Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side . . .
WILLIAM SLOANE COFFIN famed Yale chaplain and Vietnam antiwar activist has chosen his title from the words of the uncompromising hymn sung on the night of the action which led finally to his trial for conspiracy as one of the Boston Five in 1968. By planning and signing the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority, he had sought to make himself as vulnerable to imprisonment as the young men he aided and counselled to become draft resisters.
By his own account, however, this was not his own moment of truth. Years before the end of World War II, while serving as an OSS trained officer assigned to liason with the Russians, he had assisted in turning over to the Soviets the men of General Vlassov's army who had fought with the Germans "to liberate Russia." These men had surrendered to the Americans sure that their captors would come to understand their own hatred of the Soviet regime. The actual turnover was accomplished by means of a surprise dawn "attack" on the prisoners camp. The night before Chaptain Coffin was ordered to represent the American officers at the party given by the Russians in their honor:
"For a while I thought I was to be physically ill. Several times I turned to the commandant sitting next to me. It would have been so easy to tip him off . . . Yet I couldn't bring myself to do it . . . I too had my orders . . . At 5:45 the next morning, the first division moved in as planned. Despite the fact that there were three GI's to every returning Russian, I saw several men commit suicide . . . My part in the Platting operation left me with a burden of guilt I am sure to carry the rest of my life . . ."
It is with this incident that William Coffin explains his subsequent service in the CIA "opposing Stalin's regime," and also his decision to commit civil disobedience in opposition to the war in Vietnam. World War II itself left him with the need to explain the human condition. He found the answer more in the work of American theologians Richard and Reinhold Niebuhr and in paul Tillich, than in the existentialists to whom he was also attracted. In the final analysis the leap of faith which eventually brought him to the ministry, was a "leap of action."
William Sloane Coffin was born to wealth and position. (It is from his Swiss governess that he acquired the personal piety which was not his by inheritance, and from the family chauffeur, Bach, that he learned the fine points of boxing.) Except for his early desire to become a concert pianist and a time studying piano in Paris and Geneva, his credentials are typically those of a member of the WASP clite. The Buckley School for Boys, Deefield and Andover, Yale, Union Theological, and Yale Divinity School.
His vigor, charm, and leadership qualities as well as his fearless access to the powerful made him a natural leader in the two great causes of the Ivy League colleges in the '60s: civil rights and peace in Vietnam.
If he eschewed the competitiveness he ascribes to Ivy League education, he seems to have found a lifelong outlet for it in the athletics for which his superb physique evidently fitted him. He tells of disposing of an unwelcome observer when he was setting up the physical training camp for the Peace Corps, a member of the President's Commission on Physical Fitness and a close friend of Bobby Kennedy:
"I decided to run him around the four mile course I personally had hacked through the forest. It was gruelling. Then I made him do all the pushups, situps and chins he could, then half the number in each exercise three times over in rapid succession . . . Then in the gathering dusk Freddie took him through the rope course, which scared the life out of him . . . The next morning early he returned to Washington. So much for trampolines, I thought."
At 40, Coffin entered the annual 200-meter race over the original Olympic course at Delhi and won, leaving the 20-year-olds far behind as he tells us with unaffected satisfaction.
Much of this book is equally engaging in its artless self-revelation. Just as the reader begins to raise a questions, Coffin himself acknowledges the difficulty:
"I think now that my motives for joining the CIA were more complex than I imagined at the time. Since the ninth grade I had never studied for more than three years at a stretch without a break. Given my temperament, it was natural that I should be longing for action . . . Once again I was longing to escape my dutiful WASP self . . . How could I better avoid myself than to live under another name, in countries other than my own, speaking for the most part a language not my own, living a life of high adventure - praiseworthy to boot - about which I was pledged to secrecy?"
He does not seem to agree with his publisher that he was "valified" by President Kingman Brewster of Yale for counseling students to avoid the draft. Rather he quotes Brewster accurately as to "the chaplain's efforts to devise 'confrontations' and 'sanctuaries' in order to get spot news coverage." Then he admits ruefully that what irked him most was that Brewster had not been entirely wrong about his style. "I found it hard to resist a bit of rhetorical showboating."
Again he admits that what upset him most about his first divorve was his sense of having failed at something, and quotes Erik Eriksen's blund comment when he comes to him for help before marrying again. "But of course you are middle-aged." And he is frank about his deep-seated anxiety about leaving Yale, an anxiety, when said to him. "If you'reno longer connected to a place like Yale, you'll be nothing."
These acknowledgements do not, however, always answer the questions. To a great extent, Coffin's limited knowledge of contemporary political history - or limited involvement - while not unusual for a clergy man, make him seem an outsider standing in judgment. For example, he explains the Ivy Leaguers flocking to the CIA after the war by saying that they lacked other outlets and that "well-educated Easterners tended to have more interest in foreign affairs than their midwestern counterparts." He is writing of a time when - to name only a few - Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Eugenie Anderson, Mike Mansfield, Richard Bolling, G. Mennen Williams, Philip Hart - Midwesterners all - were leading their party not only in the civil rights struggle but in response foreign policy as well.
It was also be difficult for women to read this memoir without pain. It may be the result of reticence or the fault of style but the women in William Sloane Coffin's life seem mere appendages and are treated cavalierly as well.