«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Q: It was, however, the only ship that— Weiss: It was the only ship. I don’t know how soon after that other ships came, but it was the first.
Q: Well, there an embargo.
Weiss: There was. But now there’s a favored nation status. Change happens.
Q: Yes. Now, at that time, I’m also aware that you had become active with groups that were attempting to get Vietnam recognized as a legitimate government through the United Nations.
Weiss: We were supporting Vietnam to become a member of the U.N. They survived two or three vetoes by the Americans, and finally in 1970— I have the poster, they’re gorgeous. They were elected. We did a program at the Beacon Theatre in New York called Shake Hands with Vietnam, welcome Vietnam to the United Nations. Pete Seeger sang, and Buffy Sainte-Marie sang, and it was a terrific evening, but we suffered—the South Vietnamese, who came here during and after the war in protest against the North Vietnamese, pulled out the electric line, so we went dark. I don’t know how long it took for us to get light, but we had a theater full of
Then we had the Vietnamese on the stage, and the Americans on the stage. I recall it was quite a remarkable event. It was culture and politics. Music.
Q: I’ve done a little work in that area of the world, but one of the things was involved, of course, was the Chinese and the American—I don’t know what you want to call it. Flirtation, whatever you want—with the Khmer Rouge as the legitimate government of Cambodia, and punishing Vietnam for the invasion of Cambodia. Was any of that part of the political discussion at the time? The [Henry] Kissinger and [Richard M.] Nixon policy toward Cambodia, and punishing Vietnam?
Weiss: The Khmer Rouge were horrid. Horrible. I am not in favor of invasions, aggression, or war, but I think the Vietnamese invasion saved a lot of Cambodian people from the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge, and of the Americans. Don’t forget: we bombed Cambodia. Elizabeth— member of Congress?
Weiss: —Holtzman. Sued—Peter Weiss was her lawyer—sued the U.S. over the bombing of Cambodia. Lot of history.
Weiss: Well, Riverside followed the Church World Service. I was working on 120th Street at Church World Service with Paul McCleary.
Q: At the God Box.
Weiss: At the God Box. That was over. A guy named William Sloane Coffin, who was a very dear friend, and remained so for the rest of his life, was called to be the senior minister of the Riverside Church. The Riverside Church. On his way from New Haven, where he had been living, where he was the—what do you call it? The chaplain— Q: Chaplain at Yale. Yes.
Weiss: —the chaplain at Yale. On his way to Riverside Church, he stopped in Riverdale, where we lived, and I gave him dinner. I cooked up a storm, and one of the things I made, I recall, was baked eggplant. I had never cooked for him before then, I think, and I said, as he walked in the door, “Do you have any food issues?” He said, “I don’t like eggplant.” My heart went through the floor. It turns out he ate it all. Then he drove to the church, and he installed himself in the apartment that he was given by the church. Fast-forward a few days, weeks, I don’t remember, later: he calls me up across the street, and he says, “Cora, guess who’s in my office!” “Who’s in your office?” “Richard Barnet, from the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Will you come over?” So I said, “Sure.” So I walk across the street, go to the office—had never been there before, had never been in Riverside Church before, except in the basement for WRVR. I knew
Bill said, “Cora, we’re talking about a program for disarmament at the Riverside Church, as part of my ministry,” his ministry, “and will you run it?” [laughs] And I laughed. I said, “Well, Bill, I’ll find someone to run it.” Then I designed a program right there. I said, “Let’s do this.” I created a little program idea, and they loved it. Obviously I was the person I found. [laughs] For ten years—they were ten remarkable years—I ran The Riverside Church Disarmament Program.
One of the slogans was “Reverse the Arms Race,” and I did organize conferences, and concerts.
Q: When had you first met Bill Coffin?
Weiss: Bill and I probably met during the Clergy and Laity—originally called Clergy and Laymen—Concerned About the War in Vietnam [CALCAV]. We worked together in the antiwar movement. So it would be mid-’60s.
Q: He would have been involved in some of those meetings for The Mobilization?
Weiss: Oh, yes. But always representing CALC—Clergy and Laity Concerned. And I, representing Women Strike for Peace.
Q: So you had seen him in action?
Weiss: Oh, yes. We were in action together. And don’t forget: that’s ’78. In ’72, we were in
Q: So he was a known object, a known person to you.
Weiss: Oh, we were dear, dear friends.
Q: What was he like? I never met him, I never heard him preach, I never— Weiss: He was a big, warm bear. He was funny, he played an incredible piano. He used to play the piano at our house whenever he came. He sang. He spoke Russian fluently, because he had worked for the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] during the Second World War, and, well, that’s—his story is in his books. He was warm and funny, and very loving, and very caring, and just a fantastic human being. And very smart. He was very courageous, and risk-taking, to hire this Jewish woman to run a program in a Protestant church. And to have a peace program in a church as part of the official church ministry. It was the only one in America.
Q: Was your being Jewish ever an issue?
Weiss: No. It was never, ever suggested that I should pray, or be part of a religious ceremony, or anything. I went to a number of sermons on Sunday because he was one of the most extraordinary preachers of sermons that always had a moral or a political little hook to them. I also did programs about disarmament following the sermons. We had a program on the ninth
Q: We had a conference there.
Weiss: Did you? And we could take any room we wanted, and there was a beautiful room on the ninth floor of the tower with a fireplace. We filled it at least one Sunday a month, and sometimes more often, with interesting people who were coming through town, to talk about issues that were timely. Church members came, and non-church members came. We had a great volunteer crew from among the members. Wonderful, wonderful devoted women. I think to a woman— Q: All women?
