Interview with William Sloane Coffin, 1982
After serving in the CIA and the military, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin later became an activist in the Civil Rights, anti-Vietnam War and Nuclear Disarmament movements. Here he discusses his personal evolution and the beginnings of the anti-war movement at university teach-ins. He was a founder of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam and recalls efforts to bring Martin Luther King, Jr., into the peace movement. Coffin describes his civil disobedience with other clergy, for which they were convicted of aiding and abetting draft resisters. He recounts an event where students turned over their draft cards, some burning them. Finally, he comments on the fracturing of the peace movement in the latter days of the war and his views on American imperialism.
United States--History--20th century, Civil rights movements--United States, Vietnam War, 1961-1975, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements--United States, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion, Cold War, Religion and politics, Draft, United States--Foreign relations--1945-1989, United States--Foreign relations--Asia, Vietnamese reunification question (1954-1976), Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Personal narratives, American, Vietnam--Politics and government, War and society, Youth and war, Imperialism, Vietnam War, 1961-1975--United States, United States--History--1961-1969, King, Martin Luther, Jr., 1929-1968
Social progressiveness and the Cold War mentality
Vietnam, Rev. Sloane Coffin,
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When you’re ready.
Oh, you want me just to start describing?
When I was an undergraduate at Yale I was a real cold war warrior. I’d been for two and a half years a liaison to the Russian Army in Czechoslovakia and Germany. Uh, I’ve been involved, I’m said to say, in the forceful repatriation of uh Russian soldiers who had fought in the German Army against Stalin. I was convinced that Stalin was the only man in the 20th Century that I knew of who could make Hitler look like a Boy Scout.
On the other than hand it was very clear to me that communism could only be defeated with another form of the left. You could never defeat communism with the form of the right. So, while I was vigorously anti-communist and supported basically Truman, uh, and other Americans opposing the Soviet Union, it always seemed to me that Joe McCarthy and people on the right were absolute disaster and were playing the communist game for them.
What was your vision of America and its role in the world at this time and could you mention in the context of your answer the fact that you were in the CIA and why you joined?
Well, I was uh a very normal uh red blooded American patriot. I was four years in the Army in WWII and then from 1950 to 1953 I was in the CIA in the Russian field. And uh basically uh...domestically my big quarrel was uh that we didn’t treat blacks correctly. I was not on to the women’s issue at that time. Uh, I felt obviously a nation is judged by the way it treats the poor and we had plenty of room for progress.
But abroad, I thought we were doing fairly well. The Marshall Plan was an expression of pragmatic generosity uh, Churchill’s cold war speech at Fulton, Missouri didn’t bother me because I really felt that the Soviets had to be very vigorously opposed. I was for George Kennan’s containment policy.
Consciousness of inequality in the U.S. and Vietnam
That’s very nice. When you were at Yale, again this is later when many people were involved in civil rights, could you assess the impact of the people who had been at Yale, going to the south, begin active and then coming back. What was the impact of their returning to their own, milieu, you know, with the experiences of what had happened to them in the south?
There weren’t that many of them.
Yeah, a few students.
Th—you want me...?
See, I think basically values are not so much taught as they are caught. They're caught in a concrete value forming experience. I think everybody in America agrees that all men are created equal. But how many feel the monstrosity of inequality? Those that do are blacks, or others who have been discriminated against, or in the case of the early civil rights days, those few students at Yale who say they went down south in the summer of ’64 and worked and uh came back with a firsthand experience of discrimination.
Now, let’s immediately say you shouldn’t have had to go down south. You didn’t have to go down south to have that kind of experience. But, it was more drastic. It was clearer in the south then it was in the north.
Let’s talk, let’s go on from there to the impact of civil rights on the anti-war movement. It was something which you had said to Marilyn the other day which interested me a lot, that people who could see injustice here found it easier to see it in Vietnam, and that it was not the work of foreigners there. If you could just express that idea--again the civil right.
There was a natural, uh...
Could you please start again?
