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from issue no. 02 - 2004

The History of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Holy See

Introduction by Giulio Andreotti

The new edition of the brilliant study written for 30Days by Ambassador Jim Nicholson on the history of US-Holy See relations is now enriched by two important prefaces, one by the Secretary of State Colin Powell and the other by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran. They are evidence not only of the worth of the monograph, but of its utility and relevance.
In July 1963, when President John Kennedy came to Rome on an official visit, I had the opportunity at a restricted breakfast at Palace Taverna of asking him how come the setting up of diplomatic relations between America and Vatican hadn’t yet gone through. He answered me frankly that he would be able to look at the problem were he re-elected. He had to be very careful not to create a “Catholic question”. Unfortunately he did not get a new term of office. Four months after the talks in Rome he was assassinated in Dallas. Many years were to pass before Congress and government got round to elevating the personal representative to ambassador proper. Bill Wilson, a personal friend of President Reagan, did an efficient job in filling a void that had become all the more noticeable as the diplomatic network of and with the Holy See had thickened. Alongside the official envoy, the United States continued to have, with his frequent visits to the Vatican, an unofficial relation through General Vernon Walters who through his variety of briefs always constituted a point of reference and a genuine source of reciprocal information.
During the Second World War the diplomats of countries that had become foes of Italy had to shut themselves up inside the Vatican. That the American one was personal representative of the president without formal accreditation escaped most people, while it seemed pretty anomalous to the experts. But – I remember hearing an analogical remark on the subject – the US was not part of the League of the Nations, in Geneva, conceived by President Wilson, because the Senate had decided against. On the other hand it was well known that, apart from the para-diplomatic representation, a considerable role in keeping in touch was played by the cardinal archbishop of New York Francis Spellman, helped in Italy by Count Enrico Pietro Galeazzi, with the support also of the structure of the Knights of Saint Columbus. Spellman, who had worked in the Vatican Secretariat of State and knew Rome well, was later very useful to us Italians in restoring a connatural friendship with the Americans that Mussolini had damaged and the declaration of war had broken.
During the conflict there was a delicate moment between Washington and the Holy See. The personal representative had passed on the request for a declaration substantially of sympathy if not of support for the Allies in their fight against Hitler, the bitter foe of Christianity. But he was told that the Church, steadfast proponent of peace, never took sides in the course of a war (Benedict XV had been lapidary in defining the First World War as «useless slaughter»). Pius XII added to this call of tradition the forecast that if the Allies won in Europe the Anglo-American allies would not dominate but Stalin. That observation, captiously interpreted as a judgment on the Nazis as the “lesser evil”, was to lead to an unjust campaign that still goes on against Pius XII, described by one American essayist as «Hitler’s Pope».
The careful and shrewd work done by Ambassador Nicholson has been particularly useful during the Iraqi crisis in ensuring that the stance of the Pope, ideologically against wars, has not created a marked differentiation from the tough political initiative of the president in the right.
Ambassador Nicholson has shown himself to be the right man in the right place.

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