«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: That was such a tragedy. I spoke at Kent State sometime during the war, I can't remember when. That’s going to be a common phrase, "I can't remember when!" Q: I think there's a song like that.
Weiss: Anyway, it was a terrific gathering. We had lots of gatherings in our house. Do you remember when Olof Palme came? Have you read about that?
Q: When he came to Riverside?
Weiss: To Riverdale.
Weiss: That's a wonderful story. If I could go to my study, I might even get you the date. Olof Palme was the Prime Minister of Sweden, and the Vietnamese asked him to work on the prisoner of war issue parallel with me. And I never quite understood what he did, except when I realized he gave it credibility. So, I would not be out there all alone with my little tiny Committee of Liaison, working to break the back of the policy that would keep the war going.
So, we invited this person named Olof Palme, who no one had ever met, but who was the Prime Minister, to come to a meeting at my house, our house, to speak. Peter and I were upstairs getting ready, and the door rang, and—oh, prior to his arrival, the Secret Service came to the house, the day before, or the morning, and asked if they could sit in the kitchen during the meeting. I said, "Absolutely not. You can't come in the house." We didn't know what was going to happen.
So, Peter and I were upstairs, the time for the meeting was coming, and the doorbell rang, and three guys walked in. They were each wearing a navy blue raincoat. They were different sizes and shapes, but I had no idea which one was Palme! [laughs] I don't know how we found out, because they didn't introduce themselves. So, it turns out one was Mats Helstrom, one was Hans [Eric Albert] Dahlgren, whom I had political relations with, subsequently. And the third was Palme.
Fast forward, people come, the room is full, I don't remember what month it was, but all the windows and doors were open because it got very warm in the room with so many people. It might have been October, but I can't guarantee that. Palme is standing—we had two steps going
a hallway, entry hall. And he's talking, talking, talking, and he stops to take a breath, or to think about his next sentence, and all of a sudden, we hear his voice coming from the bushes outside!
[laughs] Whether it was the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] or the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] or the Secret Service, or who knows which agency, they were planted in the bushes with a tape recorder, and some guy who was doing it was probably testing his tape recorder! [laughter] Everybody broke out into hysterical laughter. It's a story that holds in this age of surveillance. When they made a movie about Palme and they interviewed me for it, because I then had a lot to do with him after that—I became one of the delegates to the sixcontinent peace initiative that was held in Stockholm—and he came to speak in Riverside [Church]— Q: I know you spoke— Weiss: Yes, but well, that was later.
Q: You spoke at his funeral.
Weiss: I did. The public funeral in the square.
Q: Strange case. A strange case.
Weiss: His murder?
Weiss: Well, he and his wife hated the Secret Service. They were always crowding them. So, they wanted to go to the movies alone one night, and that was the end.
Q: But you knew you were under surveillance quite frequently during— Weiss: Oh, yes. Actually, our mailman, whose wife was a member of Women Strike for Peace, told me that our mail was being watched. Tapped. It was a mail tap. And sometimes— Q: So they could just keep a record of who sent—they couldn't open your mail?
Weiss: They kept—I don't know. But it was watched. Who knows how much they kept and didn't deliver?
Weiss: We knew our telephone was tapped, because the woman who lived across the street, who
emergency we used him as a doctor, she claims she got a call saying, "Did you know that your telephone was being used to call the enemy?" Because once, I stupidly thought if I used her phone to call Paris, it would not be recorded. But was I mistaken! So, our mailman told us that our mail was tapped. Often, our phone would go, "Clickety click," or whatever. We were aware.
I would say into the phone, "Hang up, you guys!" Yes, we knew it. But I don't know what impact it had. I think we felt we were doing nothing illegal, nothing wrong, and we should just keep doing. But there are pages worth of stuff, I gather— Q: Well, have you ever asked for it?
Weiss: We did an FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] in 1970-something. They charged us five cents a page to photocopy.
Q: Oh, yes.
Weiss: But when it came, I think I measured it four feet up off the ground. Most pages were redacted, so it would say, "Secretary of State," blank.
Weiss: Or, "Subject," presumably that was me, "Appears to be in good health. But agent is not a doctor." I used to read from them because I got so exhausted giving talks, sometimes a couple a
was spent and all of the boring meetings that these guys had to attend to keep track of us.
Anyhow, I haven't gotten any since then, but we both assume. I mean, what the hell, I'm not going to stop what I'm doing.
Q: When I was at UCLA, we had interviewed Dorothy [Ray] Healey, who was the head of the Communist Party in Los Angeles, Southern California. She had gotten her FBI record. Of course, it was redacted similarly, but it was wonderful for the interviewing, because she could put a date and a place to every meeting she had ever attended!
Weiss: [laughs] So we have to thank them?
Q: No, but that was the upside. Many years later, she had a record of where she had been, at what date, and who else was there.
Weiss: That's interesting. I have never looked at mine, and I wonder if I even know where they are, because it's such a deep pile.
Weiss: But maybe I should think about using it as a record, a historic record.
Q: One of the things that came out of Dorothy's looking at it was reportage that obviously came
Weiss: Inside the party, or inside the FBI?
Q: Inside her personal life. Inside the party, inside the organizations she was connected with, et cetera. You know? It is not beyond the realm of comprehension that some of the information in your file was garnered from somebody you knew who was working— Weiss: In the agency, yes.
Q: It's not beyond comprehension.
Weiss: It doesn't keep me up at night.
