Thinking about the Weather Underground documentaryby Mark Rudd
Sometime in the summer of 2002 Sam Green came to Albuquerque to show me and Marla, my wife, an advance VHS version of the Weather Underground documentary. Among his other qualities, Sam is a very polite guy. Maybe he felt I had some sort of right to see how I was portrayed in advance. He certainly wanted our reaction.
While watching the movie that first time, I immediately understood the wisdom involved in the decision of Sam and his co-directory, Bill Siegel, in featuring the stock footage on Vietnam and the Panthers. They succeeded in recovering the historical context of the underground, which in itself is a great accomplishment. In addition, I was spellbound, my heart beating furiously, as I saw for the first time my old friend and comrade David Gilbert, so many years in prison, as sweet as ever. Other old friends who appeared were equally fascinating to me, no matter whether they were defiant, remorseful, explanatory or just plain confused. Sam and Bill have created an intelligent inquiry into the history and nature of the underground. Even Todd Gitlin’s spite and spittle didn’t bother me. I liked the movie and thanked Sam profusely for making it.
Marla was even more enthusiastic, correctly predicting that the film would be nominated for an Academy Award.
After Sam left, I didn’t look at the film again for another 6 months. The tape lay by our VCR. During that time I hatched the following thought: given the horrible historical context of the war and repression, why is that fat guy (me) whining so much about “guilt and shame?” He didn’t make the decision to kill millions in Vietnam. What’s his problem?
Eventually, I developed a critical attitude about my own portrayal, that I hadn’t been allowed to explain the reasons behind my negative feelings. When next I saw the video, with my son Paul, I had a more favorable reaction, thinking that somehow, given the totality of the movie, my critical statements made some kind of vague sense.
Sam next asked me to come to New York in early June, 2003, for the first commercial opening. There I did about a dozen interviews and also a Q and A at the opening which convinced me that people really did want to hear what I had to say about the Weather Underground and the war that we were fighting. In the ensuing nine months I’ve done approximately a dozen showings of the film here in New Mexico and around the country and innumerable interviews for radio, newspapers, magazines, high school and college students writing papers, etc. People are asking all kinds of great questions, especially about the current war. And I seem to be filling a need for historical information and analysis.
The biggest question I’m asked concerns the one I raise at the end of the film, “What do you do with this knowledge [about imperialism], it’s too big?” The thought still seems to strike both political and existential chords in many viewers. You see me today uttering these words, then the carpet-bombing of Vietnam, then the 21 year-old, grief written all over my face. Having seen the film so many times now, I’m in awe of Sam and Bill’s brilliant design, from beginning to end.
The achievement of The Weather Underground (the film) is to recover a history which has been thoroughly covered up by the sands of only 30 years. None of the participants could have done that; it took two young men in their thirties, with a fresh perspective on what was important then and now, plus the skill to carry it off. I often wonder if the Weather Underground (the original) would exist at all today as history, in any significant form, if it weren’t for the film.
Stay on Message
Sam and I occasionally do the question and answers after a movie showing together. We instinctively settle into opposite roles, Sam expressing admiration for the courage of the Weather people, myself critical of the outcomes. Both before and after, Sam inevitably warns me “not to be so negative.” For him, the story is about young people who were willing to risk their lives to change the system which gave us the atrocity of the Vietnam War. He became fascinated with the question of what the underground did, who we were, why we acted, what we thought. If the story were only about screw-ups he probably wouldn’t have made a movie at all.
Peter Marin, an essayist writing in 1989, put the point succinctly in a latter to the reporter Gloria Emerson, reprinted in Harpers’ Magazine:
[These young people were both horrified and driven crazy by their knowledge of who we are in the world. They were too young to know how to react, so they went off the deep end, etc., etc. Find original quote]
Sam’s right about the importance of the Weather story precisely because there are not that many young people out there today risking their lives to fight the obvious injustices and crimes perpetrated by our country. [Even as I write this the U.S. has just brought about a violent coup in Haiti and forced the democratically elected President, Bertrand Aristede, to resign at the point of U.S. guns].
Sam often warns me to “stay on message,” which he defines as something that I actually do agree with about committing ourselves today to respond to U.S. imperialism and militarism. But there are all kinds of other messages floating around in my brain. (How can there be only one message?).
