cuba, missiles, and blockade were all over the headlines, and it’s unlikely that all that many readers noticed the report that eighteen Americans were among the bishops composing Vatican II’s ten commissions.

On the 29th, while “U.S. and Soviet Reach Accord on Cuba” headlined the Times, the paper’s editors also found room (on p. 17) for a brief story about Pope John XXIII, who marked the fourth anniversary of his election by referring “for the third time in five days… to the international tension in Cuba and India.” (While the Cuban crisis proceeded, India and China also fought a brief border war.) Pope John wrote:

In all the world there is a desire to work, to construct…. With these sentiments of confidence, we ask God to dispel the ill-omened clouds from the horizon of international coexistence.

Just over five months later, John XXIII issued the encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), which — according to Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels (drawing on John XXIII biographer Peter Hebblethwaite)…

…was most likely conceived during the late night hours of October 23-24, 1962. It was at the very still point, the eye of the hurricane, of the Cuban missile crisis. The world was on the brink of nuclear war, a war that Robert McNamara later said would have killed two-and-half million people in its opening salvo.  It was during this night that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, Pope John XXIII, whom Catholics now call Blessed, passed back and forth between his desk and his private chapel.  He was composing a message, according to his secretary, that would help to bring Kennedy and Khrushchev into agreement and prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction far beyond any that we confront today.

Pope John XXIII
Pope John XXIII – Wikimedia

Beginning with the admonition that “Peace on Earth—which man throughout the ages has so longed for and sought after—can never be established, never guaranteed, except by the diligent observance of the divinely established order,” John proceeded to argue that this order rested on the dignity and rights of humans who had been created in the image of a God whose “infinite greatness” had only been reaffirmed by “the progress of scientific knowledge and the inventions of technology….” But advance in science and technology had also magnified the danger of war between states, and fostered an arms race that left the pope “deeply distressed.” He continued:

There is a common belief that under modern conditions peace cannot be assured except on the basis of an equal balance of armaments and that this factor is the probable cause of this stockpiling of armaments. Thus, if one country increases its military strength, others are immediately roused by a competitive spirit to augment their own supply of armaments. And if one country is equipped with atomic weapons, others consider themselves justified in producing such weapons themselves, equal in destructive force.

Consequently people are living in the grip of constant fear. They are afraid that at any moment the impending storm may break upon them with horrific violence. And they have good reasons for their fear, for there is certainly no lack of such weapons. While it is difficult to believe that anyone would dare to assume responsibility for initiating the appalling slaughter and destruction that war would bring in its wake, there is no denying that the conflagration could be started by some chance and unforeseen circumstance. Moreover, even though the monstrous power of modern weapons does indeed act as a deterrent, there is reason to fear that the very testing of nuclear devices for war purposes can, if continued, lead to serious danger for various forms of life on earth.

It’s not hard to see the memory of the Cuban crisis (and of World War II) pressing John forward as he concluded, with characteristic optimism:

Hence justice, right reason, and the recognition of man’s dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race. The stock-piles of armaments which have been built up in various countries must be reduced all round and simultaneously by the parties concerned. Nuclear weapons must be banned. A general agreement must be reached on a suitable disarmament program, with an effective system of mutual control. In the words of Pope Pius XII: “The calamity of a world war, with the economic and social ruin and the moral excesses and dissolution that accompany it, must not on any account be permitted to engulf the human race for a third time.”

John XXIII signing Pacem in Terris
John XXIII signing Pacem in Terris – Wikimedia

Everyone, however, must realize that, unless this process of disarmament be thoroughgoing and complete, and reach men’s very souls, it is impossible to stop the arms race, or to reduce armaments, or—and this is the main thing—ultimately to abolish them entirely. Everyone must sincerely co-operate in the effort to banish fear and the anxious expectation of war from men’s minds. But this requires that the fundamental principles upon which peace is based in today’s world be replaced by an altogether different one, namely, the realization that true and lasting peace among nations cannot consist in the possession of an equal supply of armaments but only in mutual trust. And We are confident that this can be achieved, for it is a thing which not only is dictated by common sense, but is in itself most desirable and most fruitful of good.

…in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.

John XXIII lived only two more months — not to see either the beginning of arms control talks or the end of the great church council he had called. But as Vatican II ended, John’s successor, Paul VI, promulgated the last of the council’s four apostolic constitutions, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). Meant to summarize church teachings on modern society, Gaudium et Spes draws heavily on Pacem in Terris — quoting or paraphrasing it at least a dozen times. That’s particularly true of its closing chapter, which explores “the fostering of peace” — defined as “not merely the absence of war… [nor] the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice.” But avoidance of war being a presupposition for this more holistic understanding of peace, the council averred that

Pope Paul VI and JFK
Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy in 1963 – White House

The horror and perversity of war is immensely magnified by the addition of scientific weapons. For acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense. Indeed, if the kind of instruments which can now be found in the armories of the great nations were to be employed to their fullest, an almost total and altogether reciprocal slaughter of each side by the other would follow, not to mention the widespread devastation that would take place in the world and the deadly after effects that would be spawned by the use of weapons of this kind.

All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude. The men of our time must realize that they will have to give a somber reckoning of their deeds of war for the course of the future will depend greatly on the decisions they make today.

One of the most important attempts to rethink the Christian just war tradition in light of nuclear weapons, Gaudium et Spes outright rejected the indiscriminate destruction of civilian populations, but also warned against relying on deterrence, since it meant that instead of resolving conflicts,

the causes of war are in danger of being gradually aggravated. While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world. Disagreements between nations are not really and radically healed; on the contrary, they spread the infection to other parts of the earth.

…the arms race is an utterly treacherous trap for humanity, and one which ensnares the poor to an intolerable degree. It is much to be feared that if this race persists, it will eventually spawn all the lethal ruin whose path it is now making ready. Warned by the calamities which the human race has made possible, let us make use of the interlude granted us from above and for which we are thankful to become more conscious of our own responsibility and to find means for resolving our disputes in a manner more worthy of men.


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