Q: Yes. No, now it's so long ago. But, especially in Vietnam, were you very conscious of exactly how far you could go in terms of the Logan—you mentioned the Logan Act. The Logan Act and other kinds of— Weiss: Well, we never negotiated with the government.
Weiss: We never negotiated. We presented a proposal to the Women's Union. Now, obviously,
that there was a group of women, large group, who were organized as a Women's Union, to promote their needs and their skills and their abilities and their wants, we connected with them.
So, they were obviously approved. But it wasn't as if you were negotiating with the secretary of state or a Member of Parliament. We weren't. We were very clear about that. We brought a proposal to deliver mail by hand and bring mail back, and improve the packages for prisoners, which they, then, could take to the military or whoever it had to be taken to for approval, and they came back and met with us, and said it's approved. When we went to pick up the three prisoners of war in '72, September, it was the women who turned them over to us, not the military. So there was that degree of clarity and caution. I don't think the government—who knows what the government would do? [laughs] But they would have a hard time— Q: Well, apparently, from the report that I got about the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] state department files from other people, the FBI certainly wanted to find— Weiss: But that's not the Logan Act.
Q: No, that's not the Logan Act, but it said the—for possible prosecution for soliciting under the Foreign Agents Registration Act [FARA].
Weiss: Right, that’s registration. We never registered because we weren't a foreign agent, but
Weiss: Two different things.
Q: Right. Well, let's get on to, how did you get to Vietnam? Or how did that story begin?
Weiss: Well, it was November 15, '69, the demonstration in Washington. First it started in July 4, '69.
Q: What happened?
Weiss: In Canada, when the Women Strike for Peace and the Voice of Women Canada [VOW Peace] met with the women who came from Vietnam.
Q: You were not there?
Weiss: Of course I was there!
Q: You were there.
Weiss: I was very—
Weiss: I met with the women, definitely. We were sitting on July 4th, our most patriotic holiday, licking ice cream cones together at a farm on the Canadian side of the border. We were all sitting on the grass getting to know each other. You know, “How many children do you have, where, what are they studying, what did you do before the war?” We bonded in many ways. At least one of those women became a friend of mine for very, very many long years. I met with her and her husband in Saigon long after the war.
Q: Who was this?
Weiss: Her name was Nguyen Ngoc Dung, N-G-U-Y-E-N, N-G-O-C, D-U-N-G. She became an ambassador to the U.N., but not the perm rep [permanent representative], not the numero uno.
She was a deputy and the only woman in the mission, and suffered from gender discrimination.
So, I would take her to a doctor and do things for her in New York. She was at the airport in Saigon at the time that the U.S. was pulling out, responsible for the journalists. She was an incredible human being. She learned everything she knew by doing it.
Weiss: Anyway, the women we met in Canada on July 4 were the women who invited me to put together a delegation of three people to come to Vietnam. Until then, some Americans had been.
Q: There had been some women from Women Strike for Peace who had gone.
Weiss: Three women— Q: Yes.
Weiss: —who went to a conference in Indonesia and were invited to Vietnam; Mary Clarke, maybe Dagmar Wilson, Lorraine Gordon. In any event, the July 4 meeting produced the invitation to come, and we proposed that it be after the November demonstration because we were working twenty-four/seven on that. So, the demonstration was over. Ethel Taylor, who was then—was she already president of Women Strike? Possibly—from Philadelphia, and Madeline [Taylor] Duckles, who was from Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, WILPF, and she lived in San Francisco. The three of us got on a plane and flew to Copenhagen, and then flew to Bangkok, or Phnom Penh. I think it might have been Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Then we had to get on an ICC plane, International Control Commission, Poland, Hungary, Canada, and Indonesia, to fly into Hanoi. But first we flew to Vientiane.
Q: In Laos, yes.
Weiss: Yes. In Vientiane, we met at the dinner table of the hotel, with a reporter from CBS [Columbia Broadcasting System], a reporter from here, from there. We had good conversations.
representative, or ambassador, to Laos. I think I'm confusing two trips. But in any event, we flew from there to Hanoi. When we arrived in Hanoi, Ethel was quite sick.
Weiss: She had some kind of a sinus infection. So, instead of having the Customs agent or the military come onto the plane first, two people in white jackets, white coats, medical people, came with a huge syringe of Vitamin B, B12, B-whatever, B6, I don't know which B, for Ethel.
Then we got off the plane and the bombing began. This is '69. So, we immediately were in a bomb shelter underground.
Weiss: But we also looked at each other, I think, and felt secure. That's a very interesting point about being in a country under your country's bombs, and not being worried that you were going to get bombed, somehow. I don't understand how that works. But, in any event, we then went into Hanoi over a pontoon bridge, because the bridge had been blown out. The three of us met immediately with the Women's Union. We presented this proposal. Then they took us to visit— Q: This was the proposal on the exchange of mail?
Q: And packages.
Weiss: The package part was almost as important, because it demonstrated more about us, that we cared about what the guys were getting. And that this was a Women Strike for Peace event.
So, then the women took us on the tour of Hanoi, which included the three of us going to the socalled Hanoi Hilton Hotel, which is the name the guys gave to the prison camp. We met with—I remember one, Paul Brown, and we met with half a dozen people who would not become the three guys that we would take home in 1972. We shook hands, and we talked and we brought messages for their families. It was a good meeting. I don't remember how long each of them had been in a prison camp, but the photographs that came out show that they seem to be OK, they were not emaciated, they were not in pain, they weren't limping. But we're not doctors, we're not psychiatrists. So we just could take what we saw back with us.