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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Unending Terror of the Weathermen

The Unending Terror of the Weathermen

The late 1960's and 1970's saw an unprecedented attack on American institutions by leftist groups. Perhaps the most well known of these groups was the Weathermen. The Weathermen were a break-off group from the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). The SDS were the largest of the New Left groups formed in the 1960's. The Weathermen carried the leftist impulse of the SDS to it's logical conclusion. Glazer describes the New Left doctrine; “the rights of the majority are held in derision, and political opponents are prevented form speaking or being heard” (Gerberding & Smith, 1970, p.25). SDS, for the most part, set up situations in which law enforcement could be portrayed as “oppressive”, but violence has never been rejected as a leftist tactic; in fact, SDS violence has been documented as early as 1965, in which SDS protestors ”broke through a police cordon and laid siege to” the Pentagon (Varon, 2004, p. 148). In 1966, SDS leader Tom Hayden “outlined a future for the New Left that anticipated violence without apparent qualms”(Collier and Horowitz, 2006, p. 289 ). In the years 1968, 1969, and in the first half of 1970, there were 216 ambushes and snipings against LEO's and facilities, a total of 359 assaults, including bombings, 23 deaths and 326 injuries to police officers. (Mallin, 1971, p. 52). It was in this atmosphere of leftist violence that the Weathermen split off from SDS for an even more violent program. The big split with the SDS occurred at the 1969 convention (George, 1996, pp.133-134).
In May of 1970, the Weatherman issued a “declaration of war” against America (George, 1996, p.137). In 1974, the Weathermen issued their dogma, Prairie Fire. “PRAIRIE FIRE is written to communist-minded people” (1974, preface), reiterating the Left's hostility to liberty, republic, and capitalism. The Weathermen further describe the type of society they would inflict upon America..”Socialism is the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the eradication of the social system based on profit” (1970, pp. 40-42). Larry Grathwohl, an FBI infiltrator of the Weathermen, reports that one goal of the Weathermen was to “eliminate” 25 million Americans (“counter-revolutionaries”, in leftist-speak) in “re-education camps” (Ayers To Eliminate 25 million Capitalist Americans, 2008, 1:20).
The primary method of terror conducted by the Weathermen was bombing of buildings associated with the government. Thankfully out of line with their rhetoric, Weathermen bombing attacks were not designed to inflict mass casualties. In the one exception, the Weathermen planned to conduct a mass casualty attack against a dance, in this instance,the bombers blew themselves up in the 1970 Wilkerson townhouse explosion (Varon, 2004, p.173). The Weathermen manifesto Prairie Fire details many of the group's bombing through it's publication in 1974 (pp4-5). Although the tactical targets were buildings, the intended target was the American system itself. The 2 key attacks were the failure at the Wilkerson townhouse, and the organization of the Days of Rage, a pre-planned assault on police in conjunction with anti-war protests.
There were several factors involved with the dissolution of the Weathermen. One reason had to do with the “ for public consumption” reasons that the Weathermen claimed as justification.. The Vietnam war ended. Passage of civil rights legislation made much of the racial rhetoric history. However, ”the extremists who chose to remain extremists resorted to terror tactics” (Mallin, 1971, p. 19). Another factor was the loss of three of their fellow travelers who had been hoist upon their own petard at the Wilkerson townhouse. Finally, internal stresses within the group caused issues. The formal end of the Weathermen came when the group collapsed in late 1976 in a “torrent of recriminations” (Varon, 2004, p. 298). Some turned themselves in while others continued leftist terror attacks under new banners such as the May 19th Communist Organization and the United Freedom Front. Charges were dropped against many of these children of the affluent. Even worse, these terrorists no longer has to resort to violence to achieve their aims as they were allowed to join the educational and political systems:
A surprising number of college and university professors...were active in the DSDS and other radical movements...Many critiques of the trend towards authoritarianism on some campuses...charge that these former radicals have played a major part in it's development (George, 1996, p. 144).
These “radicals” include former terrorists Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, and Cathy Boudin of the Weathermen.
However, the despite the claim that COINTELPRO and other law enforcement operations had an effect on Weathermen; law enforcement efforts were not all that effective. Hoover ended most COINTELPRO operations as a bureaucratic tactic to protect the FBI before many of the Weatherman attacks were carried out.. The FBI was never as successful at infiltrating the New Left as it had been at infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan even while COINTELPRO was operating. As a result of the publication of overreaching government operations such as CHAOS and (arguably) COINTELPRO, reforms in security law changed law enforcement capabilities so that “the FBI was barred from surveillance of all political groups, even those whose agenda indicated intentions to engage in illegal and violent acts” (Collier and Horowitz, 2006, p. 217). Another issue was that the FBI focused on trying to prove a foreign connection, which would have given “intelligence agencies greater latitude in investigating and acting against” the terrorists (Varon, 2004, p. 358). This was a strategic error as one of the major differences in the Old Left and the New Left was the New Left's hostility to foreign control. Bill Sullivan, the FBI's point man on domestic security, claims the Columbia riot caught the FBI by surprise and that the FBI did not consider the New Left as a threat up to that point(1979, p. 147)
There are two policy goals that should be implemented to combat terror groups that move between terror and subversion on the political terror matrix. The first is that we need to define specific calls to action associated with specific philosophies (in particular, those that are categorically opposed to American liberties) as illegal and subject to different legal standards than simple dissent. For example, a protestor should be able to say that the war in Vietnam is illegal, but should be subject to surveillance once he advocates violent leftist policies. Secondly, government representatives need to confront dishonest propaganda by the defenders of such subversives/terrorists. For years, COINTELPRO has been represented solely as a method of silencing dissent as opposed to a method of tracking violent subversives.


Ayers To Eliminate 25 million Capitalist Americans. (2008). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPLkf8GaUGA&feature=youtube_gdata_player

Collier, P., & Horowitz, D. (2006). Destructive generation: second thoughts about the sixties. San Francisco: Encounter Books.

Gerberding, W., & Smith, D. (Eds.). (1970). The radical Left:The abuse of discontent. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

George, J. (1996). American extremists: Militias, supremacists, Klansmen, communists & others. Amherst, N.Y: Prometheus Books.

Mallin, J. (Ed.). (1971). Terror and urban guerrillas; a study of tactics and documents. Coral Gables, Fla: University of Miami Press.

Prairie Fire. (1974). San Fransisco, Ca. Prairie Fire Distributing Committee

Sullivan, W. C. (1979). The Bureau: my thirty years in Hoover’s FBI (1st ed). New York: Norton.

Varon, J. (2004). Bringing the war home: the Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and revolutionary violence in the sixties and seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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