«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: Yes. Very good friend. I met Palme because when I went to Vietnam in 1969 with a proposal to establish this Committee of Liaison, the Vietnamese—to their credit—were very smart, and decided to have somebody else engaged in the prisoner of war issue, so that I wouldn’t be hanging out by myself. It was a kind of protection that they were creating for us. A head of state, prime minister of Sweden, and we physically never met. I don’t even think we spoke on the telephone. But I knew that if anything should ever happen, Olof Palme was there to support us. So one day—I don’t remember what the year was. In the ’60s. Palme was in New York, and I invited him to the house in Riverdale—I haven’t told you this story?
Q: When he was talking and they were— Weiss: And they were recording.
Q: They were recording outside— Weiss: So it’s already on there?
Q: Yes, you told me that story. Yes.
Weiss: Three guys showed up in blue raincoats, and I had no idea which one was Palme. That was the beginning of a long, wonderful friendship, not only with Palme, but with Lisbet, his wife, whom I adore, and who became an important member of the executive committee of
she would come. After Palme was assassinated, she came for dinner, and we had a big round table that I had bought in Stockholm at the time of the funeral. Somebody once told me that when you’re sad from a funeral, you go out and spend money. So I bought—we were renovating our dining room, and I bought a huge, round, thick pine table for $500. It sat twelve people. And it cost $500 to ship. [laughter] So when she came for dinner, the secret service came ahead of her, and made sure that she would not sit with her back to the windows. So she lived a life, after his assassination, as a potential target.
So Palme. We went to Stockholm. I spoke at his funeral, but you know that story already. We went to Stockholm, Peter and I. Wait, back up. We were not only friends with Palme but with Lisbet, and with what were called Palme’s Boys. Palme’s Boys were a group of young men who wrote his speeches, who accompanied him on meetings, who were terrific. They included Jan Eliasson, who’s now the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, and was an ambassador from Sweden to the U.N.; Pierre Schori, who was an ambassador to the U.N.; Hans Dahlgren, whom I invited to be a speaker at an International Peace Bureau meeting that I was running in Italy; Mats Hellström. I mean—It’s interesting that I remember their names. They were remarkable people, who all became somebody in subsequent governments after Palme’s assassination. And friends. I have tons of friends in Sweden, and it’s wonderful.
Palme once had Peter and me up to his office in the—Riksdag? Wherever his office was. It was after hours, so there was nobody in the building, and we were on our own. He loved being on his own. He couldn’t bear having the secret service always with him, which is why he was
took us into what was called the Safe Room. In case the building was attacked, in case there was some reason why he had to be protected, there was this incredible lead-lined space that he was taken to. I’m sure that every head of government has some kind of space like that. But of course, we’ve never been to one, and Peter and I were in his safe space with him. Palme once taught me how to eat raw herring, and I have a wonderful picture somewhere of him with a herring hanging over his mouth, and just said, “Just take it all in. Eat the whole herring.” Olof Palme was a remarkable human being, and he came to speak at Riverside Church. His opening line—and I don’t think I remember anybody else’s opening line, of all of the dozens of people who spoke. “I’ve seen war. War is ugly.” He had just come from Iran. Iran, Iraq, and the Iran-Iraq War. “The face of war is ugly,” I think he said. He was incredible. After he was assassinated, I created the Olof Palme Memorial Lecture on Disarmament and Development, and the first speaker was Oliver Tambo, from South Africa. So these are the link— Q: I’m really going to get to Oliver Tambo and Allan Boesak.
Weiss: Well, that was a pretty unusual combination. It was the first time that they had been in public together. Allan was the UDF [United Democratic Front]—?
Q: Yes, I’ve forgotten what— Weiss: It was an ugly, ugly scene. Had to do with extramarital. Sex is always the downer.
Q: But you know, as I listen to you talk, we started out talking about networks, but talking about each one of these people, what you have outlined is—I talked about brick by brick by brick, so it’s exactly what you’ve done in this conversation, is to move brick, by brick, by brick to an ever-expanding group of people.
