308. Telegram From the Consulate General in Florence, Italy to the Department of State1

199. Vipto 50. For the President and Secretary of State. From the Vice President.

I met alone with Pope Paul VI for more than one hour on April 1.

I expressed the good wishes of President Johnson. The Pope responded warmly and expressed personal admiration for the President. He went on to speak of the President as a man of peace and exhibited considerable concern over the President’s heavy burdens due to the war in Vietnam. Later on in the conversation, as we were discussing the new Papal encyclical,2 he spoke of the President’s social program. He was well aware of the domestic legislation of the Great Society. He said he wanted to be remembered to the President’s family, that he often prayed for him, and wanted to help him.

Vietnam: The Pope said that in his meeting with Podgorny,3 he had told the Soviet President that he (the Pope) knew President Johnson to be serious and sincere in his desire to obtain an honorable peace in Vietnam. The Pope went on to say that with a number of foreign visitors he had expressed his faith in President Johnson and in our efforts to bring the war in Vietnam to a peaceful solution. He indicated [Page 653] that Podgorny gave no negative response but seemed to accept the sincerity and integrity of the Pope’s statement.

Pope Paul is still concerned over the bombing of the north. He said he fully recognized that the roadblocks to peace were Hanoi and, he thought, China. He knew that we wanted peace and never hesitates to say so. Nevertheless, he did feel that the bombing of the north was eroding America’s moral position. (At this point I asked the Pope if it was all right if I made a note because I wanted to put down in accurate substance what he had to say.) He said the United States has a great mission in the world—not merely the mission of defense of small nations or the mission of diplomacy to protect nations, but of equal importance a moral mission, a mission of demonstrating what a free society can do, a mission of showing how people of different races and creeds can live together in peace and justice. He spoke at some length about the moral position of the United States and the all importance of that moral position being maintained without blemish. And it was at this point that he returned to his concern over the bombing in North Vietnam. Public opinion, he said, was against us on the bombing, and this was particularly true in Europe.

I explained to the Pope our bombing pauses. I explained to him that we were prepared to stop the bombing again if we could get any indication of a sincere desire on the part of Hanoi to negotiate. I pointed out that the bombing gave us something to bargain with in peace negotiations. I said that, when we had stopped the bombing, it had permitted North Vietnam to rearm and strengthen her forces at great loss to our men. I pointed out that even when President Johnson had said in his letter to Ho that we would stop the bombing,4 the Communists had rejected the offer. His Holiness admitted that North Vietnam appeared unwilling to talk peace, but he still felt that the bombing cost us more in world opinion and moral leadership than it was worth militarily. He qualified his statement by saying that he was not a military man and of course was unable to properly judge military matters.

Then the Pope discussed with me what other leaders have talked about: namely, the unbelievably bad press and news coverage that America receives in Europe and elsewhere. He said that it saddened him and that he had a heavy heart for America because the only news was about American killing and bombing.

He went on to say he knew that Americans were doing many good things and it was at this point that I told him that I had brought along [Page 654] a book entitled “The Other War” and a second pamphlet, “The Search for Peace.” I presented a copy of each to the Pope. He was very grateful. He made a point that is worth special attention. He said that very few people in Europe knew anything about what Hanoi and the Viet Cong were doing, that seldom were the cruel attacks of the Viet Cong mentioned in the press or on TV except concerning U.S.-VC direct engagement. America appears to be the aggressor. He said he knew that was not true but that it appears to the person looking at television, listening to the radio and reading the newspapers that big, strong America is being brutal and cruel. He went on to point out that all the news about America in Vietnam came from American sources. He asked this question: Why doesn’t the government in Saigon be the spokesman for South Vietnam? Why does America have to be the spokesman? Why doesn’t Premier Ky speak up about wanting American help, praising American help, and telling what American help means to South Vietnam? Why don’t some of the allies speak up, such as the Philippines or the Australians? In other words, why does all the news have to be the United States doing the talking? This kind of situation leaves the big United States looking like a bully against little North Vietnam. And no one seems to know anything that the Government of South Vietnam is doing. The Pope said that the Government of South Vietnam has very poor public relations.

