One day in 1960, Tom Cornell sat in his office in the Nyack headquarters of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), where he worked as an executive staffer. He heard FOR leader Al Hassler’s desk phone ring, and Hassler picked it up. On the other end, a Buddhist monk visiting from Vietnam spoke quickly. He introduced himself as Thich Nhat Hanh, “here to meet with American peace leaders.” Hassler sent a staffer with a car to pick him up.
Within two hours, Thich Nhat Hanh met with Cornell, Jim Forest, and several other FOR leaders to discuss Vietnam. Cornell remembers: “He told us that the longer American troops stayed in Vietnam, the more authoritarian the post-war government would be….As a monk, he felt that he and his fellow monks were the guardians of Vietnamese culture. He told us that America was destroying their culture, making prostitutes out of their daughters and pimps out of their sons.”
At the time of Thich Nhat Hanh’s arrival, Tom Cornell held two jobs. Under the Fellowship of Reconciliation, he worked to raise awareness of human rights violations in Vietnam. Under the Catholic Peace Fellowship (CPF), which he had co-founded with Jim Forest, he helped conscientious objectors navigate the Selective Service System to gain exemption from military service.
At that point, the question of Catholic conscientious objection to war was open, not resolved until the Second Vatican Council. The Catholic Peace Fellowship printed a pamphlet Jim Forest had written arguing for conscientious objection. Cardinal Spellman gave his approval for them to print and distribute the document, thus approving the substance of Forest’s argument. The Vatican later recognized Spellman’s view, and urged nations to give exemption to “those who refuse to fight on moral grounds.” As the CPF expanded, people of many faiths turned to it for assistance with the draft.
When the FOR decided to raise funds to help Thich Nhat Hanh raise awareness about Vietnam in the United States, he gave them an idea to both raise funds and help donors understand Vietnamese culture: “Meals of Reconciliation.” Through their network of FOR contacts, they invited prospective donors, fed them a meal of tea and rice, and read from Hebrew, Christian, and Buddhist holy books. After each meal they took a collection, telling the donors to pay as if paying for a plate at a restaurant. During the meals, Nhat Hanh spoke about human rights issues in Vietnam. Then the organizers made their pitch, urging attendees to write to their senators, congressional representatives, governors, and newspaper editors, “raising the issue of the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents by the Saigon government, with the approval and cooperation of the U.S. government and its military,” Cornell recalls.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s mealtime descriptions of the plight of political prisoners in South Vietnam shook Cornell. South Vietnam held political prisoners in terrible conditions, in cages so small it was impossible for a full-grown man to stretch his limbs. Cornell remembers taking a similar-sized cage to the steps of the Capitol and leaving it open so passers-by could sit inside and experience how it felt to be a political prisoner in South Vietnam.
Not long afterward, a Buddhist from Thich Nhat Hanh’s order in Vietnam photocopied the records of many political prisoners and sent them to Nhat Hanh, who was in Paris at the time since he could not go back to Vietnam. Nhat Hanh made several copies: one for the World Council of Churches, one for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and one for the Vatican. Nhat Hanh enlisted Cornell’s help to make sure the documents made it to the pope’s hands.
Not long after, the pope met with the president of South Vietnam. According to Cornell, Communist leaders rejoiced at the meeting at first; to them, it signaled the connection between capitalism, religion, and oppression. Communists organized a protest rally to be held during the pope’s summit with South Vietnamese president Thieu. But when Paul VI spoke, he cut directly to the political prisoners and the human rights violations. Cornell said “The communists couldn’t hold their rally anymore. He took the wind out of their sails.”
Many of the political prisoners stayed in prison, even after South Vietnam’s surrender. For most, treatment did not change. Thich Nhat Hanh called the FOR again, and asked Jim Forest to publicize the human rights violations that persisted under the new regime. Forest enlisted Richard John Neuhaus, a Lutheran minister and journalist who had gained reknown by co-founding the group Clergymen and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. Neuhaus drafted a letter to the United Nations Observer from Vietnam, describing the conditions under which political prisoners suffered. He sent the letter to a host of internationally known figures.
