Weatherman, known colloquially as the Weathermen and later the Weather Underground Organization, was an American radical left organization founded in 1969 by leaders and members who split from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) (or claimed to be the actual SDS).
The group is most famous for a campaign consisting of bombings, jailbreaks, and riots, from 1969 through the middle 1970s. The "Days of Rage", the group's first public demonstration on October 8, 1969, was a riot in Chicago coordinated with the trial of the Chicago Eight. In 1970 the group issued a "Declaration of a State of War" against the United States government, under the name "Weather Underground Organization" (WUO). The bombing attacks were mostly against government buildings, along with several banks. Most were preceded by communiqués that provided evacuation warnings, along with statements of the particular matter to which their attacks were allegedly responding. For the bombing of the United States Capitol on March 1, 1971, they issued a statement saying it was "in protest of the US invasion of Laos." For the bombing of The Pentagon on May 19, 1972, they stated it was "in retaliation for the US bombing raid in Hanoi." For the January 29, 1975 bombing of the Harry S Truman Building housing the United States Department of State, they stated it was "in response to escalation in Vietnam."
The Weathermen grew out of the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) within the SDS, splitting off to pursue a more radical agenda. It took its name from the lyric "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," from the Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues. They also used this lyric as the title of a position paper they distributed at an SDS convention in Chicago on June 18, 1969. The founding document called for a "white fighting force" to be allied with the "Black Liberation Movement" and other radical movements to achieve "the destruction of US imperialism and achieve a classless world: world communism."
They largely disintegrated shortly after the US reached a peace accord in Vietnam in 1973 , which saw the general decline of the New Left.
The group emerged from the campus-based opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as the Civil Rights Movements of the late 1960s. During this time, United States military action in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, escalated. In the U.S., the anti-war sentiment was particularly pronounced during the 1968 U.S. presidential election.
The origins of the Weathermen can be traced to the collapse and fragmentation of the Students for a Democratic Society. The split between the mainstream leadership of SDS, or "National Office," and the Progressive Labor Party pushed SDS as a whole further to the left. National Office leaders such as Bernardine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky began announcing their emerging perspectives, and Klonksy published a document entitled "Toward a Revolutionary Youth Movement" (RYM). RYM promoted the philosophy that young workers possessed the potential to be a revolutionary force to overthrow capitalism, if not by themselves then by transmitting radical ideas to the working class. Klonsky's document reflected the growing leftist philosophy of the National Office and was eventually adopted as official SDS doctrine. During the Summer of 1969, the National Office began to split. A group led by Klonsky became known as RYM II, and the other side, RYM I, was led by Dohrn and endorsed more aggressive tactics, as some members felt that years of non-violent resistance had done little or nothing to stop the Vietnam War. It was also during this time period that the Weathermen sympathized with the radical group Black Panthers. The death of Panther Fred Hampton prompted the Weatherman to issue a declaration of war upon the United States government.
After the summer of 1969 fragmentation of Students for a Democratic Society, Weatherman's adherents explicitly claimed themselves the real leaders of SDS and retained control of the SDS National Office. Thereafter, any leaflet, label, or logo bearing the name "Students for a Democratic Society" or "SDS" was in fact the views and politics of Weatherman, and not of SDS as a whole. Weatherman contained the vast majority of former SDS National Committee members, including Mark Rudd, David Gilbert and Bernadine Dohrn. For this reason, the group, while small, was able to easily commandeer the mantle of SDS and all of its membership lists. For a brief time, affiliations with regional SDS cadre were maintained from the National Office, but with Weatherman in charge the relationships did not last long, and local chapters soon disbanded. By February 1970, the group had decided to close the SDS National Office, concluding the major campus-based organization of the 1960s.
The Weatherman group had long held that militancy was becoming more important than nonviolent forms of anti-war action, and that university-campus-based demonstrations needed to be punctuated with more dramatic actions, which had the potential to interfere with the U.S. military and internal security apparatus. The belief was that these types of urban guerrilla actions would act as a catalyst for the coming revolution. Many international events indeed seemed to support the Weathermen’s overall assertion that worldwide revolution was imminent, such as the tumultuous Cultural Revolution in China; the 1968 student revolts in France, Mexico City and elsewhere; the Prague Spring; the emergence of the Tupamaros organization in Uruguay; the emergence of the Guinea-Bissauan Revolution and similar Marxist-led independence movements throughout Africa; and within the United States, the prominence of the Black Panther Party together with a series of “ghetto rebellions” throughout poor black neighborhoods across the country.
