A while back, I was sitting outside at RISE with a young Irish-Jewish American friend who asked me, when I showed her a particular chapter in Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, “Who is Abbie Hoffman?” It was a pleasure to send her such excerpts from his autobiography:
“Later, when I, as well as others, marched on Washington or Chicago, we carried with us the lessons that the local power structures had fought us tooth and nail—that racism was ingrained in the system. We also realized that the lessons came in spite of our formal education. (My critique of democracy begins and ends with this point. Kids must be educated to disrespect authority or else democracy is a farce.)”
“There are lots of secret rules by which power maintains itself. Only when you challenge it, force the crisis, do you discover the true nature of society. And only at the time it chooses to teach you. Occasionally you can use your intellect to guess at the plan, but in general the secrets of power are taught in darkened police cells, back alleys, and on the street. I learned them there.”
“By 1970, my ‘plan’ to stop the war was to disrupt life on the home front. I did not see going to jail as the best use of my time.”
Clara Bingham has done a riveting oral history of many of Abbie Hoffman’s peers from the Sixties, focusing in particular on the year 1969-1970 in Witness to the Revolution: Radicals, Resisters, Vets, Hippies, and the Year America Lost Its Mind and Found Its Soul. Here’s her thesis: “Whether rebelling against the draft, the atrocities of the war, police and FBI repression, the conformity of the 1950s, the sexist, racist establishment, or all of the above, the movement in the final years of the sixties threatened the entire power structure of American society and transformed the country.” Bingham’s book will remind baby boomers and instruct their grandchildren as to how people’s experiences then may still speak to the wars being waged in our name today.
Weatherman spokesperson Bernadette Dohrn: How can we still be fighting Vietnam? But we are. Why? Because it was a mass popular resistance, and the truth was told about it. It was subversive of the whole structure of what we value and what we do.
Former Weatherman Bill Ayers: Every week that the war went on, six thousand people were murdered in our names. Every week. We couldn’t stop it.
Draft resister David Harris: Our ethos was we never called anybody pigs. We were trying to get the cops to come over to our side. I went to high school with the cops. As soon as the movement got into a place where it started saying, “You’re either with us or against us,” the movement died. What worked for us was that we were always open and inclusive. We always took new people in, and we recognized that everybody started out on the wrong side. All of us had gone though a transformation to get to where we were. Our movement would thrive because everybody was going to go through that transformation, and we had to empower that transformation, which means we had to embrace whoever was out there. And that included the police.
Former civil rights activist Julius Lester: By the time SDS broke up in ’69, I was aware that the movement was falling apart. I was aware that the movement was becoming ideological. And when movements become ideological, they lose sight of people. Ideology becomes more important than people. I’m talking about all movements.
Actor Jane Fonda: The way we treated the Vietnamese belied everything I thought about my country.
Veteran medic Wayne Smith: We were broken. I had so much anger and pain. I was crushed. I left like I had blood on my hands. I resisted calling the Vietnamese gooks and dinks, but near the end of it I found those vulgar words would come out of my mouth several times; I had contempt for myself. How could I have been so stupid and foolish to believe this country? How could I have ben so foolish to think that I could really save lives as a medic? How could I really make a difference in the face of so many catastrophic injuries?
Anti-draft activist Rick Ayers: The war eventually ended because these guys wouldn’t fight. Everyone talks about the mean antiwar movement, and the poor GIs, and the antiwar movement spit on the GIs, and no one gave us a parade when we got home, which is crap. The heart of the antiwar movement was the GIs. Even on the streets it was veterans. A bunch of veterans led in all the marches. They would not fight that war. They were the ones who knew that Vietnam was a people’s war.
Former DOD consultant Daniel Ellsberg: The antiwar movement, which was extremely admirable, and conscientious, and dedicated, and right, was doing what they should have been doing, except for the violence of the Weathermen, which helped Nixon. But I would say that their efforts didn’t change Nixon’s plans and didn’t shorten the war, but it did something that they weren’t even focused on: It put a ceiling on the war, not just at one point but at many points along the way. They kept that war from getting enormously larger and more lethal than it would’ve been—as many as three to four million Vietnamese may have died during the war. Horrible. But it could easily have been ten million. When I say easily, it wasn’t just a future possibility; it’s what the Joint Chiefs were asking for.
Veteran Michael Uhl: Today the campaign to commemorate Vietnam and honors its veterans serves a similar service, to further remove the onus of having participated in a bad war by abstracting the veteran from the bad history of the war, and honoring them for just showing up (thank you for your service), and for which the word valor serves as a convenient euphemism. Thankfully, there are still many of us who refuse to buy into that historical falsification, and who wish to see an honest portrayal of the Vietnam War passed down to future generations.
Remember [in the 1980s], thousands of well-to-do mainstream Americans went to Central America to do things like living in villages, on the assumption that a white face might restrict terror against these people. This has never happened in the history of imperialism. Nobody ever dreamed of going to live in a Vietnamese village to protect people against marauding soldiers in the 1960s.… In no imperial war that I can remember did massive numbers of citizens go to protect the victims of their own country.
—Noam Chomsky, Democracy and Power: The Delhi Lecture
Affinity Group, including Marilyn Young, Howard Zinn, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky