TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of 2008 campaign speech)
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.
(Soundbite of crowd booing)
GROSS: The person Sarah Palin described as a terrorist during the campaign is my guest, Bill Ayers. He was a focal point of the McCain-Palin campaign's attacks against Barack Obama. Ayers didn't speak to the press during the campaign. But now that it's over, we asked him to tell us about his experiences during the campaign, his relationship with Obama, and to explain his radical past and what motivated his actions.
Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, which broke away from SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, in the early '70s to take more militant action against the war in Vietnam, including setting off a bomb in the Pentagon. Federal charges against Ayers were dismissed because of government misconduct.
Now Ayers is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the author of several books about education. In 1997, he won Chicago's Citizen of the Year Award for his work in education reform. Bill Ayers lives in the same neighborhood in Chicago as Barack Obama. They've served on boards together of two Chicago philanthropic groups and an education reform organization. When Obama first ran for state senate, Ayers and his wife held an event for him at their home. Ayers' 2001 book, "Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist," has just been republished with a new afterword.
Here's one of the many times Ayers' name came up during the campaign. This is John McCain during the presidential debate moderated by Bob Schaefer after Schaefer asked if McCain would be willing to say to Obama's face what Palin had said about Obama palling around with terrorists.
(Soundbite of 2008 presidential debate)
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): You asked me a direct question?
Mr. BOB SCHAEFER (Moderator, 2008 Presidential Debate): Short question. Yes. Real quick.
Senator MCCAIN: Mr. Ayers, I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. We need to know the full extent of...
GROSS: Well, Bill Ayers, welcome to Fresh Air. I have to say, what John McCain said was a triple whammy for you. Not only were you a terrorist but you were old and washed-up. So before we get to the terrorism part, how did it feel to be called old and washed-up?
Prof. WILLIAM AYERS (College of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago; Author, "Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist"): I don't think I heard that when it happened and I didn't - you know, I was unwittingly and unwillingly thrust into this campaign, and I missed a lot of it.
GROSS: You didn't try to help, in the sense that you intentionally remained silent until the end of the campaign, until the campaign was over. There were a lot of requests for you to talk to the press and you declined. Why did you take that position that you wouldn't talk until it was over?
Prof. AYERS: Well, I didn't exactly remain silent. And the kind of narrative now is he's breaking his silence, he's up from underground. It's not exactly right. I taught. I lectured at universities. I spoke to my students. I spoke in certain public forums. But what I didn't do was respond to microphones being thrust in my face and saying, what is your relationship with Obama and are you an unrepentant terrorist? And I felt like, gee, how does one enter into that discussion when the premises are so, as I said, profoundly dishonest that I didn't know where to get a purchase on the question?
Just jumping into the conversation is jumping into a dishonesty that I didn't want to promote. So I decided that when they thrust microphones at me I would turn away, and I did.
GROSS: Let's try to talk about some of the things that were brought up during the campaign and how you would respond to them now, and we'll see if you can put that into context for us. Hillary had said and John McCain said, we need to know the full extent of the relationship that you had with Barack Obama. What would you say about that now?
Prof. AYERS: I would say that the full extent of the relationship I had with Barack Obama is quite apparent right on the surface. And the full extent is that I knew him as well as probably thousands or tens of thousands of other people. We served on a board together. He took the vice chairmanship of a board of an initiative that I founded. That board was filled with Republicans. It wasn't shadowy. It wasn't shaky.
But again, to go back to the premise, you have this idea that somehow if two people share a room together, are in a room together or share a conversation or a cup of coffee or a bus ride downtown or a thousand other associations, that that somehow implicates those people in sharing policy, perspective, outlook, and so on. And it's that that I wanted to reject.
To me, in a wild and diverse democracy like this, each of us should be trying to talk to lots and lots and lots of people outside of our own kind of comfort zone and community, and that injunction goes even further for political leaders. They should talk to everyone, they should listen to everyone, and at the end of the day they should have a mind of their own, which Obama clearly does.
