Weather Reports

Weather Reports

The radical individualism of the New Left was hardly un-American. A batch of new memoirs show the Weatherman followed a distinctly American tradition.


One of the shrewdest assessments of the fate of 1960s radicalism was also among the first: Elinor Langer’s essay “Notes for Next Time: A Memoir of the 1960s,” which appeared in 1973 in the pages of the long-since-defunct radical magazine Working Papers for a New Society and was reprinted in a 1989 collection edited by R. David Myers titled Toward a History of the New Left. Langer, a writer and teacher active in the civil rights, antiwar and women’s movement in the ’60s, was dismayed to discover–even as early as 1973–that students who had just missed out on being part of the ’60s generation were already in the process of idolizing her “as a relic of some brave revolutionary struggle whose meaning they didn’t quite catch–their La Passionaria perhaps.” Hoping that in the future ’60s radicals would come to be remembered “neither as false heroes nor as fallen idols,” she reflected in her essay on her generation’s political illusions. The fate of the student movement of the 1960s, she argued, was determined when its leaders made the “curiously apolitical” decision to start thinking of themselves as revolutionaries:

Because revolution was effectively impossible one did not have to dirty one’s hands in compromise, nor mingle much with the hoi polloi (meaning: the middle class; the un-Chosen) along the way. And it was also ahistorical and smug, since it mistook revolution, a rare historical event, for a moral choice.

That the New Left “mistook revolution…for a moral choice” is the best one-sentence summary I’ve ever read of the complexities of late-’60s radicalism. I would suggest a corollary that seems implicit in Langer’s essay. The movement’s revolutionary turn was not so much a measure of its un- or anti-American character, as conservative critics would have it, but rather an indication that, if anything, the New Left might have been a bit too American for its own good. Its impatience with the half-measures of liberal reformism, its lack of interest in creating a stable constituency or institutional base, and its promotion of a politics of confrontation and risk (“putting your body on the line,” as the saying went) revealed the movement as an exotic but recognizable descendant of the powerful Protestant antinomian tradition of radical individualism–one whose adherents defied social custom and religious law to follow the inner promptings of God’s voice wherever they might lead. “John Brown is a good symbol for us,” Langer noted in passing. “At one point he wanted to run a school for Negroes but he came to find the idea too small: he had to attack Harper’s Ferry.”

Cathy Wilkerson’s memoir, Flying Close to the Sun, offers a compelling cautionary tale of what comes from mistaking revolution for a moral choice. Weatherman was a small but influential faction within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest campus radical group of the ’60s. Taking their name from a Bob Dylan lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” the group’s leaders proclaimed it the revolutionary duty of white radicals in the United States to come to the aid of brethren revolutionaries in the Third World–including those in the “black colony” at home–through violent and disruptive protest (and, before long, armed struggle). Anything less risky, at a time when Vietnamese peasants by the millions and (as was widely believed) Black Panthers by the dozens were being killed, was a capitulation to the moral failure of “white-skin privilege.” Weatherman leaders–the most famous of whom included Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Mark Rudd–gained control of SDS in the summer of 1969; by early 1970 they had shut down the organization, taking a few score of the most committed of their followers into the clandestine Weather Underground.

Although never among the top circle of Weatherman leaders, Wilkerson was nonetheless a charismatic presence in her own right. Susan Stern, a member of Weatherman’s Seattle collective, met her when they were both in Cook County Jail, following the violent “Days of Rage” demonstration staged by Weatherman in Chicago in October 1969. “Cathy Wilkerson was in my tier,” Stern recalled in her 1975 memoir With the Weathermen (recently reissued in a new edition ably edited and introduced by Laura Browder). “Tall and slender, the beautiful young woman listened critically but intently as I told her about my life and the progression of events that had led me to Weatherman.”