Weiss: Mostly women. I think, to a woman—to a person—I spoke at all of their funerals in the church. They were great people. There was one other Jew, who was an artist who did a lot of our artwork that we turned into greeting cards that we sold for income for the program. We probably raised at least thirty or forty percent of our expenses by selling things that we prepared, that we wrote, or that—This woman, her last name was [Ellen R.] Simon [phonetic], she was Canadian, and she did a beautiful stained glass at Princeton, in their chapel. It’s just very interesting. She was a stained glass expert.
Q: Where did the other percentage of the—
Weiss: Applying for grants. [laughter] Q: Who would you go to?
Weiss: There was a wonderful guy who lived very nearby, on 106th Street, or 110th Street, named Corliss Lamont. You know who that is?
Q: An old friend.
Weiss: He was a contributor to Columbia University. He gave us grants every year. We didn’t cost a lot, because we didn’t have to pay rent. I drew a salary, I think, for a year or two, and then that became too much to raise, so I stopped. We paid maybe one or two staff people, but everybody else who worked there were volunteers. It was wonderful. A wonderful ten years.
Q: Thinking back to that first meeting with Bill Coffin and Dick Barnet, you said that you sketched out a program. Do you have— Weiss: Can I remember it?
Weiss: I thought of bringing interest groups together at the church. So there would be representatives of mayors, representatives of trade unions, representatives of the community. I have the proposal somewhere.
Q: Oh, I’ve seen it.
Weiss: You’ve seen it?
Q: Oh yes, I’ve seen.
Weiss: Well then you know it better than I, from memory.
Q: No, I don’t have the initial proposal. But I do have the booklet that was put out on the program, year by year.
Weiss: Right. That was put out by a wonderful woman named June Lordwood [phonetic]— June—no, I brought a copy of it here—Marjorie [Keeler] Horton. I spoke at her funeral. This is terrific. If she hadn’t done this, we would not have any memory.
Q: I was trying to weave my way through that booklet. How would you categorize that program?
Weiss: Education for action. We cared about action, but we cared about an educated congregation, an educated citizenry. You didn’t have to be a member of the church to be part of the program. We created platforms for smart people around the country to speak. We gave the first platform of her life to Helen Caldicott. I’ll never forget the day she got off the plane, came to the church, Bill had his office with a bathroom that had a shower and a hand towel. She took a shower immediately, to wash off the plane, and came downstairs and spoke. We created an international platform, Chancel. We had a fireside chat between Bill Coffin and the Soviet—was he foreign minister? Or whatever.
We did things that nobody else was doing to bring people together. But the conferences were replicated, and the program was replicated in California, by a combination of a synagogue and a Protestant church. George Regas—oh, how did I remember that name?—was the minister of the church, and Rabbi [Leonard] Beerman was the rabbi of the synagogue, and they replicated our program. There was another one at Trinity Church in New Jersey, in Princeton, which also replicated the program. Then we used to do things—we created a program called Peace Sabbath, Peace Sunday, where we wrote sermons and mailed them out with flyers—that had beautiful artwork—to clergy around the country so that they would have at least one weekend—the Jews and Muslims on the Sabbath, and the Protestants on Sunday—at least one weekend devoted to peace, disarmament, action. They were educational sermons. We published them all.
Q: Now, were they Bill Coffin’s sermons, or—
Q: —written widely?
Weiss: —other people. We published everything we produced in something called blue books.
That was an idea that my father gave to me, because he remembered that a guy named Julius Haldeman? [Emanuel Haldeman-Julius]—I’m saying that with a question in mind, but I think that was his name—who produced the classics in a shape and size that would fit into a worker’s jacket pocket, so that workers going to work could read Shakespeare, or—classics. Sam said to me one day, “Why don’t you print the speeches that are delivered, so that more than the audience can see them?” It was called the blue books, because they all had a blue cover. I’ve been trying to get into the Riverside Church archives to retrieve them so that I could have a record of them, but it’s not been easy.
You know, the turn— It’s how many years since 1988? It was a ten-year program, from ’78 to ’88. We had a twentieth anniversary ceremony, actually, where Dick Barnet came, and Bill Coffin, and everybody who had worked there. Eric Kolbell, who’s now a practicing psychologist; David Schilling, who is now working on stockholder resolutions for the corporate responsibility program at the God Box; Michael Clark, whom I hired away from the social responsibility, corporate responsibility program at the God Box, ICCR Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility, to work for us, who was brilliant, and we did draft counseling together.
We had a great draft counseling center at the church. He’s now a minister of a small Methodist
Q: How did you divvy up the work? Did you have specialties?
Weiss: Everybody did something they never had done before. [laughter] Q: Like what?
Weiss: Well, we had a staff meeting every Tuesday morning for breakfast, and everybody brought food. Bill would come many of the mornings, and people on the staff of the church would come, and volunteers would come, and we talked about what we should do next. So we all had ownership in the whole program. We had at least one major conference a year, sometimes more. We had incredible speakers from everywhere, who loved to come. People never turned us down, because it became an international platform. It became the organizing center for the June 12, 1982 demonstration in Central Park with one million people: the largest demonstration against nuclear weapons ever. We just had an anniversary this year of the June 12th, ’82 demonstration, because we combined it with the memorial service for Jonathan [E.] Schell. I did one of the speeches, linking the two.
Q: In reading this, it struck me that the conferences very often were organized by the U.N.’s schedule. A U.N. session on disarmament would be matched by a conference on disarmament.
There seemed to be a certain kind of synergy between the two.
Weiss: Well, the synergy was the cause for initiating the program, because it was initiated for the