GROSS: Before we get to more of the charges that were made against you during the presidential campaign, I'm just so interested on what it was like to be you during the presidential campaign, like when Sarah Palin started talking about how Obama was palling around with terrorists, meaning you, did you start getting a lot of death threats?
Prof. AYERS: Yes. But when the charge was made and the attempts to demonize me were made, it was very clear to me that that was a cartoon character or a caricature that was thrust up on the stage. And even though it looked alarmingly like me and it had my name, it wasn't me. So I ignored it. When the threats escalated, and they escalated terribly after Governor Palin had the pep rally where they chanted "kill him," it felt to me a little bit like the kind of - the moment in George Orwell's "1984," the Two Minutes Hate where the party faithful would gather and the enemy would be cast on the screen and people would begin to work themselves into a frenzy of anger and hatred and begin chanting, kill him! Well, I did feel a little bit like Goldstein thrust into that role, and yet, I felt that most of the hate that was coming in was nutty and was, you know, from people who were just hyperventilating on their computers.
GROSS: Has it ever been awkward or odd for you or for the police to be working together to protect you, in the sense that in the '60s and early '70s you were kind of at war with the police?
Prof. AYERS: Awkward - I would say no. I suppose there's some weirdness. I'm very close to the people at the university and very close to the people in my neighborhood. I know them all. Over the years, we've had occasion to laugh about some of the inflated rhetoric of the '60s.
I had an incident last week that was - a couple of incidents that were interesting. One was I was standing in my front window talking on the phone, and a police officer drove by, and he slowed down and waved and I waved, and I know him. And he went down to the corner, turned around, came back, opened his side passenger window and held up a copy of my book, "Fugitive Days," and put his thumb up. And I thought, where am I living? This is too good.
But then also, part of the dishonest narrative that's going on - and we'll probably get into this in a little bit - has been the idea promoted by some people on Fox News and others that we were involved in lots of killings, which is absolutely not true. One of my friends in the Chicago Police Department, I was having coffee at a coffee shop and he stopped by. And we were chatting, and he said, so tell me, Bill. Did you guys kill cops in the '60s? And I said, absolutely not. And he said, oh, I didn't think so, but it's a discussion going on at the precinct. I said, well, tell people come on in here and we'll have a discussion about it. We'll talk about it.
Now where did he get that? Well, he got it from a big lie being spun on some of the blogs and some of the right-wing talk radio and talk television, and he got it because in the course of reporting about this campaign against me, this demonization, the New York Times ran an article about me that, you know, tried to discredit any of the charges. But it did say in 1970 there was a killing of a police officer in San Francisco credited to the Weather Underground. That's not true. That never happened. And yet there it is, sitting in the New York Times.
GROSS: But what never happened? The attack never happened? The death never happened? The Weather Underground association...
Prof. AYERS: The Weather Underground never killed a police officer, never tried to and never did.
GROSS: Was a police officer killed in that attack?
Prof. AYERS: There was a police officer killed in 1970 in San Francisco. It's an unsolved crime, and no one's ever, to my knowledge, credited the Weather Underground, and yet that was the quote used by the New York Times.
GROSS: Well, I'm sure this is the last thing you feel like hearing now, but I want to play an excerpt of a McCain ad that was run using you as the centerpiece. This is an excerpt of the ad.
(Soundbite of 2008 McCain campaign ad)
Unidentified Woman: Obama just responded, this is a guy who lives in my neighborhood. That's it? We know Bill Ayers ran the violent, left-wing activist group called Weather Underground. We know Ayers' wife was on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list. We know they bombed the Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home. We know Ayers said, I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.
GROSS: Did you hear that as it was running?
Prof. AYERS: I did.
GROSS: And your reaction to it was?
