That Halloween season Strategic Air Command bombers with bright orange markings started flying low over our schoolyard to land about four miles away at Philadelphia’s airport. It’s a memory confirmed by histories that report it was Oct. 26, 1962, when B-47s were deployed to civilian airports in a DEFCON 2 alert during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
As an 11-year-old following the news, I assumed the problem of Communist Russia’s missiles in Cuba would be resolved by the United States invoking the Monroe Doctrine to keep the Soviet Union’s weapons both out of Cuba and the entire Western Hemisphere.
However, my childish view of the showdown between President Kennedy and the Soviet Union’s Premier Khrushchev changed when our sixth-grade teacher, Sister Thomasita, spent most of one afternoon talking to our class about life and saying ominously, “Not everyone gets to live to be 21.”
I got the message. Nuclear war was looming and we might all be incinerated in our sleep or be awake to see the bright flash of The Bomb in the daylight.
We prayed for peace at school and in church. Sister Thomasita is the only adult I remember talking about the possible deadly result of the missile crisis. I don’t remember my parents acting upset. I can only guess their thoughts and prayers as they put their six children to bed that week.
Now we know about the good and bad recommendations that Kennedy and Khrushchev received from their military and diplomatic advisers during the crisis. And we know both world leaders resolved the showdown without either a limited war or nuclear conflict. God’s providence, prayers and Kennedy’s and Khrushchev’s humane restraint kept annihilation at bay.
A public plea from a future saint was also helpful. Turns out, the day bombers were sent to U.S. airports, a statement from Pope John XXIII, pleading for peace, appeared in worldwide press reports, including in the Soviet Union’s newspaper Pravda.
“I beg heads of state not to remain insensitive to the cry of humanity: peace, peace,” Pope John wrote. “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.”
There are accounts of the Cuban Missile Crisis that say Pope John’s message provided some diplomatic cover for its resolution. Khrushchev withdrew the missiles from Cuba. Some say he called the pope’s plea “the only gleam of hope” amid the showdown.
It’s the current diplomatic crisis between the United States and North Korea that has me thinking so much about nuclear war again. I hope and pray the undiplomatic statements and personal insults issued from both sides over North Korea’s missile launches and nuclear bomb development are only public bluster, cover for secret negotiations for a peaceful resolution.
Let’s pray to God, through the intercession of St. John XXIII and Our Lady Queen of Peace, for a diplomatic outcome to the North Korean crisis. I’m praying that many voices across the globe will call for peace and convince the feuding powers to spare the world a threatened war that could suddenly go nuclear.
Ryan is editor/general manager of The Dialog.