«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
disarmament aside for a while, and deal with this war, which we knew, nobody attacked us. It was not Iwo Jima. So, what were we doing in Vietnam? I was the delegate from Women Strike to the larger coalition, which was known as The Mobilization, or, "The Mobe." When time came to have a demonstration, it was very easy for them to pick three or four men to co-chair the demonstration; Dave Dellinger, Sid Peck, Ron Young.
But it was clear that if they wanted to have women come to the demonstration, they had to have a woman co-chair, as well. I guess from my participation at those meetings, I was selected to be a co-chair of the November 15, 1969 demonstration. So, you said that the war effort represented a dominant part of civil society. That demonstration, November 15, '69, that was led by a Republican and a Democratic senator, [Charles] Goodell and [George] McGovern, was called the turning point in public opinion. I think it was. Fast forward, this past weekend, we went to the funeral of my great aunt, who was ninety-six. Her four children spoke. The youngest told the story of being in high school, and going with his brother to the demonstration in Washington from Westchester. I was taken aback. He looked at me, and he said, "Cora, didn't you have something to do with that?" Q: [laughs] Weiss: "Yes." He talked about how it was his first demonstration. He was a teenager; his brother was even younger. No, older. He was the youngest. They went on November 15, 1969, to Washington. They got on the bus, and they went. It was kind of amusing, because he was talking
off and we were on our way to Washington, my mother jumped in her car to drive down to make sure we were OK."
Q: [laughs] Weiss: So, that was an important demonstration. And soon, I'll be talking about—well, this is an anti-nuclear demonstration on June 12th, 1982, which was later.
Weiss: But I'm going to ask how many people were in Central Park? You were. So, these are memorable dates and events. I can't remember the question anymore [laughs].
Q: Well, I'm moving on.
Weiss: But it was a public opinion-changing moment.
Weiss: That was important. I think we felt that. I took my first trip to Vietnam from that stage. I
Q: Why don't we go back now to that point in '66 or so, when you began—well, what was that coalition like? Was that the meeting in Cleveland? Was that where you were meeting?
Weiss: We met in Cleveland because that was where Ben Spock lived, and Sid Peck was teaching. I think that's why we met in Cleveland. But we also used to meet in someplace downtown, way downtown. And we met in labor union offices. I can't remember all of the addresses.
Q: Coming from Women Strike for Peace, what was your take on that group, mostly men, now, that group representing ten, twelve, fourteen, twenty different organizations? Were there sides?
How did they break down?
Weiss: It was complicated. It was very complicated.
Q: Tell me the complications as you saw them.
Weiss: Well, you had sort of yippies on one end, the Abbie Hoffmans, and Jerry Rubins. You had clergy and laity on the other end. You had kind of almost anarchists, I mean, sort of just— not violent anarchists. [pause] Q: You were talking about the complexities of the—
Q: —of the coalition.
Weiss: So, there were pacifists, ideological pacifists, which I am not. I'm a nuclear pacifist, and I'm totally opposed to war. But I'm not a Gandhian, although we were both born on the same date, which I didn't discover until late in life. And there was always one member of the Communist Party.
Q: Is it Johnson, is his name?
Weiss: Somebody Johnson, with an A. Arnold. Was it Arnold? I don't remember. He was a kind of a sweet, gentle old man, older. Nobody is old anymore to me. But he was the thorn, or the magnet, that attracted most of the animosity towards the movement, which was unfortunate, because the rest of us had nothing to do with the Communist Party, absolutely nothing. By then, it was a pathetic, small nothing in this country. It was almost all over. So, there were those complications of the breadth, the spread of the various organizations. Then there was the male dominance, and I wouldn't have called it that then, but I felt it, obviously. I wasn't as sensitive to it then as I am now. The conference that we're going to in September in Sicily, the first thing I did was count the number of men on the participant's list. I wouldn't have done that then. All of these things come into play.
Weiss: But you'd have to ask Sid or—David is dead, Jerry is dead, Abbie is dead. I mean, all of those guys are dead. You'd have to ask someone else if I was picked for "gender balance," and what's balance? One out of four. Or, I was picked because I was articulate and demonstrating leadership, or both. ¿Quién sabe? All I know is that I was in an elevator once going up to the office of The Mobe in a building in Washington—I'm going to get stuck now—what was the name of the wonderful journalist from the New York Post whose last name began with a K?
Q: Murray Kempton.
Weiss: Murray Kempton, thank you very much! You must be a very young man to have such a good memory! Murray was in the elevator standing behind me with another person, and as I got off the elevator, he said, "That's Cora Weiss, who is a leader in this effort." So, this was before I got involved in the prisoner of war issue, which didn't happen until December, '69, a month later.
But there must have been some reason for him to point me out. I don't know. I don't want to take any credit for something I didn't do, or something that was done by somebody else.
Weiss: I feel very strongly about that. It was very much a team effort, I worked very hard.
Weiss: I made sure that Coretta Scott King was a speaker, an opening speaker. I made sure that there were women on the program, and that there would be no violence. The demonstration, this is November of '69— Q: Right. Yes.
Weiss: —ended with the police coming with teargas. It was a disaster! A total disaster. And there was no need for it. So, why that happened, I'm sure somebody else knows.
Q: Yes. Well, there was a break-off to go and storm the Justice Department, or something like that.
Weiss: Yes, but who led it?
Weiss: I mean, was it one of us? Or was it one of them?
Q: Oh, I think it was the Weather Underground [phonetic]— Weiss: Yeah, but who knows where that comes from?
Weiss: I mean, the Weather people were terrible then. So, I think it was an important—I don't remember the question.
Q: Oh. [laughs] Weiss: That's called short-term memory loss.