I went on to tell him that it was inevitable that the U.S. press and news services would primarily center their attention on U.S. activities. The Pope said that it would be better for even the military announcements to be made by the South Vietnamese spokesmen, and surely all of the social improvement announcements should come from South Vietnam—at least to the European audience. He was very concerned over this matter and told me at least three times, that I recall, how important it was for us to play down our role and for South Vietnamese spokesmen to be the voice of free Vietnam.

I told the Pope of President Johnson’s visit to Guam—the emphasis upon social action programs. I emphasized the importance of Ambassador Bunker, Ambassador Locke, and Bob Komer going to Vietnam.5 I reviewed with the Pope Ambassador Bunker’s role as a diplomat. He knew Ellsworth Bunker, thought well of him but was pleased to have my assessment.

Pope Paul said several times: Don’t give up. Don’t tire of your tasks. He made it clear that he was not opposed to our being in South Vietnam. He thought we were doing what was right, just as we needed [Page 655] to be in Europe to help with the defense of Europe. But he was afraid that we might tire in terms of our moral commitment; in other words, we might bow to the pressure of using naked strength rather than being tolerant, patient, and ever searching for peace.

The Pope asked if there was anything he could do to be helpful. He repeatedly volunteered his services to us. He said that if I had any message to give to him at any time, he would be pleased to receive it as indeed he would be honored to receive any message from the President.

Finally, I suggested to the Pope that since it was Hanoi who was blocking peace, it would be very helpful to us if on several appropriate occasions he could indicate in some of his messages or statements that Hanoi was causing the continuation of this painful struggle. He said he would do so, but he would have to do it in a moral and spiritual manner and not become too political, whatever this meant.

Then he went on to say he thought civilian leaders in other countries ought to speak up on this issue of the reluctance of Hanoi to seek peace. I told him of my conversations with Nenni and Saragat6 where I had asked these two left-of-center political leaders to get other Social Democrats and Socialists to demand that Hanoi come to the peace table. I reminded the Pope that the United States was always being criticized both at home and abroad, and that I sincerely felt that one of the reasons Hanoi did not come to the peace table was because no real pressure had been brought to bear on her. All the criticism was being heaped on the U.S. and, as long as this continued, Hanoi felt no moral responsibility and felt no pressure of adverse public opinion. He said he would speak to leaders who came to him about this.

Papal Encyclical: His Holiness said he knew that parts of his encyclical were controversial, but that it represented the long study and commitment of the Church. He well recalled President Johnson’s statements relating to the war on hunger and foreign aid. The Pope gave me a copy of his encyclical as written in Latin and personally autographed. He went through it section by section, seeking my comment.

I am sure we have a friend here but, more importantly, I am positive that he is a great man—not only brilliant but compassionate, and one who has a broad knowledge of the forces at work in the world today.

I mentioned to the Pope, as I did later on to Cardinal Cicognani, of President Johnson’s commitment to Latin America, the coming trip to Punta del Este,7 and the importance that we attach to the summit [Page 656] conference. I brought Latin America into the discussion during the time that we were reviewing the encyclical. The Pope was very pleased with the President’s leadership on the Latin American matter.

I was greatly impressed with the sincerity of this man and his obvious friendship for Americans and the United States. He spoke well of President Johnson’s efforts to secure better relationships with Eastern Europe. He encouraged continued efforts by ourselves and the Western European countries to this end.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Conference Files: Lot 67 D 586, CF 143. Secret; Priority; Nodis.
  2. Popularum Progressorum, issued March 28.
  3. January 29.
  4. Reference is to a letter delivered February 8 offering to end the bombing of the North and stop further increase in U.S. troop levels in South Vietnam in exchange for an end to North Vietnamese infiltration into the South. See Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. V, Document 32.
  5. Reference is to Ellsworth Bunker, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Deputy Ambassador Eugene Locke, and Robert Komer, Deputy to General Westmoreland with the personal rank of Ambassador.
  6. See Document 128.
  7. April 12-14.