Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground at FortyHistorians/History
Forty years ago, the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) faction of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) drafted a statement to be employed in a factional dispute with the Maoist Progressive Labor (PL) wing of the organization. At the June 1969 Chicago convention of SDS, the RYM group, now known as the Weathermen, expelled the PL wing and effectively dismembered SDS as a national student organization.
The Weather Manifesto—based upon lyrics from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues (1965) that “you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing”—assailed the Progressive Labor movement for failing to comprehend the revolutionary nature of global anti-imperialism in which American capitalism and empire were under attack in Cuba, Vietnam, Algeria, Bolivia, Angola, and throughout the Third World in conjunction with domestic revolutionaries such as the Black Panthers. Living in the belly of the beast, it was imperative that radicalized American students join the revolutionary struggle that would usher in the millennium of world communism. White youth would be radicalized to support black liberation through the example of the Weathermen renouncing nonviolence and joining the armed struggle against American imperialism.
The bellicose nature of the Weather Manifesto evoked considerable controversy then and now, as the radicals sought to embody their principles with the formation of revolutionary collectives that would “bring the war home.” In other words, the goal was to subject Americans to some of the violence and destruction inflicted daily upon the Vietnamese people. Terming themselves the Weather Underground, the New York City collective planned a bombing that would simulate the Vietnam experience by creating death and destruction during a military dance at Fort Dix in nearby New Jersey. Instead, on March 6, 1970 the bomb was triggered by accident, destroying a New York City town house where the explosives were being assembled. Dead in the explosion were Weather members Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins.
Following this tragedy, the Weather Underground members re-evaluated their strategy. While not disavowing the principles of their Manifesto, the Weather Bureau, or leadership cadre, asserted that symbolic attacks against institutions and manifestations of imperialism such as military induction centers and government offices would galvanize the support of the American working class. Thus, the Weather Underground did not consider themselves terrorists as their goal was not to induce fear amongst the American people, but rather to demonstrate that it was possible to strike against the institutions and property of the capitalist “pig” state which sought global control over the working class and people of color. The Weather Underground conducted a series of bombings in the early 1970s which sought to symbolically bring the war home without the taking of human life. Warnings of impending explosions were provided to authorities in order to avoid the type of tragedy which occurred in the Weather town house explosion.
But the Weather Underground failed to incite a working-class revolution in the United States, and with the end of the war in Vietnam, many radicals attempted to re-enter mainstream society. Individuals such as Mark Rudd, Bill Ayers, and Bernardine Dohrn surrendered to authorities and were able to arrange plea bargains as more serious charges were dismissed due to massive civil rights violations and illegal domestic surveillance by the government in the COINTELPRO or Counter-Intelligence Program. Black Panther leaders such as Fred Hampton, however, were victims of more deadly government repression and were unable to negotiate plea bargains. Other Weather Underground members such as David Gilbert and Judy Clark remain incarcerated for their roles in a Brink’s robbery in which three people were killed.
What are we to make of the Weather Manifesto and Underground after forty years? Certainly some on the radical left continue to perpetuate the myth of the Weather Underground as romantic revolutionaries. On the other hand, efforts by the political right to keep the cultural wars of the 1960s alive were negated in the 2008 Presidential election as few voters were influenced by accusations that Barack Obama was linked to terrorism through his far from intimate associations with Bill Ayers, now a professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. And, of course, Obama was a school boy during the heyday of the Weather Underground. More serious assessments of the Weather legacy are available in the Academy-Award nominated documentary The Weather Underground (2003) and recently published memoirs by Rudd and Ayers.
In My Life with the SDS and the Weathermen Underground (HarperCollins, 2009), Rudd credits filmmakers Sam Green and Bill Siegel with providing the incentive to prepare his memoir. Rudd remains a political activist opposed to manifestations of American imperialism such as the war in Iraq, but he expresses serious reservations regarding the strategy employed by the Weathermen. In an orgy of self-indulgence, the Weather faction destroyed SDS; a student organization which offered the best potential to organize the growing campus opposition to the Vietnam War. In addition, the Weather fascination with violence split the antiwar movement and alienated the working class which the radicals hoped to rally with their Manifesto and revolutionary action. Rudd laments that the Weather Underground abandoned the tactics of organization and participatory democracy which fueled the early campus antiwar movement and the Columbia University insurrection which Rudd does not repudiate.
In Fugitive Days (Beacon Press, 2001; revised edition 2009), Bill Ayers is more ambivalent. While denouncing the intolerance and machismo of the Weathermen, he regrets that he did not do more to end the immoral Vietnam War. Seeking to recreate the mood of the times, Ayers describes the increasing frustration with the Vietnam War which drove antiwar activists to more extreme positions. He also accounts for the naiveté with which many associate the Weather Underground by evoking the milieu of the late 1960s. With a growing protest movement in the United States and the global struggle in which anti-imperialist forces were on the march in Vietnam, Algeria, and Angola, the Weathermen believed they were on the winning side of history—creating new communities free from capitalist exploitation and embracing the Che Guevara prediction that numerous Vietnam-type conflicts would topple the American regime. This impression of a brave new world was also fueled by the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia and the revolt of students and workers on the streets of Paris. Revolution in America and the world seemed inevitable. Or at least so thought the radicals as well as Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover. Indeed, what is even more surprising in retrospect than the illusions of the Weathermen regarding a working-class revolution in the United States is the assumption of the Nixon administration that the radicals were capable of bringing down the government. The fears of the Nixon administration fueled the repression of the antiwar movement and dissenters such as the Black Panther Party, culminating in the record of criminal misconduct revealed in the Watergate scandals. The illusions of both leftist radicals and the reactionary political right reveal much about the passions and insecurities unleashed during the tumultuous 1960s.
The Weather Manifesto was a product of the times and reflective of an increasing radicalization of the antiwar and civil rights movements induced by government suppression and the frustrations of addressing de facto segregation, economic inequality, and the intransigence of a government intent upon pursing a war of aggression in Vietnam. The tragedy for many was the abandonment by the Weathermen of the principles established in the 1962 founding document of SDS, The Port Huron Statement. Addressing issues of imperialism, racism, economic inequality, the military-industrial complex, and the sense of alienation experienced by many individuals seemingly overwhelmed by the powers of impersonal institutions such as the university, The Port Huron Statement advocated greater democracy rather than armed revolution. These sentiments would seem to resonate well with the young people of today who have re-established SDS. While the Iraq War has failed for a number of reasons, including the absence of a military draft and sustained media coverage, to provoke Vietnam era-style protests, the youth of the twenty-first century are technologically savvy and intent upon creating a world community to formulate solutions for environmental concerns of which the protesters of the 1960s were only dimly aware. Perhaps social networking will provide the organizational impetus, advocated by Rudd, to implement the democratic vision of The Port Huron Statement rather than the days of rage envisioned by the Weather Manifesto.