by Timothy Keiderling
in The Plough

Tom Cornell (L) and others burn their draft cards to protest the Vietnam War, Nov. 1965, Union Square, NYC. (Photo credit: The Plough)
Tom Cornell (L) & others burn their draft cards to protest the Vietnam War, Nov. 1965, Union Square, NYC. (Photo credit: The Plough)

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…

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