Filed under SDS & Weather

The best thing ever written about the Weathermen

by Peter Marin

This is a letter written in 1987 from the essayist Peter Marin to journalist Gloria Emerson (now deceased). It was published in the December, 1987, issue of Harpers Magazine. She had solicited Marin’s thoughts on the Weathermen for an article on the twentieth anniversary of the occupation of Columbia University. I don’t know if Gloria’s article was ever written or published, but I recently found this letter in my files. It deserves to be read and reread.


The important thing, I think, in considering the Weathermen, is that we remember what America was like in the days when the Weathermen began. Hysterical days, to be sure, but I have a hunch that many of us saw our own nation more clearly then than we have since. Certainly it was clear back then that, in relation to other nations and to large segments of our own population, we acted as a nation in ways destructive and sometimes genocidal, and also that the myths and mystifications with which we surrounded our own activities kept, and would go on keeping, most Americans from realizing what their nation was or did.

I mean to say that groups like the Weathermen and the Panthers saw America quite clearly. But they were so unprepared for what they saw, and were so clearly lacking in any sense of viable strategies for dealing with what they saw, that they slid quickly and tragically into modes of reaction which were almost always hysterical, self-destructive, and self-defeating–to say nothing of their ineffectuality.

Yet as easy as it is to say that, one must remember that the tactics the Weathermen adopted were nothing at all compared to the brutality to which they were reacting. This is what we tend to forget. I was down in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago, spending some time among unemployed and pauperized blacks: women with children and no money at all; men without hope, or work, or dignity. What one saw was an inexcusable part of American life so familiar and pervasive that none with any power–and certainly none of our current presidential candidates–makes any move to do anything about it. If you look carefully to (re)discover in our own South what you can see in dozens of other spots in the country (you know Detroit particularly well) or in impoverished foreign nations: the continuous and inexcusable violence done to millions of people in the name of “freedom” and “democracy.” That, I suppose, is what the Weathermen understood.

Does this justify or explain their tactics? Maybe not. But remember this: Few of those who criticize the Weathermen or counsel other tactics actually practice other tactics or effect change in other ways. I know (as you do) all the criticisms of the Weathermen, and I can recite, also, the tactics for change that all agree are superior to their violence: patience, politics, reason, passive disobedience, peaceful protest, education, exhortation, etc. But we also know (though we pretend we do not) that none of these approaches has accomplished very much, save in the area of civil rights. And meanwhile lives end and bodies pile up, and how is it possible to be fully aware of this, and not be tempted to violence against those responsible or complicitous?

The violence of the Weathermen is evidence of two things: first that they saw their nation and its evils clearly, and, secondly, that they had no adequate response to what they saw, and so were driven to ends which partook perhaps too much of the evils they discovered. But how could they have avoided that? They had no readily available political traditions of patient resistence and dissidence to fall back on, and the political left by then had been dec9imated and divided by the Stalin Pact, the World War, factionalism, and old age. Nor had they any religious or secular moral framework into which they could put the evil they saw, or which would dictate or suggest an adequate response.

They were not, I think, essentially political, no matter how political their rhetoric got. They were moral apocalyptists, violent Anabaptists of a kind, godless in their response and yet driven by their discovery of evil as surely as those in the past for whom God was (I say this, remember, as a purely secular man) the only adequate force or value to pit against evil. And they were, finally, quintessentially American, partiaking, ironically and yet unavoidably, of precisely the values (or the absence of values) they abhorred. They had discovered the moral void at the heart of American life; they were shocked, astonished, transformed,; but they had nowhere to go with their vision of the void but straight into it, and in they went, losing themselves, perhaps, in what they feared and opposed. It could not–given the nature of the nature of the nation and age–have been otherwise.

The Jews, you know, have a tradition, a law: that to study the Cabala, and to see God’s hidden truths, you must be of a certain age, and have around you a community of others capable of sustaining you, keeping you sane (such is the supposed power of God’s law and face). But the young in the Sixties looked at power, evil and greed and had nothing around them–no tradition, no community–to guide them; they created their response out of thin air and nerve, out of sympathy and the anger of betrayed children. They tried, as best they could, through violence, to topple or simply nudge the weight, the rock, of what it was they had discovered, and the fact that it moved not an inch is not necessarily what proves their tactics false. It may, indeed, be precisely what proves them necessary.

I say all this reluctantly, simply trying to follow the thought through. I am by nature pacific–I can afford to be. But I do not know whether that is evidence of superior “wisdom” (compared, say, to the Weathermen) or merely the fact that my sense of immediacy and the presence of evil is not as sharp as their. Nor may my heart be quite as exposed or vulnerable to human suffering. Too much of our present day wisdom is simply exhaustion, complicity, and a taste for comfort. Had the Weathermen existed in other nations, we might have understood them better. But because they were Americans, their behavior called into question the whole issue of what the rest of us, as Americans, should be doing; and I suspect that there is something self-justifying and self-indulgent in the way we see the Weathermen today. What we say about them may be true, but we do not say it because it is true, if you see what I mean.