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Pope John and the Cuban Missile Crisis


(map credit)

Tonight, President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential Nominee Mitt Romney will have their third and final presidential debate, with foreign affairs as the primary topic.  In advance of the debate, rumors have surfaced (denied by the parties) of a potential opening for negotiations between Iran and the U.S. over nuclear arms.

Coincidentally, October 22, is the 50th anniversary of the day when President John F. Kennedy made one of the gravest televised presidential addresses to the nation:  he went on the air to tell us that the Soviet Union had placed long-range missiles in Cuba, and that the U.S. would establish a naval blockade of all ship traffic to and from Cuba until the Soviets agreed to withdraw their missiles.  In short, we were on the brink of nuclear war.

As we consider the stakes in this year’s presidential election, let’s watch the candidates tonight not through the silly lens of Twitter reactions to ephemera, but through the most urgent lens of maintaining peace and leading the world to a stronger position of safety and security for all people.  We have heard precious little about war and peace in this campaign; neither candidate has had much to say about the enormous consequences the U.S. and the world have suffered because of the wars of the last decade — Iraq and Afghanistan are silent shadows across the presidential campaign, the national and global economy, and the worldwide sense of security and hope for peace.  We natter about stupid stuff — whether Joe Biden smiled too much, how Paul Ryan looked in those workout photos, what meaning we might find in “binders full of women” — even as the most important issues for the future of civilization get the silent treatment.

50 years ago, we school children practiced getting ready for a nuclear attack by having air raid drills in which we huddled under our desks.  Just like the “readiness” campaign after 9/11, during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis Americans engaged in various “readiness” activities including building bomb shelters under their front lawns, stockpiling canned goods and knowing the location of the local civil defense shelter.  Today, we might find those old signs to be curious artifacts of an age of nuclear anxiety — even as we get constant reminders to stockpile flashlights and bottled water against the next shadowy terror.

Where are the true leaders who can give us the confidence in long-term peace and security?

50 years ago, Pope John XXIII had just opened the Second Vatican Council when the Cuban Missile Crisis broke.  Well into his 80’s, dying of cancer, he nevertheless exerted his influence to help bring the world back from nuclear catastrophe.  Using all of the talents honed during his long diplomatic career, Pope John intervened with direct communications to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev urging him to “not be deaf to the cry of humanity” and to work to save the peace.  Commentators credit Pope John’s message with helping to give Krushchev some cover in withdrawing the missiles.  Soon thereafter, Pope John issued one of the great encyclicals of all times, Pacem in Terris, on peace in the world.  Time magazine named him “Man of the Year” for his extraordinary leadership in those times of grave threats to peace and extraordinary change in the Church.

Today, the names of these protagonists stand as giants in history — Pope John XXIII, President John F. Kennedy, and yes, even Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev who responded to entreaties to bring the world back from the brink of nuclear war.  It’s probably safe to say that none of them were considered likely candidates to become legends of the world stage when they first took office — Pope John was already in his 80s and viewed as an interim pope; President Kennedy was very young and inexperienced in foreign affairs; Khrushchev was a loyal communist party member who eventually fell out of favor and was deposed.  But each, when faced with the gravest crisis, rose to the occasion to take appropriate action for the sake of peace.

How do we measure the potential of today’s presidential candidates to exert powerful and persuasive leadership to secure greater peace in this world?

Read:  Interesting new book on Pope John XXIII, The Good Pope by Greg Tobin

Follow me on Twitter @TrinityPrez

See my blog “Gambling for Education: The House Never Loses” on the Huffington Post

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
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