Results vs. motives
Mostly, I find it difficult to get past the fact that the Weather Underground was a terrible mistake, judging by its results. This then raises the further question of how do results measure against motives? Our good intentions don’t strike me as so important, given that a lot of people all across the political spectrum are motivated for moral reasons. A young American soldier kicking down the door of a house in Iraq believes he’s doing a noble and heroic thing in “fighting terrorism,” and that the terror he’s inflicting is an unfortunate but necessary part of a just war. President Bush’s aims are moral in his own twisted mind, as are Dick Cheney’s, Donald Rumsfeld’s, Ariel Sharon’s, all the way to the nineteen young men who murdered thousands on Sept. 11 and today’s suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel.
My discussion of the actual results of the Weather Underground usually consists of enumerating three terrible consequences.
First, three of our comrades were killed in the Greenwich Village townhouse bomb accident. These were three intelligent, vibrant, beautiful friends, the same as those of us who survived, no more deserving of losing their lives than us. This loss can’t possibly be written off as a necessary consequence of war. The film does recognize the tragedy of Teddy Gold, Diana Oughten, and Terry Robbins’ deaths, and for that I am thankful
Second, we in the leadership of Weatherman (predecessor to the Weather Underground Organization) made a historically criminal decision at the end of 1969 to scuttle Students for a Democratic Society, the largest student anti-war and radical organization, with over 300 chapters on college campuses and high schools. We mistakenly believed that we could bring into existence a revolutionary movement, led by an underground revolutionary army; SDS, with its purely legal above-ground existence and its reform agenda, was seen as an impediment to the growth of the revolutionary army.
Our faction was in control of the national and regional offices of the organization, plus its newspaper. I remember sometime in January, 1970, dumping the membership lists of the New York Regional Office into a garbage barge at the W. 14th St. pier. How could we have done the FBI’s work better for them?
Many people object to this point by arguing that the centrifugal forces causing SDS to break apart were so great that there is nothing we in the national leadership could have done to keep it together. Perhaps this is true, but the fact remains that we didn’t even try to keep the organization together, that we were part of the problem. We argued for its demise, as if that were a step forward. Only Ted Gold, ironically, tried to keep SDS in existence and was overruled by “the leadership.”
Last, and probably most important, the Weather Underground forced a debilitating ideological debate in the much larger anti-war movement over the “necessity” of engaging in armed “revolutionary” actions. In the summer of 1969 Weather-organized actions even disrupted the Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (”Mobe”) mass anti-war events and demonstrations. People became demoralized and left the anti-war movement because they didn’t want any part of an armed revolution.
I believe that we weakened the larger movement, whose goal was uniting as many people as possible to end the Vietnam War. Besides causing people to drop out, we gave the government ammunition to smear the whole anti-war movement as violent crazies bent on destruction of the society. Did our actions help attract the huge middle of American society who might otherwise have joined the anti-war movement, public opinion being vastly against the war? “Bring the War Home,” was as counter-productive a line in 1969 and 1970 as it was in 2001 at the World Trade Center.
Discussion of the actual consequences of the Weather Underground can be useful in reaffirming the current movement’s commitment to both non-violence and to realistic examination of the effects of its strategy and tactics. Overthrowing this racist, militarist, and destructive society is a very pleasing thought, but not too realistic a line for building a mass movement, something which most activists, including myself, believe possible. In this light, the story of the WU becomes a cautionary tale in self-delusion, arrogance, and isolation: idealism definitely has its downsides. My car now sports a bumpersticker that says, “Don’t believe everything you think!”
The FBI doesn’t always get their man
Often people ask me if I believe that anything at all good came out of Weatherman. I suppose that the example of really committed young people fighting US imperialism is a very good thing, though I don’t find it so remarkable, for reasons I’ve explained above. But that does count as a half-point.
Here’s a whole point: we proved that the FBI is not invincible. Before the late sixties, American culture was permeated with propaganda to the effect that “the FBI always gets their man.” Yet for at least a decade these seemingly all-powerful federal agents tried all sorts of means to catch us, legal and illegal–infiltration, grand juries, surveillance, wire-taps, intimidation of witnesses, almost everything short of murder (their tactic against the Black movement) and taking our families hostage (their current tactic in Iraq). We evaded them because of the tightness of our networks—family, friends, political supporters—and also because of the intelligence agencies’ inherent disability, too much information. With all the information they have, how would they ever be able to figure out which is useful and which is noise? It all amounts to noise. (Note the same problem with “fighting terrorism” today).
Along with the fact that the FBI agent in the WU film is even fatter than I am, I love his admission that they were no good at infiltrating the organization. You see footage of agents running a useless roadblock in San Francisco, a needle-in-haystack maneuver if there ever was one. Bernardine Dohrn was placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 1970; very few people are aware that she was quietly dropped off when it became obvious that they weren’t going to find her. They certainly weren’t going to let their Ten Most Wanted statistics to go down the tubes!