Wilkerson’s fame, or rather infamy, was bound up with a single moment five months later, on March 6, 1970, the date of the “Townhouse Explosion.” The building in question, on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village, belonged to Wilkerson’s father, a well-to-do New York City advertising executive who had no idea that his wayward 25-year-old daughter was using it in his absence as a temporary safe house and bomb factory. While she was upstairs on that March morning incongruously ironing sheets, three of her comrades were in the basement putting the finishing touches on a nail-studded dynamite bomb they intended to plant and set off that night at a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Their desire to “bring the war home” with a homemade antipersonnel weapon outstripped their understanding of electrical circuitry, however, and instead of killing others, Terry Robbins, Ted Gold and Diana Oughton killed themselves. Wilkerson and another survivor, Kathy Boudin, stumbled out of the ruins, shaken but unharmed, and made their escape. Wilkerson spent ten years underground before turning herself in, and she eventually served eleven months in prison for illegal possession of dynamite. Boudin remained underground until 1981, when she was captured in the aftermath of the Brinks armored car robbery in Nanuet, New York, a fiasco that cost the lives of a Brinks guard and two policemen. She was paroled from prison in 2003.

Before Wilkerson became a terrorist, as she recounts in the early chapters of Flying Close to the Sun, she had been a Quaker-educated pacifist, a Swarthmore student picketing for civil rights, a reader of Gandhi. She was particularly taken by the lessons to be learned from Gandhi’s “struggle to apply his political ideas to the minutest, most personal detail of his life.” What came later was not, it should be noted, Gandhi’s or the Quakers’ fault: the fact that Wilkerson’s older sister Ann, coming from the same background and influences, wound up as an American Friends Service Committee staff member at the same time as Cathy was being drawn to Weatherman suggests the wildly different ways such lessons could be applied.

After graduating from Swarthmore in 1966, Wilkerson worked in SDS’s national office in Chicago, editing the organization’s weekly newspaper, New Left Notes. It was a time of great optimism in the student movement: SDS was expanding at an exponential rate (within another two years, the 15,000 members of 1966 would grow to an estimated 100,000 members), yet the organization retained some of the intimacy of the days in the early 1960s when it had only a few hundred members and a few dozen chapters. “I felt like I had landed in a community supportive of both women and men,” Wilkerson recalls. “The day-to-day life in the office seemed free of gender stereotypes…. I was being listened to with more respect than I had ever experienced.”

There were, by this time, forces chipping away at her earlier pacifist convictions, all part of the familiar narrative of SDS’s decline and fall that one can find in histories by Kirkpatrick Sale, Todd Gitlin and James Miller, among other sources. These included a succession of ghetto riots that raised the specter of domestic civil war, the appalling and ever-escalating conflict in Vietnam and the need felt by some SDS leaders to come up with a suitably revolutionary ideology of their own to counter that promoted by the Progressive Labor Party, a Maoist/Stalinist fringe group bent on capturing SDS for its own purposes. The early ’60s sense of the movement as a “beloved community” eroded as a multitude of rival would-be vanguard factions emerged in the SDS leadership. Like many others in SDS trying to make sense of the chaos of the moment, Wilkerson turned to theorists like Régis Debray and Frantz Fanon who celebrated the political and psychological benefits of violence in Third World revolutionary struggles.

One of the virtues of Wilkerson’s memoir is that it suggests that her path toward the Townhouse Explosion was by no means predetermined. Her political future, like that of SDS, remained in flux as late as the fall of 1967. At the famous Pentagon protest in October of that year, some SDSers wanted to break away from the main event and skirmish with the police in the streets. Wilkerson was tempted. But in the end she and the others observed the nonviolent discipline advocated by David Dellinger of the National Mobilization Committee. And it worked–the warmakers were confronted on the steps of the Pentagon in a dramatic tableau that redounded to the antiwar movement’s appeal on the nation’s campuses. Wilkerson was one of those who spoke to the crowd of protesters, urging them not to take unnecessary risks. “While I had been excited by Debray and Fanon,” she recalls of that October day forty years ago,

here in the heat of confrontation it was the model of the nonviolent confrontations of the civil rights movement that seemed most powerful. To the extent we had any power at the Pentagon, which didn’t feel like much, it was the power of a moral witness.

Over the next two years, Wilkerson would abandon moral witness, if not a morally charged politics. The urge to take what she describes as “decisive moral action,” measured by acceptance of an ever-increasing level of personal risk, crowded out considerations of strategic ends. Young and politically inexperienced undergraduates were swelling SDS’s membership at the chapter level: “They weren’t looking for a complicated discussion about how to bring about change,” Wilkerson notes, “but for validation, for a community, and for a way to express their anger about the war.” And they looked to SDS’s veteran leaders–which is to say, young people like Wilkerson, only a few years older than themselves–to provide the answers. What they were actually offered by SDS leaders in 1968-69, she writes, was a “lift off from reality.”

