271. Telegram From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State1

1654. For President JohnsonLBJ Ranch, SecState Rusk, Under Secy Ball. From Ambassador Goldberg.

I arrived in Rome at 1600 and shortly thereafter at 1800 had an hour-long private audience with Pope Paul VI. His interpreter Mons. Cronin, an American priest, was only other person present. I handed His Holiness letter from the President2 which he read with great care. He immediately expressed his appreciation for what he termed a very sincere and prompt response to his appeal for a Christmas truce and to mankind’s anxiety for concrete steps working toward permanent peace in Vietnam. He said he would like me to assure the President that he does not want to disturb in any way the American situation in Vietnam but rather to be of help in the direction of a fair and honorable settlement. His Holiness said that all his efforts would be directed to this end, which he was confident the President shared. He enquired about the President’s health and I assured him the President was in fine fettle.
His Holiness said he recalled with great satisfaction his private conversation with the President during his visit to the UN in October and said there too he was impressed with the President’s sincerity and devotion to peace, now reaffirmed by this communication. I then enquired whether he had received any specific replies to his Christmas appeal. In answering he handed me a copy of Osservatore Romano of Dec 27 which contains full text of his message and in his own hand underlined text of appeal on Vietnam. I understand this text has already been forwarded to Washington. The Pope then went on to say that he had received replies from Ho Chi Minh and from the Govt of South Vietnam. He termed the Ho Chi Minh reply harsh and distressing. The text (in French) of this reply is being sent by separate telegram.3 He apparently had received the reply from South Vietnam only this morning and therefore had no extra copies. He showed me the text which he termed, and I agreed, to be quite affirmative. He directed Mons. Cronin to make this reply available to us shortly and it will be forwarded as soon as received.4 His Holiness then said he intended, notwithstanding the harsh nature of Ho Chi Minh’s [Page 745] reply, to pursue the matter further. To this end he was planning to send to Vietnam Mons. Rodhain, a French priest who is head of Caritas, a charitable organization of the Church. He said Mons. Rodhain’s purpose would be charitable in nature but that he would also be vested with instructions from the Pope to explore avenues of a peaceful settlement. The Holy Father emphasized that Mons. Rodhain is a man of great discretion and enjoyed his complete confidence. Plan would be for Mons. Rodhain to go Hanoi as well as Saigon and the Pope indicated that enquiries had been made to Hanoi as to whether Rodhain would be received there. The proposal is to send him promptly.
The Pope then enquired as to our govt’s views on the situation in Vietnam. I reviewed the various steps which President Johnson and his administration have taken to transfer this conflict from the battlefield to the bargaining table and stressed that the latest move—the bombing pause—was further evidence of the US Govt’s desire to seek peace in this troubled area. The Pope then specifically enquired whether the Geneva Agreement of 1954 was considered by the US Govt a cornerstone of a possible peace settlement. I replied that the President on several occasions, the Secretary, the Under Secretary, and I at the UN had repeatedly confirmed that we would be willing to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Accords, at Geneva or at any other appropriate forum. I explained that we did not agree with Hanoi’s interpretation of the Geneva Accords; particularly their point—one of the four—that the Government of South Vietnam had to be reconstituted along the lines of the program of the National Liberation Front. I pointed out that this nowhere appeared in the Geneva agreement and that postwar experience had shown that governments reconstituted by Communist movements had frustrated rather than forwarded genuine self-determination by the people involved. I recalled that Poland, among other countries, was a case in point. His Holiness nodded in agreement at this stage.
