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Who were the Weathermen?

With the connection between Barack Obama and Weather terrorist and University of Illinois professor Bill Ayers finally receiving some attention, much of the focus zeroes in on the Weather Underground’s history of violence, such as its 1972 bombing of the Pentagon.

But the mind-set that rationalized such violence is deeply concerning in and of itself, as historian Allen J. Matusow describes it in his fascinating book The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960s.

The group’s name comes from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The core of its beliefs was “anti-imperialism”; its goal was the “liberation” of American “colonies”. Believing that such “liberation” would come from within the “colonies” themselves, the spoiled white kids in the Weather Underground assigned themselves a supporting role. To help assist “anti-imperial” movements around the globe, they organized themselves into “collectives” of five to 25 members in various American cities. The commitment demanded was total: wanna-be revolutionaries were expected to surrender their possessions, their bank accounts, their privacy, their individuality.

Even monogamy was sacrificed on the altar of the “collective”. Married couples were pressured to split up, monogamy replaced with “group marriage”, with the entire “collective” united in love. Susan Stern, a member of the Seattle collective, recalls, “A sleeping schedule was set up. According to it, you were to have a different bed partner every night, regardless of sex. The schedule was never enforced in our collective, but its very presence testified to the seriousness with which we approached the problem of smashing monogamy.”

While the new polyamorous ethic was supposed to overturn the subservience and dependency expected of women, it didn’t always work out that way. Ms. Stern recalls hearing a friend of hers sobbing one night, pleading that she was in love with someone else as she tried to fend off the persistent advances of one of the boys. “You have to put the demands of your collective above your love,” her attacker insisted. “Nothing comes before the collective.”

Contempt for monogamous love went hand-in-hand with hate and anger. The group’s hero was Charles Manson. They would salute each other with three upraised fingers, a symbol of the fork plunged into the stomach of one of Manson’s victims. They celebrated the murder of actress Sharon Tate, eight months pregnant, “because no white baby born in the mother country of the empire deserved to live”.

“Dig it,” explained Bernardine Dohrn, now married(!) to Bill Ayers. “First they killed those pigs; then they ate dinner in the same room with them; then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach. Wild!”

Dohrn, Ayers, and others formed the Weather Underground from within the disintegrating Students for a Democratic Society. SDS had been infiltrated by members of the Progressive Labor party, which was formed by expelled members of the Communist Party USA who believed that the Soviet Union had betrayed communism and embraced “state capitalism” (in contrast to free-market capitalism, under state capitalism, the government intervenes in the market to protect and advance the interests of business). But unlike the Weathermen, PL believed that working-class Americans, not Third-World “colonials”, would form the revolutionary vanguard, and PL rejected any form of “nationalism”, including black nationalism, as reactionary.

To fight PL, the Weathermen formed an alliance with the Black Panther party, and invited some of them to speak at what would become SDS’s last national convention in 1969. But when one of the Panthers offerred a comment about “p—y power”, they were driven off the stage by shouts of “Fight male chauvinism!”, led by PL.

The Panthers returned briefly the next day to denounce PL and warn SDS that it would be “judged by the company it keeps”.

Indeed.

7 thoughts on “Who were the Weathermen?

  1. I remember the album well, in fact, I still have it. I’ll take your word for it as to when the weathermen was founded. But, I’m confused.

    If you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and presumably,the wind was already blowing, and the weathermen came after the line was written, then aren’t they saying there’s no point in forming the group to begin with? I don’t get it. Maybe in some leftist universe it all makes sense.

    Regardless, the essential truth of the song remains. Look out kid, they keep it all hid.

  2. When I was an undergrad, I was a member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). While the kids on some campuses were really way-out radical, our group was pretty tame. We got collegians to get involved in local campaigns and helped coordinate campus elections for our University Senate. Today, SDS remains active on some campuses (like George Mason) and they are a well respected group, dedicated to promoting constructive student political involvement.

    Back in the Vietnam era, a few members were, like me, members of Young Democrats and College Republicans at the same time as our involvement with SDS, not for any ideological reason, but because we really liked political activism. Being from Virginia, my participation in SDS, CRs and YDs all at the same time made perfect sense back then. We all had relatives in both Parties and most had supported both Democrats and Republicans at the local and national levels.

    In those days, with the Vietnam War winding down, it was common to have great discussions among students about the merits of capitalism compared to communism or the formation of communes in a capitalist society. We really got into the idea of making a difference locally. That is why many of our SDS members eventually migrated into communes or environmental activism. Norfolk’s original city-wide recycling program was staffed by SDS members who also helped form the ranks of the environmental group called, ECOS.

    I treasure those experiences with CRs, YDs and SDS and maintain friendships with people from all across the political spectrum as a result.

    One thing that I can attest, there were many groups with radical origins and many with wild codes of conduct for members in the Vietnam era, however, most such codes were universally ignored, and like collegians of today, most just did whatever seemed interesting to the various local groups at the time. None of the SDS members whom I knew were involved in anything beyond a War protest or staging a sit-in for some worthy cause of the moment. The SDS that I knew was pretty benign and nothing like the extreme picture painted by the above,”historical” account.

  3. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was released on Bob Dylan’s 1965 album, “Bringing It All Back Home”. Its line, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, formed the title of a 1969 position paper drafted by SDS members who founded the Weather Underground.

  4. I’m pretty sure the Bob Dylan line was written after the Weathermen were already around. He wrote that line as a social comment on the peace movement becoming violent.

    At least, that’s the way I always understood it.

  5. A little heads-up: I think there’s an editing problem in para #8 (Dorn, Ayers…) in the parenthetical free-maret capitalism vs. state capitalism note. Looks like you forgot to complete a thought. Did you leave something out?

    Feel free to delete this comment if you like.

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