On the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 1965, in the middle of a historic visit to New York City, Pope Paul VI ascended the rostrum before the United Nations General Assembly and summoned the world to peace. The visit came two and a half years after John XXIII’s Pacem in terris refashioned the Catholic social and ethical lexicon, and two decades, almost to the day, after the 1945 establishment of the UN itself. The pope ended his address by invoking the refrain of mourning and determination that became a global mantra after the Holocaust and served as the UN’s raison d’être: “Never again.” Speaking, he declared, on behalf of both living and dead—the victims and survivors of war, the poor and disinherited, the youth who dream of a better world—the pope issued a solemn call for an end to armed conflict:
Never again the one against the other! Never again! Nevermore!… It suffices to remember that the blood of millions, that numberless and unheard-of sufferings, useless slaughter and frightful ruin, are the sanction of the pact which unites you, with an oath that must change the future history of the world: No more war, never again war! Peace, it is peace which must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind!
The speech’s tone was humble and determined, permeated by faith in the possibility of international goodwill and human progress. It bore the same sense of open-palmed, non-defensive solidarity with the world that, two months later, would suffuse Gaudium et spes, Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. Before the UN, Paul previewed a phrase he would later include in Populorum progressio, calling the Church an “expert on humanity” ready to offer its humane, integral vision of peace and dignity to a world laboring to make itself new.
Soon after the 1965 visit, Time-Life Books produced a special edition commemorating the whirlwind, daylong papal trip to New York. Among other things, the volume included an English-language transcript of the UN address, which appeared alongside Life magazine photos documenting armed conflicts unfolding around the world. Opposite the final page of text, a full-page, black-and-white image shows U.S. Marines trudging past a North Vietnamese man lying on his back, dead in the sand. His half-closed eyes gaze outward, his fingertips graze his abdomen; he wears shorts and a button-down shirt; he is barefoot.
The commemorative publication heralded Paul VI’s visit to the UN as a “call to conscience.” The juxtaposition of his elegant plea for world peace with images of intractable war was meant to evoke the urgency of this call. Seen through the eyes of history, however, it also suggests a tragic irony. At the top of the page, an italicized pull-quote declares, “The hour has come for a halt.” The Vietnam War would rage for another decade. In the end, it gave way not to peace but to desolation and generations of haunted dreams.
The summer after the pope came to the UN, British-American poet Denise Levertov completed “Life at War,” which she composed in response to the Vietnam War. The poem laments war’s numbing effect, the banality with which we—she writes in the first-person plural—have trained ourselves to regard images of death and dismemberment and innocent suffering, our resistance to the horror-response they ought to evoke in us, our willingness to mollify our consciences by entertaining the supposed necessity of the whole thing. “The disasters numb within us / caught in the chest, rolling / in the brain like pebbles,” the poem begins. One can only imagine what Levertov, who died in 1997, would think of the modern newsfeed—or, more accurately, of the doomscroll reflex with which we imbibe images of war today.
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