The Weathermen: from terrorists to professors

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.”

14 Oct 1970 --- Washington: Replacing one woman with another, the FBI, October 14, added to its 10 Most Wanted list of fugitives, Bernardine Rae Dohrn, (shown in FBI flier), a self-proclaimed Communist revolutionary who advocates widespread terrorist bombings. In putting her on the list in place of the captured Black militant, Angela Davis, the FBI described Miss Dohrn, 28, as a reputed underground leader of the "Violence-Oriented Weatherman Faction of Students for a Democratic Society". --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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.

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L. Patrick Gray

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.

kathie-boudin-fbi-posterIn 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.

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Clayton van Lydegraf

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.

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Kathy Boudin today

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.

Blowing up stuff

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J. Edgar Hoover

On March 6, 1970, the same day that bombs went off by mistake in a Greenwich Village townhouse, leveling the entire building and killing three members of the Weather Underground – who had supposedly been acting on their own, without the approval of the organization’s national leadership – unexploded bombs were found in an alley next to the headquarters of the Detroit Police Officers’ Association and in a ladies’ room in the 13th Precinct of the Detroit Police Department. The combination of the New York explosion and the discovery of the bombs in Detroit (which went unreported at the time in major newspapers) not only strongly suggested that the Greenwich Village bombers, far from being renegades, were in fact working in collusion with Weathermen in other cities, but also led J. Edgar Hoover to take the Weather Underground seriously as a domestic threat. (The discovery in late March of a “bomb factory” in Chicago only further emphasized the danger.) In the months that followed, the FBI hunted down leaders of the group, who went underground.

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Weatherman Mark Rudd

The Greenwich Village explosion was far from the beginning of the Weathermen story. On February 12, 1970, Weathermen set off pipe bombs next to police cars parked near the Berkeley, California, police department headquarters. One policeman’s arm was permanently mangled, and several other policemen suffered minor injuries. But some of the bombers were disappointed because nobody had died. On February 21, firebombs went off at several locations in New York – at the home of the judge in a then-ongoing Black Panther trial, at a police car, at two armed forces recruiting stations, and at the Low Library at Columbia University. On March 2, the group firebombed a policeman’s home in Cleveland. On March 12, three Manhattan skyscrapers were bombed, and 300 bomb threats phoned in; while there were no deaths, thousands of people were evacuated from office buildings. On June 9, eight policemen were injured in a bombing of New York City police headquarters. (One scary aspect of this crime was that the bomb had actually been planted inside the building.) And on August 24, a Weathermen-connected group of radicals in Madison, Wisconsin, destroyed the Army Mathematics Research Center in that city with a truck bomb, killing a researcher and injuring several others.

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Phil Ochs

Such was the spirit of the era, at least in certain circles, that many public figures saw the Weathermen not as despicable sowers of mayhem and destroyers of innocent lives but as heroic rebels. As Arthur M. Eckstein writes in his splendid history of the group, Bad Moon Rising, folk singer Phil Ochs, whose concert at Carnegie Hall on March 27, 1970, was disrupted by a bomb threat that was possibly phoned in by the Weathermen, was tickled pink by the prospect of that storied venue being leveled by a Weather Underground bomb. “It’s be great!” he said.

J. Edgar Hoover didn’t agree. He wanted to destroy the Weathermen. More on that tomorrow.

Becoming a traitor

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J. Edgar Hoover

After World War II, there would be much talk about the “paranoia” about Communism that supposedly could be found in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. But during the years between the world wars, the problem in the nation’s capital was the opposite. Almost anybody working at, say, the State or War department could easily access classified documents. Communist sympathies on the part of high-level officials were accepted with a shrug by the FBI and other agencies. J. Edgar Hoover and his men were all but oblivious to the danger of Soviet spying.

In fact there were plenty of Soviet spies in Washington, some of whom held very high-level positions in the U.S. government. Those who worked for the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) reported to J. Peters, a Hungarian who had been born Sándor Goldberger and who worked out of the American Communist Party’s offices in New York. In 1934, Peters sent one of his underlings, Hede Massing, to Washington to try to enlist State Department official Noel Field, as Kati Marton reports in her fascinating biography of Field. As it happened, Field was also being wooed by a friend at State, Alger Hiss, who worked for the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency.

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Hede Massing

Field hesitated, then finally signed up with the NKVD in the fall of 1935.

Spying proved easy. These were days, he later recalled, when the “most secret documents… circulated from hand to hand.”

His new NKVD colleagues noticed several things about Field. One was his incredible naivete. Another was the “innate need for a guiding faith to imbue his life with meaning”: this “made him a devoted Communist.” Yet another was his desperate need to obey orders: he was a follower, not a leader or original thinker. “Noel could be strong only when he was doing what his superiors told him to do,” his friend and fellow spy Paul Massing later observed. Then there was his absolute belief in the goodness and rightness of Stalin and the Party. “For Noel,” Massing said, “the leaders of the Revolution can do no wrong.”

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Noel Field (right) at the League of Nations, 1939

Leaving the State Department in 1936, Field went to Geneva to work for the League of Nations – and to continue his espionage work. The next year, this young man who’d been drawn to Communism by a desire to usher in a better world was an accessory to the assassination of Ignaz Reisz, a veteran Soviet spy chief who’d dared to complain to Stalin about the show trials and executions of loyal Communists that were then underway in the USSR. Field had no remorse about this coldblooded murder. “He was a traitor,” Field said. “He deserved to die.”

