«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Charles, from California, was a recent husband. Norris Charles was his name. We invited his wife to join us from California, and she agreed to come.
But the wife of Elias was told by the government not to come. And she didn't. Because he was Jewish, and without a mother or a wife, I was asked to go and receive him. Each person, the mother and the wife, could go first to meet their relative before the formal press conference and the formal release, and I was the one to go for the Jewish guy from the south. He was responsible for doing the count of the dead from the air. "We just killed forty-two Viet Cong," VC. Well, he could pick a number, any number, and those numbers were used to increase the Congress' allocation.
Q: Body count.
Weiss: The body count became an important vehicle for increasing the allocation of funding for the war, to fight the war. Well, in fact, we killed according to the Vietnamese, two million people; according to somebody else, a million people. It was a huge number of people, not just dead but sprayed with Agent Orange. In any event, so, Paris, we went to Paris in August, within a week or ten days, we were on a plane for Hanoi. That plane went to Copenhagen—oh, and I asked if we could bring a reporter with us, and I wanted Sy Hersh, who had written the My Lai Massacre book. Sy said no, I will never remember why.
But Gloria Emerson, who was writing incredible stuff from the field in South Vietnam, and was
young reporter named Peter Arnett. Peter jumped. He had a Vietnamese wife, he was reporting from the south, and even spoke, I think, a little Vietnamese. So, we had David Dellinger, Cora Weiss. Then we could bring Richard Falk, our international lawyer, Bill [Sloane] Coffin, a minister, who was a leader of the Anti-War Clergy and Laity Organization, and Peter Arnett.
Then, there were the family; the wife and the mother of two of the pilots. I'm missing one person.
So, we flew to Copenhagen on SAS [Scandinavian Air Service], the choice of airplane was critical, because the Scandinavian Air Service and the Swedes were incredibly important to us.
When we arrived in Copenhagen, the SAS people took us immediately down to the tarmac, not into the airport where the press were waiting, and took us to a fabulous restaurant in the countryside to wait for the ongoing plane. There were several hours, or a number of hours, in between. Then, we could get to know each other. We didn't know Peter Arnett, he was a newcomer. That was important, number one.
Then we got back on the plane without going through the airport, thanks to SAS and the Swedes, and flew to Bangkok, and that's when we got on the ICC plane. But in Bangkok, we're getting onto the plane, and all of a sudden, we see a guy with a microphone and a camera, and he's getting into the plane, pushing down seats so he could shoot us, meaning, with a camera, in the airplane. It was Ted Koppel, who was a stringer at that point! I mean, we're talking 1972.
Everybody was younger. Ted Koppel was just starting, and he had the arrogance that he carried with him throughout his career, that he could not only occupy the seat that he had bought, but he could push down the backs of other seats so he could get a view. [laughs] We landed, and when
Q: This is the— Weiss: —the families and the Committee of Liaison.
Q: Oh, the Vietnamese—the military is the Vietnamese military?
Weiss: The Vietnamese military. We were in Hanoi. Oh, the important thing is that, what happens when the ICC flies, you know there are laws of war, there are no laws against killing people, but there's a law against shooting down an ICC plane, which is an international arrangement—the International Control Commission—an international arrangement, to allow transit. It's an amazing thing. And so, it's agreed that the SAMs, the Surface to Air Missiles, will not shoot up, and the American military planes will not bomb, so you don't get danger from the sky or the land.
But the second the plane lands, the American plane is right on its tail, resuming the bombing of North Vietnam, and we are raced into an underground shelter, where we meet Pham Van Bach, who's the chief judge of North Vietnam, on his way out, and Richard [Beebe] Dudman, who has been in Vietnam for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, writing fantastic copy, and he's on his way out, also. Right away, Peter Arnett knocks off on his typewriter—no computers—knocks off his first dispatch, gives it to Dudman to take it out with him. So, it starts right away, at the airport, from a
Weiss: Meanwhile, we come out of the bomb shelter when the alert goes off, and we look on the tarmac, and there's Ted Koppel with a microphone, reporting from Hanoi! They wouldn't let him in. Why the ICC let him on the plane without a visa, you have to go and ask the ICC. All right, that's experience number one, day number one. Without losing a minute, the Vietnamese put us in the Hoa Binh Hotel, which means Peace Hotel in Vietnamese, and tells us that the release will happen that very night. So, they didn't keep the wife and the mother waiting, or the three guys, who were probably being prepared to go. That was impressive number two item, or number one, whatever. We went off in a van to—I don't know where we went. It was probably a military installation.
