Author Spotlight: Bill Zimmerman

The political consultant reflects on his 1960s activism

In Troublemaker: A Memoir from the Front Lines of the Sixties (Doubleday), author Bill Zimmerman delivers an insider portrait of the antiwar movement that’s part adventure story and part eminently readable political history. In the 1960s, Zimmerman earned a Ph.D. in psychology and was working his way up the professorial ladder when the antiwar movement came calling. Diving headlong into political activism, he helped organize countless major protests (including the 1967 march on the Pentagon and the 1971 Mayday demonstrations), and he flew to Hanoi in 1972 to film U.S. bombing of civilians. In the book’s most dramatic sequence, Zimmerman (an amateur pilot) describes air-dropping food to Indians at the 1973 Siege of Wounded Knee. Native American protestors had seized control of the historic town to draw attention to broken treaties and deplorable conditions on American Indian reservations. U.S. marshals and F.B.I agents surrounded the town, hoping to starve the Indian protestors out. Weeks into the blockade, Zimmerman led a three-plane formation through gunfire and dropped 1,500 pounds of food for the Indians before crash landing his crippled plane. We caught up with Zimmerman, who lives in Topanga Canyon, and he told us that his book project began with a desire to communicate what had happened during his “troublemaking” years to his children. 

“I realized early on that I had a few unusual experiences — my trip to North Vietnam, my involvement in Wounded Knee — and I thought it could make an interesting story. Another reason is that most writing about the 60s focuses on the cultural change – it’s all about the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll aspects of the 60s, and that’s understandable because it’s more sensational, and it was a bigger departure from cultural life in the 50s. But the 60s were really driven by politics, not by culture. It begins with politics, and politics always gets short shrift when people write about the 60s, so I wanted to create a book in which the politics of the 60s were at the center of the story.

“While I did take some risks and my life was in jeopardy a couple times, they were all very calculated risks — they were not reckless risks. There was a danger we would be shot out of the sky when we flew over Wounded Knee, but the likelihood of hitting an airplane with a rifle is very small. When I went to North Vietnam, sure, there was a danger I could be right under one of those bombs. But, it’s a big country, and while a lot of bombs were falling, people were able to protect themselves in bomb shelters. The potential gain by getting footage of civilian targets being bombed in Vietnam and using that effectively back in the United States outweighed the very small risk that I might be one of the casualties of a U.S. bombing attack. So we did take risks, and certainly I wasn’t the only one who took such risks. But when I look back on them I don’t see them as reckless, I see them as calculated. And it seemed to me that the good we could do overcame the very small amount of risk involved. But I’ve often thought about how I would react if my kids did the kinds of things that their mother and I did during those years.” 

Photograph by Markus Georg