Okay. It’s often the case that those furthest from the seat of power are nearer to the heart of things. Those community organizers in Mississippi or in Chicago uh could see at firsthand the injustices in Chicago and let’s say in the south. And those same people had no problems seeing the same kinds of injustices in Vietnam 8,000 miles away where most of the peasants worked for absentee landowners who took 25 percent of the take.
And uh, it wasn’t hard for people who were used to living with injustice at home to recognize that the South Vietnam government could never talk convincingly to its people about their own national independence or their own land reform or other forms of social justice. So, it was often the case, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it was a community worker in Chicago or Mississippi who was far closer to the truth of what was going on in Vietnam than, let’s say, a McNamara, a Rusk or a President Johnson.
Coffin on American interventionism in Vietnam
Could you add to that the notion that the McNamara’s the Rusk’s, those people that would be the common assumption was that it was the work of foreigners in Vietnam. In other words, it wasn’t indigenous, whereas you and others saw it differently.
The sad fact of the matter is the American people were never to be told the truth, not by any of the men they elected to the presidency. LBJ uh used to tell us what is at stake is the cause of freedom. Well, hell, if freedom was really the concern of the American government, then why weren’t all of us crying bloody murder at Batista before Castro, at Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, why weren’t we desperately concerned with the plight of blacks, let’s say, in Portuguese Angola at that time, or South Africa? It was clear that the plight of any black African in South Africa was worse then that of an average Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh.
So, it was ridiculous to talk about this as the cause of freedom. Then the State Department disgraced itself by coming out with a white paper that never would have passed a freshman history class saying that the war began with the invasion of North Vietnamese into the south in 1959, 1960. Well, anybody who knew anything about the history of that place knew that Vietnam, Indochina was one country from 1945 on. And the war against the French established a temporary military, but not a permanent political line at the 17th parallel.
Elections were supposed to be held by 1956 and the elections were sabotaged by the United States in cahoots with the South Vietnamese government. So to say that the war was started when they invaded from the north into the south was ridiculous. The truth of the matter was, that we were never told, was the United Sates was engaged in a massive, unilateral and military intervention in the civil affairs of another country.
Which isn’t to take sides, mind you, between north and south at all. Our position basically was that we were against intervention. The Soviets intervened to make sure a country stays communist, we Americans intervened in a country to make sure it doesn’t go communist, and on both sides the interventions are wrong.
The destructiveness of polarization in Cold War attitudes
You’ve answered part of the next question. But I want to get it in a slightly different form. You talked about in the early protests the need for teach-ins. That there had to be an educational thrust in addition to this emotional argument which was very much afloat. If you could just say that, and if you wouldn’t mind recapitulating this argument about not only foreigners from the north, but the fact that there was a communist influence from outside. That was the argument that was heard from the State Department.
Uh, interestingly enough, it was a graduate student in baroque music at Yale who first turned me on to the war. He asked me when I was going to speak up against it and I said, “What do you want me to say?” And he said, “I’ll bring you my file.” And this harpsichordist arrived with a file that thick in which he had articles from French newspapers, British newspapers, magazine articles from our own country, as well as other countries. And I read that for five hours that night. At the end of which I was convinced that he was right. This was a matter about which one could not stay silent and certainly couldn’t stand up and cheer.
And the teach-ins that followed in ’65 starting at the University of Michigan, played a terribly important role because they gave a lot of intellectual content to the opposition. And we had to know the facts, at least all the relevant ones, and we had to be able to state them better than the government could. And secondly, the teach-ins played a very important nourishing role because the sense of togetherness that came with being in one hall for four hours at a time, and nobody wanted to leave, as one professor after another student after another visiting dignitary came in to talk, that sense of togetherness was a terrifically supportive thing at a time when you were called communists, traitor, and things like that.
Um, of course, the government was all wrong in its understanding of communism. I think American anti-communism is probably as blind an ideology as Soviet communism. And we can’t seem to understand that you can’t have a revolt without revolting conditions. And communists can’t come in and start a revolt. Communists may light a match, but the important question is how come there’s a fuse attached to a powder keg?
