Coffin ’49 recalls anti-war activism



As he was helped up the stairs to the podium in the Sterling Memorial Library lecture hall, William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56 set the tone for his lecture Monday by attributing his slow movements to “an old football wound.”

In a lecture titled “War is a Coward’s Escape from the Problems of Peace,” Coffin, who served as the University Chaplain from 1957 to 1975, discussed his experiences at Yale during the Vietnam War and gave his perspective on current world conflicts. Focusing on the likely war with Iraq, Coffin called for the support of U.N. inspections and criticized American aggression and ethnocentrism.

“The men and women of the armed forces are not being called to defend America, but to attack Iraq,” he said. “We never should have stirred up this hornets’ nest. But now that we have, let the inspections work, because war can’t work.”

Coffin’s speech was in conjunction with an exhibit called “Give Peace a Chance,” consisting of anti-war documents from World War I to the present. The display includes posters, photographs, letters drafted by Coffin and others, and speeches, all expressing anti-war sentiment. The emphasis on the Vietnam War era was made possible in part by a large donation of papers from Coffin, archivist Thomas Hyry said.

Introducing Coffin, Hyry spoke about the former activist’s relationship to current events.

“He was one of the most visible and outspoken opponents of the Vietnam War,” Hyry said. “We are particularly fortunate to have him here in a time we are again engaging weighty questions of military involvement.”

Coffin, a former Freedom Rider in the 1960s, began with a message of pacifism, which was met with applause several times during his talk.

“War is humanity’s most chronic and incurable disease,” he said.

Coffin drew parallels between the anti-communist rhetoric of earlier decades and current anti-terrorist policies.

“The last century set records for blood-letting, and as a new century begins, we see anti-terrorism replacing anti-communism, meaning we are making the same mistakes over and over,” Coffin said.

Having made his points about current events, Coffin focused on his experiences with campus activism at Yale during the Vietnam War. In October 1967, Coffin started a campaign to collect draft cards and deliver them to the Justice Department. And as one of the Boston Five, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance. During the case, he found the help of professors from the Yale Law School.

“It was the first time I’d ever talked to a lawyer about what I was doing, which means I was a genius or a damn fool,” he said. “I’m still not sure.”

Contrasting the current period to the 1960s, Coffin cited the lack of activism among today’s college students.

“I am so glad that so many people are rising up and protesting against the war,” he said. “Not university students, they’re not doing so well. But the churches, who in the ’60s were slow to react — are very, very much in the forefront.”

Coffin encouraged students to write letters to local politicians and to organize activities on campus.

“I understand that there have been die-ins in Woolsey, but no teach-ins in the Law School,” Coffin said. “Ask your teachers to take part in a teach-in.”

Senwung Luk ’03 said he was impressed by Coffin’s views.

“I was very encouraged by his eloquence. He was very inspirational and made me feel a lot more connected with the events of the ’60s,” Luk said. “It was touching to have a figure who has inspired so much moral respect speaking in opposition to the war in Iraq.”

Comments