John Hart was there. He had come in from Vientiane. He was CBS, I think, CBS television.
Lovely guy. He was there with a camera. We had Peter Arnett, who was a fantastic reporter. He had bags of film and a couple of cameras, and constantly typing. We come into this very packed, packed with press, Vietnamese press, Chinese press, Russian press, I don't know who else was there, reporters. Agence France-Presse [AFP] was there, I have no idea who they were—packed with press with our Women's Union, I mean our Women's Union friends, and the military. We go to the back room and bring out the three guys; the wife and the mother and me, and we have the three men in suits that had been tailor-made for them by the Vietnamese. Bui Thi Cam was a— beautiful, incredibly well-dressed in her ao dai long Vietnamese dress—lawyer, member of the
Q: How do you spell that name?
Weiss: B-U-I, T-H-I, C-A-M.
Weiss: We used to call her "Madame Magnifique," because she was always so beautifully attired. So, she was the intermediary. I'm not talking to the military or to the government, I'm talking to the Women's Union. She handed them over to us, and I apparently said a few words, but I don't have a record of it. Maybe [laughs] your friends in the FBI have it.
Q: Well, yes, I'll see if I can dig them up.
Weiss: Anyway, it was a fantastic evening, because it was very quick. They did not want to keep the freed men out of their freedom, or away from their families. So, we got them very quickly, it was over very quickly, and we got into the van and went back to the hotel, the Peace Hotel.
There was a spread on the table. I mean, this was wartime. There was a feast that was just beautiful! They had beer, or some kind of alcohol, I can't remember the name of the drink, and food. It was a remarkable time. And Elias is alone. He goes into a silent mode, which he basically never came out of until we landed at JFK, which was ten days later. Más o menos. It was about a week later.
Weiss: Because the Vietnamese wanted us to see the bomb damage, and they put us on an incredible trip in jeeps. We had a caravan of jeeps that traveled with one headlight, or none, at night. We left at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, to start our trip south to the southern part of North Vietnam, where a cathedral, Phat Diem Cathedral, it was a famous, old, old, cathedral. It was bombed. But on our way, at more or less 3:00 in the morning, maybe 4:00, Bill Coffin, who had been in the CIA and had a certain amount of military training, looked up, and he saw a dog fight in the sky, and said to the driver, "Look in the sky," pointing. Within two seconds, or less, I don't ever remember the speed of light being also the speed of people. The jeep stopped, and we were raced into a bomb shelter. This was above ground.
Weiss: We all looked up at the dog fight. It was a MiG, and whatever the American plane was.
Weiss: Everybody thanked Bill Coffin for being the first to see it. Then there was an all-clear, and we got back. The pilots were afraid, because they knew what the damage could be, if they were in that plane. They had never been a target of their own planes before. I mean, they were, while they were in a prison camp.
Weiss: But they weren't, I think, quite as visually aware of it.
Weiss: Then we went to the cathedral, and Elias refused to come out of the van, or if he did, he wouldn't go and look at the damage. Norris' wife was scared to death, because we had another bomb alert. We met people who had been wounded, including a woman whose feet had been blown off by a mine, and was being carried on the back of the man she was about to marry. We met children who had—white bands are the sign of mourning for Vietnamese, black is for us. We have black bands that we wear on our arms. They wear white bands around their heads, around their arms, maybe, but I remember the headbands. We met with far too many mothers and children and fathers who had lost immediate relatives. They came to meet us to tell us about what happened, and how it happened. So, there was a lot of that. And then we got back to Hanoi, and we got back to New York. But going back, the trip to New York was also a story.
