«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: Unfortunately, when we moved here, I had one box of books, among many, that were all either about me, or that I cared very much about, including one that was written by one of our children's kindergarten teachers, who wrote a book about women at work, and that was a long time ago, fifty years ago.
Weiss: In which I have—she was a photographer. Then she wrote the text. All of those books were in there. My mother's PhD thesis, a lot of things. We gave 3000 books away, because where do you put 3000 books in a New York apartment, to the local library. I didn't know until several years later that that box was gone.
Q: Tell me a story.
Weiss: Well, we just got an invitation, I think yesterday, to go to a conference in Siracusa, Sicily, on human rights and international criminal justice. I looked at the list of participants, and they're all guys! y yo, and me! [laughter] Q: To start, today, I've got a big agenda. I want to just go back and have some final thoughts about Women Strike [Women Strike for Peace], et cetera, et cetera. Aside from the test ban treaty, what do you think were the greatest accomplishments of Women Strike?
Weiss: Oh, our work against the war in Vietnam was huge, because we made demonstrations and anti-Vietnam War activity safe for families. That was very, very valuable. We also took initiatives that had not been taken before, when we were invited to Vietnam by the Women's Union in 1969. We made a proposal that had never been made before in wartime, by anyone.
That was to try to break the pretext that the administration was using to perpetuate the war because of prisoners of war, because of the treatment against prisoners of war, instead of stopping the bombing so that planes wouldn't be shot down, so we wouldn't have more prisoners
But that initiative, and I should say unique initiative, was extraordinary. It had two impacts. One was national—politically—and the other was me—personally. I went around the country speaking, sometimes three or four times a week. Even though I became the butt, and Women Strike for Peace became the butt, of Ross Perot's venom, and the venom of some of the families of not necessarily prisoners of war, but of missing in action, and it was pretty vile, pretty ugly, but we became the friends of so many families who, for the first time, were hearing from their loved ones! I was invited to the wedding of one, and to two weddings, actually, of former prisoners. So, it was unique, it was rewarding, and it was, I guess, rather controversial.
Q: I was going to ask, did you feel that Women Strike for Peace gave you a voice? But, as I listen to you, my question is slightly different. Did it give you a presence?
Weiss: A presence?
Q: You were now— Weiss: Absolutely.
Q: A reconceptualization of "self." A different way of being in the world.
Weiss: Well, I'll tell you something interesting. It never occurred to any of us that we were doing
We would say, "Come to a meeting on Monday," or, "Come to Central Park on June 12th." I don't think you find 1982 on any of the flyers!
Q: No! It's quite maddening to go through the stuff!
Weiss: It's horrific! It's maddening for me to try to file my papers today. But that says something about us. It says that we were doing this because we had to do it, because it was the right thing to do. We had no concept of making history. So, that's one point. The other point is that, I think in Women Strike, and you'd have to ask other WSPers [Women Strike for Peace] to confirm this, because it's not for me to grade myself—but I think I was making more publicity for Women Strike than most of the other members because I was out there speaking so often, and getting so much press. The amount of newspaper clippings is extraordinary. That's when we had newspapers.
Q: What do you think your greatest failure was?
Weiss: That's a good question. I really have to think about that.
Q: We can come back to it.
Weiss: But it's an interesting question.
Q: What was your largest frustration?
Weiss: Oh, the government! There was a guy in the State Department named Frank Sieverts, S-I-E-V-E-R-T-S. He died. He would call. I would say, "Get your guys out of my telephone! Get them away from our mail!" "Oh," he said, "Those aren't ours. Those are the CIA's." Turf!
Government turf! But we were doing what the government couldn't do, and that was enormously embarrassing for them. That's when I discovered that embarrassment is a good form of diplomacy. It's kind of interesting.
Q: What was your biggest laugh?
Weiss: I'm not sure there was a lot of laughter. Can I put that on the "To Think About" list?
Q: Sure. Yes.
Weiss: Because I hadn't thought about that, ever.
Q: I can't imagine that in all those meetings they didn't break out in some kind of laughter—
Q: —over some kind of absurd situation.
Q: Some kind of twist or turn.
Weiss: You're absolutely right. And, in fact, even under these conditions of sadness and tragedy and difficulty and investigation and so forth, if you don't have fun doing what you're doing, you shouldn't be doing it. It's a little twist on Emma [Goldman], if there's no dancing. But I wasn't making a revolution, I was just working hard and long.
Q: Is it fair to say that in the broader movement, that Women Strike for Peace was a moderating force, if not moderate, was a moderating force?
Q: Can you play that out a little for me? Any examples that you might have?
Weiss: Well, I think the most important one is when we wouldn't allow the discussion about a demonstration to go forward until there was a commitment to non-violence, and no civil disobedience. That happened on several occasions. So, that was a very clear demonstration of the
as a moderate organization, because we were talking to the so-called enemy; the women who represented the North Vietnamese government. You know, I had [Nguyen Thi] Madame Binh in my house for dinner. She was the representative from the south at the talks, Nguyen Thi Binh.
So, a lot of other organizations didn't do that.
Q: When you look back on it, what do you think your heritage is, or will be?
Weiss: I think we have to, as civil society, take risks. I think we have to do everything we can possibly do to prevent war, because war, as an institution, is a failure. We know so much now in diplomacy, and in the field of conflict prevention, violent conflict prevention. Conflict is good, violent conflict is bad. And about peace education. If we don't become exhausted from exhausting everything we know, we are a failure. War is wasteful, it's expensive in life, in lives lost, in environment destroyed and in money misused. There are other ways to solve conflicts.
