We’ve been looking at the Weather Underground, or Weathermen, described by Arthur M. Eckstein in his book Bad Moon Rising as “the most notorious American radical group committed to political violence in the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
As we’ve noted, J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to bring them down. Yet when President Nixon tried to get him to employ illegal means to gather intelligence on the organization, Hoover resisted. Eventually, however, at White House urging and with Justice Department approval, Hoover’s men bugged the homes and phones of Weathermen friends, relatives, and supporters. Yet all their efforts proved to be unavailing. The Weathermen had gone underground, and the FBI couldn’t find them.
Hoover died in May 1972 and was replaced by L. Patrick Gray; before the month was over, the Weathermen set off a huge bomb in the Pentagon. (Today, the ease with which they managed to do it seems mind-boggling: “A female member of Weather had simply walked into the vast building along with crowds of civilian employees to scout a suitable location for a bomb, then had returned the next day, again simply walking in. She placed the bomb in a women’s restroom.”) No one was hurt, but the bomb caused millions of dollars’ worth of damage. “Under Gray,” writes Eckstein, “capturing the Weathermen became the main task of the Bureau’s entire Domestic Intelligence Division.” Though hampered by a June 1972 court ruling that effectively forbade most of the Weathermen wiretaps, the war on the Weathermen continued. Yet, in Eckstein’s account, it was a clumsy war, fought against a kind of enemy the FBI had never faced before.
In the end, indeed, the downfall of the Weathermen was the result less of effective field work by the FBI than of “an aspect of traditional Marxist-Leninist political life that had bedeviled the American far Left from its origins: ideological division and disagreement, combined with savage factionalism.” What happened was this: in the mid 1970s, with the radical counterculture rapidly evaporating and the mainstream culture itself becoming more accepting of far-left ideas, Weathermen top dog Bill Ayers and others tried to steer the group away from violent underground revolution and toward open community organizing – toward, that is, the “education” (read: radicalization) of the working class and an emphasis on addressing practical political issues. The goal – Leninist revolution – was the same; only the method was different.
But other members of the group, under the leadership of an old Stalinist named Clayton van Lydegraf, revolted, declaring themselves to be the real Weather Underground and returning with new brio to the business of planting bombs. They began by planning a deadly attack on the office of California state senator John Briggs. But they turned out to be as careless as they were violent. Unlike the earlier incarnation of the Weathermen, this one proved to be much easier for the FBI to penetrate. The Bureau even managed to plant an undercover agent in Lydegraf’s home – as a roommate. Before the Weathermen could carry out their bombing of Briggs’s office, then, the FBI managed to arrest its five top leaders – an action that, in one fell swoop, cracked the back of the national Weather Underground.
Some of them went to prison, but not for long. And thanks to the entry of leftist counterculture values into the mainstream of elite American culture (especially the academy), many former Weathermen enjoyed successful post-terrorist careers and, in time, came to be treated as heroic veterans of the legendary Sixties. Bill Ayers became a professor of education at the University of Illinois – Chicago; Bernadine Dohrn is a law professor at Northwestern; Cathy Wilkerson teaches math in Brooklyn; Mark Rudd is a professor of math in New Mexico; and Kathy Boudin – who was in that house on West 11th Street when it exploded in 1971 and who was later convicted of felony murder in connection with a 1981 Brink’s truck robbery in Nyack, New York, in which two police officers and a security guard were killed – is now an adjunct professor at Columbia University.