A 'Troublemaker' Looks Back on an Era of Hope and Upheaval
For almost half a century Bill Zimmerman has labored with intensity for progressive causes as an organizer and political consultant. In this new memoir he looks back on his career with an unwavering commitment to his beliefs and an admirable intellectual toughness and pragmatism.
A major part of the book focuses on the anti–Vietnam War movement. As a young college professor in the late 1960s, Zimmerman at a teach-in grilled William Bundy, who had worked at the CIA in the Johnson administration and was considered one of the architects of the war. Zimmerman notes wryly, “He had the advantage of having seen secret intelligence reports and we had the advantage of never having seen those reports since they were so often wrong and based on distorted analyses designed to serve political masters in Washington.”
Zimmerman’s immersion in the antiwar movement started in the late sixties after he was fired from his job as a professor of experimental psychology at Brooklyn College for refusing to conduct sleep research whose results would be made available for military uses. He dove into numerous antiwar efforts, helping to organize demonstrations in Washington and working with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Zimmerman shows a clear-eyed rejection of counterproductive radicalism. He refused to participate in the Yippie protests in Chicago outside the Democratic Convention in 1968 because “I failed to see what could be accomplished by a bloodbath.” He regarded the Weather Underground with contempt: “In October, 1969, they had sponsored ‘Days Of Rage’ in Chicago. The action consisted of nothing more than a few hundred ‘revolutionaries’ running through the streets breaking car and house windows, taunting pedestrians and throwing rocks at the police. Weathermen leaders assumed that such actions would inspire ‘revolutionary youth’ to join them. Instead they just looked ridiculous.”
Zimmerman came to believe that the antiwar movement “had to make it easy for people to join us, not require them to carry foreign flags, risk arrest or adapt a militant posture toward a government many still considered their own.” Concluding that American capitalism was not ripe for revolution he decided, “If I couldn’t be a revolutionary, I’d be a troublemaker.”
In one of the most emotional passages in this highly readable and engrossing narrative, he describes a visit to North Vietnam in 1972 at the time of the bombing campaign ordered by the Nixon administration. He filmed the devastation visited on the civilian population and sold some of the footage to 60 Minutes, which ran eight minutes during prime time. He also made his own film, Village By Village, which was screened for Congress and during Jane Fonda’s antiwar show that toured US military bases.
Along with Cora Weiss and a group of concerned physicians he founded Medical Aid For Indochina (MAI), which raised money for medical supplies for North Vietnam. In addition to its humanitarian virtues, he explains, “We avoided the disagreements over ideology and tactics that limited the larger antiwar movement. No one had an ideological problem with medical assistance.” Investigated by the Treasury Department for violations of the Trading With the Enemy Act, MAI was spared prosecution when the Nixon administration realized that its medical focus made it too sympathetic to demonize.
Having visited Bach Mai hospital in Hanoi, not long before American bombs destroyed it, Zimmerman helped raise money to rebuild it. He moved to Southern California and worked with Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda’s Indochina Peace Campaign (IPC). The IPC also built support for a grassroots campaign that lobbied Congress to reduce funding for the war and built support for passage of the 1973 War Powers Act, which limited future presidents’ unilateral war-making ability (for a while).
Cheerfully acknowledging that he enjoyed the rock music, sexual freedom and marijuana that characterized the sixties, Zimmerman does not fit the stereotype of the humorless radicals whom Timothy Leary called “young men with menopausal minds.” But he does occasionally slip into a starchy self-righteousness when describing his encounters with people he considers less serious than himself. “Young people who opposed the war,” he writes, “shared a certain kinship but…some, like me…were determined to stop the war. Others thought such effort hopeless. Not believing that they could alter the juggernaut of American capitalism through politics, the hippies tried culture instead starting with Leary’s slogan ‘tune in, turn on drop out.’ While we [“serious” political people like Zimmerman] all accepted a subsistence lifestyle without expensive clothes, cars or other luxuries, they [the “hippies”] were about enjoyment, friendship, shared experiences and whatever transcendence could be achieved through mind altering drugs, music and sex.” This is an unfair cartoon of the many countercultural activists who were every bit as morally opposed to the war as Zimmerman was and equally as useful in the long struggle against violence and reactionary materialism.
At times he falls into the trap of disparaging the motives of those who didn’t agree with his chosen tactics. He writes that a benefit concert for Bach Mai by the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco groups was cancelled because it was “too controversial for the corporate players behind the big bands.” There are all sorts of reasons why artists might not do a particular concert. There is nothing in the Dead’s career indicating they ever bowed to corporate pressure an,d notwithstanding the one aborted event, numerous musicians raised money for Bach Mai in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
But these are minor blemishes that do not undermine the great value of Troublemaker. The fact that Zimmerman stayed true to his principles and figured out a way to make a difference in the Reagan and post-Reagan eras adds gravitas to his voice. He has been a key player on dozens of issues including Wounded Knee, Central America, Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign and medical marijuana initiatives and fought with MoveOn.org against the Iraq War. His tense and harrowing account of literally risking his life by flying an airplane to drop food to the besieged American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee gives the book a drama not found in typical ideological memoirs.
There will never be a single “true” version of either the antiwar movement or the sixties, but Zimmerman’s is a unique and strong voice. Troublemaker is a well-written, passionate story of a personal journey through the Vietnam protest era, and a valuable model for progressive activists of our own time.