At that same time, Cornell became involved in the civil rights movement. He remembers sitting with several civil rights leaders, watching President Lyndon Johnson on television. “We heard him call for the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and then end by saying ‘We shall overcome.’ He even named us when he spoke in Selma. We loved LBJ.”
That was before American troops entered Vietnam full-scale. “Six months later I was sitting in the driveway of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with Joan Baez and A.J. Muste, chanting ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today?’ It was a horrible thing to do to him. But I knew I had to do it.”
The horror of guerilla war in Vietnam made it easy for Cornell to take a pacifist stand. Had he been of draft age during the Second World War, he says, it might have been different. “I don’t know what I would have done in World War II. I was eleven years old at the time of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We celebrated in the streets. We had block parties. We dehumanized the Japanese to the point where they could have been Japanese beetles.”
At one point the FOR laid Cornell off. On his own, Cornell began setting up training programs for draft counsellors. But for three years, he did not receive a regular paycheck. In order to support his family he taught eighth-grade English in New Hampshire. Cornell found it hard to leave full-time peace work; he still refers to the time as “my northern exile.”
Halfway through the year he received a call from Ed Dougherty, a staff member of the Peace and Justice office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He invited Cornell to help prepare a pastoral letter, titled “The Challenge of Peace,” on the Catholic Church’s position on war, armaments, and weapons of mass destruction.
Cornell’s contributions to the peace movement happened mostly behind the scenes, but every now and then he took part in demonstrations that caught the spotlight. On July 16, 1963, Cornell organized a Catholic Worker demonstration outside the apartment of the U.N. Observer from Vietnam, which may have been the first public protest against the Vietnam War. At first just two people marched: Cornell and Christopher Kearns. They walked up and down the sidewalk, holding a placard that said “The Catholic Worker protests U.S. support of Diem tyranny.” Cornell called around to many peace organizations in New York City, and invited people to join them on the last day of the protest. After nine days, two hundred and fifty people showed up. “At that point, we had coast-to-coast TV coverage,” Cornell remembers.
On August 9, 1965, Cornell participated in a march to the House of Representatives, for “unrepresented people,” as he explained it. Once they reached the Capitol building, police formed a line and warned them against crossing it. One by one, the demonstrators crossed the line. Cornell, one of the first, recalled “We walked across the line and fell limply into the arms of the police, as we were trained. Someone pulled my head up to take a mug shot.” That picture made it onto the front page of the Washington Post.
In Cornell’s most publicized demonstration, he burned his draft card and registration certificate in Union Square, New York City, a site known for protests. (Earlier, Congress had passed a law making it a felony to burn draft cards.) Cornell remembers that journalists notified of the plan urged them to hold the protest on a Saturday to give them “something hot” for the Sunday New York Times. The Committee for Nonviolent Action sponsored a sound system and a stage for the protesters. On a Saturday afternoon, Cornell and four others burned their draft cards.
They were arrested and sent to trial. Their hearings gained substantial coverage in the press. Marvin Karpatkin, chief legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, organized their defense. Cornell said that, from the start, they insisted on a bench trial. As A.J. Muste explained to Karpatkin, “All we want to do is expand liberty under the law.” Karpatkin loved their peace work, so he gave them free legal assistance. According to Cornell, “It was unbelievable. We had the best possible legal team, all for free.” During the trial, they focused on one argument: that burning a draft card is symbolic speech, and should be protected by the First Amendment. During trial, they pled not guilty to all of the charges. Cornell said, “We wanted to prove the law unconstitutional on its face, and as applied.” The judge sentenced them to six months in prison.
Why did Cornell make working for peace his life’s focus? To him the answer is simple: “We opposed the war because war is wrong, and because we were Christian pacifists.”
“That’s ancient history, isn’t it?” he adds with a twinkle. “But, oh my, it’s been fun!”
Photo courtesy of the A.J. Muste Memorial Institute