Prof. AYERS: Well, the ad is, again, profoundly dishonest in two directions. One is that it's not true that the Weather Underground did the things that they said that we did. It is true that we were, you know, a militant organization that came out of Students for a Democratic Society, is true that we made certain choices, which I think we should talk about, about why those choices were made.
The dishonesty, though, goes, as I said, in two directions. One is it expands and inflates the idea that the Weather Underground was this terrorist organization, which we were not. We were never a terrorist organization. And number two, it tries to make some shadowy link between the Weather Underground and Barack Obama, and there is no link. So it's hard to kind of get into answering it because the dishonesty, again, is so profound that it's - you know, it's hard to get a purchase on.
GROSS: That ad refers to a quote in the New York Times that was published in a feature story about you on September 11th, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks. Now, the interview was given before anybody had any knowledge that the terrorist attacks were going to happen, so the context was that it was printed on the day of the attacks. You said, and this is the lead sentence in the New York Times, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." When you said, I feel we didn't do enough, a lot of people interpreted that as meaning I didn't feel we planted enough bombs. Is that what you meant when you said I feel we didn't do enough?
Prof. AYERS: Well, first, I was misquoted by the Times, and I wrote a letter to them explaining that, which they didn't run right away. But no, what I meant and what - you know, the theme of the reviews of "Fugitive Days" when it first came out were no regrets. No regrets. That was the headline of the Chicago Magazine review. That was the headline of the New York Times. The idea was that somehow I was, you know, regretting nothing.
The truth is, you can't get to be 60 years old with your eyes even partially open and not have a lot of regrets. And I have plenty, some of them political, lots of them personal. But at the same time, what I don't regret is I don't regret opposing a murderous, terrorist war waged against a civilian population largely, with all of my energy and might. And it's that lack of regret that gets seized upon as implying that I meant that we should have done more of this tactic or more of that tactic when what I mean and what I meant, and I'll say it again, is that we - and I mean the large we, the anti-war movement, the American people - couldn't end a war that we knew and we agreed massively was wrong. We knew it was illegal. We knew it was immoral. We knew that every day that the war went on hundreds of people were being killed in our name, and we couldn't stop it. So in my view we didn't do enough, and I mean the big we.
GROSS: OK, let's get back to the ad. It said you ran the Weather Underground. Do you object to that?
Prof. AYERS: Absolutely. I was one of the leaders of the Weather Underground. I was one of the founding members. It's true. We existed for six years. In that six years, there were tens of thousands of vandalism and bombings and arsons at government targets, and the Weather Underground took credit for something like two dozen. You know, it crossed certain lines of legality, of proprieties, maybe even of common sense. But it was not terror. It never targeted people, it never meant to hurt or injure anyone, and thank God it never did hurt or injure anyone.
GROSS: But the question was - the statement I asked you about was that you ran the Weather Underground.
Prof. AYERS: I didn't run the Weather Underground. We were a collective group.
GROSS: Your wife was on the Ten Most Wanted list, Bernardine Dohrn. That is true. She was on the Ten Most Wanted list.
Prof. AYERS: That's true. Yes.
GROSS: The ad said you bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and a judge's home. True?
Prof. AYERS: The Weather Underground took credit for the Capitol and the Pentagon. I never bombed anyone's home, ever.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Ayers. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished with a new afterword. We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bill Ayers, who was a focal point of the McCain-Palin campaign against Barack Obama. Ayers was a radical activist against the war in Vietnam. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished.
Earlier, we were talking about the death threats that you were receiving, particularly after Sarah Palin started talking at rallies about how Obama was palling around with terrorists, meaning you. When you were getting those death threats, did you think at any point that the McCain-Palin campaign had crossed the line into irresponsibility?
Prof. AYERS: Yes. I think that - I think much of the news media and I think the McCain-Palin campaign crossed into irresponsibility. Not just because there were personal threats against me but because they were creating a mob mentality. When people are chanting, kill him, at a rally, and it's ambiguous as to whether they're saying kill the candidate for president or kill this guy he was so-called palling around with, that's pretty dangerous stuff. And it seems to me they had a responsibility to put an end to it.