Q: The question was to get complexities of— Weiss: Complexity, right.
Q: But looking at the record, there was an enormous amount of struggle over banners, sayings.
Weiss: Oh, of course!
Q: "Get out now, negotiate," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
Weiss: Absolutely, yes.
Q: And because there were all of these, all the factions, it took on a certain kind of sectarian tone
Weiss: Oh, I'm sure.
Q: Who didn't get their way.
Weiss: When you have that wide a spread of values and views, you're bound to have disagreements.
Q: Now, I'm trying to get to how you personally, coming from Women Strike, where there is more or less this kind of in-built sense of community, walk me into this kind of milieu, in which there is an intense struggle over every point.
Weiss: Listen, and June 12, '82 was even worse!
Weiss: June 12, '82 was even worse! There was terrible struggle. Some of us tried to minimize it, some of us tried to accommodate it by letting a little bit in. But most of us tried to see our focus prevail. The focus was, “Out now!” –the war is illegal, immoral and wrong.
Q: Now, you were also involved in '67, when there was a demonstration, part of which was the march on the Pentagon, part of which stayed at the Lincoln Memorial, and part of which split off.
Weiss: I never got to the Pentagon.
Weiss: But if that was the Pentagon march, which I don't recall the date of— Q: Yes. Sixty-seven, was it?
Weiss: I think it was the only demonstration that I missed, because I had been in a car accident and had whiplash, and I was wearing one of those huge collars. So, I wasn't there.
Q: So, both of us have to depend on Norman Mailer.
Weiss: Oh, did he write about it?
Q: Yes. The Armies of The Night.
Weiss: David Cortright has been on the phone with me recently to say we have to do something in 2015, because the Pentagon is planning a huge rewrite of history of the Vietnam War, and they're going to be promoting activities. I don't know the list of what they're going to do that remembers the war with great approval. David feels that we should do something at our tender ages to try to counter that. I don't know what you do in 2015, when everybody is wired to their
something that the public will take note of? I don't know. Maybe teach-ins all over the country.
But something, to indicate that it was the wrong war, the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong people. And the anti-war movement was right.
Q: Now, I guess this is a question of tactics, what do you do? And one of the major tactics of that period of time was to call a demonstration.
Q: Was there a point in which people began to say, "Gee, another demonstration?" Weiss: Oh, absolutely. Not only that, but there were two groups, basically. There were the Socialist Workers Party, who were otherwise known as the Trots, and then the rest of us. The problem was that, sometimes, the Socialist Worker's Party would come out and name a date, and it became known. The rest of us would have to join in, because it couldn't be a failure. I can't remember precisely which ones, or what time or what day, but we very often felt that it was not appropriate to have a demonstration on the date that they called it. So, those were internal conflicts.
Q: There was also one about whether or not to work within the Democratic Party, or the Republican, or within the party system, or to somehow build community outside.
Weiss: That was pretty important. My husband, Peter, was an elected delegate from the Bronx to the Democratic Convention, and I was a delegate from Women Strike for Peace, not to the convention, but to the demonstration. The women were asked by the rest of the peace movement to march first, to demonstrate first, in front of the Hilton Hotel where the delegates were all staying, to test the cops, basically. So, we started a walk on the sidewalk in front of the Hilton Hotel, in a kind of oval or circular way, to test the police. The police kept moving us closer to the hotel, and further away from the street, but without any violent expression.
Then the time came for the demonstration to end, and we were calling on the delegates to end the war in Vietnam. Then, the next day, all hell broke loose. So, we weren't a very good test. We were, in a way, used. But then, the yippies and the hippies and the whatever went into Grant Park, and the cops were brutal. They started to use jeeps in Chicago with barbed wire in front that had just come out of Vietnam. That was exactly the kind of vehicle that was being used in Vietnam. Just as lots of military equipment today is being distributed— Q: I saw that article.
Weiss: —to the American police departments, thousands, including the use of masks, and
police department. So, the 1968 convention was an important moment for discussing the Vietnam War.
Q: Did you speak before the platform committee?
Q: No. But Women Strike for Peace did have a presence there?
Weiss: I don't remember. Ask Amy [Swerdlow].
Q: Yes, in the Swarthmore archives— Weiss: There is something.
Q: —there is the testimony, WSP [Women Strike for Peace] people before the Democratic—yes.
Weiss: Oh, that's good to remember. I don't know who it would be, maybe Ethel Taylor— Q: There were eight or ten points making—yes.
Q: It didn't say.
Weiss: It didn't say who? It just said Women Strike?
Q: It was some kind of an internal report, or something or other. The points made by Women Strike.
Weiss: I'm delighted that they appear.
Q: Who were you backing in '68?
Weiss: That's an interesting question.
Q: Peter was a delegate.
Q: So you were involved in the Democratic Party in some kind of way.
Weiss: —it was Gene McCarthy.
Q: Not Robert Kennedy? Gene McCarthy?
Weiss: Stay clean with Gene. Gene McCarthy was a remarkable person. He got very few votes, didn't he? [laughter] Q: Well, he did very— Weiss: At least he represented— Q: —no, he did very well in some of the primaries, and enough to scare [Lyndon B.] Johnson, yes.
Weiss: Well, that's good. Now, Gene McCarthy was remarkable. We have a beautiful poster somewhere, done by Ben Shahn for the McCarthy campaign. Beautiful.
Weiss: Sure. I mean, he represented the anti-war movement.
Weiss: The anti-war values.
Q: Did you meet him?
Weiss: Yes. Yes.
Q: Can you tell me a little about that meeting?
Weiss: No, I can't remember.
Q: You can't remember? [laughs] You were in Chicago the night of the big blow-up?