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.