I think part of why the campaign - one of the deep ironies of the campaign was that I was created as a caricature and thrown up on the stage in an attempt to sink the Obama campaign, and every time my name was mentioned, the poll numbers of McCain-Palin went down a point or two. So I think it didn't work. I think it's a great credit to the American people that it didn't work, mainly. But I think it was irresponsible to raise, and I think it was dangerous to raise. I think that they ought to - they have a big responsibility to correct that.
GROSS: Now that the campaign is over, have the death threats stopped?
Prof. AYERS: Escalated.
GROSS: Escalated. Why, do you think?
Prof. AYERS: I'm not sure, but I've gotten a lot of threats that talk about civil war and the fact that we now have a socialist government and that the war is on. And I send all of these threats to the police because I don't know how to handle them.
GROSS: A lot of people called you an unrepentant terrorist, and I think a lot of people want to hear a full-fledged apology and feel like you haven't given it. I'm not going to ask you your answer to that question now. I want to save it for the end of the interview after we've heard more of your story.
The Weather Underground split from SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, to become more militant, to do things like bombings. Explain why you thought it was justified then to have a splinter group that was about militant action, including actions like bombing the Pentagon.
Prof. AYERS: You know, the split in Students for a Democratic Society took place in 1969-'70, but here's the context in which the split took place. I was arrested opposing the war in Vietnam in 1965 in a draft board sit-in, and through most of my life I've been engaged - including quite recently - I've been engaged in direct, non-violent action to oppose injustice, to fight for peace, to fight for justice.
In 1965 something like 70 percent of Americans supported the war. By 1968, something like 65 percent opposed the war. So those three years were quite significant. And for me, the significance included trying to be an organizer against the war, going into neighborhoods, trying to get people to sign petitions, organizing draft resistance, resisting the draft myself. These were things that characterized those three years for me.
Perhaps more importantly, the black movement for civil rights came out fairly strongly, and prominent leaders, including Martin Luther King, came out against the war, and that began to really turn the tide. But most important, perhaps, veterans came home and told the truth about what they saw and what they were asked to do there. At that moment, Lyndon Johnson announces that he won't run for reelection, that he'll try to end the war. That was March 31st, 1968. Those of us in the anti-war movement were jubilant. We felt that we had won an important and a decisive victory to end the killing. Three years of war, more than enough. Let's end it.
Four days later Martin Luther King was dead. Two months later Robert Kennedy was dead, and a couple of months after that it was clear the war wouldn't end but would expand. And so the question facing us was, in a situation where the American people have come out against the war, the people of the world have been against the war for much longer, what do you do when 2,000 people a week are being murdered? How do you respond to that?
And the question was answered in a variety of ways. Some people went into the Democratic Party and tried to build a peace wing. Some people left for Europe and Africa and said they had to leave the madness. Some people organized communes and alternative communities. Some people went into factories and organized the industrial working class. And we decided that we would try to create an organization that could survive what we thought of as kind of impending American fascism and take the war to the warmakers.
Now, were we brilliant? I don't think so. Were we leading? No. Was our strategy or our idea particularly profound? I don't think so. But if you think of any of those alternative courses of action, what should we have done? Who did the right thing and who can claim that they knew exactly how this thing would play out and that they did the perfect kind of response? I would argue that none of us did the right thing, that all of us did something that was right and all of us tried our best and none of those things are completely nuts, but none of those things actually accomplished what we wanted.
GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bill Ayers. His radical past was used against Barack Obama by the McCain-Palin campaign. Ayers and Obama have served together on the boards of philanthropic organizations in Chicago. Ayers is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Back in the '60s and '70s, he was a radical activist against the war in Vietnam and was member of the Weather Underground, which set a bomb in the Pentagon. Federal charges against Ayers were dropped in 1973 because of government misconduct. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished.
