Bill Ayres’ Assessment of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement

Letter to the Editor By Cliff Conner

This letter was sent to the editor of the New York Times then to Socialist Viewpoint by the author. We wholeheartedly agree with his assessment of the Anti-Vietnam War movement as it applies to the movement today.

—The Editors

To the Editor:

I was glad to hear William Ayers rebut, in his own words, the mean-spirited and absurd campaign of demonization that the right-wing blogosphere conducted against him. I encountered Mr. Ayers many years ago in the movement against the Vietnam War and I would like to offer some context in which his retrospective evaluation of that movement can be better understood. Bill Ayers and I have opposing views about the effectiveness of that movement. He sees it as a mostly empty glass (it couldn’t stop the war) and I see it as a glass half full (it did stop the war, but it took many years to do so).

There were, broadly speaking, two very different and opposed “wings” of the antiwar movement of the ’sixties. Bill Ayers and I were on opposite sides. He was (again, generally speaking) in the wing that most people will remember because its leading figures, like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, were very colorful characters who naturally became the focus of the mass news media. The other wing, to which I devoted several years of my young life, was much less exciting. Instead of dramatic pronunciations and spectacular actions designed to attract media attention, we went about the boring business of organizing mass protest demonstrations under the prosaic slogan: “Bring the troops home now!” Between 1965 and 1974, although the size of the demonstrations ebbed and flowed (mostly ebbing in election years and flowing in between), the general trend gave evidence of an explosive growth of antiwar sentiment in the general population of the United States.

I agree with Bill Ayers that the wing of the movement he represented was ineffective. I would go further and say it was counterproductive, because its sophomoric ultra-radicalism tended to discredit the antiwar movement and alienate most of the American population from it. But the movement as a whole nonetheless persisted and, in my opinion, eventually played an essential role in ending the war. From handfuls of protesters in its early days, the movement grew to being able to bring hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. Those demonstrators were not, for the most part, radical students, but ordinary people from all walks of life. Once the message of the antiwar movement began to take hold among the general population, its spread among those who were sent to fight the war could not be prevented. And once the GIs in Vietnam themselves turned solidly against the war, it was only a matter of time before it ended.

Cliff Conner is author of A People’s History of Science