The phrase How many divisions has the Pope? is used to pose the dilemma between material power and moral strength, and seemingly to dismiss the latter—cf. also notes on the phrase ‘Is the Pope (a) Catholic?’.
This phrase originates in a question allegedly posed by Joseph Stalin (Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili – 1879-1953), General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) from 1922 to 1953.
The earliest mention that I have found of this question is from Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine (New York City, N.Y.) of Monday 27th December 1943:
Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa set the week’s best Teheran [note 1] story in motion. His version: “Winston Churchill [note 2] suggested to Stalin the possibility of the Pope’s being associated with some of the decisions taken. ‘The Pope [note 3],’ said Stalin thoughtfully. ‘The Pope. How many divisions has he?’”
As early as Thursday 13th January 1944, the Hanford Daily Sentinel (Hanford, California) expressed doubts as to the authenticity of the story:
A recent magazine item reports that Winston Churchill suggested to Stalin the possibility of the Pope being associated with some of the decisions taken at the recent Teheran conference. “The Pope?” said Stalin thoughtfully. “The Pope? How many divisions has he?”
That item no doubt is Legend rather than Fact.
In her column On the Record, published in several U.S. newspapers—for example in The Berkshire County Eagle (Pittsfield, Massachusetts)—on Wednesday 10th May 1944, the U.S. journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) also expressed doubts as to the veracity of the anecdote, and used a version in which both the formulation and Stalin’s interlocutor were different from those reported by Time:
The government of the United States is also anxious to have religious questions settled. The President [note 4] has expressed confidence that freedom of worship would be restored in Russia. There is a story, no doubt apocryphal, that at Teheran the President suggested that the Pope might be invited to the peace conference, whereupon Stalin is supposed to have replied, “How many divisions will he have contributed to victory?”
In the course of 1945, the question allegedly posed by Stalin underwent multiple modifications. Here are three examples:
1: From the Alton Evening Telegraph (Alton, Illinois) of Thursday 1st February 1945:
There is a story—undoubtedly apocryphal—that Roosevelt suggested that the Pope have a voice in shaping the peace. “The Pope, the Pope?” Stalin is supposed to have replied. “How many divisions does he have in battle?”
2: From a letter by one Mary R. O’Connor, from Louisville, Kentucky, published in The Tablet: A Catholic Weekly (Brooklyn, N.Y.) of Saturday 24th February 1945:
We may well ask the question Stalin put to the inquirer whether the Pope would be allowed a place at the peace table: “How many divisions has he fighting?”
3: From The Vancouver Sun (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) of Friday 23th March 1945:
Stalin, in discussion of the nations to be at the Peace Conference, is reported to have said: “The Pope, how many divisions did he have in the field?”
What changed, too, in the course of 1945, was what Stalin was referring to when he allegedly used the phrase.
According to The Kane Republican (Kane and Mount Jewett, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 6th October 1945, Stalin was reacting to some disapproving comment made by the Pope:
Premier Marshal Stalin made a cryptic remark one time when he was told that the Pope did not entirely favor one of the plans advanced by the Soviet armies or one of the stories about the battling Russians’ antics. Stalin said, “How many divisions has he?”
According to The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont) of Wednesday 10th October 1945, in a speech delivered the previous day to the members of the Men’s club, St. Paul’s Methodist church, St. Albans, one Captain Edward G. Asherman declared that Stalin was referring to “the Pope’s desire for peace”:
Capt. Asherman asserted that “the great desire is continuing of peace but that living in a world that is not idealistically constituted, it must be understood that a military potential is the big bargaining force. Stalin emphasized this philosophy, when, as reference was made to the Pope’s desire for peace, he said ‘How many divisions does he have?’”
In an article first published in several U.S. newspapers on Thursday 25th October 1945—for example in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.)—Constantine Brown, Foreign News Analyst, wrote that Stalin reputedly posed the question when talking with the U.S. diplomat Patrick Jay Hurley (1883-1963):
A report is being circulated in Washington that Ambassador Hurley, who is said to be better liked than any other American official by Premier Stalin, cautioned the Russian leader about the dangers of straining the relations with the Vatican, because the power of the Pope is still very great. Stalin is said to have leaned toward Mr. Hurley and asked: “How many divisions has he got?”
Whether the story is authentic or not is immaterial. It serves to illustrate the present tendencies nearly everywhere in the world that the sword is mightier than the thought.
According to Donald Bell in The Vatican’s Foreign Policy, published in The Gazette and Daily (York, Pennsylvania) of Saturday 29th December 1945, it was during the Yalta Conference [note 5] that Stalin posed the question—question which, additionally, was not about the number of divisions that the Pope could contribute to the war, but about the number of divisions that he could contribute to the occupation of the defeated nations after the war:
It was at Yalta, when the future peace conference was first discussed, that the question was raised whether the Pope should have a voice in the forthcoming negotiations. Later, diplomatic circles reported that Stalin closed the debate by asking: “How many divisions has the Vatican ready to participate in the occupation of the defeated nations?”
In his column Capitol Stuff, published in the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Tuesday 19th February 1946, John O’Donnell also dated Stalin’s question to the Yalta Conference—he evoked:
the famous anecdote of the Roosevelt-Stalin exchange at Yalta. The American President after listening to Stalin announce his political intentions in eastern Europe, gently suggested:
“Have you considered the attitude of the Pope in this demand?”
