The Weathermen | (2024)

Their avowed goal to bring about a violent Communist revolution in the United States, perhaps the Weathermen's greatest significance lay in their exploitation by the Nixon administration, which characterized them as typical protestors. These few hundred extremists were used to represent the thousands comprising the antiwar movement, a strategy that allowed President Nixon to offer the "silent majority" a clear choice: either his plan of gradual disengagement from the war (called "Vietnamization") or the violent revolution supposedly espoused by all of the war's opponents.

The Weathermen arose from the ashes of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which self-destructed at its 1969 convention in a power struggle between the Progressive Labor Coalition, whose adherents were older, socialist, and principally interested in organizing workers to bring about social change, and the Radical Youth Movement, younger, Communist-oriented revolutionaries who saw armed struggle as the only viable political option. RYM's manifesto, distributed at the conference, was titled after a Bob Dylan lyric: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." The crisis came when Bernadine Dohrn, a leader of RYM and one of SDS's three national secretaries, gave a blistering speech which ended with her announcing the expulsion of PL from SDS. Many other members, adherents of neither faction, quit in disgust, leaving behind only the most radicalized element, RYM, which initially retained SDS's name but soon became known as Weather-man, the Weather Underground, or, more commonly, the Weathermen.

The new organization was small, so recruitment was deemed necessary before meaningful political activity could take place. The Weathermen believed that working-class white youths offered the best prospects for new members—these young people were alreadyalienated from the system, it was reasoned, and would thus be eager recruits for the revolution. The effort was not a success. Some Weathermen tried to impress urban street kids with their toughness by challenging them to fight. Brawls were easy to find, recruits less so. Other members invaded high schools in working-class areas, shouting "Jailbreak!" and disrupting classes, but most students were uninterested in the Weathermen's call to rise up against their teachers and the state.

More dramatic action to garner attention and interest seemed called for, and the Weathermen's solution was the Days of Rage, a planned four-day series of demonstrations in Chicago in November 1969. The Weathermen chose Chicago partly in the hope of exacting revenge on the city's police, who had brutalized demonstrators during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and partly because the leaders of those demonstrations, the so-called Chicago 7, were facing trial on conspiracy charges there. The Weathermen wanted to protest the trial and also take advantage of the presence of the national news media, which would be covering the proceedings. Although the organizers of the Days of Rage predicted the attendance of thousands of protesters, only about seven hundred showed up. Over three days they demonstrated, rampaged through affluent downtown areas, and fought with the police. Many were arrested, with both police and protesters suffering injuries of varying severity. On balance, the Days of Rage were a failure. Chicago's working-class youth did not rally to the Weathermen's cause. Further, other organizations in the antiwar movement denounced the Weathermen's actions as counterproductive and cut off all ties with them. Even the Black Panthers, a militant group known for its defiant confrontations with authority, were critical of the Days of Rage.

The leaders of the Weathermen decided on a change of strategy. The most committed among them would drop out of public view, "go underground" in small groups, and strike out at the state with a coordinated program of bombings. The bombing went on for the next eleven months. The targets chosen were all politically symbolic, and the bombs were usually planted in retaliation for some action that the Weathermen perceived as oppressive: a bomb was set at the home of a New York City judge who was presiding over a trial of some Black Panthers; another went off in a Pentagon lavatory after President Nixon ordered increased bombing of North Vietnam; still another bomb exploded at the office of the New York State Department of Corrections after the brutal suppression of the Attica prison riot. Despite their reputation, as well as their violent-sounding rhetoric, the Weathermen were always careful to call in a bomb threat at least an hour before their bombs were timed to detonate. This allowed the target buildings to be evacuated, so no people were hurt in the blasts. The only fatalities due to the Weathermen's bombs were three of their own members. On March 8, 1970, a townhouse in New York's Greenwich Village blew up. The owner, James Wilkerson, was away; he had allowed his daughter Kathy to stay there, little suspecting that she had joined the Weathermen, or that the place would be used as a bomb factory. Diana Oughten, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins were killed in the blast.

The deaths of their comrades sobered the surviving Weathermen. They called off the bombing campaign and began to adopt more mainstream methods of persuasion. While still underground, they put out a number of publications espousing their political views and also gave interviews to counterculture publications such as The Berkeley Tribe. The Weathermen leaders, including Bernadine Dohrn, even cooperated with director Emile DeAntonio in the making of a documentary called Underground.

But by 1975, the Communist victory in Vietnam made the Weathermen passe. Internal squabbling soon put a finish to the organization, and its leaders eventually abandoned their fugitive lifestyle and rejoined the society they had claimed to so despise.

—Justin Gustainis

Further Reading:

Collier, Peter, and David Horowitz. Destructive Generation. New York, Summit Books, 1990.

Jacobs, Harold, editor. Weatherman. New York, Ramparts Press, 1970.

Jacobs, Ron. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. London and New York, Verso, 1997.

St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture

The Weathermen | (2024)
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