Antiwar Movements, Then and Now. (Book Reviews)

By Shepard, Benjamin | Monthly Review, February 2002 | Go to article overview

Antiwar Movements, Then and Now. (Book Reviews)


Shepard, Benjamin, Monthly Review


Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Beacon Press, 2001), 292 pages, $24.00 cloth.

"It is difficult to communicate at a distance the sense of helplessness and suppressed rage we all felt by the end of 1967," historian David Schalk recently recalled of the sixties U.S. Antiwar Movement. I certainly would not know. I was not even born then. Yet, if organizing meetings held after September 11 are any indication, the legacy of just this movement looms large. Seattle veterans have started talking about a global peace and justice movement. A recent e-mail even proclaimed, "you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing." And one wonders if it's time for a pause to consider the story of the underground struggle against the Vietnam war.

Between the recent military escalation, antiwar mobilizations, and the media hailstorm that seems to have crossed the line from grief to panic, the need for a reassessment becomes imperative. As a movement consciously (and sometimes unconsciously) builds on the lessons, contours, and unresolved legacies of antiwar movements past, the need for a more coherent narrative of these years takes on a certain urgency. Weather Underground veteran Bill Ayers' memoir bears light on a dark, often misunderstood, crucial point within U.S. political history. From the townhouse explosion on New York's West 11th Street to his own participation in bombing the Pentagon and his life in the underground, Fugitive Days offers an unsentimental consideration of the splintering culmination of the U.S. Antiwar Movement. The implications for a generation of social movements are difficult to deny.

Fugitive Days never falls into the trap of condescension which often accompanies literature about the generation of activists who made history during the sixties and seventies. From the get-go, Ayers offers a disclaimer, presumably to keep his colleagues still in prison out of the fray, that Fugitive Days is but one person s memory. There is "a necessary incompleteness here, a covering of facts and a blurring of details, which is in part an artifact of those exquisite and terrible times." Names and places are changed in a story which may not measure up to the standards of historical accuracy, yet represents one person's "honest" recollection of a difficult period. This search for an authentic voice drives Ayers' entire narrative.

Searching for a Something Real

Fugitive Days begins with Ayers' recollections of a privileged 1950s childhood and his difficulties with a sunny, always happy culture apparently incapable of considering its ugly twin brother, the shadowy, structural violence below its surface. While Ayers' parents came of age during the Great Depression and the Second World War, they did not encourage inquiry into this history. "We don't talk that way," Ayer's mother informed him. The past was something to be packaged away from view. The quiet rebellion (or insanity) of a child growing up in the shadows of the Cold War, the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, and oppressive blandness simmered, as it contended with the plastic Mary Tyler Moore ethos of the day. Much of Ayers' countercultural impulse can be read as a rejection of suburban monoculture.

In search of "something darker and more soulful," Ayers took off first in flights of fancy and then around the world. Beginning with a curiosity which led him to Marx, Ayers embraced James Baldwin, committing himself to be not another "uptight and fucked up white man." (He viewed Marx as being as reductive as his pie-in-the-sky mother.) His reading of Baldwins' "Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation" offers the first glimpses of Ayers' intellectual romance with political violence. Given that there are no block quotes, it is difficult to know where Baldwin ends and Ayers begins. Yet the words "only when the slave is freed, will the cause and the nature of the violence be ended. …

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