And to say that the communists started it all were leaving it all, Soviet communists or Chinese communists, and the government always varied on this one. In Vietnam it was like saying the black rising in Watts or in New York or any of the other twenty-seven cities where we had riots in ’67 were all fomented by outsiders coming in. No Ku Klux Klaner in the country would believe for a moment that black discontent is started and led by communists. And yet, most Americans buy that line that discontent in the Third World is started and led by communists. It’s equally ridiculous on both sides.
Wonderful. I’m going to stop and find out how much film we’ve got.
Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam
It was um, I think in late ’64 or ’65 that we started what came to be known as Clergy Concerned About the War in Vietnam—it was called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. This was a group of uh...men and women who felt enormous anguish uh over the war. Uh, we were called “wild eyed idealists” but I think it would be more accurate to say we were experiencing a clear eyed revolt...
...uh against the...
Hang on, let’s cut. It's too...
The clergy found themselves uh in a very interesting, difficult...dilemma very often. Uh, first of all, the average American thinks church shouldn’t meddle in politics, which is probably what uh Pharaoh said to Moses, and uh most churches are more concerned with free love, let’s say, then with free hate and don’t consider issues of war and peace to be the legitimate concern of the religious community. It’s very unbiblical. The Bible is much more concerned with war and peace than it is with drinking, sex, and any of these things.
But, it was hard for clergy who felt that way sometimes to deal with people whom they loved dearly in their congregation, but who didn’t want the clergy dealing with this issue. And I remember long evenings when we tried to see what were the specific religious issues that the church should deal with. Obviously, it was um the fact that war has a blood stained face. And from which we have no right to avert our gaze. But the Pentagon and the media was uh describing the war in the most antiseptic sort of way—you know, the destruction of the infrastructure, which didn’t tell you that women and children were being slaughtered in order that guerrillas wouldn’t have anything to feed on. You know.
Or you see a pilot being interviewed at night, and the reporter wouldn’t say, “How many did you kill?” He’d say, “Well, Captain, how do you think it went?” And the Captain, a very nice looking guy obviously a perfectly decent husband and father type, said “Well, I think we did a good job.” And if it weren’t for the uniform you wouldn’t know he hadn’t been out back cleaning up the yard. So, we had to bring the bloody face of war home to the American people because if we were going to be killing people, the American people ought to know that.
Secondly, we had to remind people that uh agreements or unity is not based on agreement but on mutual concern. And that there’s no virtue in national unity if it’s based on folly. Thirdly, and this was a very difficult thing to do, we had to uh remind people that sacrifice in and of itself confers not sanctity. St. Paul said, “Though I give my body to be burned,” the very stuff of heroism, “but have not love, it profiteth me nothing.”
But if your own husband, lover or son has been killed in the war, it’s pretty hard to accept the fact that that person’s blood doesn’t make that cause one wit more or less sacred. That was a very tough one that the clergy had to deal with. We did not have to question the sincerity of our leaders, rather it was the passionate conviction of the rightness of their cause. Any clergy worth his salt or her salt knows that in a divorce there’s no such thing as innocent party. And one of the reasons we’re enjoined to love our enemies is because of the part we play in making them our enemies. So our role was to complicate (chuckle) a picture that Johnson and Nixon and Kissinger and others ware trying to make much too simple.
And then of course, there were the youth who if they went to college were, in effect, draft dodgers according to the draft. Because as long as you stayed in college you wouldn’t be drafted. So these youths who were very conscientious felt, “...well, maybe I should be getting out of college and make myself eligible to the draft like anybody else.” And then there were those who resisted the draft, as you remember, who turned in their draft cards. Well, clergy can’t train youth to be conscientious only to desert youth in their hour of conscience.
So the pastors of the country had to stand by the youth who were taking a stand of conscience. And that was very costly to uh many of them because congregations uh uh are a little loath to have too much conscience (chuckling) brought to the floor in the church, I don’t want to be overly harsh on the church. But that’s the way it’s apt to be. So the clergy found themselves in a very difficult dilemma. Catholic bishops were very anti-communist.
