The murderers on West 11th Street

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After the bombing

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.”

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18 West 11th Street, then and now

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.

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Bill Ayers today

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.

More tomorrow.

Trumpeting Trumbo

truth3Just a few weeks ago, we discussed the new movie Truth, which turned the truth about the 2004 Rathergate scandal on its head. In real life, CBS anchorman Dan Rather and news producer Mary Mapes were so eager to damage George W. Bush’s re-election prospects with a damaging story about his National Guard service that they were prepared to use obviously fake documents to try to support their otherwise unsupported case; in the film, Rather (Robert Redford) and Mapes (Cate Blanchett) are presented as heroic truth-tellers brought down by craven CBS executives fearful of antagonizing the Bush White House.

trumboNow Tinseltown has brought us yet another mammoth distortion of history. Directed by Jay Roach from a script by John McNamara, and starring Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston in the title role, Trumbo purports to tell the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), who in 1947 was named one of the “Hollywood Ten” – a group of directors and screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether or not they were Communists. The Hollywood Ten were blacklisted – i.e., denied work in the film industry – as were dozens of their colleagues.

In recent decades, Hollywood has churned out innumerable films about the blacklist. The premise is always the same: the men and women of the blacklist were free-speech martyrs and victims of tyranny. There are several things that are rarely if ever mentioned in these films. For example, all of the Hollywood Ten were members of the American Communist Party. That party, in turn, was a willing, devoted instrument of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The man at the top of that Party was Josef Stalin, a totalitarian dictator who was responsible for even more deaths than Hitler.

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The real-life Dalton Trumbo

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone who Stalin was and what he did. But the fact is that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten were Stalin’s devoted acolytes. No matter what he did, they refused to criticize him. Whatever shifts in policy he made, they went along with him blindly. This hasn’t kept them from being lionized as champions of liberty.

Take Trumbo. The new Jay Roach movie is far from the first work to celebrate him. Trumbo’s son Christopher wrote a play, Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, which was staged with such actors as Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Christopher Trumbo also directed a 2008 documentary, Trumbo, in which Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, and other Hollywood luminaries agreed that Trumbo was both a victim and a hero.

htThe facts tell otherwise. In an illuminating new book, Hollywood Traitors, Allan H. Ryskind spells them out. Far from being the fun, quirky “independent spirit” depicted by his apologists – and, we gather, by Roach’s movie – Trumbo was a slavish disciple of the tyrant in the Kremlin.

“[F]ew of the Hollywood writers served Stalin so faithfully,” says Ryskind, who, in addition to studying FBI and HUAC documents, has pored over Trumbo’s private papers. They reveal an unwavering pattern of absolute loyalty to Stalin and to Communism, and an utter indifference to the fate of his own country or of human freedom.

Details tomorrow.