Host, Richard Flacks:
Bill Zimmerman’s memoir of the sixties is a terrific book to read—and at the same it gets us to see the happenings and outcomes of that period in new ways. I say that as someone who lived through the time (and indeed I’m a minor character in Bill’s story). And some of those fresh insights may affect our understanding of the times we are in now.
One distinctive thing about Zimmerman’s personal story is the fact that he chose to live his life as a full time ‘troublemaker’ (committed leftwing activist), abandoning his extremely promising career as a creative and recognized scientist. He got his PhD in psychology at the University of Chicago in 1967, based on path breaking research on brain function in sleep, and gave up his academic career even though he had every expectation of continuing achievement. Why and how he made this life change reveals a lot about the society of that time—and now—so I hope we can delve into this dimension of his experience.
In the late sixties, Bill found himself strongly attracted to the ideas of political and cultural revolution that circulated widely among young black and white activists. We learn a lot from his account about why these perspectives had powerful appeal at that time. Bill’s vivid depiction of episodes of mass direct action that he participated in—such as the largely forgotten but dramatic May Day protests in Washington in 1971 against the war—help us see such protest as more than chaotic outburst. The thousands involved had a strategy they hoped to implement and tactics that they bet might successfully challenge the war government. What Bill and others learned from the failure of such efforts, and how antiwar protest was transformed as a result is a largely untold story of that period.
Troublemaker is therefore an important political history—but it is a fascinating personal story as well. Bill Zimmerman was one of thousands of young men and women whose experience in the Sixties made them intensely concerned about the meaning of their lives and driven to take control of their destinies. He came to want to live as a ‘troublemaker’—but this self-labeling doesn’t describe the strong sense of purpose, direction and fulfillment he was able to find. But that seriousness of purpose was fused with an appetite for adventure and daring.
Along the way, Bill Zimmerman learned to skillfully fly a plane. His status as a licensed pilot became a resource—most dramatically when he parachuted about a ton of food to the Indian rebels blockaded at Wounded Knee by the FBI and federal marshals. Bill helped bring medical supplies to North Vietnam during the period of mass US bombardment of Hanoi and other cities. These were dramatic acts of troublemaking, to be sure, but also helped awaken moral concern among many Americans.
Alongside the derring-do, Bill became engaged in an ‘inside’ strategy to end the war. He led an effort to lobby congress to restrict appropriation for the war effort. This campaign bore fruit—war budgets were cut and the US gave up trying to buttress its faltering South Vietnamese client state which collapsed in April 1975.
For veterans of the new left like Bill Zimmerman, the success of this foray into the arena of mainstream politics became a springboard for what became a long career in the creative use of electoral politics for social change. Bill briefly recounts his achievements in helping progressive candidates, in winning many initiative campaigns and in advancing landmark organizations including MoveOn. How one time revolutionists became engaged in day to day politics and how they changed those politics—and how the simultaneous resurgence of the American Right was linked to the movements of the sixties—are topics intriguingly raised as the book comes to a conclusion.
[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. -bev]