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Gen. Walter Krivitsky

Field wasn’t troubled by the show trials, at which heroes of the Russian Revolution were railroaded and condemned to death. Other Communists, however, were outraged. Among them was Field’s handler, General Walter Krivitsky, who defected to the U.S., wrote exposés of Stalinism in the Saturday Evening Post, and ended up being murdered by Soviet agents in a Washington hotel room – a victim of Western officials’ unawareness of just how brutal the Kremlin was. (Krivitsky had actually told British Intelligence about the spies who’d later be known as the Cambridge Five, but they, like the FBI, had responded with a shrug.)

In 1938, a former colleague told the House Un-American Activities Committee that Field was a Communist. But thanks to official Washington’s – and America’s – lackadaisical attitude toward Communism during the FDR years, nothing happened to him. At about the same time, Field’s State Department friend Larry Duggan was also revealed to be a Soviet agent, but he, too, got away with it. Indeed, instead of being arrested or at least fired, Duggan was – incredibly – promoted: during most of World War II he served as assistant to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a position that provided him with access to the nation’s most secret documents.

More tomorrow.

“Journalist spies,” then and now

Declassified Soviet documents have long since proven otherwise, but the myth persists that concerns, during the decade or so after World War II, about Kremlin operatives in Hollywood, Washington, and the New York media were the product of “McCarthyite hysteria.” It’s always useful, then, to be reminded just how real that phenomenon was – and just how important it is for free people always to be on guard against the infiltration of their societies by the servants of tyranny.

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Walter Duranty

Today, it’s well known, at least in some circles, that Walter Duranty (1884-1957), the New York Times correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Russia, was in fact a tool of Stalin who routinely printed outrageous lies – and who actively sought to discredit colleagues who strove to get out the truth. But Duranty wasn’t alone. On July 1 of this year, Matthew Vadum reported on new research in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies establishing that the number of American reporters of that era who can fairly be described as “journalist spies” turns out to be considerably higher than was previously thought.

In the article referenced by Vadum – entitled “Spies in the News: Soviet Espionage in the American Media During World War II and the Beginning of the Cold War” – University of Ohio scholar Alexander G. Lovelace reports that as of June 1941, no fewer than 22 American journalists were active, full-fledged members of the USSR’s spy network in the U.S., and that after 1941 that number grew. As Vadim reminds us, “the relationship between the U.S. government and the press was different in those days.” What he means is that there was an atmosphere of trust; government officials took it for granted that American journalists were, first and foremost, loyal Americans; consequently, as Lovelace notes (his article, unfortunately, is behind a paywall), they “were routinely trusted with secret information to be used as ‘background’ for stories.”

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Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant and Warren Beatty as John Reed in Reds

Who were these “journalist spies”? Some of their stories have already been told. The 1981 Warren Beatty movie Reds made heroes out of two of the earliest such turncoats – John Reed and Louise Bryant, both of whom, in the wake of the October Revolution, filed disinformation-packed “news reports” that glamorized the fledgling USSR and its Communist system.

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Whittaker Chambers

Nor is it any secret that Whittaker Chambers, an editor at Time magazine from 1939 to 1948, was a Soviet spy. Chambers, of course, eventually recognized the error of his ways, turned in State Department official Alger Hiss and other Communists, and told the story of his own journey into and out of the Party in the classic memoir Witness.

But Chambers wasn’t the only staffer at that supremely influential newsmagazine who was secretly working for the Kremlin. Others included John Scott, Stephen Laird, and Richard Lauterbach. The last-named did Stalin a great service when he reported that the Katyn massacre, in which the Soviets killed more than 20,000 Polish military officers in cold blood, had been committed by the Germans.

29 Jun 1955, Washington, DC, USA --- Original caption: Washington, D.C.: CBS News correspondent Winston Burdett testifies before the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee here today. Burdett admitted being a Communist from 1937 to 1942 and under questioning by Eastland, he said that he had engaged in espionage abroad for the Communists. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
Winston Burdett testifying in 1955 before a Senate subcommittee, to which he confessed to having been a Soviet spy

Other KGB men included Peter Rhodes of the New York Herald-Tribune and Winston Burdett of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and CBS News. (Burdett, who for a time had regular personal contact with both FDR and J. Edgar Hoover, eventually admitted his history of espionage in testimony before a Senate subcommittee.) Then there was Walter Lippmann, in his time the dean of American political commentators. Lippmann himself was not a Soviet spy, but – as it turns out – his secretary was. Therefore Lippmann, in whom many leading politicians confided, unknowingly helped transmit vital top-secret information to the KGB.

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Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men

In the immediate post-Watergate era, many young Americans’ image of journalists was shaped largely by the 1976 movie All the President’s Men, which depicted Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as stirring heroes of American freedom. Some of those Americans took a long time to recognize that many journalists are, in fact, less devoted to objective truth than to partisan agendas, in the service of which they are more than willing to distort or suppress the facts. Some Americans, alas, have yet to wake up to this reality. Alexander G. Lovelace deserves our thanks for a timely reminder that even the most trusted, respected, and highly placed members of the fourth estate may secretly owe their allegiance to the most morally abominable of masters. There is no reason to believe this is any less true now than it was in the early days of the Cold War.