“How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin replied.
Eventually, the circumstances in which Stalin supposedly posed the question became indeterminate—as exemplified by the following from the column These Days, by George Sokolsky, published on Wednesday 27th February 1946 in several U.S. newspapers—for example in the Appleton Post-Crescent (Appleton, Wisconsin):
Stalin is once reported to have asked when someone spoke of the pope: “How many divisions does he have?” and I suppose the listeners giggled or roared with laughter.
Two persons who had played prominent roles during the Second World War later gave their own versions of the circumstances in which Stalin supposedly posed the question—as reported by The New York Times (New York City, N.Y.) of Tuesday 20th April 1948:
Two Books Quote Stalin Query On Divisions Pope Commands
Joseph Stalin’s tendency to take military strength as a standard of judgement is set forth in a substantially identical story that appears in two current books of memoirs.
Describing the 1945 Yalta Conference in his volume “Speaking Frankly,” James F. Byrnes [note 6], former Secretary of State, says:
“Marshal Stalin urged that the three powers that carried the burden of the war should have priority in reparations. He said it must be admitted that “France did not have any sacrifice to compare to the three powers I have in mind.” And then to clinch the argument, he said, “France at this time has in the war eight divisions while the Lublin Government has ten divisions.” There is no doubt that his opinion as to the claims of a government was influenced by the number of its divisions. He is credited with having said at Yalta, when reference was made to the views of the Pope, “How many divisions does he have?” The Marshal did not make the statement at Yalta. But it was the yardstick he frequently used.”
Although the statement was not made at Yalta, it definitely was made ten years earlier in Moscow, according to Winston Churchill. In the currently appearing first volume of “The Second World War” there is this passage:
“On May 2,  the French Government put their signature to a Franco-Soviet pact. This was a nebulous document guaranteeing mutual assistance in the face of aggression over a period of five years.
“To obtain tangible results in the French political field, M. Laval [note 7] now went on a three days’ visit to Moscow, where he was welcomed by Stalin. There were lengthy discussions, of which a fragment may be recorded. Stalin and Molotov [note 8] were of course anxious to know above all else what was to be the strength of the French Army on the Western Front: how many divisions? what period of service? After this field had been explored, Laval said: “Can’t you do something to encourage religion and the Catholics in Russia? It would help me so much with the Pope.” “Oho!” said Stalin. “The Pope! How many divisions has he got?” Laval’s answer was not reported to me; but he might certainly have mentioned a number of legions not always visible on parade.”
However, Harry S. Truman gave yet a different version, according to several U.S. newspapers on Tuesday 14th September 1948—for example the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri):
Washington, Sept. 14 (INS)—President Truman verified for the first time last night the remark often attributed circumstantially to Premier Stalin of Russia—“how many divisions does the Pope have?”
The president departed from his text to tell the story at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The President said:
“I remember at Potsdam we got to discussing a matter in Eastern Poland, and it was remarked by the Prime Minister of Great Britain that the Pope would not be happy over that arrangement of that Catholic end of Poland.
“And the Generalissimo, the Prime Minister of Russia, leaned on the table and he pulled his mustache like that (gesturing) and looked over at Mr. Churchill and said:
“‘Mr. Churchill, Mr. Prime Minister, how many divisions did you say the Pope had?’”
In The Times Recorder (Zanesville, Ohio) of Saturday 31st March 1958, Fred Fogarty, who had just written Crown of Glory, a biography of Pope Pius XII, mentioned that “perhaps the most unusual statement of the century” was contained in an interview between Pope Pius XII and Winston Churchill:
The British Prime Minister told Pope Pius of Joseph Stalin’s cynical question at the Yalta conference in which he asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?”
Pius replied grimly, “When you see Our son Joseph again tell him that he will meet Our divisions in heaven.”
Religious and political conclusions were soon drawn from the phrase attributed to Stalin. Here are three examples:
1: From an editorial published in the Middletown Times Herald (Middletown, N.Y.) of Thursday 21st February 1946:
Materialism is still a controlling factor. Stalin asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” There spoke the unbeliever, the atheistic head of a godless regime, who, like Hitler, has faith in nothing but force. But if mankind have the quality necessary to survive, the mercy, charity and understanding which the Pope bespoke alone have the power to make the world what Christ hoped it would be.
2: From an editorial published in the St. Joseph News-Press (St. Joseph, Missouri) of Sunday 5th May 1946:
The pope is a temporal sovereign. His state is tiny and yet his influence on the lives of millions of people all over the world renders ill-spoken the comment of Joseph Stalin when someone suggested the pope sit on the peace treaty. Stalin asked “How many divisions does he have?”
3: From the Daily News (New York City, N.Y.) of Monday 17th June 1946:
The Russian Government has shown time and again that it understands nothing internationally but the language of power. Stalin demonstrated this fact in what was possibly the most cynical remark even Stalin has ever made: “The Pope? How many divisions has the Pope?”—or words to that effect.
Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Tehran Conference—photograph: Time: The Weekly Newsmagazine (New York City, N.Y.) – 13th December 1943:
1 The Tehran Conference was a meeting between Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill from 28th November to 1st December 1943.
4 Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) was the 32nd President of the United States from 4th March 1933 until his death on 12th April 1945; he was succeeded by Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), who had been serving as Vice President.