So it was very hard to find a Catholic bishop who would say, “I’m anti-communist but I think this war is evil.” Rabbis were very afraid that if they opposed Johnson on the war in Vietnam, Johnson would not support them on Israel. So all these things were very much in the picture when it came to the clergy.
M.L.K. and the Anti-War Movement
Very good. Um, why did you want Martin Luther King on board in the peace movement? And could you describe his dilemma as to whether or not to join up as you saw it?
Mm. I remember one evening we were sitting around in President Bennett’s uh apartment, the President of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Rabbi Heschel, who was one of the great Rabbis of this country, said “You know, we need one voice, the voice that everybody would hear.” And all of us, like that, (snapping fingers) knew who he meant.
So I said, “Well, I happen to have his number, and I’ll give him a call.” So I called Atlanta and uh he was at home, and I told him who was in the room and what Heschel had said, and uh, Martin Luther King was a wonderful listener, he uh, I just kept hearing “uh hmm, um hmm, (with a southern accent) Well, Bill, I’ve been thinkin' about this m’self, y’know,” and he said he appreciated a great deal the interest that we’d shown and that he’d get back to us.
Eight months later he elected to speak out against the war in Riverside Church, and uh Bennett and Heschel and that wonderful uh old historian Commager from Amherst were also there to support what he said. And what made it so hard for uh Martin was that...so many leaders of other civil rights groups and some of his own advisors were telling him, “Do not mix up domestic uh the domestic civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam. If you oppose Johnson on this you can be sure he’s going to cut down on the war on poverty, and so forth.”
And when King made his speech every single civil rights leader of all the other major organizations criticized him for making it, for dragging the civil rights movement into the war. And, I’ll never forget the New York Times, perhaps predictably, was unable to see what he meant when he said that the United States today is the greater purveyor of violence uh in the world. So he paid a very heavy price for his stand. But that was typical. If you take a strong moral position usually you don’t expect to be justified right away, it takes time.
Conscription evasion as civil disobedience
Why did you decide to engage in civil disobedience and what were the risks? You talked, I think to Marilyn as well, in your book bout the passivity of Congress, that that was part of the reason. Could you talk about the decision to take the next step?
Well, civil disobedience is not something you resort to as a first resort—uh not in a democracy. So, we didn’t. I mean, we signed petitions, wrote our letters, went down to Washington, held our rallies, stood in silent vigils, did all the good democratic things in the great American tradition. But then the question arises. Suppose you’ve done all these things many times, and for many years...uh with no seeming effect?
Do you uh put your conscience to bed with a comforting thought, “Well, I did what I could, the President continues to escalate the war, and the law of the land is clear.” Would you say, “Well, having chosen the route of protest, I choose to pursue it to the end even if the end means going to jail”? And I think the choice you make, at that point, depends on how wrong you think the war is and how deeply you care about it.
My own feeling was that this war was so wrong that uh having done all the other things I just felt I would have to um commit civil disobedience. Now, it’s not an easy thing to do if you’re married and if you have small children. And it’s also not an easy thing to do because sometimes civil disobedience is the last refuge of the incompetent. They do things to make themselves feel better.
But they don’t improve the situation one little bit. So, whereas I have great sympathy for civil disobedience as a great religious and American tradition. Thoreau, early Quaker lady Anne Hutchinson [sic] said "Truth is my authority not some authority my truth.” Still, I am very critical of how we try to implement uh this principle.
And the occasion almost fell into my hands because my parishioners, students and because I had, people were nice enough to invite me to talk all over the country, I felt sort of a wider parish of students were turning in their draft cards. And what was their chaplain going to do? And the obvious thing was that the pastor should stand by his parishioners and the law of the land was clear. Section twelve of the National Selective Service Act said that anyone who counseled aids and abets anyone else, in uh evading or um...uh refusing draft is liable to the same punishment, which was uh five years in jail and $10,000.
So that seemed to be a very natural route for me and some of the others to follow. That we who were above draft age would support those who had turned in their draft cards saying that they refused to be drafted.
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Vietnam, SR #2509, TVP 00402, Continuation of Interview with Rev. Sloane Coffin.
