A Letter to President Trump on the 55th Anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Dear Mr. Trump:

You insist you’re a Christian, telling us during your presidential campaign that you “go to church and drink my little wine and have my little cracker.” Since I have no window into your soul, charity obliges me to give your claim the benefit of the doubt. So I hope you won’t mind me speaking to you frankly, as one Christian to another.

If the recklessly bellicose rhetoric tossed back and forth between you and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un is any indication, the world is edging chillingly close to a nuclear showdown. It’s certainly alarming most of us here in the U.S. and infuriating North Korea.

We’ve seen this kind of crisis before. Fifty-five years ago this month, nuclear arsenals were poised to strike. The intervention of Pope (now Saint) John XXIII helped to defuse the crisis, and he followed it up with one of the 20th-century’s most eloquent briefs for world peace, the encyclical Pacem in Terris, or “Peace on Earth.”

As a self-professed Christian, Mr. Trump, you might want to read Pacem in Terris. Don’t worry; it’s a short and reader-friendly document. It’s easily accessible online. But if you prefer a hard copy, I’ll gladly send you mine, well-thumbed, dog-eared, and marked up though it is.

In the fall of 1962, aerial photos revealed that Soviet missile sites were being built in Cuba. An alarmed President Kennedy threw a naval blockade around the island, Premier Khrushchev threatened to break it, and for 13 days it seemed likely that the longstanding Cold War between the globe’s two nuclear superpowers would become a devastatingly hot one.

All of us who lived through what became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis will never forget that dreadful fortnight.

As the crisis grew, Kennedy solicited the help of John XXIII. The pope obliged by urging restraint on the part of both leaders, and penned a private conciliatory note to Khrushchev. His public plea for peace gave the Soviet premier the excuse he was looking for to back away from the nuclear standoff.

Soon afterwards, Pope John set to work on Pacem in Terris. Gravely ill, he knew that this encyclical would be his final legacy to the world. It was released on Holy Thursday, 1963. John chose that day because it commemorates Jesus’s commandment to his disciples to love one another.

Two months later, good Pope John was dead.

John’s bottom line in Pacem in Terris is that humans, created in God’s likeness, possess a natural dignity which in turn bestows upon them certain rights that a well-ordered society must respect.

What threatens both natural rights and social harmony is the hatred bred by economic inequality, nationalism and xenophobia, racism, and the subjugation of minorities and women.

(To read Pacem in Terris, by the way, is to be astounded at Pope John’s forward-thinking views on ethnic and gender issues. The current pontiff is clearly his spiritual heir. But please, Mr. Trump. Don’t be put off by that.)

By far the greatest threat spawned by hatred, however, is the existence of nuclear weapons.

It’s not just that their destructive capability is unspeakably, mind-numbingly devastating.

Their development and maintenance suck up money, labor, and expertise that could be used to build programs that promote human flourishing.

Moreover, contrary to hawkish claims, nuclear weapons do not make us safer or less anxious. On the contrary, they imprison people “in the grip of constant fear” that at any moment a nuclear “storm may break upon them with horrific violence.” This in turn only ratchets up the hatred and distrust between nations that make their actual deployment distressingly likely.

But this is an insane state of affairs. “Hence,” concluded John, “justice, right reason, and the recognition of human dignity cry out insistently for a cessation to the arms race.” Only then will we become “more and more conscious of being living members of the universal family of humankind.”

Pope John addressed his encyclical to “all people of good will,” regardless of whether or not they were Christian. But he charged Christians in particular with the task of peacemaking. “Everyone who has joined the ranks of Christ,” he noted, “must be a glowing point of light in the world, a nucleus of love, a leaven of the whole mass.”

So, as one Christian to another, Mr. Trump, on this 55th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, I implore you to read Pacem in Terris and re-think, as a self-professed Christian, your rush to nuclear confrontation with North Korea. After all, Jesus said that we Christians will be known by our comportment. I think that likely includes more than drinking a little wine and having a little cracker.


This column is adapted from Walters’ book John XXIII: A Short Biography. His video essays may be found at Holy Spirit Moments, with Fr. Kerry Walters.

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