«CORA WEISS ORAL HISTORY PROJECT The Reminiscences of Cora Weiss Columbia Center for Oral History Columbia University PREFACE The following oral ...»
Weiss: It was January 15, 1970. I had just come back from North Vietnam for Christmas of ’69. I was asked, I guess, by Bill [William M.] Kunstler, who was one of the two attorneys for the defendants, to be a character witness for Tom [Thomas E.] Hayden, because during the anti-war years (which were still on) we worked in the anti-war movement. Not always together, but he had his organization, I worked in the Committee of Liaison and Women Strike for Peace and The Mobilization, so I think that’s how it happened. Didn’t I tell the story? I can’t remember what I read of what I told.
Weiss: I was called as a witness. My husband came and our oldest daughter, Judy, who took the day off from school, which has since become a national holiday. Was it a national holiday in 1970? I doubt it. Bill Kunstler came to pick us up at the hotel. He had a migraine headache. He tossed his cookies in the spittoon in front of the elevator. I was anxious as all get out because a) I’d never been in a courtroom before, b) I’d never been a witness, c) I’d never had a lawyer who had a migraine.
Q: Had you talked to Tom Hayden before about your testimony?
Weiss: No. No. We got to the courtroom. I was sent up to the witness waiting room where Arlo Guthrie was sitting in a huge Abe Lincoln black hat, which was wrapped in the American flag.
Peter and Judy were sitting somewhere in the audience in the courtroom, which was absolutely packed—so packed that when I walked in, Tom came to the door and escorted me down the very narrow aisle to the witness stand. The defendants all rose. I think they sang a song. I sat in the witness chair, which was as close to the jurors as you are to me now.
Q: About three feet.
Weiss: Where the jury was sitting in the jury box. She was a wonderful looking woman, AfricanAmerican woman, and I think the jurors were as awed and fascinated by the choreography of the courtroom as any of us. There was silence, and I was scared, really frightened. I felt I had to take a little bit of control of the situation, so I said to the judge, “Your Honor, can we have a moment
short and he wheeled around in his chair, and he said, “The witness from the Bronx doesn’t know that I was the first northern judge to desegregate a school.” And Abbie Hoffman got up and sang “We Shall Overcome.” [laughter] It was a circus.
I had a letter given to me by a young girl, who was a survivor of the My Lai Massacre, whom I interviewed while I was in Vietnam in December ’69. I tried to read it. It was written to “Dear American Aunties,” A-U-N-T-I-E-S, which was a friendly, familiar way of speaking to women. I was stopped by the prosecution, but the jurors were fascinated. I doubt they had met anyone who had been to North Vietnam before. Not an American mother with little kids.
I spoke about Tom Hayden. I answered all the questions that I was asked. “Did I hear him speak?
Did I hear him say such-and-such?” Whatever they asked me, I answered. Then I was dismissed and Tom escorted me out of the room and the defendants all rose and sang another song. The prosecution asked that my testimony be stricken from the record and it was. But I believe it’s in a book that was written about the trial. How he got what was on the cutting room floor, I don’t know, but he did. That’s the story.
Q: Did they tell you what the grounds for the dismissal might have been?
Q: I wanted to ask you about your trip to Cuba. When you were an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, you went to Cuba in pre-Castro [Fidel Castro] days. What was that like?
Weiss: There were discount rates, I guess is the best way to put it, for students. It was pre-Castro.
I went with another friend from University of Wisconsin. We stayed at a fancy hotel. I assume it was a good hotel. It was all part of that airplane ticket. We used to date the bellhops in the evening because we were college co-eds, they were young guys, and we’d go dancing and all of a sudden at midnight, they would say, “We have to go.” We didn’t understand why they had to go. This must have been 1954 or ’5. Not after ’55. We subsequently found out that the reason they had to leave us at midnight was because they were on the night duty to guard the caches of ammunition that were beginning to be collected for what would become Castro’s revolution. We had no idea that that’s what it was all about. How I found out about that—I must have learned about it subsequently.
Q: Where’s your current work?
Weiss: Right this minute?
Q: Yes. Yes, I have here the resolution about this new Vietnam program that the Defense Department is going to—this might prolong—I just got it off the Internet—it’s a critique—but
Weiss: Did you sign it?
Q: Yes. Yes.
Weiss: Good for you. So, a group of people have been coming together on the telephone and on email, to do a “lessons learned from the Vietnam War” on the anniversary of the first teach-ins (Ann Arbor and Berkeley) and the first early demonstrations against the war. It was stimulated by the Department of Defense, which has a huge amount of money and a huge number of staff people working on whitewashing the U.S. position in Vietnam. And building up the heroism of the soldiers, which is fine, but without recognizing the tragedy that occurred to so many soldiers.
Either they’re dead, or wounded, which may last for a lifetime, or they were exposed to Agent Orange, or they have PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. We didn’t call it PTSD then, I don’t think, but now it’s referred to that way. And the tragic loss of wonderful young people, to say nothing of the tragic loss of the million or two million civilians in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos. So, there’s going to be a positive event of learning the lessons of war. It’ll be April 30 to May 2.
Q: Of 2015?
Weiss: Yes. April 30, of course, is the date of the end of the war. There’s going to be an academic conference because people are concerned about how the Vietnam War is taught.
Textbooks, teachers, training. Then there will be a civil society day. All of that is being discussed
Q: The critique here indicates that the program that the Pentagon is planning is not going to say much at all about the anti-war protests.
Weiss: That’s why we have to say something for ourselves. The New York Times gave it a frontpage story, which was quite remarkable. The woman who wrote it is staying with the issue.
We’ll see what she comes up with next.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?
Weiss: I just had a very wonderful experience. I was inducted as an honorary member of the International Society of Women Educators that has a Greek title, Delta Kappa Gamma. I always thought it was a sorority with Greek titles, but they insist it’s a society, started by a woman in
1929. I didn’t know until after I returned to the city that the other honorary members include Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, Hillary Clinton. My jaw dropped. That was lovely.
I had to “pay” for the honorary membership by giving a half-hour talk, which included a peace lesson. The audience was a hundred women, half of whom were probably retired educators and the other half of whom were primary and secondary school teachers. I practiced a peace lesson with their permission. I asked them if they were ready to learn a peace lesson and they loved it and it worked. So that was wonderful, I must say. I mean, I’ve gotten awards, but this was a rather nice award. I’m going to be given an honorary doctorate in May, which took my breath away when I was invited. Doctor of Humanities at Adelphi University. That’s quite heady, too, I
Q: That’s going to be next June?
Weiss: May, yes.
Q: May. Terrific. Terrific. I want to thank you for all the time and effort you’ve put into this project.
Weiss: Well, thank you for doing it and for all the research that you did, which overwhelmed me.
Q: Well, sometimes we have people at a disadvantage because we’ve looked over things that they’ve forgotten about years and years and years and years ago and we dig up all these kinds of things that are beyond the pale of memory anymore. But thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Weiss: The pleasure is mine.