Wilkerson’s self-critical tone stands in marked contrast to that found in another memoir by a Weatherman, Bill Ayers’s Fugitive Days, published in 2001. As Ayers told a New York Times reporter in a soon-to-be-infamous interview published on September 11, 2001, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Wilkerson, who issued a scathing review in Z Magazine of Fugitive Days when it appeared, does regret the bombs: the Weather Underground, she writes in her memoir, “accepted the same desanctification of human life practiced by Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and William Westmoreland.”

And yet at times, despite the tone of regret that runs as leitmotif throughout the book, she adopts a curious distancing tone. Wilkerson’s self-portrait through 1967 (one that accords with the memories of those who knew her at the time) is of a young woman steadily gaining competence and confidence, and emerging as a natural and accomplished leader. SDS had a reputation, not entirely undeserved, as a bastion of male chauvinism; but at critical moments, like the one at the Pentagon, Wilkerson’s male comrades unhesitatingly handed the bullhorn over to her (and it is a picture of her, bullhorn in hand, that graces the cover of her memoir). But in describing her actions and beliefs from 1968 on, Wilkerson increasingly characterizes herself as a classic dependent female, the passive follower of initiatives taken by others, incapable of independent judgment and continually surprised by the decisions of her leaders (mostly men, with the exception of Bernardine Dohrn). “When Bernardine declared SDS’s mission [in 1968] to be the building of a ‘revolutionary movement,'” Wilkerson writes,

I thought she showed both courage and foresight; if she hadn’t explained what she meant, she had, I thought, made a commitment to take on that challenge…. I assumed the details would become clearer as we went along.

In October 1969, when only 300 or so of SDS’s 100,000 members responded to Weatherman’s call for the Days of Rage action in Chicago, Wilkerson declares that she was astonished when “the march leaders and many others [began] smashing windows of stores and cars as they ran full speed down the street.” In contrast, Susan Stern, lower down the chain of command than Wilkerson, notes in her own memoir that she and most of those who showed up for the Days of Rage made sure to wear gloves “to protect the hands from the broken glass that would soon be flying and shattering.” And then, in her weirdest act of dissociation, Wilkerson writes of the bomb being built in the basement of her father’s townhouse: “I didn’t think about the fact that the nails might actually kill people.”

Wilkerson attributes her “cult-like” adherence to Weatherman doctrine as a product of the group’s “clumsy misuse of religious-psychotherapeutic technique” in its famously brutal “criticism-self-criticism” sessions. Weatherman was a cult, but the crucial question of why some succumbed to its appeal and others did not goes unaddressed in Wilkerson’s account. Stern, in contrast, makes it painfully clear that her own self-loathing and self-destructive bent had much to do with her joining Weatherman (she made one suicide attempt as a child, another in her Seattle days and eventually succumbed in 1976 to a combination of drugs and alcohol that may have constituted a final successful attempt). Stern, who privately thought of herself as “Susan Stern Sham” while projecting a miniskirted and leather-jacketed image of tough sexy femininity, confessed in her memoir to being

obsessed with death and dying…. I fantasized about shootouts with a dozen pigs, killing some of them, and finally getting killed myself…. I had to die with meaning.

It would be psychologically reductive to suggest that all Weatherman’s adherents were motivated by similar obsessions (Ayers’s book suggests that his problems were rather the opposite of self-loathing). The trouble with Flying Close to the Sun is that we get no persuasive explanation for Wilkerson’s transformation from the woman who, at age 21, could walk into the office of the nation’s largest radical group and without previous experience immediately take over the editing of its weekly newspaper to the woman who, four years later, apparently found it difficult to grasp that a nail-studded dynamite bomb could actually kill people.

