Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution by Arthur M. Eckstein. Yale University Press, 2016. 352 pages. $35.
The 1960s and 70s were a radical time in U.S. history, a time that make today’s political divisiveness and culture wars seem relatively mild and civil. In 1971, Scanlan’s Monthly, expanding on the work of Congressional committees, counted several thousand acts of bombings, arson, and other assorted political mayhem in the course of a year. There is reason to believe this catalog did not capture everything nor was the violence done only by lefties. Apart from almost routine police violence directed at the left, there were white citizen councils (often with state financing, most notably in Mississippi), militias and vigilantes (individuals and groups) instigating violence against the left or replying in kind. But the “long hot summers” of urban disorders (“riots” they were called but often had the characteristics of insurrections), the decay of the military in Vietnam (drug use, fragging, refusal of orders) had President Nixon in high anxiety. Portions of the left agreed that a revolutionary, or at least an insurrectionary uprising was in the works and desirable.
Bad Moon Rising deals with one of the more notorious (and for some, romantic) left-wing terrorist groups, the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground, aka “Weathermen”, began as a Marxist-Leninist faction of what had been an old left, social democratic student group, the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Since World War I, SDS had been the youth group of the League for Industrial Democracy (under the brand “Student League for Industrial Democracy”), a group that ideologically owed as much or more to John Dewey as to Karl Marx. Separating from the League over the League’s obsessive anti-communism, the SDS caught the winds of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the civil rights movement. It rapidly expanded from a few hundred members to well over 100,000 members (and at that point they pretty much stopped counting) while remaining overwhelmingly a campus-based organization. By 1968, the national organization and many of the larger chapters had become battlegrounds for multiple Marxist-Leninist groups, leading to the infamous 1969 SDS national convention in Chicago’s old Colosseum. The organization split into three main factions plus a multitude of disaffiliated local chapters that quickly disappeared. One of the factions became the Weathermen. Arthur Eckstein explains this history in a bit more detail, but if you’re interested in how an organization of several hundred members in 1960 grew to over a hundred thousand in less than a decade, you’ll probably want to find a copy of Kirkpatrick Sale’s excellent organizational history, SDS, though there are other works that will provide more context.
Eckstein’s book is a bit more about the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) than the Weather Underground. Eckstein took advantage newly available FBI documents as well as doing interviews with many of the principle members of the Weathermen. He was unable to interview many of the FBI agents as, being a generation older than the Weathermen, most of them were dead. Some of the Weathermen were also unavailable, notably two of the top leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Eckstein’s own political history may well have set off alarms for Ayers and Dohrn as Eckstein went through a conservative anti-communist phase during which he wrote a half dozen articles for David Horowitz’s Frontpage, mostly dealing with examples of left-wing hypocrisy. That alone would be enough probably. But as Ayers’ two political memoirs, Fugitive Days and Public Enemy, have been critiqued as being factually challenged in places (Faulty memory, pled Ayers; it’s a memoir not a history.), the request must have seemed like a prelude to a set-up.
Is there anything new here? Not being a scholar, I can only say that there are things that were new to me. The book’s stereoscopic view – the FBI and the Weathermen – makes for an interesting read. With regard to the FBI, I suspect what’s new is mostly detail. Every lefty knows the FBI’s founding director, J. Edgar Hoover, was a bastard who was willing to break the law for political ends, but he was a canny bastard who always kept in mind the potential political consequences of getting caught at anything less than legal. He had been burned by the bad optics resulting from botched Palmer Raids in the 1920s. For that reason, he preferred that his agents have some plausible legal cover and he was perfectly happy to sabotage some of Nixon’s schemes, especially when they potentially undermined his control of the FBI. Nixon’s replacement FBI Director upon Hoover’s death, L. Patrick Gray, was every bit as much a bastard, but he was also a careless idiot, perfectly willing to demand illegalities from his staff while leaving them to decide the specifics and providing them with no cover for doing so. Two FBI agents ended up on trial, convicted then pardoned by President Reagan. Likewise, while FBI agents could find no evidence of foreign support for the Weathermen (indeed, representatives from Vietnam and Cuba advised the Weathermen against violence and in favor of above ground demonstrations and political pressure), Nixon was never convinced. The closer one got to Nixon’s White House, the more delusional the image of the Weathermen became.
While the FBI had hundreds of “informants” in the SDS (including 198 “informants” who were delegates to the 1969 convention and advised by the FBI to vote for the Weathermen), they only succeeded in placing two in the Weathermen. One was Larry Grathwohl. (In Public Enemy, Ayers denies Grathwohl was a member.) The FBI prematurely blew his cover to arrest two New York members in 1970. The other hasn’t been identified, but the second never did as much for the FBI, apparently. Despite the leadership being on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, the FBI never succeeded in arresting any of the Weather Underground until after Dohrn and Ayers were ousted from leadership. They ran a tight ship.
While it isn’t new, Eckstein takes some pains to point out there is something of a “party line” regarding the history of the Weather Underground. According to that version of history, from the time the organization went underground to the infamous New York townhouse bomb factory explosion, there was the intent to “bring the war home” to America with violence. Even so, the New York cell’s plan for bombing a USO dance with a powerful anti-personnel explosive was a rogue operation, unknown to the central leadership. In the wake of that self-inflicted disaster at the townhouse, a national meeting was held in Mendocino, California, where violence against people was rejected. Eckstein contends that the New York cell was hardly a rogue operation; the Weather Underground was too tightly controlled for that to be plausible. Mark Rudd’s memoir Underground, among other accounts, supports this. (Rudd knew about the plan, but then, he was also in New York; he’s a bit ambiguous as to how much others knew.)