Let's talk about the bombing of the Pentagon, which was an action that you were involved with, that the Weather Underground took credit for. First, why did you want to bomb the Pentagon? And when we say bomb, we're talking about a three-pound bomb of dynamite.
Prof. AYERS: Yeah. I mean, you know, again, it's kind of odd to talk about today, and the way I talk about it in "Fugitive Days" is I describe the feeling of anger and the feeling of frustration at being unable to end this war, and I describe in the book two groups of young Americans, one group despairing, a little bit off the tracks, also hopeful that things can change, entering into the Pentagon, finding a way to penetrate the Pentagon to put a small explosive device kind of in a restroom, and it knocks out a computer, an Air Force computer kind of unintentionally and shuts down the air war for a couple of days.
And then I describe another group of young Americans also despairing, also a bit off the tracks, marching into a Vietnamese village and murdering everyone who is alive and everything that's alive - every animal, all the livestock - and then burning the buildings to the ground, destroying the village. And I raise the question, what is terrorism?
And what I'm trying to do in that chapter - what I'm trying to do in thinking about it is figure out how do we have a kind of truth and reconciliation process where we look at what everyone did, that we don't hold up the Weather Underground as the most insane and crazy and off-the-tracks group without also asking, what did you do, Robert McNamara? What did you do, Henry Kissinger? What did you do, John McCain? What did you do, Bill Moyers?
In other words, all of us were there. We all had choices to make, and while many choices were extreme and off the tracks, I would be happy to stand up in a process where all of us are accounting for our deeds and our misdeeds and take responsibility for the things I actually did. And in that context, I think that the actions of the Weather Underground will be seen as yes, dramatic, yes, a screaming cry against this war, but not particularly destructive and not particularly horrible compared to other things that were going on. And again, not just...
GROSS: Let's get back to...
Prof. AYERS: Sure.
GROSS: Let's get back to the not particularly destructive. I mean, you tried - you set a bomb off in the Pentagon, and people - it's not only the center of United States security. I know you'd argue it's the center of war, but it's also the center of security, and a lot of people work there. So what did you try to do? Would you say that it was your intention to harm property but not people?
Prof. AYERS: Absolutely. The intention was to harm property and create a symbolic - we used to call it armed propaganda - create a symbolic response but a screaming response against the war. And you're right. The Pentagon can be viewed many ways. But our view of it and the aspect of it we wanted to draw attention to was it was the headquarters of invading another country and occupying another country. And those people had little response or little recourse, and we felt like we should raise an alarm and point people to the fact that the Pentagon isn't simply about security. It's also about war and aggression.
GROSS: So what did you do to provide - to try to prevent casualties since...
Prof. AYERS: Well, every time the Weather Underground did anything, it happened late, late in the night, and it happened with a lot of warning and - again, I suppose, you know, I would say we were lucky in that nobody was ever hurt or injured or killed. In all those, you know, kind of extreme acts of vandalism no one was hurt. But again, to set up the context - you know, it's easy to forget that the CIA's Phoenix Program was killing 50,000 civilians at the same time in Vietnam. That COINTELPRO, the FBI program, was murdering African-American leaders. That six Jesuit priests and thousands of people were killed in El Salvador and Guatemala. So these are the contexts in which the Weather Underground came to life.
GROSS: Does the - your three-pound bomb in the Pentagon seem different post-9/11 when terrorists, you know, flew an airplane into the Pentagon and really destroyed a lot, killed people, hurt people.
Prof. AYERS: Yeah. I mean, I think the events of 9/11 were terrorism pure and simple. They were crimes against humanity. They were an attempt to murder and harm and intimidate, and you can see that so clearly. But then it's important to remember that terrorism can be the actions of a group of religious fanatics or a cult or a group of any kind of extremists, but it can also be the work of a government, a state, an organized, legitimized group of people. So when you say, you know, yes, does it look different? It does look different.
