James Miller: The Weather Underground, RIP?

Roundup: Historians' Take

James Miller, professor of political science at the New School for Social Research and editor of the journal Daedalus, writing in the Boston Globe (Oct. 19, 2003):

THIRTY-FOUR YEARS AGO this fall, a small band of well-educated young Americans hell-bent on storming heaven steeled themselves to commit an act of spectacularly gratuitous violence. A militant breakaway faction of Students for a Democratic Society, they called themselves the Weathermen. Their strategy, such as it was, blended theatrical bravado with puritanical zeal -- Bonnie and Clyde meet John Brown. Wearing crash helmets and wielding baseball bats, ululating like the revolutionaries they had studied on screen in "The Battle of Algiers," they would run wild in the streets of Chicago, lashing out at any available symbol of privilege and power: police, parked cars, affluent bystanders.

Now, more than a generation later, the Weathermen are back in the news. This summer, a new documentary, "The Weather Underground," directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, brought the group's story into movie theaters. In September, one of the group's most famous members, Kathy Boudin, was released on parole from the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in upstate New York, where she had spent more than two decades after pleading guilty to a felony charge connected to a murder in the robbery of a Brink's truck in 1981. Boudin's release has in turn prompted the early release of Susan Braudy's book "Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left" (Knopf).

Braudy, a former classmate of Boudin's at Bryn Mawr College, argues that Boudin's violent acts were part of a ploy to get her father's attention. But the book's own evidence suggests no such Oedipal melodrama. Instead, we catch a glimpse of an intelligent young woman blindly driven into tragic violence by overpowering moral hubris. Though it contains some new information gleaned from access to Boudin's mother, Jean Boudin, and her private papers, Braudy's study has more in common with tabloid journalism than serious history. (Caveat lector: Michael Boudin, chief judge of the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston and Kathy's older brother, is a personal friend.)

The Weathermen's 1969 melee in Chicago, billed "The Days of Rage," was meant to inspire working-class youth to commit similarly gratuitous acts, and to prove the group's revolutionary macho to the Black Panthers. But the Panthers spurned them, and there was no evidence that working-class youth were ready to run wild in the streets. So the group changed its tactics, with deadly results. Early in 1970, a group of Weathermen inadvertently blew up three of their members along with a townhouse on Eleventh Street in New York's Greenwich Village. The group was trying to build an anti-personnel bomb, in order to give Americans a taste of the kind of cruel weaponry their government was using in Vietnam.

Now the object of a national manhunt, and rechristened the Weather Underground, the fugitives -- several dozen militants in a handful of American cities -- established guerilla "focos," secret cells in which members learned how to build bigger and better bombs, to be detonated in acts of "strategic sabotage." Besides issuing a stream of turgid communiques denouncing racism and sexism and proclaiming sympathy for fellow revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh, the group succeeded in bombing several symbolic targets, including the Pentagon and the Capitol building. Though the group issued warnings to evacuate their targets, inevitably some bystanders were injured. Against all odds, the most notorious Weathermen -- Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Kathy Boudin -- all managed to elude the FBI....

In the years to come, will the violence of the Weathermen be regarded with similar forbearance?

I think not. Although they imagined themselves paragons of political courage, the Weathermen were too divorced from political reality to have an impact even remotely analogous to John Brown's.

Moreover, many of the Weathermen today seem small, self-absorbed, stunningly complacent. It is hard to say which is more dispiriting: Kathy Boudin's wooden self-criticism or Bill Ayers' imperturbable self-regard. It is as if self-examination had devolved into a form of self-righteous narcissism, and the Puritan strand in American radicalism had become a farcical parody of itself. And without a modicum of saving self-knowledge, the self-sacrifice of these men and women now seems as pointless as the violence and suffering that they deliberately inflicted on others.

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