Whatever: Subsequent bombings done while Ayers and Dohrn were in leadership were property-directed as a form of political commentary. It’s also apparent that not every Weatherman was happy about this restriction; Dohrn and Ayers were ultimately given the boot by their own comrades who then changed that policy. After that, things went downhill for the Weather Underground. The incompetent and violent new leadership, under Clayton van Lydegraf, were rounded up and sent to prison by 1977.
It’s notable that until then, in Eckstein’s words, “the FBI never permanently caught a single major Weatherman figure, or stopped a single bombing. In part that was because of FBI clumsiness, in part because the Weathermen were very careful – and in part because they did not do all that much.” (p 237) It’s also worth noting that as individual Weathermen surfaced, very little punishment was meted out, even though many of the charges were serious, because generally what evidence the FBI had had been gathered illegally.
(The one Weather Underground action that I approved of at the time was their bombing of the Haymarket police statue that then stood in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. But that’s another story. And in any case, it’s not as if the Weathermen would have cared had they known.)
It is interesting that Eckstein regards the Mendocino meeting as one of those historically unknown events of major consequence. Had the Weathermen continued a course of violence against persons rather than property, Eckstein feels that Nixon was just crazy enough to drop “any pretense of adhering to judicial or legal constraint”, perhaps implementing Hoover’s little list of 11,000 lefties who wouldn’t be missed. We’ll never know, thankfully. But it does have some plausibility. The FBI initially gave the Weathermen far more credit than they deserved. For a while, the FBI labelled most left-wing violence as “Weathermen”. And there was a lot of it. Ultimately the FBI settled down in their assessments, but the Nixon White House never did.
This is outside the scope of Eckstein’s work, but around the turn of the millennium, there was a sudden nostalgia about the 1960s on many college campuses: long hair, drugs, anarchist politics and even the SDS, which was refounded at the University of Chicago in 2006. The “New SDS” enjoyed a brief “new kid on the block” prosperity of interest that quickly faded. It still staggers on as an all volunteer organization with a dozen or so campus chapters.
As the nostalgia crystallized into the new organization, old SDS leaders, mostly old Weathermen, got a lot of love. Maybe it’s because the anarchist and the Marxist left share with conservatism a view that government is inevitably oppressive; oppression is part of its DNA. So, these old Weathermen: They opposed the State in the name of peace and justice and got away with it! Role models! Heroism!
For my part, I think we deserve an apology instead. Bill Ayers supplied a clever one, designed to irritate his enemies. He’s “sorry we didn’t do more.” More what? Right-wing commentators had a field day with that, but it’s not as if Ayers had any intention of apologizing to them. Can’t say that I blame him. What democratic socialists should think of it, I’m not sure. I’ve read both his memoirs, and I have a feeling maybe Ayers isn’t sure either. He’s clearly not willing to discard those years, but much of his work in the decades since resembles the fruit of John Dewey social democracy, things that, for the most part, the original SDS would have been comfortable with.
Mark Rudd, in his memoir Underground, is less coy in his apology:
“…Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended. We deorganized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI – our sworn enemies. We might as well have been on their payroll. As if all this weren’t enough, three of my friends died in an accidental explosion while assembling bombs. This is not a heroic story; if anything, it’s antiheroic.” (page ix)
It’s difficult to imagine the U.S. political landscape if elements of the communist left had not deliberately destroyed SDS. An organization the size of 1969 SDS could have been a significant player in national politics. Imagine the New American Movement (founded by refugees from SDS, NAM was one of the predecessor organizations to today’s Democratic Socialists of America) starting out with over 100,000 members. Yet if Revolutionary Youth Movement I, Revolutionary Youth Movement II, National Labor Committee, Progressive Labor Party, et. al. hadn’t done in SDS, J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program (remember those 198 FBI delegates to the SDS convention?) may have destroyed it instead.
Maybe one of the main points to take from Eckstein’s work is that insurrectionary (let’s beg the question of what constitutes “revolutionary”) politics suck. For all the organization, solidarity and cleverness that going underground demanded, the Weather Underground accomplished nothing much of any consequence. In contrast, the damage it did to its members and members’ families and the rest of the left was considerable. This is not a route to take if you can avoid it.
And what of today? In the wake of the Bernie Sanders campaign and most especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President, the Democratic Socialists of America has ballooned from about 6,000 members to somewhere north of 30,000. Will it pop like SDS? History never quite repeats itself. Instead of the grim coalition of bomb-throwing wanna-be Maoists that wrecked SDS, if DSA is wrecked, it would more likely be done by a motley rabble of anarchists and Trotskyists who, instead of bombs create molehills to kick over using social media character assassination well practised since high school. Mean girls of the world, unite! To be fair, these are techniques as old as politics but made accessible to all by social media and the web. Should this happen, its manifestation may very well not be a “split” but simply a rapid deflation of disgust and disappointment. None of this is inevitable, nonetheless: Those not ignorant of history might not avoid repeating it, but at least they will not be surprised by it.
Oh yes. What’s this “Bad Moon Rising” business? It turns out that cheery Creedence Clearwater Revival tune with such grim lyrics was something of an anthem for the Weather Underground. Song author John Fogarty was not impressed, according to Eckstein. But here’s a cover by Battlefield Band, better than the original IMHO.