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William Sloane Coffin Jr. (1924–2006) was an American Christian clergyman and long-time peace activist. He was ordained in the Presbyterian Church, and later received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ. In his younger days he was an athlete, a talented pianist, a CIA officer, and later chaplain of Yale University, where the influence of H. Richard Niebuhr’s social philosophy led him to become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He also was a member of the secret society Skull and Bones. He went on to serve as Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York City and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action), the nation’s largest peace and social justice group, and prominently opposed United States military interventions in conflicts, from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. He was also an ardent supporter of gay rights.
Having graduated from high school in 1942, William enrolled at Yale College and studied in the School of Music. While continuing his pursuit of the piano, he was also excited by the prospect of fighting to stop fascism and became very focused on joining the war effort. He applied to work as a spy with the Office of Strategic Services in 1943, but was turned down for not having sufficiently “Gallic features” to be effective. He then left school, enlisted in the Army, and was quickly tapped to become an officer. After training, he was assigned to work as liaison to the French and Russian armies in connection with the Army’s military intelligence unit, and where he heard first-hand stories of life in Stalin’s USSR. Records indicate he was part of the Ritchie Boys and trained extensively at Camp Ritchie, in Maryland.
After the war, Coffin returned to Yale, where he would later become President of the Yale Glee Club. Coffin had been a friend of George H. W. Bush since his youth, as they both attended Phillips Academy (1942). In Coffin’s senior year, Bush brought Coffin into the exclusive Skull and Bones secret society at the university.
Upon graduating in 1949, Coffin entered the Union Theological Seminary, where he remained for a year, until the outbreak of the Korean War reignited his interest in fighting against communism. He joined the CIA as a case officer in 1950 (his brother-in-law Franklin Lindsay had been head of the Office of Policy Coordination, the political warfare arm of the CIA) spending three years in West Germany recruiting anti-Soviet Russian refugees and training them how to undermine Stalin’s regime. Coffin grew increasingly disillusioned with the role of the CIA and the United States due to events including the CIA’s involvement in overthrowing Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh of Iran in 1953, followed by the CIA’s orchestration of the coup that removed President Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala in 1954.
After leaving the CIA, Coffin enrolled at Yale Divinity School and earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree in 1956, the same year he was ordained a Presbyterian minister. This same year he married Eva Rubinstein, the daughter of pianist Arthur Rubinstein, and became chaplain at Williams College. Soon, he accepted the position as Chaplain of Yale University, where he remained from 1958 until 1975. Gifted with a rich bass-baritone voice, he was an active member of the Yale Russian Chorus during the late 1950s and 1960s.
With his CIA background, he was dismayed when he learned in 1964 of the history of French and American involvement in South Vietnam. He felt the United States should have honored the French agreement to hold a national referendum in Vietnam about unification. He was in early opposition to the Vietnam War and became famous for his anti-war activities and his civil rights activism. Along with others, he was a founder in the early 1960s of the Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, organized to resist President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the war.
Coffin had a prominent role in the Freedom Rides challenging segregation and the oppression of black people. As chaplain at Yale in the early 1960s, Coffin organized busloads of Freedom Riders to challenge segregation laws in the South. Through his efforts, hundreds of students at Yale University and elsewhere were recruited into civil rights and anti-war activity. He was jailed many times, but his first conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Approached by Sargent Shriver in 1961 to run the first training programs for the Peace Corps, Coffin took up the task and took a temporary leave from Yale, working to develop a rigorous training program modeled on Outward Bound and supervising the building of a training camp in Puerto Rico. He used his pulpit as a platform for like-minded crusaders, hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, among others.
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