Q: And you could do that, probably, with almost everyone that you brought to Riverside.
Weiss: I got Michael Manley a lectureship at Columbia University, where he delivered— three?—lectures, I think. But all of that was because he came to Riverside first. Who else have you got on your list? How about— Q: Robert Lifton, and Dom Hélder Câmara.
Weiss: Now, Dom Hélder. Let’s stay with him for a second. Dom Hélder Câmara was the archbishop of Recife, Brazil. He was very short, and always had a smile on his face. He’s the first Catholic priest who slept in our house. [laughs] He was an amazing human being. I picked
back. I drove him through East Harlem, and Harlem, and Manhattan, and pointed out the abandoned buildings, and therefore the abandoned people. That made a huge impression on him.
He had a speaking gig at Manhattan College in Riverdale—which was a Catholic school run by Brothers—and a speaking gig at Riverside. He came with Studs Terkel to the conference. I have a wonderful picture of him, and Studs Terkel, and Vinie Burrows on the night that they spoke.
So I’m driving him to the church. Bill Coffin did not have a car, and he was the senior minister, and there was a parking space for the senior minister, and it had a number one on it. I drove right into it, because it was given to me, because I had a car. I had to drive to work every day. He never forgot that. “Cora Weiss, numera una.” I brought him home for dinner, because he was staying with us. We were sitting at the dinner table, and he said to me, “Please give the grace.” Well, my goodness! Cora Weiss, grace! I’d never heard a grace, much less given one. We argued back and forth, until I could persuade him that as the honorary guest, he should do the grace. I think he finally succumbed. I put him in our son’s bedroom. Our kids were gone by then. And then the breakfast. I went into the room, and the bed had not been touched. He created an altar out of Danny’s work table, and he stayed up all night praying.
He was a deeply, profoundly religious human being, who cared deeply about people; who was dedicated to eliminating poverty, violence, and war; and when he came to speak at Manhattan College, where I took him—so, I accompanied him—there was a statue of Jesus on the chancel,
and instead of speaking to the audience, he spoke to Jesus. And he had a conversation with Jesus:
“What are you doing about the poor people? What are you doing about the abandoned people in
Riverside, and he brought everybody to tears, and to their feet. It was a tragedy when he lost his post as archbishop. I can’t remember who the pope was, but he was no good. A no-good pope!
Because Dom Hélder was too progressive. He supported the workers’ movement in Brazil.
Q: Yes. The liberationists.
Weiss: The peasant movement. And the liberation struggle in Central America. But if there was one guy in the Church— Q: It’s an interesting combination.
Weiss: I adored him.
Q: During that period of time, you also took a number of trips abroad, and the brochure talks about how you reported on those trips.
Weiss: Oh, yes.
Q: You went to Nicaragua?
Weiss: I did. I went to Nicaragua in ’82. I can’t remember—I don’t remember the date. But in any event, doesn’t matter. I went with a group, and I remember we took an old plane from
Q: The Mosquito Coast?
Weiss: Yes. Because there was a remarkable woman named Helen—with a C. Cummings? Can’t remember—who was a doctor, and she invited us. On the way over, the plane flew very close to the ground. We were sitting in the plane with seatbelts on, but only around our waists. And a door fell out of the plane. That wasn’t the most important thing that happened. [laughs] But it was pretty interesting. Out of that trip came the idea that we should have a Nicaragua-Honduras education project, to try to bring Americans who were strategic opinion makers to see the difference between Honduras and Nicaragua. This is post-Sandinista Revolution. And we did.
We established a committee, and one of the women who worked on the committee was named— is named—Jody Williams. She was a committee staff member working with Lisa Vene Klasen on the Nicaragua-Honduras Education Project, and now, of course, she’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work on landmines. She was influenced about the need to eliminate landmines because of her experience in El Salvador, where she just met too many children without limbs, without eyes, without arms and legs. She ran an extraordinary landmine ban campaign.
Q: You also went to Australia and New Zealand.