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Vietnam, SR #2509, TVP 00402, Continuation of Interview with Rev. Sloane Coffin.
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There’s a fine uh hymn written by a former Harvard President [sic], James Russell Lowell, which goes “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide, In strife of truce with falsehood for the good or evil side...Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stand aside, Till the multitude make virtue of the fate they had denied.” I kept thinking that that moment to decide was fast approaching uh by about the summer of ’67.
And then in the spring, I guess it was, came out this call to resist illegitimate authority, as it was called, written, I think, by Raskin and uh Waskow—two people in the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington—and uh about 500 of us clergy, professors, writers were asked to assemble in New York at a press conference, sign this thing and declare that we were now ready to support, aid and abet, whatever that meant, young people who resisted the draft.
So we had this great call, and we didn’t know quite what to do with it. And then um we found out that on October 16th of ’67, yeah, youth had somehow mysteriously gathered its representatives somewhere in the country, uh had decided on a nationwide turn in, turn in of draft cards. And parenthetically these draft cards were really very funny because they were important for the enforcement of the liquor laws. But they were really totally unnecessary to the whole conscription process. But the law said you had to have this draft card on your person at all times.
So, the students, for the most part, had uh decided that they would have draft cards turn in in about fifteen or twenty different places throughout the country on one particular day. And Boston was chosen, and in Boston the Arlington Street uh Unitarian Church. And I was called and asked if I would, you know, give a major address. So I was really pleased because a church would give the whole operation perhaps a little more dignity and respectability.
And uh I was always worried about draft card burnings. That flame didn’t look Pentecostal to me, it looked (chuckling) unnecessarily hostile. Just like I think you shouldn’t burn the flag, you ought to wash the flag, you don’t burn the flag. We shouldn’t burn these draft cards, you ought to turn them in with great dignity, I thought. So this looked like a very promising operation. So then the thing was, how are we going to get the cameras to concentrate on something in the church when the press, you know, always wants to go for the sensational, as uh opposed to the valuable.
So if it’s outside and there’s violence, you can count on it that the press will be there in force. If it’s inside and dignified, nobody’s going to turn up. Well, I managed to get Sandy Vanocur of NBC interested. I said, “You know, they’re going to turn in their draft card in church. “ He said, “Jesus Christ.” I said, “That’s (chuckling) what it’s all about, Sandy, and uh so, get yourself up there and take this.”
So he was up there, you know, standing like a hockey coach behind these cameras, you know striding up and down telling them what to take. And then, to my horror, a very eloquent church historian pushed, put his finger out toward the candle that was on the alter and said that that candle belonged to uh William uh Channing, the founder of Unitarianism in this country, and that that sacred flame, you know, kept the truth alive, etc., etc. And he talked so eloquently that I could see all these draft resisters saying, “I’m going to take my card and put it in the sacred flame of Channing’s candle.” (chuckling)
Well, that’s exactly what they did, and I saw Sandy Vanocur, you know, telling his cameras to zoom in on that. And I said this is awful, you know. The whole thing’s being ruined. But fortunately, only about 60 did. And some 200 odd others gave their draft cards to us because the idea then was to take these draft cards, turn them into the Justice Department and call on all these people who had signed this uh call to resist illegitimate authority to appear in Washington outside the Justice Department Building in support of these people who were turning in their draft cards to the Justice Department itself.
Well, as it turns out, on camera it didn’t look quite so bad in the church. And the media began to take us a little more seriously, I think, about that time. They didn’t think we were all kooks, wide eyed idealists, and things like that. But then the thing that really got us in trouble was this turn in of draft cards at the uh Justice Department.
You okay, Kevin? Hold on just a sec.
Still rolling. Barbara was in that shot and you didn’t know who she was and uh...
Okay. Let’s go on to the next one. What happened at the Justice Department, and include what’s his name, Dickie Harris?
Oh, I’ll tell you the story of Dickie Harris if you don’t just use Dickie Harris, because that’s a distraction from the main part.
Okay. You don't—I wouldn’t make a big deal of Dickie Harris.