I conveyed the content of the aide-memoire cabled to Rangoon (Dept’s 202 to Rangoon)5 to be communicated by Ambassador Byroade to the North Vietnamese Ambassador there. His Holiness was much impressed by the forward step taken in this aide-memoire and again repeated that this was great evidence of President Johnson’s sincere desire for peace and willingness to take long steps forward toward achieving it. His Holiness then turned to another aspect of the problem. He said he wanted the President to know that his own efforts stood apart from any initiatives by La Pira. He esteemed La Pira as a good person but the Pope was pursuing his efforts in his own way and through his own channels. In this connection the Pope mentioned Archbishop Palmas, Apostolic Delegate to Vietnam and Cambodia. The Archbishop, while [Page 746] concerned primarily with refugees and religious matters, was also being employed by the Pope to help in the political situation. I interjected to express our grave concern at the sanctuary being afforded the North Vietnamese in Cambodia and indicated that this situation was most troublesome, particularly in light of Prince Sihanouk’s failure to take effective action to prevent his territory from being used for purposes of aggression by Hanoi. I also reminded the Holy Father that Sihanouk had avoided resumption of the Geneva conference on Cambodia which, hopefully, might have led to discussions on Vietnam.
At this point I conveyed the greetings of Secretary General U Thant which U Thant had asked me to express when I met with him last night. The Pope expressed great regard for U Thant as a man of peace and said that before issuing his Christmas appeal he had in general terms obtained U Thant’s concurrence that such an appeal would be desirable. The Pope showed great interest in the fact that the President had conveyed messages concerning the bombing pause to Moscow, Budapest and Warsaw, as well as to a number of our allies. He enquired whether we had communicated with Peiping. I replied that I did not know, but doubted that we had, in the belief that Peiping would not accept a direct approach. I pointed out, however, that undoubtedly Peiping would have knowledge of this development through a Communist source. The Pope indicated indirectly that he shared the belief that the Soviets would be more inclined to urge a favorable response than the Red Chinese.
Finally His Holiness indicated that after consultation with his Secretary of State and other advisors he would prepare a written reply to the President’s letter, hopefully in time for delivery before my planned departure tomorrow evening. It will be cabled when received.6
Although His Holiness was warm, affable and gracious to me, recalling our exchanges when I was part of the President’s party in New York on the occasion of his UN visit, and also when he received me in private audience in the summer of 1964, his general demeanor was one of grave concern about the Vietnam situation.
The Pope asked whether the President’s letter could be made public. I said that this was in his discretion but that I would not do so. With his approval I prepared following press statement to be made tonight by Embassy spokesman.
“The Honorable Arthur J. Goldberg, US Ambassador to the United Nations, arrived in Rome late this afternoon and immediately had an audience with His Holiness Pope Paul VI lasting about an hour.
“The President sent Ambassador Goldberg on a special mission to convey to His Holiness Pope Paul VI the President’s gratitude for the Holy Father’s message and inspiration which were so helpful in helping to bring about a Christmas truce in Vietnam. The President also asked Ambassador Goldberg to thank His Holiness for the continuous efforts he is making in furtherance of peace in Southeast Asia. The President’s gratitude, on behalf of the American people, is, in his view, shared by all mankind.”
The Pope stated that upon inquiries from the press he would make a statement of similar import. It was my latest impression that he would not publicize the text of the President’s letter but would refer to it in favorable terms.
Following the audience I called upon Secretary of State Cicognani and spent approximately one half hour reviewing in briefer terms my conversation with His Holiness. The Sec of State indicated sympathy with the American point of view on Vietnam, but added that perhaps the best way towards a peaceful solution was the Pope’s more evenhanded approach.
Prime Minister Moro is out of Rome but is returning tomorrow and has asked to see me about 7:00 p.m. tomorrow evening. He requested that the President’s letter7 be sent to him through Pompei, his diplomatic advisor. This has been done. Pompei indicated he would make a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister available to President Saragat.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Secret; Flash; Nodis; Pinta. Also sent to USUN for Yost. Received at 6:49 p.m. and passed to the White House.
  2. Transmitted to Rome in telegram 1363, December 29. (Ibid.)
  3. Not found.
  4. The text of this December 27 message is in telegram 1657 from Rome, December 30. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S)
  5. Document 257.
  6. The text was transmitted in telegram 1661 from Rome, December 30. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S/PINTA)
  7. The text was transmitted in telegram 1632 to Rome, December 29. (Ibid., POL 27 VIET S)