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An historical perspective: Pope John XXIII and the Cuban Missile Crisis


Pope Benedict XVI’s first apostolic journey to Cuba is watched with interest across the globe.

Before him, Pope John Paul II travelled to the Latin American island nation in 1998, a historic visit – the first ever papal journey to Cuba - during which he met with President Fidel Castro.

However, one of his predecessors had already played a key role in Cuba’s history, preventing an escalation of cold war violence that could have resulted in nuclear war.

With the II Vatican Council under way and with only a few months to live, Pope John XXIIrd turned his attention to his great encyclical on peace: Pacem in Terris.

Pacem in Terris was addressed not only to Catholics but to “all men and women of goodwill” and was heralded by many in and outside the Church as a landmark document.

The cold war in the 1960s and the continuing arms race between Russia and the United States brought fear to people the world over.

Things came to a head in the fourth year of John’s papacy with the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

American spy planes discovered that Russia had secretly begun installing Soviet missiles in Cuba, only minutes away from the United States.

President John F. Kennedy made the discovery public and told Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the presence of Soviet missiles just off our coast was unacceptable and insisted they be removed.

When Khrushchev ignored his ultimatum, JFK set up a blockade around the island. Millions watched the final encounter on TV—the Russian ships approaching Cuba, the U.S. blockade standing firm and ready, and then the Russian ships slowly turning around and heading home.

Before this dramatic moment, however, much had gone on behind the scenes.

On October 23, after the blockade had been imposed, JFK made one last attempt at dialogue. He contacted Norman Cousins, who then contacted the Vatican and was told that Pope John XXIII would be happy to help.

The next day Pope John sent a message to the Soviet embassy in Rome to be transmitted to the Kremlin, and he voiced his concern for peace through the microphones of Vatican Radio.

In part it read, “I beg heads of state not to remain insensitive to the cry of humanity: peace, peace. Let them do all that is in their power to save peace; in this way they will avoid the horrors of a war, the appalling consequences of which no one could predict. Let them continue to negotiate….”

Pope John’s message appeared in Pravda, the official Communist newspaper, on October 26 under the headline, “We beg all rulers not to be deaf to the cry of humanity.” Khrushchev was given an out. By withdrawing he would be known as a man of peace. Two days later on October 28, Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles.

Listen to the programme programme produced and presented by Veronica Scarisbrick… RealAudioMP3