He's just part of the story.
Just mention him. Yeah, I don’t care.
Alright. Yeah. Well, these 500 uh writers, like Norman Mailer and uh John Hersey and professors like R. B. Sewell and Galston —people like that at Yale, whom I knew very well. And the clergy gathered un in front of the Justice Department to support these students who had turned in their draft cards. And it was the usual uh funny situation. First of all, we gathered in two churches proving that intellectuals can never get their act together.
And then the cops thought we were as dangerous as any marches on the Pentagon. You know, even Doctor Spock in his three piece suit looked like a hippy to them. You know, it was unbelievable how they can’t seem to see the difference. And they zoomed up and down on their motorcycles as if they were sheep dogs, y’know, guiding the sheep. But fortunately they were there. Because ahead of the column we suddenly realized we didn’t know the best way to get to the Justice Department (chuckling). So, if it hadn’t been for the police, we might never had made it.
When we got there we forgot the bullhorn, but there was a physicist in the crowd and he got a bullhorn. And uh we made a few uh fine speeches. I can remember Ashley Montagu saying that if the war in Vietnam is right, what’s there left to call wrong? And uh I guess I made uh the main speech, which was simply to say that uh we are here to support these young uh people in their hour of conscience, and if they are arrested for violating a law which violates their consciences, then we too must be arrested, for we hereby counsel them to continue to follow the dictates of their conscience, and we will aid and abet them in every way we can to resist the draft.
So we put ourselves on the line. Then ten of us were allowed to go inside...uh where we were met by somebody in a black suit and no face. And a walk down this interminable corridor and then into a room where there was another no-face black suit uh man at the end of a mahogany table and uh a lady over here ready to pour coffee and determined to be courteous about all this, the no-face black suited man said, “Would you all care for coffee?”
Well, we had in our crowd a nifty black guy. They all thought he had the bomb. Where he would have carried it I don’t know because his pants were so tight you couldn’t get a matchstick into the pocket. But all the secretaries were peering out the doors, you could see them point at him—“He must have it”—as he came down the corridor, you know. And uh, he says, (SHOUTING) “Coffin, man, unh!”
And the secretary got so frightened she poured more coffee in the saucers, y’know, then in the cup (chuckling). All this is good for comic relief in the middle of a rather difficult trying time. And uh, then we told uh Mr. McDonough, his name was, what we were there for, and Dickie gave him a good black rap, this was the black fella, and then McDonough took out a piece of paper and said that he’d like to read us something. At that point this black guy said, (with a southern accent) “Man, you ain’t go’n read that?” And he says, “Yes, that was my intent.” He said, (shouting) “I don’t have to listen to that, see you cats later.” And out went Dickie, with every movement just as graceful as a cat.
Well, McDonough looked visibly relieved that the one black guy was out of the way and there was no one but us middle class Whites left. So he read this pompous statement alleging that we were uh perhaps in violation of the law, all of which of course, we knew. And then, a very funny thing happened. He folded the paper and put it back in his coat and turned to me and said, “Now, Dr. Coffin, am I being tendered something?”
And I said, “Tendered something, Mr. McDonough?” And he says, “Yes. Tendered something.” I said, “Oh, yes,” catching on. I picked up this briefcase that had about 950 draft cards. I says, “You are hereby being tenderly tendered 950 draft cards with supporting statements from some 500 people who are now outside your building.” And he went (making a gesture) like this. And I said, “Shall we try it again, Mr. McDonough?” You know, and I offered it to him again, and again he went back like this. I couldn’t understand what was going on, you know. So I said, “Should we try the table, Mr. McDonough?” So I put the thing down on the table in front of him, you know.
Like that (chuckling). Arthur Waskow, who had been watching this like Wimbledon, you know, stood up in a sheet of rage and said, (yelling) “I can’t understand what’s going on here. You allege that we are guilty of crimes for which we offer you substantive proof.” And he slammed his hand down on the briefcase. “And you refuse to accept the evidence—where, man, is your oath of office?”