Q: Beyond the particular moment of Women Strike for Peace, what about the long-term? In the broad spectrum of the peace movement? You can go back to the 1890s all the way through.
Weiss: Well, the 1890s are a good time. I mean, there's Bertha von Suttner, who was a role model in many ways. She was an extraordinary woman, the first woman to get the Nobel Peace Prize. But she was responsible for getting Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, to turn the
Q: When I was at Swathmore, there was a researcher there from Scotland, a woman who teaches peace studies in Scotland. She was there looking—she was commissioned to write a 6000-word essay on Bertha— Weiss: Von Suttner?
Q: —von Suttner. She was there looking at the papers down there. She thought if she found enough, she would write a biography.
Weiss: Well, there are a number of good biographies, and I have to write a paper that's due on June 15th, for a woman who is a professor at a Michigan University that I'm not familiar with, and who's holding a class at The Hague on Bertha von Suttner, because it's an anniversary of something, I can't remember what, in— Q: Oh, maybe that's why this woman is writing that essay.
Weiss: Yes. Exactly. I went around speaking in Austria in 2005, because that was the centennial of her Nobel. I went to Austria, I went to Eggenburg, which is where she lived, her home. I went to Vienna to speak in Parliament there, which was quite a nice experience. Now, there's a museum that's just opened in Vienna, the Bertha von Suttner Museum. In Prague, I helped to hang a plaque to Bertha in—I don't remember what the name of the building was, but it's in an open building that's open to the public, in the main square. Bertha is remarkable. She came from
years her junior, I think it was seven, who was the son of a noble family; not in Nobel Peace Prize, but ‘noble.’ Q: Noble. Yes.
Weiss: She spoke five or six or more languages, she was a writer, she wrote Die Waffen Nieder!, which is called, "Lay Down Your Arms," which is probably the only book on disarmament that became a best-seller.
Q: Did she make an effort to mobilize women? Or women's groups?
Weiss: Totally! She had a women's congress in The Hague in 19—I can't remember if it's '02, something like that.
Q: Now, is this something you knew before or after the Women Strike for Peace experience?
Weiss: Oh, after.
Weiss: Long after. It was when I became vice president of the International Peace Bureau [IPB],
We had a lot of, actually, I think almost thirteen officers of the IPB were Nobel laureates. I was a Nobel nominee.
Q: You know, Amy Swerdlow, in her book, makes a point about the lack of knowledge of history, of the Women Strike for Peace.
Weiss: She was absolutely right. That's probably the reason she studied history post-Women Strike, and got her doctorate in history. Women's history.
Q: I was at a conference in Madison, Wisconsin.
Weiss: Oh, good town!
Q: It was about the student movement, and everyone was bemoaning the fact that we knew no history, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. My argument is somewhat different. It's important to know a certain amount of history, but not too much, because you think you could do—like Columbus, everyone knew the world was round, they just didn't know how round it was. If he had known how round it was, he never would have started out. If in the 1960s and '70s, one really knew how powerful the government reaction was going to be, would you have gone forward? So, sometimes it's important not to know too much. I was roundly condemned for being an anti
Weiss: I don't know if it's a question of quantity or quality. Our grandson has studied the American Civil War for the last five years, high school and university. But does he know enough about how to apply that history to contemporary history? I don't think so. I think it's quality, rather than quantity. But when I met Bertha in history books, I fell in love with her. I've written a little preface to a book about her, actually, that was published by IFOR, International Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Q: You know, earlier, I said presence. Do you consider her model as some kind of presence for yourself?
Weiss: Well, I admire her so much. I do love her, I just think she's fantastic. Who knows how, who's responsible for how you behave? You know, there are a lot of women in my life, my mother, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bertha von Suttner, and my women friends. Not just name drops.
You probably pick up behavior and ideas from them. I like to think that sometimes, I go out ahead, alone, and then either reap the rewards or the consequences! [laughter] Q: Moving now away from Women Strike for Peace, we'll move— Weiss: But as a final word—
Weiss: —Women Strike was the most extraordinary university for all of us. I mean, we basically moved from using a mimeograph machine to learning every skill that we've used since then.
And— Q: Like?
Weiss: Well, like mobilizing, organizing, taking risks, who do you call, what do you have to learn first? I am proposing that people sit down now and read Paul Krugman and read Tom Friedman, and read all about the economic consequences of climate change policies, the social, environmental—study it the way we studied Strontium-90. So, I'm bringing the experience from Women Strike into the present, because I think that peace people have to embrace environmental issues, especially global warming and climate change, because it's a threat to peace.
Weiss: We have to know more about it. We have to be able to answer when people say, “It's going to be terrible for jobs, and terrible for the economy.” Krugman demonstrates that it's not terrible, at all. So, we have a new job to do. It's never-ending, isn’t it?
Q: Moving on, now, to The Mobilizations. How did your involvement in all of that come about?
Q: Maybe, I think it's important that we should preface this. Everyone who reads the transcript will know this, but it's important for us to keep that in mind, that we're talking about a time now when the peace movement, or the peace effort, was a decidedly minority position.
Weiss: Of course!
Q: That in the broad sweep of the land, the agencies of involvement in Vietnam and war, et cetera, were overwhelmingly predominant.
Q: So, we're talking about moving from a very, very fringe minority position to one in which the dominant discourse was altered enormously. But it's important to keep in mind how narrow it was at that point in time.
Weiss: So, your question?
Q: The question is, how did you become involved, at that point in time?
Weiss: Well, I was in Women Strike because of radiation caused by atmospheric testing of atomic bombs. The radiation was found in the teeth of our babies, and that got us into the non