The anti-war movement wasn’t getting anywhere
The WU documentary does so many things well that I don’t want to give the impression I am mainly critical of the movie. Quite the contrary. For reasons I’ll explain below I am eternally grateful to Sam and Bill. But I do want to touch here on two other issues that I am often asked about, impressions given by the movie which I differ from.
I don’t believe that frustration over the anti-war movement’s inability to end the war was what led us to the path of armed revolutionary struggle. If we had wanted to, we would have seen the growing strength of the movement. We could have taken heart from increasing numbers at demonstrations (1965-1970), the flip in public opinion to a majority against the war (March, 1968), Johnson’s abdication and the beginning of peace talks (March 31, 1968), the success of peace candidates, growth of anti-war sentiment in Congress, the mobilization of anti-war returning vets starting from 1969, and on and on. It is true that Humphrey’s candidacy and Nixon’s election indicated an ossification of the two-parties in a united pro-war position, but even this could have been fought, which many did (RFK, McCarthy and McGovern candidacies).
The fact is that the idea of armed revolution as an alternative to the anti-war movement’s reformism had been brewing among a not-so small group of SDS people, myself included, since at least 1967. That summer I hitch-hiked across the country and stopped in the National Office of SDS on W. Madison St. in Chicago. There I met Carl Davidson, the National Secretary, who handed me a copy of Regis Debray’s just-published Revolution in the Revolution?, saying, “This is our future.” The talk in SDS circles in Chicago, San Francisco, and L.A, I found that summer, was about guerilla warfare which could spark a revolutionary uprising. That was the innovative lesson Fidel and Che communicated to us (through Debray) about the Cuban experience, and it was also the theory that was informing Che’s soon-to-be disastrous Bolivian adventure. In essence, the message of the book was that traditional revolutionary parties only talk about revolution; if you’re serious, you’ve got to actually begin armed struggle and the masses will join.
I came back from a three-week SDS tour of Cuba in February, 1968, fired up with Che’s battle-cry, “El deber de todo revolucionario es hacer la revolucion,” which I interpreted not as a truism, but as a challenge to arm-chair revolutionaries to stop talking about revolution and to get it on! The events of March and April 1968–LBJ’s abdication, the riots after Martin Luther King’s murder, then the seemingly spontaneous uprising of thousands at Columbia University sparked by a small but audacious SDS chapter—seemed to prove the truth of the “foquismo” line. (A “foco” means a guerilla center or hearth, which sparks a wider mass revolution).
Throughout most of 1968 and 1969 we in what eventually became the Weatherman leadership not only ate, breathed, and dreamed about the war in Vietnam but we also lived for its antidote, People’s War. Only the complete overthrow of the monopoly capitalist system that gave us Vietnam would end not just this war but all future imperial wars. Plus, we would be allying with the people of the world, including the colonized black and brown peoples within this country, to overthrow the beast. Seize the time! Off the pig!
But you’ve undoubtedly heard the rap. The point is that we were so committed to armed revolution that nothing less would suffice, not the huge anti-war movement nor a swelling SDS. In fact, by 1969 we saw their reformism and limited goals as obstacles. Note that we are a long way now from frustration over the war not ending. We are at the opposite emotional point, wild optimism over the possibilities.
Nor was it the murder of Fred Hampton, in December, 1969, that pushed us over the edge. The decision to go underground had been made before that, and, if anything, Fred’s murder only confirmed our direction.
This narrative is a difficult one for a movie to communicate. Perhaps it’s not even all that important. Sam and Bill instead opted for a simpler story line which resonates very well today, about the danger of frustration at slow results. But there are a very small number of people—mostly anarchists in the Northwest—who would benefit from knowing about the failure of the foco theory. Also the point deserves to be included in a history of the Weather Underground, just because it is history.
There is a larger issue here, though: our commitment to our ideology caused us to miss what was right in front of our faces, that the anti-war movement was actually winning. The Vietnamese understood how crucial anti-war sentiment among the American people was, which is why they kept encouraging us. They knew that they would never win unless the U.S. military stopped fighting and the American people demanded withdrawal, which in fact was what happened from 1970 to 1975. The Vietnamese had fought the Americans to a standoff by 1968; it was the all-powerful U.S. public opinion led by the anti-war movement that ended the war seven years later. Without it, the slaughter might have gone on indefinitely. This is the truth we need to celebrate, one far beyond the scope of the movie.