Q: Wasn't there a hold-up in Vientiane over whether or not you'd be on American planes, or something?
Weiss: Oh, that was very important. Thank you for reminding me. We never got to Vientiane, because we learned that the MATs, the Military Air Transport planes, were waiting to take the men away. The agreement that we made with the Vietnamese, and the pilots knew it, was that we
back to their country. So, we couldn't go to Vientiane. What were we going to do? In comes the Swedish ambassador, Christian Oberg, I think was his name. [Jean-] Christophe Oberg. O-B-ER-G. He was an incredible ambassador in Vietnam. He arranged, for example, for the Vietnamese to be able to develop or produce smallpox inoculation serum to prevent a smallpox outbreak, and one or two other things like that, which was an extraordinary thing to do at time of war. None of us knew anything about what was going on between China, Vietnam and the United States. He arranged with the Chinese to take us from Hanoi to Beijing, but under house arrest. Not legally, formally, but we couldn't get out of their—of their what?
Weiss: There you go. That's a good enough word. That saved everybody's lives, because what we didn't know was that [Henry] Kissinger was in Beijing, arranging for a trip for Nixon. So, what we didn't know was that the Chinese were negotiating with Washington. It became very dicey in terms of Beijing-Hanoi relations, because right after the war, as you know, the Chinese attacked the northern, northern part of Vietnam. Fast forward today, 2014, they're attacking what the Vietnamese claim to be their islands, the Paracels and the Spratlys, in the Pacific Ocean.
Weiss: It's all about oil, which I guess is the story of war and peace, isn't it?
Weiss: All about oil. So, we got into a Chinese plane in Hanoi, we're now ten, I thought we were eleven people, but I'd have to look at a picture and see who's missing. So, Dick Falk, Bill Coffin, Peter Arnett, Cora, David, the three pilots and their two family members, ten people. We fly across the border, and take our first stop at night, in an airport, in some small Chinese town or city, and we're brought to an outdoor, but covered, hut, with a ping pong table and a Chinese minder. Dick Falk is a professional ping pong player. He beat the Chinese guards, and I learned to play ping pong from these Chinese guys. We played ping pong a lot during the night. Then, we get on the plane in the morning. I'm going to need another word. Dick plays a game with an "S" that's not tennis and not ping pong, but— Q: Badminton?
Weiss: No, S.
Q: With an S?
Weiss: Squash. Thank you! He's a big squash player. We get on the plane again. But this time it's
were serving us meals while we were landing and arriving, something that would never happen in an American plane. We get off the plane in Moscow, and it's empty! The airport is empty!
Why? Because the American ambassador, or charge d'affaires, demanded it. Why were the Russians doing what the Americans want? We need to go back and ask an expert. Maybe it was to counter what the Americans were doing in China, who knows? We get into the airport, and a guy named Dobbs? Or Dubbs? Was the chargé, and demands that we turn over the three men.
To their credit, including Elias, the three men said we made a deal to come back with them, with the escorts. We were the official escorts. He and Bill Coffin actually got into a fist fight in the airport. Bill writes about it in his memoir. Dubbs or Dobbs, I think it's Dobbs, I can't remember his name. I think it's either Dubbs or—Dobbs, probably, died a few years ago with a big obituary in The Times, never mentioning this incident. Welcome Sweden once more, the Swedish head of SAS Moscow comes to pick us up in a Swedish SAS van, and takes us to their private apartment in Moscow, where there's a telephone, and says to the three guys, "Call home." I mean, amazing little details— Q: Yes.
Weiss: —that are so important. They have a Swedish smorgasbord spread out for us!
Weiss: It was incredible, and it was so important! I don't remember if we slept there that night, or went back to the airport. I have no memory of that. But the next day, or whenever it was, we get onto an SAS plane for Cope [Copenhagen]. And guess who's on the plane— Q: Copenhagen?
Weiss: Copenhagen. Guess who's on the plane with us? American personnel. Two-story plane, which I've never, had never— Q: Oh, yes. Yes. They used to have them. Yes.