Carl Oglesby was not a Weatherman, but as we learn from his memoir Ravens in the Storm, he spent a lot of the later 1960s arguing with its leaders, especially with Bernardine Dohrn. Oglesby was elected president of SDS in 1965, much to his surprise. He was 30 years old that year, married, with three children and a job as a technical writer in the defense industry; his profile was hardly that of a typical SDSer. On the other hand, he had educated himself to become a knowledgeable critic of the Vietnam War and had taken part in the first teach-in against the war at the University of Michigan. In 1967 he would publish, with Richard Shaull, an extended critique of American foreign policy called Containment and Change, one of the most influential texts shaping the politics of the radical wing of the antiwar movement. (Wilkerson, in her memoir, devotes five pages to attesting to its importance.)

Within a few years, Oglesby found himself out of step with the organization he had led from 1965 to 1966. As he wrote in 1969 in “Notes on a Decade Ready for the Dustbin” (also included in R. David Myers’s invaluable collection on New Left history), “We are not now free to fight The Revolution except in fantasy.” He had no use for those who sought to reduce SDS to a “small, isolated band of super-charged cadre who, knowing they stand shoulder to shoulder with mankind itself…face repression with the inner peace of early Christians” (a pretty good piece of prophetic writing, considering Oglesby composed it months before the Days of Rage). Instead, he wanted SDS to focus on what it was good at: building campus chapters and opposing the war, offering a radical critique of American foreign policy while forming alliances with liberals and even libertarian conservatives, wherever and whenever possible. New Leftists, he thought, “should stop being scared of being reformed out of things to do.”

Oglesby thus represents a road not taken by SDS, and I wish I could report that he has written a better memoir about the days in which he argued for that alternative. But since he asks us repeatedly in Ravens in the Storm to trust his reconstruction of conversations with Dohrn and others–conversations that took place decades earlier and that spread out over many pages–it is not reassuring to find a text so riddled with obvious errors. He has New York Times reporter Harrison Salisbury filing a famous series of articles on the bombing of Hanoi in 1968 (actually 1966) and the Paris Peace Accords adopted in 1975 (actually 1973). He writes that he admired Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice when it came out in 1968 but “didn’t know yet that his record included several rapes” (crimes that, in fact, Cleaver discusses in the opening chapter of Soul on Ice). He has the Weatherman “simultaneously” bombing “eight court houses across the country where movement-related cases were being heard” in October 1969 (they actually bombed two courthouses, a year later.) And so on. The Oglesby legacy is much better served by a re-reading of “Notes on a Decade Ready for the Dustbin.”

The last of the wave of new books on SDS is Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History, a radical comix-inspired work edited by historian and former SDSer Paul Buhle. Buhle is one of the “radical elders” who in 2006 oversaw the launching of a new group claiming the SDS name along with descent from the original. This volume seems intended as a combination recruiting pamphlet and internal education document–and its mixed intent is its principal problem, since it jumbles together genuine history with alluring mythology. I can’t quite imagine what an undergraduate today would take away from it, other than a confusing mishmash of contradictory ideas about SDS’s role in the 1960s. The opening chapter, “SDS Highlights,” written by graphic novelist Harvey Pekar and illustrated by Gary Dumm, offers a good overview of SDS’s rise and fall, with an appropriate emphasis on the ever-widening split in the late 1960s between chapter members and the national leadership caste (“Man,” an SDSer in one panel complains to another, “the N.O. [National Office] doesn’t ask us anything. They go ahead and do what they want”). Progressive Labor and Weatherman come in for well-deserved knocks. But some of the later contributions by other authors seem to take it all back, at least as far as Weatherman is concerned. An entire page is devoted to a poem written in 1970 commemorating Ted Gold, one of Cathy Wilkerson’s three comrades who died in the Townhouse Explosion, including the line “he is dead/Of a bomb meant for better targets.” Really? Would the “better targets” have been just the soldiers at the dance at Fort Dix, or would they have included their girlfriends and wives as well?

The final chapter, written by Buhle and fellow radical elder and former Weatherman Bruce Rubenstein, is pure recruiting pamphlet. Rubenstein is depicted in the opening panel claiming that the new SDS “is back [and] as strong as it was in 1966”–a dubious proposition both mathematically and politically. Marx famously commented that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce; he never dreamed there would be a further cycle in which it would reappear yet again, even further diminished, as comix.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
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