In the late 1960s, the Weathermen were the radical faction of the antiwar SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) whose philosophy was about “making love, smoking dope and loading guns” and whose motto became “Bring the War Home!” Certainly they were – like so many other student activists of the time – privileged, white-bread college kids. But after viewing the masterful documentary “The Weather Underground,” there can be no doubt that these kids walked it like they talked it. They didn’t just believe The Revolution was coming along; they wanted to make it happen, as quickly and convulsively as possible. To the extent that they exposed the FBI’s criminal COINTELPRO division, busted Timothy Leary out of jail and bombed the U.S. Capitol building, they succeeded.
In the endlessly illuminating interviews conducted by co-directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel, these former leaders of a “children’s crusade gone mad” look back from mellow middle age and do a hell of a convincing job explaining what they were thinking 30-plus years ago. Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan, Naomi Jaffe, Laura Whitehorn and David Gilbert (amazingly, the only Weatherman who ended up imprisoned) are all articulate, philosophical and unrepentant to the last. They all insist that the Vietnam War was wrong, and they are correct. Further, everyone admits – in one way or another – that the overwhelming, unrelenting wrongness of U.S. conduct in Vietnam was enough to drive any politically aware young person a little bit insane. In fact, compared to what our military was up to at that time, these people now look like the very picture of sanity.
By 1968, their solution was to respond to the U.S government’s insane violence with a little taste of their own. Splitting off from the imploding SDS, their attitude was, in professor Todd Gitlin’s words, “Join us or f**k you.” Their goal was overthrowing the U.S government by any means necessary. Many, even on the radical left, accused them of perpetrating violence for violence’s sake. But, when your government is murdering millions of people, perpetrating a genocidal inferno halfway around the world for no good reason, what’s bombing a few symbolic targets?
The ‘60s gave rise to this sort of logic. And everything but that last bit about bombing buildings certainly has validity. But the moral high ground can be a treacherous place. It’s unfortunate that the Weathermen chose to engage in terrorism, because while their words still have the ring of absolute moral truth, their violent actions not only brought down the full wrath of President Richard “Law and Order” Nixon, but ended up forcing all these young people into hiding, where their voices could no longer be heard and the shame of their actions made them look like rank cowards. To Nixon, these scruffy little longhairs were a godsend, an embodiment of the antiwar left in one neat package.
But even after hiding out, after Altamont, Manson and My Lai, the Weathermen soldiered on in their way. It wasn’t until about 1974 or ‘75 – tired, disillusioned and above all growing older – that they decided to quit altogether, head even deeper underground and live something like normal lives. By 1980, almost all had turned themselves in. Nobody except Gilbert (for a later crime unrelated to the Weathermen) did any time, aided by the fact that the FBI had broken so many laws in pursuing them!
Using miles of fascinating and vibrantly colorful archival footage – some of it sickeningly graphic – and an eerie music score by members of Fugazi, among others, Green and Siegel have crafted a breathtaking portrait of one chapter of the ‘60s story that hasn’t been done to death. The fact that so many of the key figures involved are still above ground, and so willing to open themselves up about the madness they went through, is a real gift to any student of the era. The Vietnam War certainly didn’t end because of the Weathermen’s efforts, but end it did – and wrong it was. Here’s hoping nothing like it will ever happen again. Right? Right…