The fact that we didn’t understand our own success at the time because of our ideological blindness needs to be acknowledged. Away with all ideologies!
Kinder, gentler bombings
The movie is accurate in showing that the WU Organization responded to the tragedy of the townhouse accident by turning away from the “militarist” line. (”Militarism” roughly means the belief that armed actions are primary, that all military actions on the home front are valid, no matter what the effect on public opinion, even ones that today might be called “terrorism.”). After the townhouse, the WU Organization was careful to hurt no one, phoning in warnings, choosing times when buildings would be empty. The idea was to attack corporate and governmental property as a way of symbolically demonstrating our opposition to militarism, racism, and repression.
Audiences often express surprise at the large number of bombings during that era (1970-75), and also at the fact that the WU never hurt anyone other than ourselves. The movie makes this quite clear, almost gloating on this point. I really enjoy the sequence dramatizing the bombing of the San Francisco Ferry Building.
Again, I find myself in a critical position in respect to this seemingly positive aspect of the WU. The shock of the townhouse deaths should have served as a catalyst to rethink our entire armed struggle strategy. Instead, the strategy survived in an attenuated form, a cut-back position, that of symbolic bombing. Most Ameicans did not see the difference, all bombing being violent, and so the organization withered into irrelevancy, by 1974 becoming mostly a legal publishing house made illegal by our fugitive status, and by 1976 imploding on itself.
[In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I left the actual WU Organization at the end of 1970. However, I did remain a fugitive until Sept., 1977, mostly because of not wanting to give the U.S. government a victory by surrendering while the war was still going on. At the time I experienced my differences with the organization as a personal failure, that the strategy was right but I just wasn’t strong enough as a revolutionary to carry it out. Only years later did I realize that I had ceased to believe in the strategy of armed struggle. There is always a tendency to loyalty toward comrades and shared ideas; changes of mind are difficult to square with this loyalty.]
Young people often ask me if destruction of ill-gotten property isn’t justified. Of course it is, from a purely logical point of view. And it’s emotionally satisfying, too. The only problem is that it doesn’t help build a majority movement among the American people, precisely because Americans believe that there is no such thing as valid political violence. As I said in the movie, Americans are taught that all violence not sanctioned by the government is either criminal or mentally ill. That includes property violence, from smashing a Nike window in Seattle to placing a bomb in the Pentagon, complete with phoned-in warning.
There are moral, ethical and spiritual arguments for non-violence and against property destruction, but I choose to make my case solely on pragmatic grounds. It doesn’t work and it can’t work.
The WU documentary has been transformational for me. In my middle age it’s given me the rarest of all experiences, a chance to literally see myself as a young man, 22 years old.
For many years I’ve been trying to understand why I chose revolutionary violence, when so many other people in the movement didn’t. For a while I felt that I was a member of an insular cult, the cult of Che, but this didn’t explain anything. Next, I latched onto my macho nature, a young man trying to prove himself with violence, a rite of passage followed by millions over the centuries. Somehow this didn’t explain it fully enough, either. But it was only after seeing myself on the screen as a 22 year-old, that I understood the source of my violence: grief. Look at the movie: you can see the grief all over my face. And the natural response to grief is rage and violence. Bring the war home! You want to see what our country is doing in our names in Vietnam? Here, have some of this! Bam!
Studies of the “martyrs” committing suicide bombings in Israel have shown that many of them are secular, intellectual, and highly sensitive. I understand these people. They are overcome with grief, not religious zeal. Look at the humiliation being done to their people daily. Grief, despair, bam!
Since 1977 when I turned myself in, I have only rarely attempted to speak publicly on strategy. Having been listened to by many people in 1969-1970 and having been so wrong as far as the Weather strategy, with the results so disastrous, I felt I had no right to say anything. Better to just shut up, which is essentially what I did for 25 years. Now that I understand better why I took the disastrous positions I did in 1970, my voice has come back. I have finally developed a little compassion toward myself.
Having survived a violent political strategy, and having learned a few lessons about the mistake, I’m in a unique position to speak on non-violence. This is the job given to me. Watch for a soon-to-be-completed review on this website of Jonathan Schell’s recent book, The Unconquerable World: Power, Non-violence, and the Will of the People. Mr. Schell provides an historical study of the rise of mass non-violent political action in the 20th century, probably the greatest gift our recent history can give the present century.
My profoundest thanks to both Bill Siegel and especially Sam Green, who helped me to see myself and so gave me back my voice. Who would have thought?