306. Memorandum From Nathaniel Davis of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Special Assistant (Rostow)1


  • Possible Diplomatic Relations with the Vatican

Thomas Patrick Melady’s memoranda of October 3 and 5 are attached.2 In these memos, Melady describes the activities of the Vatican’s permanent observer to the UN and recommends the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. You asked for a brief rundown of pros and cons on the latter point.



Increasingly the Vatican is an active force, pressing for peace negotiations in Vietnam. Diplomatic relations with the Vatican would better coordinate with such initiatives as the Holy See might wish to make.

Ambassador Goldberg has visited the Vatican twice.3 Each visit has been accompanied by extensive publicity. Most confidentially, a member of the Curia expressed concern after the second visit that this highly publicized consultation could create problems for the Vatican’s public stance of impartiality. A regular mission would facilitate quiet diplomacy.

Relations with the Vatican would strengthen America’s world-wide peace image. It would be a demonstration of America’s concern for the moral opinion of mankind.
Relations would remove the anomaly of the United States, along with the Soviet Union and Red China, being among the very few powers which fail to maintain relations.
With the increasing ecumenical spirit in American Protestantism, relations with the Vatican would have considerable support among the Protestant churches associated with the National Council (although not with the Southern Baptists and fundamentalists).
Recognition would be welcomed by American Catholics as an important step, taken by a Protestant President, and the removal of a long-standing and senseless indignity.
Relations with the Vatican would facilitate cooperation in matters like the Cardinal Mindszenty case. There is no doubt that the Vatican is involved in political situations throughout the world where the United States interests are deeply affected.
The Vatican would be a source of information about conditions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. We would have access to one of the important diplomatic capitals of the world. (However, the usefulness of the Vatican as a systematic source of intelligence should not be overestimated. We would not be plugging into a world-wide intelligence net.)
The President’s decision would be historic, a landmark among the overall accomplishments of this Administration. After November, the President may be in as good a position to take this act as any American President for a long time to come.


The prospect of political opposition in the South and border states remains. This opposition might be concentrated among elements where white backlash is already at work. The ratio of noise to numbers would be inordinately high.
We already have channels of discreet communication with the Vatican—through the apostolic delegate here and through Ambassador Reinhardt in Rome. We have made good progress normalizing these relationships and the religious issue has been quiescent. There is something to be said for not stirring it up.
Although the Vatican reaction to the establishment of relations would no doubt be highly favorable, such a move at this time might also reduce the Vatican’s posture of impartiality in the Cold War.
A Cardinal expressed the private view not long ago that US-Vatican relations might be “against the trend of history”, in the sense that—since Pope John’s accession—the Holy See has been moving away from temporal and political involvement to a more spiritual role.
While the American hierarchy would be publicly delighted, a few of them might be less enthusiastic in private. The apostolic delegate is presently accredited to the American hierarchy and diplomatic relations might downgrade the hierarchy’s central position in American-Vatican relationships.
The assumption by a U.S. mission of responsibility for arranging approximately 65,000 Papal audiences a year might be a practical—and political—inconvenience. Now the North American College takes most of the heat.

It might amuse you to know that the U.S. Government never severed relations with the Papal States. Congress merely cut off the money [Page 651] for the mission a century ago. The U.S. is still listed in the Vatican Year Book (with a blank after it).

On foreign policy grounds, I think the arguments in favor of relations are the stronger.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Vatican, Vol. 1. Secret; Limdis.
  2. Attached but not printed. Melady was chairman of the Department of Afro-Asian Studies at Seton Hall University.
  3. December 29, 1965, and July 9, 1966.