William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (born 1924) was a Yale University chaplain who spoke out against the Vietnam War and was indicted as a criminal by the United States government for conspiring to aid young men to avoid the military draft.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr. was born to considerable wealth and social position on June 1, 1924, in New York City. When he was 11 his father died, and he grew up in the company of tutors and teachers in New England and Paris, France. He graduated from Andover Academy in 1942, spent a year of piano study at the Yale School of Music, and then, in the middle of World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. army. He emerged from Officer's Candidate School as a second lieutenant and was sent to Europe in 1945. Already fluent in French and German, he now mastered the Russian language and served for two years as a liaison officer with the American and Soviet forces. He returned to Yale University from 1947 to 1949 for the completion of his college degree and for religious training at Union Theological Seminary. However, because of his ability to speak Russian, he allowed himself to be recruited for a three year tour of duty in Europe with the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1953 Coffin came back to Yale University, this time to Yale Divinity School for training which would lead him to become an ordained Presbyterian minister. In spite of his army-CIA background, the pulpit was a natural progression. After all, he had been named for his uncle, Henry Sloane Coffin, who had been president of Union Theological Seminary for 19 years (1926-1945). Somewhat aggressively athletic in behavior, young Coffin did not fit the image of a prelate. He rode a motorcycle wherever he went. He played classical piano and married the daughter of famed violinist Arthur Rubinstein. Finally, he was fearlessly outspoken in calling attention to discrimination and injustice.
After becoming a minister, Coffin took a one year job as acting chaplain at Andover Academy. The next year (1957-1958) he was the chaplain at Williams College in Massachusetts. The year after that he was appointed chaplain at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, the position which he held for the following 17 years.
The coming of Coffin to Yale coincided with the beginnings of social protest throughout America. Black Americans under the leadership of the Martin Luther King, Jr. had already transformed a segregated bus system in Alabama. Courageous young white students were traveling southward to help end racism. Still others were on the streets of the nation protesting against the death penalty, against nuclear war, and against injustice everywhere. This had been Coffin's approach to society's problems from the start, and he now embarked on his own campaigns.
His first protest was against anti-Semitism at Yale. His second was to gain the admittance of more African students at Yale. He was successful in both endeavors.
Coffin's third protest in the spring of 1961 was to join several other black and white ministers and students for a "freedom ride" on a Trailways bus through Alabama and Georgia. Such rides provoked the racist fears of some southern whites, spurring them to attack and burn the busses and to beat the riders. Coffin and his friends were jailed before any mob reached them, but the reaction of the Yale faculty and administration was anything but approving that their chaplain had put himself in the position of doing time in a southern jail.
Within the next five years, American participation in the fateful Vietnam War increased. At first, the majority of young Americans heeded the nation's call to arms. But as casualty lists lengthened, debate over U.S. policy sharpened and the numbers of people disapproving of America's Vietnam intervention grew. Coffin and a huge number of other ministers never harbored any doubt that the anti-Communist foreign policies of the government were wrong. The slaughter of the Vietnamese was for them a positive evil. Once more, to the consternation of many of his Yale colleagues, Chaplain Coffin began to protest. He helped to establish committees for re-appraising U.S. foreign policy. He was one of the founders of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, a powerful peace group.
By 1967 the United States had hundreds of thousands of fighting men in Vietnam. Antagonism to the war within America had moved from verbal protest to outright resistance and to draft-card burning. These were called acts of civil disobedience. They had been justified in America since the Pilgrims first fled the persecution of the British Crown. The writings of Henry David Thoreau had also sustained their use. According to the theory of civil disobedience, whenever governments or majorities behave immorally, those who are harmed may appeal beyond the civil law to "conscience" or to "higher law." Chaplain Coffin appealed to higher law in October 1967 when he and four other people (Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin, Michael Ferber, and Mitchell Goodman) received draft cards from men who refused to serve in Vietnam and returned them to the attorney general of the United States. The federal government did not recognize civil disobedience as anything other than the breaking of the law. It promptly indicted them for conspiracy to aid draft resistance—a felony for which those convicted could receive prison sentences and heavy fines. The court refused to permit Coffin and his friends to place the Vietnam War itself on trial, and Coffin was found guilty. He appealed his case, and finally, in 1970, the whole matter was simply dropped.
Coffin was a favorite speaker at anti-war demonstrations in the early 1970s. He flew to Hanoi, North Vietnam, in September 1972 to bring home two prisoners of war who had been released. In 1976 he resigned his post at Yale, and a year later he became the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City.
At Riverside, a church built by John D. Rockefeller, Coffin found a platform for his political ideology. The interdenominational church was known for its focus on social programs and issues, and while Coffin served as minister he focused on unemployment, juvenile delinquency, and drugs. During this time Coffin continued his work with Clergy and Laity Concerned, only instead of focusing on Vietnam, the group worked internationally for arms control.
One of Coffin's more controversial actions occurred in 1979 when he was one of four Christian laypeople to travel to Teheran to visit the American hostages who were being held at the American embassy. Ostensibly, the role of the four ministers was to inspect the hostages and vouch to the world that they were not being mistreated. It seemed that he was acting more the role of political activist, when upon his return he urged the United States government to assume a more "humble (and) religious stance toward the captors and acknowledge the justice of some of Iran's grievances against the United States."
In 1989 Coffin left his position at Riverside Church to assume executive directorship of SANE/FREEZE, an anti-nuclear organization later known as Peace Action. In his capacity as executive director, Coffin sought the dissolution of NATO and the elimination of short-range nuclear weapons. In 1990 Coffin was made national president of SANE/FREEZE.
Later in the 1990s Coffin opposed the United States involvement in the Gulf War, and urged the deployment of troops in Bosnia. In Christian Century Coffin was quoted as saying, "I first realized when the Cambodian genocide of the Pol Pot regime came to light that violence within borders could be even worse than violence across borders." Many applauded Coffin for his radical political stances, for instance when the President of Yale, A. Bartlett Giamatti said, "You gave us energy." Others weren't so laudatory, such as Carl McIntyre of the International Council of Christian Churches who said, "During the Vietnam years, he contributed to the spirit of surrender that finally gripped our country."
Further Reading on William Sloane Coffin Jr
William Coffin has written his own immensely readable autobiography, Once to Every Man (1977). The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has published two of Coffin's debates on civil disobedience, one with Charles E. Whittaker (1967), the other with Morris I. Leibman (1972). In 1985 Coffin published some of his reflections on religion in Living the Truth in a World of Illusions. Good biographical information on Coffin's later years can be found in Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism (1994), edited by David DeLeon, and also in American Social Leaders (1993), by William McGuire and Leslie Wheeler.