On the other hand, the American assault in Vietnam, the American assault in Iraq also looks like terror to me. And again, I would want to raise those things up in parallel and in comparison because we're not free of it. We're not innocent. Most of us would like to think of our government and our country as benign. But when you're looking down the barrel of a B-52 coming at you, the American power does not look benign.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned that no one was killed in Weather Underground bombings, but three members of the Weather Underground were accidentally killed by a bomb that they were making when the fuse accidentally went off. One of the three, Diana Oughton, was your girlfriend, and the other two people killed were Terry Robbins and Ted Gold. I know it was devastating for you personally. What about politically? How did it affect your thinking about violent action when the bomb your friends were making accidentally killed them?
Prof. AYERS: You know, I try to re-imagine that moment. Nobody really knows what went on in that house at that time. I tried to re-imagine it and imagine Diana trying to stop it, trying to stop what was going on. I'm not sure. I don't know. And I've thought about it for, you know, all these years.
GROSS: You want to imagine her saying, let's not make this bomb?
Prof. AYERS: I want to imagine her stopping - yeah, stopping the bomb making. It affected - it devastated me personally...
GROSS: Let me ask you why...
Prof. AYERS: Yeah.
GROSS: You wanted that. Because, you know, you've just made an argument in support of the Weathermen's action, setting bombs to destroy property, to set off the alarms but not to hurt people. Why do you imagine her wanting to stop this particular bomb from being made?
Prof. AYERS: Because at that time, you know, there was a great debate about what we were doing and where we were going amongst us. And while we came to a consensus, the Weather Underground really begins with the deaths of these three people. And we were uncertain about what territory we were entering into, and after the events of the townhouse and the deaths of our three friends, we began to really rethink what path we were on.
We felt - we thought that those folks were building a bomb that was going to hurt people, and we were the first people to kind of call that question and to ask whether that was true and to kind of expose it. We spent the first couple of years underground, among other things, trying to get people to see that there was a huge difference between hurting people and attacking property. And we ourselves never went down that road. So I imagine Diana out and being a voice because she was a pacifist, because she had come up a pacifist. I imagined her trying to stop the kind of use of any kind of weapon against people. That's what I do in the book. I try to re-imagine that.
It was devastating for me personally. It was also a time when we really, really began to take stock and pull back from what might have been a really disastrous direction. And we made the decision in the weeks and months after the townhouse that while we were all wanted by the FBI and we didn't intend to give ourselves up, and while we were determined to go forward in our opposition to the war, we were equally determined not to become terrorists.
GROSS: You know, you said that you're afraid this bomb was designed to kill people. The bomb was set to go off at a non-commission officer's dance at Fort Dix. And I mean, that would have hurt the people at the dance. Yes, was that...?
Prof. AYERS: Absolutely. And that's what we - again, kind of blew the whistle on. Just weeks afterwards, we said this is what we think was going on, and this should never go on.
GROSS: One question gets brought up, does the end justify the means? If people are using violence in a war, if America is engaged in a violent war, does that justify violence in America?
Prof. AYERS: I think that's an important question and a question that everyone should wrestle with. But it's also a question if you put it to me, somebody who played a small role in - well, I played a long role but a small role in a giant wild, diverse, anti-war movement against the Vietnam War, and I play a role and I want to play a role in the anti-war movements of today - but if you put that question to me, and I think it's a question I should wrestle with and have to wrestle with, you should also put it every time you meet with a U.S. senator, every time you meet with a member of the administration or the Cabinet because they get a pass on this question.
They argue that of course the end justifies the means. That's why we're devastating Afghanistan today. That's why we've devastated Iraq. That's why we continue to support the occupation of Palestine because the end certainly justifies the means from their point of view. I don't agree with them. I think that we should all - again, if you want to, you know - and I do want to put a ban on all bombings. That would be great. Let's do it, starting with the Pentagon.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Ayers. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished with a new afterword. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bill Ayers, who was a focal point of the McCain-Palin campaign against Barack Obama. Ayers was a radical activist against the war in Vietnam and was a member of the militant anti-war group the Weather Underground. Ayers' 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished.