Weiss: I did. I was invited to Australia to speak. Peter came with me. The program went on and on, and finally I was the speaker, and I think it was about nine o’clock at night, and when I
remember wanting to go to New Zealand, because [David Russell] Lange was prime minister.
And Lange was the guy who had the cojones to say to [George P.] Shultz, “No nuclear ships in our ports.” It was the first time in history that an American secretary of state went to New Zealand, A. B, Shultz threatened to never import another bar of butter or another leg of lamb.
Those were the two major exports of New Zealand. There are more sheep than people in New Zealand. And Lange held on. A woman named [Marilyn] Waring crossed the aisle and persuaded the opposition members of Parliament to support the “No nuclear ship.” And a woman named Helen Clark led the campaign against nuclear ships. Helen Clark, today, is the head of the United Nations Development Programme [UNDP], the largest agency of the U.N., with billions of dollars of budget that she has to raise every year. I think six bil—I’m not sure of the number.
When I went in 1985—I think, January—I called her to invite her to come speak in America, and I had no authority to issue that invitation. But I had the gall. I think gall is one of the major things in my life, I guess. [laughs] Her husband Peter—Peter Davis—answered the phone, and said, “Oh, Helen is too busy to talk.” And I said, “Oh! I came all the way from America. But would you please tell her that this is Cora Weiss from New York, and I’d like her to come and speak at a Freeze [Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign] conference.” Now, I was not an officer of The Freeze. I wanted to abolish nuclear weapons, not freeze them. But the Freeze conference was the biggest thing happening at that time, and I thought I was safe in inviting her to speak and then coming to persuade them to let her speak. So when I came back to America, I went to a Freeze meeting, and I remember being kept waiting outside before I could come in to try to persuade them to let her speak. Anyway, all
Q: Why did they keep you waiting?
Weiss: Because I wasn’t one of them. I was an outsider.
Q: Would that be Seymour Melman?
Weiss: No, Seymour was SANE [Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy]. I was SANE. Freeze was—The Freeze became SANE/FREEZE when I led a campaign in SANE with a very nice woman who was one of the administrators of it to merge the two. And then we had a merge ceremony, I think in the Detroit conference of SANE, and we read the merge document simultaneously, the two of us together. It was very nice. Those were— You know, it’s like the Mobe and the Moratorium. They were competing efforts. I would never look at that and repeat those experiences again. It’s so important to bring people together from the get-go.
Q: Yes. Looking back, some of the— Weiss: Waste of energy, waste of time, waste of money. We have to learn to live together.
Q: The issues that seemed so important—
Q: They fade away. They fade away. You also went to Nairobi.
Weiss: I’ve been to Nairobi a number of times. The first time was in 1959, when I ran the airlift, African American Students Foundation, and I had established a lot of friends, and then Tom [Thomas Joseph Odhiambo] Mboya was still alive. He was subsequently assassinated. All my friends from Africa were assassinated. It’s terrible. I went to Nairobi in 1985 for the Third World Women’s Conference.
Q: It was the U.N. Decade of the Women.
Weiss: Yes. 1985. So it was the Women’s Forum. That was terrific. It was the Cold War, still, and we created a peace tent. We found, and were given, a wonderful knoll to put the peace tent on. It was a little burp in the ground, and it was at the university. Barrow—what was her first name? Dame [Ruth] Nita Barrow, who was from Barbados, was the head of the Forum. She was a short, almost square, very, very heavy, wonderful, wonderful human being. Dame Nita Barrow.
One day, we got to our peace tent land before the tent was erected, and we found Pepsi-Cola setting up its stand, and we said to them, “This is our peace tent’s land! You can’t have it.” And they sort of said, “Screw you,” and proceeded to set up their Pepsi, and we called Nita. She came and sat herself down on that piece of turf, and said to Pepsi-Cola, “This is their peace tent.” Dame Nita Barrow got rid of Pepsi-Cola. She has been a heroine of mine ever since.
Inside the peace tent, we had meetings all the time, and there was going to be a meeting with the