The year was 1970 and a new organization, dedicated to the overthrow of the government of the United States was thrust into the public
consciousness. The organization was called the Weatherman Underground. Though formally beginning in 1970 with its first of many
bombings against symbols of American injustice, the origins go back many years prior. The formation of the outlooks and ideologies
that led a number of young idealistic American youth into the Weather Underground began years before in the civil rights struggles of the
early 1960s and the growing anti-Vietnam war movement of the mid to late decade. By the early years of the 1970s, the Weather
Underground had become the prominent guerilla organization operating within the confines of the United States, and its influence was
felt across the country and the world. Both to its supporters and its enemies, the Weather Underground was taken seriously as an
organization dedicated to the destruction of the imperialist “Pig” order and the formation of a revolutionary society based on the
principals of internationalist communism.
Much criticism has been directed toward the Weather Underground, both from historians and former participants in the leftist
movements of the 1960s and early 1970s. The majority of the critiques have to do with the violence and authoritarianism that was
exhibited by the Weather Underground. In many instances, criticism of the Weather Underground is nothing but a transparent slander
campaign waged from the right wing, in other examples, the criticisms are meant to be constructive and informing. What many of them
fail to take into account are circumstances and realities that led this group of young, mostly white college students, down the path of
revolution. This study will show that the Weathermen were not insane worshipers of violence. It will show that they were not crazed
drug addicts, or pawns of foreign governments. This study will show that the Weathermen were in fact an intelligent group of young
idealists, based on humanitarian beliefs, who sought to form a coherent revolutionary group that could help in the worldwide struggle to
end imperialism. And most importantly, it will focus on how the context of the time period led these people to develop the critiques of
United States politics and society that ultimately, at its end, led them to undertake a campaign of symbolic bombings.
Before going into the History of the Weather Underground itself, it is necessary to become familiar with and understand some of the
historical opinions surrounding the group. Many histories of the New Left have been written in the past two decades, most of which were
written by individuals who were involved in the movements of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. One thorough and informed history of the
New Left is The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, by Todd Gitlin. Gitlin himself is a prime example of New Left history written by a
participant. From the beginning of the decade, Gitlin was involved in the movement and in 1963 was elected president of Students for a
Democratic Society (S.D.S). Gitlin traces the birth of the movement, and his personal involvement in it, from its civil rights origins in the
early part of the decade, through its different splinters in mid-decade such as S.D.S., to its final days in 1969 and the early ’70’s. Gitlin
ends his study with a bitter description of a group that he viewed as the incarnation of the worst of the New Left. This group was the
Weather Underground. He argues that the New Left had been predestined for demise due to a lack of any coherent Ideology for
revolution that could unite the differing factions within the movement. He also feels that the turn away from non-violence and participatory
democracy, led by the Weather Underground, was a wrong-headed move that basically put the nail in the coffin of the New Left. What is
not evident in his history or argument is the fact that the Weather Underground itself was a concrete and dedicated attempt to inspire
and unite the new left behind a coherent politics of anti-imperialism.
The argument that a lack of coherent ideology was a major factor playing into the demise of the New Left was also put forth by two other
authors of New Left History: Allen Matusow, author of The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960’s, and Ronald
Fraser, author of 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt. Matusow writes his book primarily as an intellectual history of the social
movements of the 1960’s while Fraser’s book is an oral history comprised of interviews of actual participants in the movements of the
time. Matusow and Fraser share Gitlin’s emphasis on lack of coherent ideology as a New Left failure, but they each also add new
arguments to the problem. All three authors critique the Weather Underground and use it as an example of the failures of the New Left,
a convenient scapegoat for the inability of the New Left to effect lasting social change.
A professional historian by training, Matusow had already earned his PhD in History in 1963 and viewed the actions of the late period
of the New Left from a wholly different perspective than the other authors cited in this Historiography. He argued that the lack of
coherence in the New Left inevitable manifested is self in the Weather Underground: “Turgid in style, unsteady in logic, reliant on the
dead language of Marxism, Weatherman was S.D.S.’s last and worst attempt to fashion an ideology for the radical movement.” This
relates back to Gitlin’s argument about the predestination of the left. Ironically, Matusow and Fraser all seem to provide a view of the
Weather Underground as an attempt to do just what they thought the left needed, which was to create a coherent ideology and path for
the movement to follow. All of the authors differed in their treatment of what they believed to be the merits of the Weather position. For
Gitlin and Matusow, “merits” is not the right word. They saw the position and ideology of the Weather Underground as horrifically
arrogant and misled. This may be why they failed to see the coherence and possibilities in the Weatherman critique.