I thought it was terrific, you know. His partner told me afterwards that his sixth grade civics was not impressive. But in any case, the briefcase stayed there and we walked out. And we found out afterwards that uh the FBI was waiting in the next room, just waiting for us to get out in order to come in and pick up the evidence. And we certainly heard from them very shortly thereafter.
Diffusion and corruption of the Anti-War Movement
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Again, a reminder that looks so good under Nixon, why continue?
I should probably uh tell you that way back in ’65 I went to Paris to be part of a day’s conference on the war in Vietnam. And while I was there Jeanne Recoutour, a very famous French correspondent, asked me if I wouldn’t meet with Mai Van Bo, who was the ambassador from uhm, North Vietnam to Paris. So, I did. And he was a very civilized uh man, and we drank tea, as one always does with Vietnamese. And I was telling him that the peace movement was very weak and that le President Johnson est très fort, is very strong, and he smiled and he said, “Mon cher reverend, we have no illusions.
This whole matter is going to be settled on the battlefield.” And my heart sank. And I said, “How long will that take?” He said, “Une dizaine d’années.” Ten years, about. And that was ’65, I guess. Well, nine years later uh he was proven right. And this was always in the back of my mind. So that when the conditions seemed to be improving Nixon had had the practical wisdom to recognize China, though I can’t give him too much credit because all the time we were crying for him to do that he was telling us we were traitors, I remember. But anyhow, he had the practical wisdom to recognize China and uh he was bringing the boys home and it looked on the surface as if things were getting better.
But those who were closer to the situation knew what had happened was terrible. The electronic battlefield was in place, the bombing was increasing, the secret bombing of course in Cambodia, incredible, unconstitutional, immoral act. Y’know, he should have been impeached for that, not this peccadillo compared to, you know what that was.
But, the slaughtering was going on even in greater style only it was being done from the air instead of the ground, or it was now being done by proxy Americans in the form of the South Vietnamese army that was vastly increased in its fire power, and so forth. So it looked as if things were going to improve, but it was also clear that uh the situation was, in fact, getting worse.
Then the draft stopped. So that took away that moral card that you just had in your wallet with the question, “Why should I still have it? Why haven’t I turned it in? And then people were getting bored. It gets boring to pick up the newspaper every morning at breakfast and curse the President once again. Finally, there’s no percentage in that. So it was very hard to continue to resist the war when you were bored with it, and when you had done what you thought was just about everything and it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Very good. Could you talk about your view of what was happening in the peace movement in the context of the MOB in late ’69, i.e., that the peace movement was no longer peaceful, it was taking on the features of the opposition. Could you talk about it in the context of what happened after mobilization?
Well, you know it’s unrealistic to expect a peace movement to stay all that peaceful all that long. It takes a great deal of discipline. It takes a great deal of persistence and conviction uh for a peace movement to say, in effect, peaceful. And I am quite willing to accept the blame when, you know, when the peace movement turns violent. But I think in all fairness it must be pointed out that the passivity of the Congress was breathtaking.
Uh, all those senators who were dead set against the war still voted appropriations. And I remember a heart breaking session I had with one senator who said, “Look Bill, you don’t understand what’s going on here. Suppose we did oppose the President, and suppose he thumbed his nose at us, we’d be in the midst of a constitutional crisis and we’d be fighting on two fronts. Is that what you want?
And so in order to avoid a constitutional crises we’re going to go on slaughtering by the hundreds of thousands innocent people 8,000 miles away. The passivity of the Congress was, as I say, breathtaking. And uh when you, people were beginning to get kind of desperate. And it was easy if you were older, as I was, you know, and you had reason to be grateful to and love your country.
Uh, ours was a lover’s quarrel with the United States. But a lot of youth who had no particular reason to be grateful to the United States or had no reason to have any great love for the United States and its institutions were carrying on a grudge fight. And you could tell the difference. They would march to the beat of more distant drummers, such as Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara, wave NLF flags while we tried to say “let's march to the drum beats of Abraham Lincoln, Thoreau, and wave the American flag because patriotism is on our side too.”
