William Sloane Coffin Jr. was born in 1924 in New York City to a wealthy and prominent family. His great grandfather founded the prestigious W.& J. Sloane and Company department store in 1843. His father and grandfather attended Yale, where both were members of the illustrious Skull and Bones senior society.
Coffin attended the Buckley School in New York, Deerfield Academy and Andover, and Yale. His undergraduate education was interrupted by the draft in 1943. In the Army, he did not seek out combat assignments, but instead won admission to OCS, and trained as an interpreter. His most notable contribution to the war effort consisted of successfully sending some 1500 Russian prisoners of war back to death or prison in the Soviet Union. For which feat, he received the Army Commendation medal and a promotion.
He returned to Yale as a member of the graduating class of 1949. In accordance with family tradition, he was tapped for Bones. He wrote a senior paper revealingly titled: Notes Towards a History of Bolshevik Trade Unionism. In 1949, he entered Union Theological Seminary, then headed by his uncle, Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, also a Yale graduate and Bonesman.
The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 prompted Coffin to leave the seminary to serve as an Operations Officer with the CIA. Coffin was assigned to recruiting agents from refugee camps for covert entry into the Soviet Union. His first two groups of agents simply disappeared. Pravda ran a front page cover story detailing the capture of Coffin’s third and largest group of agents.
In 1953, Coffin left the CIA and returned to the seminary, this time, however, attending Yale Divinity School. He became famous as a Divinity Student for dashingly riding a BMW motorcycle, and for regaling fellow students with tales of war-time derring-do (stories of parachute drops behind enemy lines and secret missions), and for singing Russian songs.
In 1956, he married Eva Rubinstein, daughter of the famous Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein. They separated in 1968, and he married again later twice.
In 1956, he also accepted the position of chaplain at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He moved on to Williams College after one year, where he made a reputation as a radical by attacking fraternities for a dearth of minority admissions. In February 1958, he was finally offered “the only job (he) really wanted:” the chaplaincy at Yale.
Coffin brought the ideal combination of personal assets to the Yale Chaplain’s position: an impeccable blue-blood background (featuring deep Yale roots), and superior intelligence, combined with energy, charisma and dramatic flair. William Sloane Coffin could actually attract an audience to college chapel for the pleasure of watching him perform. A Coffin sermon would reliably be original, timely, and delivered with both humor and emotional depth.
Coffin’s career as chaplain coincided with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and he quickly found that Civil Rights presented the perfect opportunity to utilize the message of Christianity to attack the existing order of Society from an unanswerable moral high ground. Predictably, elderly and sclerotic alumni demanded his dismissal, and equally predictably the Yale Establishment chose to view him as an invaluable asset: a brave, eloquent, and original in-house conscience.
The US War in Vietnam emerged in the mid-1960s as the pre-eminent leftist cause, and Coffin was among the earliest of Establishment luminaries to oppose the war. He joined the opposition’s ranks in the Summer of 1965. In addition to organizing protests, signing petitions, and servng on committees of opposition, Coffin employed his position as Chaplain of Yale University with tremendous skill in service to the cause.
Yale undergraduates inevitably experienced a certain moral discomfort, protected by student deferments and able to enjoy the all-too numerous pleasures of Ivy League Unversity life, with the knowledge that others of their own generation were being drafted to fight, and sometimes die, in their stead. It was naturally, therefore, highly agreeable to Yale undergraduates of those 1960s to be assured in the stentorian baritone voice of authority of their admired chaplain that the war was wrong, they were not only justified in avoiding serving, they were far, far morally superior to those who did!
Coffin used every means to indoctrinate impressionable undergraduates, starting (even prior to the beginning of Freshman year) at a Summer Retreat held for the benefit of religiously conscientous Protestant students, which he turned into an indoctrination seminar through which the youthful admirer of Reinhold Nieburh from the hinterlands was commonly transformed into Lenin’s useful idiot.
Doonesbury Â©1972 G.B. Trudeau
The Anti-War Protest Movement made William Sloane Coffin a national figure. In 1968, along with Benjamin Spock, he was one of the “Boston Five,” indicted for conspiracy to violate the Selective Service laws (by public advocacy of resistance and evasion). The government ultimately dropped the case.
He was prominent in the 1970 protests opposing the trial in New Haven of several members of the Black Panthers for the torture-murder of Alex Rackeley, erroneously believed by his tormentors to have been a police informer. Coffin proclaimed in a sermon: “I am prepared as an anguished citizen to to confess my conviction that it might be legally right but morally wrong for this trial to go forward.”
In 1972, Coffin went to Hanoi to “accept” the release of three America POWs as part of a major North Vietnamese propaganda operation. He repeated the same kind of stunt in 1979 by accepting the invitation of the Iranian government to celebrate Christmas with the American hostages in Teheran.
But as the 1970s advanced, with the Vietnam War and the Protest Movement winding down, Nixon in the White House, and the old Yale passing away as the result of the impact of coeducation, Coffin experienced increasing problems in his personal life. He took a year’s sabbatical from Yale in 1973, hoping to write his memoirs and save his second marriage. The effort failed. In November 1974, he inflicted a hairline skull fracture on his second wife. He had begun to beat her when they quarreled.
In January, he informed President Brewster that he would not be seeking another five year extension of his contract as Yale’s chaplain.
His career seemed at an end. He moved in with Arthur Miller for six months, and finally took refuge in a barn at his brother’s house in Vermont. He began keeping company with the female manager of the local general store, whom he eventually married seven years later. In 1977, however, he was called to the pulpit of Riverside Church on Manhattan’s liberal Upper West Side.
The Riverside appointment allowed Coffin to enjoy again a comfortable position of suitable social importance which he could also use as a base for political activism. He stepped down in 1987 (after a confrontation with a prominent Black minister over the church’s position on homosexuality) to accept the presidency of SANE/Freeze, the well-known Soviet front organization. He retired circa 1990.
He died yesterday at his home in Stratford, Vermont, at the age of 81, of congestive heart failure.
His talents were as great as his views were unsound. William Sloane Coffin undoubtedly contributed as much as any other single individual to the conversion of the American community of fashion to political Radicalism. I strongly suspect that he was a knowing and conscious Soviet Agent of Influence.
Nearly a hundred million people in Southeast Asia today live under despotism and in poverty, and 58 thousand Americans died in vain, because William Sloane Coffin (and a small group of allies) succeeded in changing the opinions of the majority of Yalemen, and the majority of Americans, in a few short years in the late 1960s.