William Blum: Conscience of a Generation

William Blum. Photo Credit: Thomas Good / NLN, Wikipedia Commons

William Blum, who was the conscience of a generation, has died. He passed away on December 9, 2018, in Washington DC, at the age of 85. Fortunately, his writings will continue to guide those of us who follow in his footsteps. As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Bill dreamed of serving his country by being the best possible Foreign Service officer. Instead, he ended up serving the world by becoming one of the most vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy.

I got to know Bill Blum in the late 1990s because he put his email address in the back of the first edition of his book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions since World War II. I had some questions about what was going on in Colombia, so I wrote to ask him if he was going to add more information about Colombia in the next edition of the book. So Bill and I became email pals. I then set up an informal book signing for him at the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York City in 1999.

The book signing was a flop, but for an impressive reason. He sold almost no copies of Killing Hope because most of the attendees already owned a copy. One man even pulled a well-worn and heavily annotated copy out of his backpack. Many passersby would stop and rave about how good the book was. I would then point out that the author was sitting right in front of them. Bill’s response to these accolades surprised me. He was embarrassed! He looked as if he wanted to slide under the table and hide. This reaction spoke volumes about Bill’s character. Lots of writers are self-centered people who write crap because they crave attention. In contrast, Bill was an idealistic person who wrote important things because he wanted the U.S. government, which he had served as a member of the Foreign Service, to stop torturing and killing people. He wanted to put an end to what he called the American Holocaust. Bill did not want to be a public figure. He had to go on the lecture circuit to get his message out. He hated speaking in public.

Bill may have been bashful when praised, but he was not timid. He had sharp words for Bogdan Denitch. Denitch was the founder of the Socialist Scholars Conference. However, Denitch had also supported the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. When Denitch passed by our table, Bill accused him, in a loud voice and in no uncertain terms, of being an apologist for war crimes because Denitch was advocating the bombing of Yugoslavia.  Thus, it is hardly surprising that Bill hadn’t been invited to be a speaker at the conference, despite the fact that he was so obviously revered by so many of the attendees.

Sometime after the conference, Bill told me something truly astounding. He was writing his autobiography. Nothing could have surprised me more. Why would anyone as self-effacing as Bill Blum write about himself? The answer was simple. He had gotten a copy of the surveillance file that the FBI had been keeping on him, and much of the information in it was ridiculously incorrect. For starters, they got his height wrong. As a historian, he felt an obligation to correct the errors.

The contents of the file were far worse than he expected. Bill had dropped out of the U.S. Foreign Service during the Vietnam era, out of disgust over the Vietnam War. He then became deeply involved in anti-war activity. Back then, the people in the antiwar movement used to joke about being under surveillance by government agents. The file revealed that the surveillance had been far more intrusive than Bill had imagined. In particular, Bill discovered that a man whom he had regarded as a friend had been sending in reports about him. As Bill liked to say, “No matter how paranoid you are, the things that they are actually doing are worse than what you imagine.”

I had the privilege of being one of the first people to read the manuscript of Bill’s memoir, West Bloc Dissident. His other books are about such deadly serious topics that they don’t give a full picture of what Bill was like. But his memoir deals with some comical episodes, as well as some deadly serious ones, so his sense of humor and his joie de vivre shine through. Not only was this book a delightful read, but it contains important lessons for young activists. So I encouraged him to publish it. Since the publisher of Killing Hope was not interested, I urged Bill to submit the manuscript to Sander Hicks of Softskull Press. Hicks had become famous in 1999 for republishing Fortunate Son, the controversial biography of George W. Bush, who was only the governor of Texas at the time.  To my delight, Softskull Press published West Bloc Dissident.

Bill had his 15 minutes of fame in 2006 when Osama Bin Laden reportedly urged people to read Bill’s book Rogue State. According to this translation from the Associated Press, Bin Laden allegedly said:

And if Bush decides to carry on with his lies and oppression, then it would be useful for you to read the book ‘Rogue State,’ which states in its introduction: ‘If I were president, I would stop the attacks on the United States: First, I would give an apology to all the widows and orphans and those who were tortured. Then I would announce that American interference in the nations of the world has ended once and for all.’ ” [Actually, that quotation did not come from Rogue State. It came from the back cover of another of Bill’s books, Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire. ]

Thanks to this endorsement, Bill’s book Rogue State shot to the top of Amazon’s bestseller list for a while. Reporters who interviewed Bill about Bin Laden’s endorsement seemed to expect Bill to be uncomfortable or even ashamed about the endorsement. But that would not be logical, and Bill was very logical. Bill had been saying for many years that U.S. foreign policy is not only immoral but it is causing people all over the world to hate us and could inspire some of them to fight back. Thus, the things that are done in the name of national security are making us less safe. Bin Laden was simply confirming what Bill had been saying for decades. Bin Laden’s endorsement actually helped Bill’s voice carry further. So Bill was actually pleased about it, even though he despised Bin Laden. (Bill despised violent religious fanatics, and Osama Bin Laden was a violent religious fanatic.) Bill didn’t like attention for himself, but he had something important to say, and he wanted his message to get through.

Ray Mungo painted an interesting portrait of Bill in Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service, at Total Loss Farm, and on the Dharma Trail, which was published in 1970. Mungo knew Bill as a writer for Liberation News Service:

Bill Blum, mid-30s, formerly a State Department functionary, now writing a government exposé column for the Free Press, and the very picture of a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan freak sheet—horn-rimmed glasses, crumbled sport shirt open at the throat, neatly pressed slacks. He somehow retained his stuttering but unruffled composure through all the internecine scrambles through various government offices and committees faithfully gathering bits of information for some future use. And he’s still doing it today. Sort of an I. F. Stone without the wisdom and inviolability which comes of advanced age.

We are all fortunate that William Blum continued to write exposés until he was of advanced age. The last time that I saw Bill in person was four years ago. He said, “I’ve become an old man. How did that happen?” I feel sorry for the people who did not have the privilege of meeting William Blum in person. But at least they can still read his writings.

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