So, it was inevitable that segments of the peace movement would turn violent. And let’s not forget, as we found out later that we didn’t know at the time, the FBI placed a lot of agents provocateurs to provoke this kind of violence. And still by the end of ’69 and in the late ’70, ’71 some of these Weathermen, as you now, got violent and went underground. But I would say the more important thing to say is how few were those who became violent and to recognize that violence is at least a perversion of charity, whereas indifference is the abnegation total of charity. So if you have to give me a choice of whether you want blood on your hands or water like Pilate, I’ll take the blood on your hands.
Stop. Have we got, I have one more question.
Camera. Hit it. Take six. Clapsticks.
Let me ask, let me ask you this, do you think it’s worse to have blood on your hands or water like Pilate? In other words, turning violent may be a perversion of uh charity, but indifference uh is the absence of charity. And I think that indifference is worse than violence myself. And it is indifference that leads to violence in the long run. If the Congress hadn’t been so passive, fundamentally so indifferent, I doubt whether the peace movement would have turned violent.
So uh it’s, it’s uh a very touchy kind of uh an issue, you know, violence and the peace movement. But basically I feel that non-violence is more radical then violence. It brings about slower, perhaps, but deeper change. I think it is desperately important that we carry on a lover’s quarrel with our country and not a grudge fight.
I think it’s terribly important to hate evil, otherwise you’re sentimental. But you’d better love good more then you hate the evil, otherwise if you hate evil more then you love the good, you become a damned good hater. And that is not only bad for the world, bad for the cause, it’s also personally very diminishing. It’s bad for you, too.
Coffin condemns U.S. interventionism
I’m glad you added that point about the Congress. We really want it, that’s great. Yes, keep rolling. Did it all make any difference? Did everything you did?
You ask whether it made any difference. I personally feel it made an enormous difference. I think uh...in our, in the understanding of America’s role in the world there has been a great change since the war in Vietnam. I started out thinking that the war in Vietnam was basically a, a, a dis—a diversion from our primary course in the world. Now I understand that it was part of our primary course.
The United Stated is fundamentally an imperialistic country, we’re still engaged in interventionist policies, so is the Soviet Union, a plague on both their houses. But I think a lot more Americans understand that what we did in Vietnam we’re now ready to do again in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Guatemala, unless we watch it.
I don’t think now we have to be in the middle of the jungle to come to our minds. I think we know before we get into the jungle that this is a very bad move to make. So I think from that point of view it was, there was a lot of consciousness raising that took place. I think it’s also very clear now, as it was not then, that you cannot have guns and butter. It’s either guns or butter.
And right now in our time we’re saying that we’re not even getting uh...uh margarine, for heaven sakes. And that the expenditures on military adventures and the arms race just mean that the poor are going to be kept in their poverty indefinitely. And I think we learned a lot uh from that. We still haven’t learned how to live with communist countries. We still look for military solutions to essentially uh political and uh social problems. We still haven't learned what pluralism in the world is all about.
Great Britain managed to lose its power rather gracefully. The British have always sort of learned how to cooperate gracefully with the inevitable. Maybe they gave up their power after WWII because they were so convinced that the British were so much superior to everybody else. You know. But the French didn’t. They fought like dogs in Indochina, they fought like doge in Algeria, and now the question is being addressed to us, I think. “Will you Americans be willing to relinquish some of the power that you had really almost in monopoly form after World War II, or will you insist on being the Hertz of the world when it comes to military strength?
And my hope is that we Americans have enough in our tradition, enough remembrance of things past to remind ourselves, for instance, that our nation’s influence was at its greatest when as a military power we were weakest. And that we stand for much better things than military intervention.
And the kind of freedom that we represent at our best, the kind of uh...openness that Lincoln stood for when he said, “with malice toward none and charity for all,” which makes Abraham Lincoln the spiritual son of American history. I keep hoping that those things in our history will uh help us get over this period into a time when we can live with greater intelligence and sanity with a lot of other nations.
...I couldn't seem to get down.
No, it's great. Did you get the sound?
This will be some outside tone for that interview with some cars passing by once in a while.
END OF TAPE.
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