«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: There was an upstairs.
Weiss: And—no, I 'm wrong. The American military personnel get on in Copenhagen. So, we fly to Copenhagen, and we land, and we go to a restaurant again thanks to SAS. I'm trying to reconstruct the details. We get back on, and who's getting on with us, but two or three guys. And one by one, they invite each of the three pilots to come upstairs with them, and this has been all brilliantly orchestrated in Washington. They come back down in uniform.
So we land at JFK, and a guy named Vinny [Vincent] McGee has been running the office for me
went to Allenwood, Pennsylvania, for his jail sentence. When he got out, I invited him to help me at the Committee of Liaison. He did the press work for us, for our return. When we got off the plane, Mark Gartley and Norris Charles both thanked us profusely for bringing them home, and Elias. In Moscow, at night, the SAS van took us to Red Square, I think probably at my suggestion, that we should at least see something while we were there, and it was pitch dark, late at night, but the onions, the cathedrals— Q: The doors, yes.
Weiss: —were all lit up. Elias refused to get out of the car. He stayed in the van. He was not going to be a tourist. He was not going to do anything with us. We all walked around Red Square, which we had to ourselves! It was amazing! Anyway, so, we get off at JFK, the airport is teeming with journalists. The military take the three guys away. Minnie Lee Gartley, the mother of Mark, is furious that she couldn't have her son alone, even for one day, or one night, at a hotel at the airport. They refused to let them take the guys. So, maybe they had them for a few hours, and then they took them to a medical facility, military base, whatever.
Q: Right. Yes. Like they're doing with Bergdahl now.
Weiss: Same scene. Bergdahl, I think, probably suffered more severely than these three guys.
Weiss: So, we had our press conference. We came back, we got press. Dave Dellinger was on the front cover of Time Magazine, I think I was a little envious, because they took a picture of him coming down the gangplank, and I was with somebody else coming down the gangplank.
Anyway, it was big news. The point was, it was meant to be a peace gesture, and the thank you for the peace gesture was Kissinger's Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor, which was horrific.
Q: Do you think there would have been more releases had the bombing not happened?
Weiss: Of course! There would have been peace talks.
Weiss: There would have been—well, there were peace talks.
Q: All this is played out against the background of the talks going on in Paris, yes.
Weiss: In Paris, yes. They would have succeeded in getting a settlement. There was a little
Weiss: When I was in Paris— Q: Sure!
Weiss: —waiting to go to Vietnam, Wilfred Burchett— Q: Yes?
Weiss: —Ira Morris, Claude Bourdet, these are all names of—mostly men—in Paris who were all active in the anti-war movement. They gave a reception for us the night that we arrived, as I recall. Maybe it was another trip to Paris, because I don't remember dates. But in any event, in Paris, I'm in my hotel room, and we're supposed to be a secret, and the young guy who's just starting out with CBS Reports named Ed [Rudolph] Bradley, calls Peter Weiss at home, and says, "Can I talk to Cora," and Peter said, "She's in Paris." He says, "Where is she?" He says, "The hotel X, Y, Z." So, thanks to my husband, he broke the secret [laughs], and Ed Bradley comes knocking on my hotel door very late at night, in Paris.
Q: What happened to the guys after they had been taken away? What was their future? What happened to them?
Weiss: Mark Gartley became Secretary of State of the state of Maine, and when his mother died, he sent me the program of her funeral. He was a lovely man, lovely guy. Very young to be a pilot, very young to be a prisoner of war. They all were. They were young prisoners.
Weiss: Charles, Norris? I don't know, or at least I can't remember what became of him. We were in touch with the two of them for a while afterwards.
Weiss: He went back to California, I don't remember what happened to him. But Mark, Mark became a pilot for Eastern Airlines, I think. Am I sure—oh, no, I think he married a stewardess from Eastern Airlines. Somehow, Eastern Airlines comes in the picture.
Weiss: But, after the war, another guy, whose last name started with an M, I can't remember, who lived in South Carolina invited me to his wedding, which I went to. He was one of the men we met when we went there in '69.
Weiss: I think somewhere, there's mail from the families, thanking us. We went back to The War Was Over, we started Friendshipment, a play on words that I think I'm probably responsible for, Friendship and Shipment, to send humanitarian aid to help rebuild the Bach Mai Hospital.
Q: That's where we'll start next time.
Weiss: I can’t believe it’s number five already. Like people can’t believe I’m going to be eighty.
[laughter] Q: Okay. We were talking—what were we talking about a few moments ago that I wanted to get you—?
Q: Networking, yes. Yes. Talking about the ways in which I see your career as a career of networking, in a positive way. And the way in which that is kind of built, brick by brick by brick by brick, over the years, until you seem to become a kind of key player within networks—many, many, many networks. How important was that in your career?
Weiss: Is. Was and is. I love putting people together. I meet somebody, and they have interests that I know are of interest to other friends of mine, and I write an email to both of them, and I
trying to get into graduate school, is perfectly qualified and ought to get in, and I’ll write a very enthusiastic letter of recommendation. I love doing it. People appreciate it a lot.
Q: Will you often as not know someone at the particular institution that this person is applying to?
Weiss: Yes and no. It’s not necessary. I don’t know anybody at the Council on Foreign Relations [CFR], where I’ve been a member for a long time, but I write nominating letters or seconding letters. I think, to a person, they’ve all been accepted. Not because of my letters, of course, but it probably helps. The point is that I get pleasure from it. So it’s a double whammy.
Q: When did you begin to do that?
Weiss: I can’t remember. But sometimes I have opportunities to meet people in different fields, and the people that I work with or know come to me for advice. A lot of people come for advice.
I don’t know if I have advice to give them, but they come. They don’t have access to those fields, so I feel like an access person. [laughs] Q: Can you give me an example of when that happened recently?
