Bad Moon Rising turns out to be justified by new evidence, some of which will be surprising to all concerned, while others definitively put old arguments to rest.
Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution by Arthur M. Eckstein. Yale University Press, 360 pages, $35.
By Harvey Blume
My first reaction to this book was to ask: who needs it? Another book about Weatherman, a group that exeunted left — way left — circa mid- ’70s? Hasn’t that group been scrutinized, glamorized, and vilified across a full gamut of genres, including memoirs, novels, works of history, documentaries, Hollywood films, and FBI files?
All that appears missing is a Weatherman for Dummies, which, not to be too snarky, might strike some as redundant. And perhaps, too, action figures of the leadership, aka the Weather Bureau — featuring, for example, a figurine of Bernadine Dorhn, resplendent in leather regalia, combat boots, and a football helmet, megaphone in one hand, lead pipe in the other.
That said, Bad Moon Rising turns out to be justified by new findings, some of which will be surprising to all concerned, while others definitively put old arguments to rest. Still, exactly to whom these findings will be of use remains unclear. Will they be a way for old activists, such as myself — a member of Weatherman before it went underground — to win arguments and settle scores, or can they be instructive to generations of new activists? The answer, I think, is for new generations to decide, to learn from, or, if not, to repeat old mistakes under new slogans and new banners.
Weatherman arose as a faction of Students for a Democratic Society, which, in the late sixties, was the main vehicle for protest against the War in Vietnam on American campuses. The group splintered in 1969 between Progressive Labor, a spin-off from the Communist Party dedicated to reviving hardcore Stalinist orthodoxy, and two factions that identified as New Left, meaning, at least to start with, that Stalin was no guide and the counterculture might be of use.
Weatherman emerged as victor in these exceedingly ugly faction fights, only to determine that SDS itself, for all its cachet and influence, was nothing but an impediment to the real goal, that being not just to end the War in Vietnam — as millions of Americans, on campus and off, eventually wanted to do — but to overthrow the government of the United States, deemed an imperialist monster that could do nothing but foment such wars.
As noted, we, my generation, except for some throwbacks, were inured to Stalin. It was Mao, ally of the Vietnamese, prophet of people’s war, that sucked us in.
I do not mean to justify this logic, but it is worth remembering, for purposes of context, that the late sixties and early seventies encouraged bad logic and faulty conclusions of all kinds. Sane leaders were assassinated — JFK, RFK, MLK, and, yes, Malcolm — as if on a timetable — as riots coursed through American cities. As for the War in Vietnam, many of us saw it as no less than genocidal.
Eckstein is of my generation. In his introduction he tells how he joined the protests against the war, witnessed police crackdowns, and how he was drawn toward some of the dogma that coalesced in opposition. And how he found revolutionary dogma, finally, insupportable. Let it be said that Eckstein did so without converting to the right, as David Horowitz and others did. He is, to my mind, to be congratulated in this regard. He managed to find his balance in one of the varieties of liberalism. More, I think, should be written about those who did the same as opposed to those who embraced dogma of one sort or another, and ideological conversion experiences in between.
That said, what does Eckstein have to contribute to the weirdly ongoing discussion about Weatherman?
Namely, this, for one thing: The newly released FBI files show that J. Edgar Hoover ordered all his operatives within Weatherman — and there were quite a number before it went underground — to turn up at the decisive SDS 1969 Convention in Chicago, and to throw their weight behind Weatherman in its bid for supremacy. Why? Why would Hoover favor Weatherman? Hoover feared the Stalinists, the disciplined cadre of the Old Left, more than he did the quasi-anarchic likes of Weatherman.
He, like so many, was fighting an old war. It took many bombings by the Weather Underground before he began to change his mind. And by then the FBI had authorized so many illegal home invasions that the prosecution of the few the FBI, a hapless bunch as Eckstein and others portray them, managed to catch was thrown out of court. It was the agents themselves, for violating the law, who found themselves under indictment.
Eckstein has more, regarding the townhouse explosion, of 3/6/1970, which leveled a dwelling in Greenwich Village. And here is where he separates Weatherman narratives, distinguishing the official story, as pushed by action figure Dohrn and her consort Bill Ayers, from the tale told by many others.
First, a bit of backtracking. Eckstein, like many, stresses that had the anti-personnel bomb being assembled in the basement of that townhouse not exploded prematurely, killing three, it would have led to a violent crackdown on the anti-war movement and would have justified Nixon’s decision to impose some variant of martial law.
The bomb was aimed at an officers ball at Fort Dix, where it would have murdered civilians, not just officers but mothers and children. Eckstein adds this not insignificant detail, namely that when the townhouse blew up, there were, “fifty-seven sticks of unexploded dynamite in four cartons; another carton with five more pounds of dynamite … A munitions expert declared that had these explosives detonated, it would have leveled everything on both sides along that block of eleventh street.”
The official story about the townhouse explosion, promulgated, principally, by Bill Ayers, was that the townhouse collective had gone rogue, leaving the group’s leadership in the dark about its plans. This is false. Eckstein, calling on many sources, leaves no doubt the leadership was fully aware and that nothing like the townhouse bomb factory was possible without its sanction and support.
I knew some of the people who died in that townhouse, Ted Gold, for example, an old comrade and friend at Columbia College, and thereafter. Ted, if you were here now, I think you’d share my sense that it was lucky, dreadfully lucky, that bomb blew up before it was supposed to, thus averting a fierce crackdown on the anti-war movement, and on democracy.
Bad Moon Rising is a good book. But I end as I began, wondering how, if at all, will new generations of activists make use of it.
Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in The New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse, and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.