On March 6, 1970, bombs created by a radical terrorist group called the Weather Underground destroyed a three-story townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in Greenwich Village. Three people (Diana Oughton, Terry Robbins, and Ted Gold) were killed, and two others (Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson) were injured. When police inspected the premises, they found enough unexploded dynamite to have destroyed every building on both sides of that rather long block. (At the time, actor Dustin Hoffman lived right next door.) The truth that eventually came to light was that the house itself – which the poet James Merrill had lived in as a child, and which had later been the home of lyricist Howard Dietz – had not been the target of the bombers, but had been their headquarters. The five people who had been killed or injured had, in fact, planned to bomb a dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. “It is likely,” writes Arthur M. Eckstein in his history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, “that dozens of people would have been killed if the plan had succeeded.”
At first they called themselves Weatherman – singular, not plural. After a while they came to be known publicly as the Weathermen or the Weather Underground. The group itself had begun as a faction within the radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It was a Leninist group, devoted to an international revolutionary struggle on behalf of the proletariat against the forces of imperialism, capitalism, and racism; many of its members had spent time in Cuba, idolized Che Guevara, met with North Vietnamese officials, and/or been influenced by Mao Zedong.
After the townhouse bombing, the Weather Underground publicly announced that the 11th Street bombers were members of a renegade New York cell that had been engaged in a “rogue operation” that had not been approved by the Weathermen’s national leaders. The Weathermen’s national leaders further announced that, while they would continue to work toward a guerrilla revolution that would overthrow the U.S. government, they would make certain not to plant bombs that might actually harm or kill people and would instead carrying out bombings that would do damage only to property.
In the years and decades that followed, this claim – that the townhouse crew had gone rogue and that the Weathermen, as a whole, weren’t out to murder but only to commit vandalism – was faithfully repeated in the writings and public statements by members (and, later, former members) of the group, most famously Bill Ayers, who has since become famous as a friend and mentor of former President Obama. This relatively benign line was also reliably echoed in the Academy Award-nominated 2003 documentary Weather Underground and in Jeremy Varon’s 2004 book Bringing the War Home (a comparison of the Weather Underground with Germany’s Red Army Faction, which we wrote about last September). Only in recent years has this narrative been prominently challenged. As Eckstein makes clear in his book, many if not most members of the Weather Underground were, in fact, devoted to killing, and Ayers and other Weather leaders presented “a united front committed to maximum violence.” In short, the would-be bombers who worked out of that 11th Street townhouse were not defying the Weathermen leadership; they were engaged in precisely the sort of activity that Ayers urged upon them.