Another historical work on the period picked up where Gitlin, Matusow, Caute, and Fraser ended. The Way The Wind Blew: A History of
the Weather Underground, by Ron Jacobs, was a political/social history written as a monograph of the Weather Underground
Organization. Jacobs’s work also came a good decade after the previously stated works. Jacobs’s work was not written in a time of
right wing dominance, as was the case with the other works. 1997 was a year of increasing left oriented politics in the U.S. and
elsewhere, with new critiques of capitalism and the social order rising around issues of globalization and organizations such as the
World Bank and trade agreements such as NAFTA. It was a time when new militant revolts were occurring, especially the Zapitista
Uprising in Chiapas Mexico. Jacobs’s work was not bitter or resentful towards the Weather Underground, though it did contain many
critiques of the group. Jacobs’s arguments were much harder to find than those of Gitlin (who made it plain and clear how he felt about
Weather) and the other authors cited. However, some arguments can be inferred from Jacobs’s work.
These arguments are based on the internal workings of the Weather Underground and its demise, rather than the arguments coming
from outside the organization directed against it that are made by the past authors cited. Jacobs seems to find fault with the hierarchal
organization of the Weather Underground Organization. This is a legitimate critique of the Weathermen and may have been an
important reason for the wrong-headedness of some of its positions, as well as its eventual demise. Jacobs gives many examples of
how the group’s leadership proved to be un-open to criticism. In addition to his argument about hierarchy, Jacobs also argues that
Weather’s own self-imposed isolation from the movement as a whole was also responsible for its demise. This is an argument
shared by Gitlin and Matusow. The difference between Jacobs’s and the others arguments is that Jacobs’s seemed to see the
isolation of Weather as a result of their ideology, (and the unwillingness of Americans to compromise their comfort) where as Matusow,
and especially Gitlin, saw their isolation as self imposed and a breeding ground for their absurd politics. Due to their isolation, Gitlin
viewed Weather strategy and theory as a “seamless loop: growing militancy, growing isolation, growing commitment to the revolution,
sloppier and more frantic attempts to imagine a revolutionary class…”
In all of the works cited, basic assumptions about the nature of activism and revolution, and the necessary tactics/ideology needed to
build and carry out a successful revolution, are exposed. Matusow critiques Weather in a specifically counter-revolutionary fashion. His
critiques come from a distinctively liberal and reformist vantage point. Matusow assumes that revolution is the wrong path, and
therefore can only criticize when it comes to the Weather Underground. Gitlin has a much more developed assumption that underlies
all of his criticism of Weather. Gitlin was no liberal reformist, but his theory of correct political association was one of participatory
democracy as opposed to the Leninist democratic centralism of the Weather Underground. He viewed Weather’s turn toward violence
as a mistake that alienated the masses of people in the United States. Gitlin assumed that, had the movement continued in the
tradition of non-violent, de-centralized political groupings, a political and social revolution might have been possible. Caute and Fraser,
who both had credentials within the New Left, though nowhere near the level of Gitlin, both wrote sections on the Weather Underground
as well. Their studies of the Weather Underground are much shorter than those of Gitlin or Matusow and their assumptions are
generally of the vein that, had the New Left developed a coherent unifying strategy, things could have been different. However, Caute’s
section on the Weather Underground contains two short sentences that raise grave questions about his social/political beliefs as a
“left” radical. Describing what he viewed as the violence for violence’s sake position of Weather, he specifically targets Jane Alpert, a
member of Weather Underground: “In Jane Alpert’s case there was an additional, self-hating, urge to violence; Jewish, she adopted the
Palestinian cause.” At best this comment proves a profound ignorance of the causes of the Palestinian Intifada, at worst the comment
betrays an underlying agreement with imperialism and cultural genocide that Caute may hold.
Again, what is missing in all of the critiques, aside from those of Ron Jacobs, is a detailed context of the social conditions that led to the
Weather Underground, and a recognition that the Weathermen were attempting to move the left forward; not to isolate themselves and
tear the left apart. All of the authors, Jacobs aside, seemed to agree that the Weather Underground was a failure due to its isolation,
authoritarianism, and violence. Most importantly, none of these authors give the Weather Underground much credit for their attempts to
advance the goals of the New Left and defeat imperialism.
To provide a realistic picture of the contextual origins of the Weathermen, and to show that this was a coherent, dedicated, and serious
revolutionary organization, (despite its ultimate failure), a narrative of the history, context, and actions of the Weathermen is necessary.
From this narrative, a picture of an organized, dedicated, and intelligent group of people will emerge.