Do you think, in the long run, that the bombs that the Weather Underground set off did more to stop the war or did more to turn people against the anti-war movement because it scared them and alienated them?
Prof. AYERS: I don't see any evidence that people were turned against the anti-war movement by anything that the anti-war movement did. The anti-war movement grew and grew and grew. GIs came home. They formed their own organizations. They joined the anti-war movement in droves. I don't see that there was anything that turned people against anti-war. I mean, they might have been against the movement per se, but they weren't pro-war because of anything - any outrageous demonstration or any outlandish action or any statement by Muhammad Ali or anything the Weather Underground did.
Did we - on the other side of the question, did we contribute to stopping the war? I can't say that I can make a causal claim there either, but then I could ask, well, did the people who went to the communes, did they help stop the war? Did the people who ran away to Europe and Africa, did they help? How about the people who went into the Democratic Party? And that led to the nomination of George McGovern. Did that end the war?
The fact is that we didn't do enough, and we didn't do it well enough. And the reason - the proof of that is that the American war in Vietnam went on for a decade. Three million people or so were murdered needlessly, and the end came when the Vietnamese threw the Americans out. That's a sad comment on our anti-war movement. Let's do better this time.
GROSS: You know what I found myself wondering sometimes during the presidential campaign, do you think that perhaps one of the reasons why McCain was so willing to use you in the campaign against Obama was because he was a prisoner of war during the war that you were opposing, and he felt strongly and continues to feel that when America is at war, the people at home should be doing their best to support it?
Prof. AYERS: I can't speculate on what his motives were. But I think, and I may be wrong, but I think this may be the last national election where the '60s is raised in this kind of way, that it's kind of the bloody shirt that tries to get people agitated. And I think that's mostly a good thing, but there's a bad aspect to it. It's good because it's a new generation, and most people don't need to keep having the '60s as kind of the touchstone. And I, myself, even though I was very much identified with that decade, I don't feel any kind of singular identification with the '60s. I'm living now. I want to be a part of today, and I want to be a part of changing the course of this country today. I'm not nostalgic for the '60s.
The bad part of it, of leaving that conversation behind, is that there's stuff to learn still that we have not learned as a country or as a culture or as a people. There's a lot to learn. And one thing to learn, if we did ever go through a truth and reconciliation process, is that invading other countries and occupying them is a bad business. And it's a business that we've not come to terms with in Vietnam and therefore we continue to repeat. We would also learn about the Black Freedom Movement and the ways in which its goals, its ideals, its hopes for justice were only partially realized, and that would be something else that we could rethink and re-examine and wonder about. But as it is, those lessons are left unlearned, and we continue to kind of labor in ignorance.
GROSS: Let's talk about what led you personally to the place of becoming a radical, a self-described revolutionary. In your memoir, "Fugitive Days," - and I should mention that Bill Ayers's 2001 memoir has just been republished with a new afterword - in your memoir, you describe wanting to become involved in the civil rights movement and going south to find it and not really succeeding in, like, finding a place for yourself.
And then when you heard about the war in Vietnam, you know, your first response was to consider enlisting because as you say, you'd read Norman Mailer, and you say, perhaps I'd take in the kind of searing sensation that I could write about. So how did you go from considering enlisting to fight in the war, in part for literary reasons, to becoming a radical anti-war activist? What changed you there?
Prof. AYERS: I mean, I think that - I think that I was trying to describe there a young person trying to figure out who he was as he negotiated his way through this particularly thorny period of American history. And I came back to Ann Arbor, I was in the Merchant Marines, I came back to Ann Arbor, and as luck would have it, I found myself drawn to a group of anti-war people. And I describe the naivete of a young man growing up in privilege in the suburbs of Chicago and finding himself in a discussion about what we ought to do to turn the tide in our country. And I was drawn into this anti-war movement as a young kind of recruit into it. And I feel very, very lucky to have gone down that road.
