Transcript for Bill Ayers on the Weather Underground

Fleming: We're talking about the choices young people made at the time of the Vietnam War, and what those choices meant as the years passed. Bill Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, which set off a series of bombs around the country, in protest against the Vietnam War. He's written a memoire, "Fugitive Days," and in this conversation with Steve Paulson, Ayers begins by talking about being an activist.

Bill Ayers: I was first arrested opposing the war in 1965, and by 1968, when Linden Johnson resigned the presidency and we had a massive march on the home of the president of the University of Michigan, where I was a student. And he came out and addressed the crowd, and he said, "Congratulations. You've won, and we've won, and now there will be peace." And we believed it, and yet the war went on, as you know, for seven more years. And millions of lives had to be lost. And what we saw, what I saw, was a war of terror against a whole people. And every day that we didn't end the war, 2000 or 3000 more human beings would be wiped out. And so it became quite a despairing kind of moment, I think. But we were searching, trying to figure out how to raise the sharpest possible alarm against the war.

Steve Paulson: Tell me about the time when you did go underground. I mean, what you were trying to accomplish, and some of the things that you did.

Ayers: In 1970, the townhouse in Greenwich Village is blown up, and three of my friends are killed, including my girlfriend, Diana Oughton. And at that point, a group of us goes underground, because we look forward and we see that people are being killed, that we are being beaten and harassed and arrested.

Paulson: But just to be clear about that, the explosion was... Presumably, the people in that townhouse were the ones that accidentally set it off?

Ayers: Oh, absolutely. The three people who were killed were building bombs. That's right, and they set it off, and we always assumed that it was an accident. But we were then facing massive criminal charges, and our choice, it seemed to us at the time, was to spend the next several years defending ourselves in court, which we didn't trust, and which we thought would be an entire waste of time. Or, to try to kind of survive on the run, and continue to kind of protest the war using extreme, and illegal, means. And that's what we ended up doing.

Paulson: And why did you choose to use those extreme means. I mean, to...

Ayers: Well, because we--you know, as I said. I mean, we began the opposition to the war in 1965. By 1968, Vietnam vets were returning, and they were saying, "This is an atrocity that we're committing over there. It's a war of terror against a people. It's not a legitimate war, it's not legal, it's not moral. It has to stop." So from 1968 to 70, we intensified our efforts to stop that war. And the war went on, and there was no end in sight. Richard Nixon won the presidency with a secret plan to end the war. The secret plan turned out to be to escalate the war, and so a group of us decided that we were going to, you know, sound an alarm that was more intense, and more urgent, than any that had been sounded before. You know, in many ways, and I don't know how you read the book, but in many ways, I read the book as a meditation on terrorism, and a rejection of terrorism. Both terrorism by individuals and by groups, but also official terrorism.

Paulson: It's fascinating to hear you say that this is a meditation against terrorism. Of course, the charge has been leveled at you that you are a terrorist.

Ayers: No, we weren't terrorists. Terrorism is the targeting of people, the targeting of innocents. What we saw September 11th was, of course, a huge and clear example of a crime against humanity, of terrorism. But what we witnessed 30 years ago was government policy that said, "Here, let me draw a circle around large swathes of this country. Anyone living there can be killed and murdered." I actually have one chapter in which I actually describe two groups of young people. Both of them despairing, both of them a little bit off the track. One terribly frightened, and one terribly determined. One group of young people fashions a three pound bomb to slip into the Pentagon, to go off in the middle of the night as a symbolic act against the killing. No one was killed, no one was injured. In fact, no one was ever killed or injured in the actions that we did. And the second group of young people marches into a Vietnamese village, kills 347 people over a six hour period. Rapes, loots, burns, and I raise the question: which is terrorism? Both are violent, both are illegal, but which is terrorism?

Paulson: What were you trying to accomplish, strategically, by setting off these explosions?

Ayers: We were trying, I think, to say to the government and to the American people, "This war has created such a crisis that it's coming home." And as I say, we never intended to kill anybody, and we never did kill anybody. So I see that, and I don't know why other people don't, but I see that as a huge moral distinction.

Paulson: So you don't have regrets.

Ayers: I would say that, you know, I regret anybody's feelings who were hurt. I regret anybody that I harmed. Sure, I'm sorry about a lot of things. But if I look at that progression of activity against the war, I actually think we were tremendously restrained. Had somebody been hurt or killed, that would be indefensible. I think what happened here at Madison, the killing of that researcher, was indefensible.

Paulson: Well, let me follow up on that.

Ayers: Sure.

Paulson: Because that happened less than a mile from where we're sitting right now. The Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin was blown up. The bomb was set off in the middle of the night. The intention was not to kill anyone.

Ayers: That's right, that's right.

Paulson: That's why they did it then. Unfortunately, tragically, someone was in the building then. They didn't know that. A research was killed. One of the bombers, Karl Armstrong, has since come out and expressed great public regret, remorse, that that happened.

Ayers: As I think he should. Absolutely, as I think he should.

Paulson: But couldn't that have easily happened with you?

Ayers: It could have.

Paulson: I mean, weren't you just lucky that no one was killed in any of these explosions?

Ayers: Well, I think we were lucky, but I also think that we were thoughtful and restrained. As I say, I think that the restraint is something worth noting. So I think it's absolutely marvelous that Karl Armstrong expresses remorse, expresses regret. Because one person was killed, and that's a whole universe that was destroyed. And so I don't have any doubt that if I had been involved in that, I would be expressing deep, deep remorse. But what I don't get is why the Karl Armstrongs are always called to task because what they did was extreme, without a doubt. But not as extreme as what was done every day, in our name. In the three years or four years that we're talking about, there were something like 20,000 bombings and arson incidents in the United States, against war-related targets. And as far as I know, one person was killed. That's restraint, in my view. And as far as I know, every day that the war in Vietnam went on, 2000 people were killed.

Paulson: Let me mention another reaction to your book.

Ayers: Sure.

Paulson: The review that was in "The Nation" by John Leonard, and I want to quote here. He says, "Don't tell me that you had to be there to feel Weather's rage. We were there, and most of us thought that they were bonkers. Renegade splinters of the fractured new left, imagining themselves to be samurai or Sioux boxers, or Bolsheviks, turn violent." What do you make of that kind of criticism?

Ayers: I think I said something similar in the book, actually. I think I said something about the extent to which we kind of had a metaphor of ourselves that was super inflated, and way beyond what we were capable of. So I don't feel that the book in any way defends our self-righteousness, defends the errors that we made in terms of turning away from the mass movement. But I think it's very easy now, to kind of stand on the high ground of middle age, and throw rocks into the valley of youth. And did we splinter and factionalize and fracture? We did. And we are partly responsible for that, but again, it's easy to kind of look back and say, "Oh, I would've done it this way. Well, how did he do it? I mean, what was the right answer?" And I don't think anybody knows for sure.

Fleming: Bill Ayers is the author of "Fugitive Days," a memoir about his time with the Weather Underground. His most recent book is "Public Enemy."

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