In His Own Words: Bill Ayers on 1968 and the Weather Underground
AWTT asked Bill Ayers to explain the thought that went into forming the Weather Underground and planning and executing the disruptive "vandalism" that that group became known for in the late 1960s. What follows is an excerpt from Ayers´ forthcoming book, Public Enemies, which is due out in 2013. This section of the book helps readers understand the political and social context of the time and the big dream that Ayers and his collaborators had of achieving world peace through a new American revolution. Look for the book when it comes out to read Ayers´ full account of the time and his experiences.
The peace movement geared up to end the American war in Viet Nam, but as more and more people joined the effort it seemed possible that we might not only end the war, but that we could prevent other such adventures, the invasion of Santo Domingo, for example, which was right before our eyes. At a certain point then it seemed to me that the working class and the majority of the American people stood in direct and deep conflict with the US government. I was convinced it was a global revolutionary crisis, the people of the world standing up for full self-determination, and an American crisis as well, a contradiction that would only be resolved in a next American revolution.
Was it a grandiose dream? It was a grandiose dream to be sure, and a wildly passionate vision—a bit naïve perhaps, but dreams are meant to be big if they're to be dreams at all. Did I misinterpret the conditions and the possibilities? I think I did. Was it a terrible goal? No, it wasn't. Utopia beckoned and we heeded her call—it was a Time of the Impossible and the more we resisted the arid idea that there is no alternative the more our confidence that things could change gathered strength and momentum. I thought a second American revolution—a massive popular upheaval—would be a step toward creating a world in balance and at peace; I thought that the violence of the world would be dramatically diminished even if it took a fiery outburst from below to accomplish that fact; and I held tight to the romance that ordinary people have the capacity to eliminate the agony of exploitation and the intolerable suffering of the poor and the despised—to achieve justice in the public square and establish a beloved community. I thought it was all there within our reach—but of course as Mike Tyson pointed out, "Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the face."
Empire, invasion, and occupation always earn their own blow-back, and by 1968 people had turned massively against the US war in Viet Nam—the result of protest and organizing and a burgeoning peace movement, surely, and of Black leaders like the militants from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Muhammad Ali, and Martin Luther King, Jr. denouncing the war. SNCC issued a statement urging draft resistance and saying plainly that no Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for a so-called freedom he doesn't enjoy in Mississippi. Martin Luther King increasingly spoke out against the war, calling it illegal and immoral, and on April 4, 1967—a year to the day before his murder—denounced the war from the pulpit of Riverside Church, and declared that the US government was not only on the wrong side of world revolution, but that it was also the greatest purveyor of violence on earth. And Muhammad Ali refused induction, insisting that he had no quarrel with the Vietnamese and that he would not fight in the white man's army; stripped of his boxing crown, it was, ironically, in those three years when he didn't throw a single punch that he earned the scorn, derision, and enmity of the powerful, and the adoration and awe of people the world around.
The last straw was veterans returning home and telling the bare, unvarnished and recognizable truth about all they'd seen and been asked to do, exposing the reality of aggression and officially sanctioned terror. They joined the peace movement in droves, bringing renewed urgency and militancy. When veterans mustered up to throw their medals down the Capitol steps, it seemed certain the war would end. The Vietnamese themselves refused to be defeated, and the Tet Offensive in 1968 destroyed any fantasy of an American victory; US forces had been routed militarily, and the US government—alongside its puppets in Saigon—found itself isolated in the world and in profound conflict with its own people.
President Johnson stepped aside at the end of March, 1968, and we were both surprised and overjoyed: The war is over! A million deaths, true and terrible, but at last it would end.
We didn't stay happy long: five days later the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis; a couple of months later, Senator Robert Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles; and a few months further along a new Nixon/Kissinger administration doubled down, expanding and extending the war indefinitely. It was back to the front, back to work, and back to the streets.
And so it did not end, and every week that the war dragged on six thousand people were murdered in Southeast Asia. Every week—six thousand lives extinguished—with no end in sight. Six thousand human beings—massive, unthinkable numbers—were thrown into the furnaces of war and death that had been constructed by our own government. We had tried everything, and everything had proved to be inadequate; the war was lost, but the murder and the terror continued unabated.
All Vietnamese territories outside US control were declared "free-fire zones" and airplanes rained bombs and napalm on everything, burning crops and slaughtering live-stock, destroying entire villages, killing anyone who moved. That was the face of criminal terror, the export of violence and the official policy of indiscriminate murder. John McCain, an unremorseful war criminal, flew those missions and was shot down bombing the capitol city of Hanoi; Bob Kerrey, former senator from Kansas, surrounded by darkness during a late-night raid in a little village in Viet Nam slit the throats of an elderly couple in their modest hut in order to silence them before they might cry out a warning to others; and as a young lieutenant, John Kerry testified in Senate hearings that he'd witnessed US troops committing war crimes in Viet Nam every day as a matter of policy, not choice.
None of us in the anti-war movement knew precisely how to proceed, for we'd done what we'd set out to do—we'd persuaded the American people to oppose the war, built a massive movement and a majority peace sentiment—and still we couldn't find any sure-fire way to stop the killing; millions of people mobilized for peace, and our project, our task and our obsession, was so simple to state and yet so excruciatingly difficult to achieve: peace now. The war slogged along into its murky and unacceptable future trailing mass devastation and death in its wake, and the political class had no answers to the wide expression of popular will. That crisis of democracy became a profound disaster for the peace movement as well.
The killing escalated and the terror raged on in our names and those of us whose opposition had evolved into a vocation searched with a growing sense of urgency and despair for what more we could do. The anti-war forces splintered—some activists (including one of my brothers) joined the Democratic Party in order to build a peace wing within it; others took off to Europe or Africa; one of my brothers deserted the army and fled; some migrated "back to the land" and built rural communes and intentional utopian communities to escape the madness, while others created tiny but humane and hopeful organizing projects from women's health clinics to alternative newspapers, from street theatre to underground comics, that would, surprisingly, change the culture; and a few went into the factories in the industrial heartland to radicalize the unions, create a workers' party, and build toward a general strike to transform the country. Those were surely the days of miracle and wonder—miserable and magical at the same time.
Malcolm X had called for liberation by any means necessary, Panthers were picking up the gun, and after King's assassination Nina Simone, the dazzling jazz diva, and Lorraine Hansberry, beloved and stunning author of A Raisin in the Sun, urged Black people to arm up. Stranger still, the editorial board of the New Republic at that moment was debating the value and the efficacy of armed struggle to oppose the war, and the cover of the high-minded New York Review of Books featured an over-sized depiction of a Molotov cocktail on its cover. And a small group of us from the radical student movement—lacking experience and skill but compensating we hoped with determination and will—actually did it: we created a clandestine political force outside the reach of the FBI and national security forces that would (we believed, but couldn't be sure) survive the approaching (we were sure) American totalitarianism, and that could fight the war-makers by other means. We would meet official state violence with a fierce eruption of our own, and for a moment a few of us—myself included—flirted with matching their official and systematic terror, blow for blow. But we never did; we drew back and reconsidered just what we were willing to do, and what would be effective in the long run. In the end the Weather Underground claimed credit for setting off 20 bombs that caused maybe $2 million in damage, less than it cost the US to conduct its war in Viet Nam for an hour; no one was killed or injured in any of it. Sabotage and precisely targeted vandalism as theatre, yes, propaganda of the deed always, but violence against people, no.