Weiss: A young woman from the Cameroons came to be an intern at an organization that is housed in the office of The Hague Appeal for Peace, which I ran. She interned for Peace Boat
during the course of the summer internship, she came to me and said that she wanted to go to graduate school. She was at John Jay College for her undergraduate work. We talked about what she wanted to do, and so forth. Her father had been a member of the diplomatic corps in the Cameroons, and she was in this country, and married to a Nigerian. She seemed like a very pleasant, very highly motivated person. I saw a potentially wonderful woman leader in her, so I started writing letters of recommendation to, I think, every university and college in the greater New York area. Happily, she got into Lehman [College], and one other school, and she chose Lehman, probably because she got a scholarship or it was less expensive than the others, which is always a problem. That was great. So she started school, she’s finished her first year, she wants to come and celebrate. She’s thrilled—and so am I—that it worked.
Q: This is skipping ahead, but it was one of the questions I wanted to ask you when we talk about Riverside [Church] today: at the Summer Institute, there was a woman there—whose name I’ve forgotten—who has done rather extensive work in Bosnia, and is now extending that work into Rwanda. It’s a mixture of scholarship and activism. She told me that you had had her on a program at Riverside and introduced her to three or four people who were also working in the field. We were talking about where she could get money. I said, “Well, you know, the Rubin Foundation might be interested in it.” She said, “Oh, I know Cora Weiss.” Then the story came out: she had never gotten any money, but the contacts she made were vital in terms of her own work.
Q: I don’t know her name at all. I don’t know. She walked with a cane, that’s all I know. But, interesting.
Weiss: That’s nice. See? I mean, that makes you feel good.
Q: Good. Let’s start where my notes start. This is bringing up our last conversation, which turns out to be exactly a month ago. We last met on June 10th, and today is July 10th. You were talking about your trip to Hanoi with the Committee of Liaison [with Families of Prisoners Detained in Vietnam] in 1972. I wanted to ask you: when you made that trip, did you have a larger political purpose? And that question comes to my mind because I just finished reading Bill [William Sloane] Coffin [Jr.]’s memoir for this interview. He ends talking about that trip, and talks about the larger political agenda that he had. Did you also have a larger political agenda in that?
Weiss: That was the trip that Peter Arnett from AP [Associated Press] called the prisoner snatch.
We didn’t snatch the prisoners, they were handed over. My agenda was always doing whatever was conceivably possible to do to end the war in Vietnam—against Vietnam. So to the extent that that was the larger agenda, yes. But Sy [Seymour M.] Hersh says all the time—whenever I see him, he likes to tell people that I cared more about the prisoners of war than the government did. When I look back on the files, and the papers, and the stories, I can see where he comes to that conclusion, because we took huge risks to go and try to get a letter a month written by every prisoner of war. We took huge risks travelling to Vietnam during the bombing, to get a better
succeeded. Families in this country could hear from their loved ones, and eventually the list of who was alive and who was not came out of that work. That was important, because it took the pretext away from [Richard M.] Nixon, and—what was the defense secretary’s name, from Wisconsin?
Q: Laird, or Kissing— Weiss: Melvin Laird. It took the pretext away from them to use the, quote, “torture and keeping of prisoners of war” as the reason for perpetuating the war. That was the reason for our setting up the committee, and that was the reason for our continuing to try to get names out. We did that via this idea of mail exchange.
Q: After the personal exchange, did you continue visiting Vietnam, and continue working— Weiss: Oh, sure. The Committee of Liaison functioned right up to the end of the war, which was ’73—the end of the entire war was ’75. By then, we had the basic list of everybody who was alive in North Vietnam, and we had some names from those who were prisoners in South Vietnam, but most of those had been moved to the north. We also had the list of people who were either found dead from their planes having been shot down, or who died in prison camp from wounds or disease. It was not a very long list. I’m not sure that it was more than six or eight people. But the point is that you couldn’t debate about it anymore. It was final. That had never
part of civil society, and this was quite unique. I feel very proud about the role that we played—it took a team.
Q: In the popular press, the rhetoric of John McCain and the Hanoi Hilton, et cetera, seems to dominate as the interpretive framework of the prisoner experience. That does not seem to be your experience.
Weiss: John McCain became the go-to voice of the Senate for the press. I’m just a Jewish housewife from the Bronx, as some of the press called me. And a woman. But the mail from the families demonstrates how important this experience was, and how grateful they were for the mail.
Q: You have that correspondence?
Weiss: Or Swarthmore [College] does.
Q: Swarthmore does.
Weiss: Yes. They have most of the Committee of Liaison files.
Weiss: Never forget that every single pilot—they were all pilots—walked off the plane. There was not one litter, not one gurney. That was shocking for everyone. They were expecting wounded, and—That’s not say that they were all in good shape. I have no way of knowing; I’m not a doctor. But the fact that they walked off, I think, was pretty impressive. We were all very impressed.
Q: There doesn’t seem to be much of a literature, say, as there is in Iraq and Afghanistan, about post-traumatic stress disorders [PTSD], et cetera, among the pilots— Weiss: PTSD was not—was that word invented at the time of Vietnam?
Q: Probably not, yes. Yes, probably not.
Weiss: It’s a more recent language. I’m sure that they—you know, there were many divorces.
But then, there are many divorces, aren’t there?
Q: Well, there is a literature on returning Vietnam vets, and the problems that they faced, et cetera, but I don’t recall anything specific to the pilots.
Weiss: All of these guys saw the war from the air, from the sky. They were never on the ground.
They were all educated, because pilots were taken from the elite, in the Air Force. They were all pilots. I mean, these were not grunts. These were not privates. These were not guys who had to