President John F. Kennedy, as the Cold War and the nuclear era were entering their most frightening phase, assured one little girl that the Russians were nothing to worry about, at least as far as Santa Claus was concerned. A letter from JFK to Michelle Rochon, an eight-year-old girl from Marine City, Michigan, was released Friday by the Kennedy Presidential Library Friday as a special holiday message.
President Kennedy wrote the letter to the little girl more than 53 years ago, on October 28, 1961, just two months after the Berlin Wall went up, and six months after, on Kennedy’s orders, the United States staged a botched invasion of communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.
Just one year later, the Russia-led Soviet Union would station missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads in Cuba, setting off the Cuban Missile Crisis and bringing the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to the brink of nuclear war.
Both countries were engaged in a nuclear arms race, with the Soviet Union exploding test nuclear bombs by the dozens — more than 50 in 1961 alone.
Perhaps understandably, then, young Michelle worried about the safety of Santa Claus.
“I heard my parents always discussing things at the kitchen table. I heard ‘North Pole’ and ‘bombs.’ It was during the Cold War, of course,” said Michelle Rochon — who today is 61-year-old Michelle Phillips — in an interview with The Boston Globe. “I was just worried about Santa Claus.”
So the little girl promptly sat down and penned a short letter to the one man she believed would be able to do something about — the President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
“Please stop the Russians from bombing the North pole, because they will kill Santa Claus,” the eight-year-old Michelle wrote.
Amazingly, she soon received a personal reply from President Kennedy himself, one that had to make her feel at least a bit better.
“Dear Michelle, I was glad to get your letter about trying to stop the Russians from bombing the North Pole and risking the life of Santa Claus,” JFK wrote to the worried eight-year-old. “I share your concern about the atmospheric testing of the Soviet Union, not only for the North Pole but for countries throughout the world; not only for Santa Claus but for people throughout the world. However, you must not worry about Santa Claus. I talked with him yesterday and he is fine. He will be making his rounds again this Christmas.”
The letter created something of a media sensation back in 1961, and Michelle was flooded with hundreds of other letters — many claiming to be from Santa Claus himself, expressing gratitude for her concern.
But just two days after Kennedy sent the letter, the Russians detonated a 50 megaton nuclear weapon in the Arctic Ocean, about 1,000 miles from Santa’s home at North Pole. The bomb at that time was the most powerful nuclear weapon ever exploded.
Watch a Kennedy Library video of the JFK letter to the little girl who worried about the Russians nuking Santa, above.