In 1962 an organization called Students for a Democratic Society (S.D.S.) was formed. It’s general thrust and purpose was formally laid
out in one of the most famous documents of the New Left, The Port Huron Statement. The context for the statement was the heated
battles over de-segregation raging in the country at the time. As an organization, S.D.S. was committed to non-violent protest and civil
disobedience to bring about social change in the United States, and to lend solidarity to groups fighting for the civil rights of blacks such
as S.N.C.C. (The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee). The main focus of the early S.D.S. was to create a space for citizens of
the country to participate in “direct democracy” to bring pressure to bear on the Democratic party and push the party to side with and
support the civil rights movement. Those early years of S.D.S were ones of optimism, and a belief that, by speaking truth to power, the
consensus of the country could be moved to the left.
A defining moment occurred in 1964 that forced S.D.S and much of the left to re-think their positions- especially that the government of
the United Stated could be democratically pressured to become more humane and less imperialistic.
On August 4th 1964, while hunting for North Vietnamese ships, two United States vessels were fired at by North Vietnamese PT boats
in the Gulf of Tonkin. Immediately President Johnson went public with news of “unprovoked attacks”, despite the fact that US ships had
been engaging North Vietnamese forces long before this date. This “ Gulf of Tonkin incident” provided the pretext for increased troop
deployment in Vietnam and in response; a growing focus on anti war activism and outreach began to take shape within S.D.S and other
left organizations within the U.S. A realization took shape in S.D.S. that the government of the United States was significantly more
brutal and despotic than they had previously believed.
One telling example of this new outlook within S.D.S is found in late 1964 or possibly early 1965, on the campus of the University of
Michigan in Ann Arbor, the president of S.D.S., Paul Potter, gave an impassioned speech concerning the escalating war in Vietnam,
questioning the audience:
“ How do you stop a war? If the war has its roots deep in the institutions of American Society. Do you march and rally? Do you conduct
a teach-in? Is that enough? Who will hear us? How can we make the decision makers hear us, insulated as they are, if they cannot
hear the screams of a little girl burned by napalm? How will you live your life so that it does not make a mockery of your values?”
Within the crowd that gathered to listen the Paul Potters speech was an individual who would later become a member of the Weather
Underground, Bill Ayers. After hearing Potters speech Ayers decided to join S.D.S. This speech is a good example of the changing
rhetoric and increasing sense of urgency felt within S.D.S.- a realization that speaking truth to power was clearly not going to effect any
profound change in United States policy or action.
During that same year, another future member of the Weather Underground joined S.D.S; his name was Mark Rudd. Rudd joined the
Columbia University chapter of S.D.S as a freshman and in a few years would rise to leadership in the Columbia Chapter. Although S.D.
S had taken focus on building an anti-war movement, they did not forget about or neglect their commitment to anti-racist organizing. In
fact, S.D.S viewed racism as being intimately connected with U.S. militarism; Both racism and militarism were understood as the
inevitable outcomes of a will by the power structure of the U.S to dominate domestic and global affairs by any means necessary.
Reflecting back on this time period in S.D.S history, Mark Rudd spoke of his decision to join S.D.S with an analogy that throws light on
the sense of urgency felt during that time period. Rudd stated: “I didn’t want to be a good German”.
By that time it was becoming painfully clear to many members of the New Left student movement in 1965 that polite petition and
“Direct Democracy” was not working to halt U.S. aggression against Vietnam or to remedy increasingly dire social and racial problems
within the United States. New tactics were developed to try to maintain relevance and effectiveness for the New Left. One of these new
tactics was the development of an organization called the Education Research Action Project (E.R.A.P.). S.D.S developed the project
due to a perception within the organization that its politics were trapped within the University System and that its membership needed to
leave the privileged campuses to organize in underprivileged poor communities. After a stint teaching pre-school in Ann-Arbor, future
weatherman Bill Ayers left his job to take part in the E.R.A.P and in early 1966 he moved to Cleveland Ohio to build a Community Union.
For nearly a year Ayers lived with roommates and fellow activists Terry Robins, (future weatherman) and Alex Witherspoon in Cleveland,
dedicating full time attention to grassroots organizing in the community. Bill Ayers described their mission as the following:
Our plan was to live among the poor, to share their travails and their triumphs, then to build action and organization around issues of
broad and shared concern: tenant and welfare rights, safety and police brutality, education and schools, racial discrimination. We
believed fervently that any legitimate and just change should be led by those who had been pushed down and locked out, and we were
certain that struggling in the interest of these forgotten people crushed at the bottom held the key to social transformations that would
shake the whole world to its core and ultimately benefit everyone.
During their time in Cleveland, Ayers and his comrades canvassed door to door and held many meetings with members of the
community. They aided in the development of a welfare rights project, a rent strike committee, and a community health organization. In
addition, they helped open up a store front office community space and a progressive pre-school. All of the actions and projects
initiated by the Community Union in Cleveland were examples of civic community based organization, done by the people and for the
people. Unfortunately, this sense of calm and peaceful progress was not to last for long.