GROSS: You write in your memoir, because we were so single-minded and serious, everything we did had to have a justification, a place in our political line. But because we were so young, much of what we did was unruly and disruptive.
Do you think some of the tactics that you took on were, in part, this kind of youthful expression of anger, something that only a young person would do?
Prof. AYERS: Absolutely.
GROSS: What fits into that category?
Prof. AYERS: Well, I think that, you know, I think that you're caught up in a street demonstration, and you are, you know, young and full of fire and just spontaneously you find yourself spilling out into the streets and leaving the, you know, the line of march and deciding to throw a rock at the window of a military recruiter. That's spontaneous opposition. It's not well thought out. But it, you know, it makes a certain amount of sense, but it's not, you know, it's not like part of a large strategy that's thought through.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Ayers. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bill Ayers. When we left off, we were talking about how he became a radical anti-war activist in the '60s. Is there a level of doubt that you feel - when you were young, you didn't allow it to - you didn't allow yourself to entertain, because you had to feel so committed to the cause and to what your plan was that you couldn't allow certain doubts to enter your mind?
Prof. AYERS: Yeah. I think that I live with doubt today, every day, all the time. And it is different than being young and certain and jacking yourself up to do certain things. I argue to my students, I argue to young people all the time that you cannot live a political life, you can't live a moral life if you're not willing to open your eyes and see the world more clearly, see some of the injustice that's going on. Try to make yourself aware of what's happening in the world.
And when you are aware, you have a responsibility to act. And when you act, you have a responsibility to doubt. And when you doubt, you can't get paralyzed. You have to use that doubt to act again. And that then becomes the cycle. You open your eyes, you act, you doubt, you act, you doubt. Without doubt, you become dogmatic and shrill and stupid. But without action, you become cynical and passive and a victim of history, and that should never happen.
GROSS: At the beginning of the interview, I said I'd save till the end the question that I know a lot of people have asked. A lot of people have called you an unrepentant terrorist. And I think a lot of people want to hear you make a full-fledged apology for some of your actions with the Weather Underground, such as bombing the Pentagon. And so I want you, now that we've heard a lot of your story, to give us your answer to that.
Prof. AYERS: Well, you know, my answer is that the kind of culture of apology doesn't appeal to me. If I had something specific to think about apologizing for, I might. But it's kind of a blanket statement that what we did was so extreme and so wrong that I ought to just say it was crazy. I respond by thinking it would be a good thing if everyone from that era stood up and said, this is what I did. Some people were official apologists for that - that, you know, murderous policy in Vietnam. Some people participated in it. Some people made the decisions.
We opposed it, and our opposition took an extreme form. It was never terrorism because it never targeted or in fact resulted in death or injury to anyone. We were issuing a screaming response to murder and to terror. And I think we were right in that. So, I don't think everything that we did was brilliant. And as I said, some of the examples of kind of extreme vandalism and property destruction could be challenged as stupid, backward, misguided and so on. But I don't think they can be conflated with terrorism nor should they be, and I think that I don't feel any real regret for taking action against this war.
But again, I'd be happy to stand up and measure what I did and what was negative and bad about what I did with what other people did. Looking backward, I don't see who did the right thing and who can claim that this is the proper way to end a war. Clearly, we're involved in a war now. Clearly, I'm not advocating any kind of action that's illegal, and I've been involved in the anti-war movement from the beginning. However, I don't know that any of us know how to stop this war in Iraq. We seem to be stalled. We seem unable to take the next step. And I'm hoping that we can continue to build a movement, an independent movement for peace that can put pressure on the new administration to do the right thing.
GROSS: Bill Ayers, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. AYERS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Bill Ayers is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days," has just been republished with a new afterword about the presidential campaign. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.