The Weathermen were outspoken advocates of the critical concepts that later came to be known as “white privilege” and identity politics. As the unrest in poor black neighborhoods intensified in the early 1970s, Bernardine Dohrn said, “White youth must choose sides now. They must either fight on the side of the oppressed, or be on the side of the oppressor.”
One of the first acts of the Weathermen after splitting from SDS was to announce they would hold the "Days of Rage" that autumn. This was advertised to "Bring the war home!" Hoping to cause sufficient chaos to "wake" the American public out of what they saw as complacency toward the role of the US in the Vietnam War, the Weathermen meant it to be the largest protest of the decade. They had been told by their regional cadre to expect thousands to attend; however, when they arrived they found only a few hundred people. According to Bill Ayers, "The Days of Rage was an attempt to break from the norms of kind of acceptable theatre of 'here are the anti-war people: containable, marginal, predictable, and here's the little path they're going to march down, and here's where they can make their little statement.' We wanted to say, "No, what we're going to do is whatever we had to do to stop the violence in Vietnam.'"
Shortly before the demonstrations, they blew up a statue in Chicago built to commemorate police casualties incurred in the 1886 Haymarket Riot. The blast broke nearly 100 windows and scattered pieces of the statue onto the Kennedy Expressway below. The statue was rebuilt and unveiled on May 4, 1970, only to be blown up by the Weathermen a second time on October 6, 1970. The statue was rebuilt once again and Mayor Richard J. Daley posted a 24-hour police guard to protect it.
Though the October 8, 1969 rally in Chicago had failed to draw as many as the Weathermen had anticipated, the two or three hundred who did attend shocked police by rioting through the affluent Gold Coast neighborhood. They smashed the windows of a bank and those of many cars. The crowd ran four blocks before encountering police barricades. They charged the police but broke into small groups; more than 1,000 police counter-attacked. Many protesters were wearing motorcycle or football helmets, but the police were well trained and armed. Large amounts of tear gas were used, and at least twice police ran squad cars into the mob. The rioting lasted approximately half an hour, during which 28 policemen were injured (none seriously). Six Weathermen were shot by the police and an unknown number injured; 68 rioters were arrested.
For the next two days, the Weatherman held no rallies or protests. Supporters of the RYM II movement, led by Klonsky and Noel Ignatin, held peaceful rallies in front of the federal courthouse, an International Harvester factory, and Cook County Hospital. The largest event of the Days of Rage took place on Friday, October 9, when RYM II led an interracial march of 2,000 people through a Spanish-speaking part of Chicago.
On October 10, the Weatherman attempted to regroup and resume their demonstrations. About 300 protesters marched through The Loop, Chicago's main business district, watched by a double-line of heavily armed police. The protesters suddenly broke through the police lines and rampaged through the Loop, smashing the windows of cars and stores. The police were prepared, and quickly isolated the rioters. Within 15 minutes, more than half the crowd had been arrested.
The Days of Rage cost Chicago and the state of Illinois approximately $183,000 ($100,000 for National Guard expenses, $35,000 in damages, and $20,000 for one injured citizen's medical expenses). Most of the Weathermen and SDS leaders were now in jail, and the Weathermen would have to pay over $243,000 to pay for their bail.
In December 1969, the Chicago Police Department, in conjunction with the FBI, conducted a raid on the home of Black Panther Fred Hampton, in which he and Mark Clark were killed, with four of the seven other people in the apartment wounded. The survivors of the raid were all charged with assault and attempted murder. The police claimed they shot in self-defense, although a controversy arose when the Panthers and other activists presented what was alleged to be evidence suggesting that the sleeping Panthers were not resisting arrest. The charges were later dropped, and the families of the dead won a $1.8 million settlement from the government. It was discovered in 1971 that Hampton had been targeted by the FBI's COINTELPRO.
In 1970 the group issued a "Declaration of a State of War" against the United States government, using for the first time its new name, the "Weather Underground Organization" (WUO), adopting fake identities, and pursuing covert activities only. These initially included preparations for a bombing of a U.S. military non-commissioned officers' dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey in what Brian Flanagan said had been intended to be "the most horrific hit the United States government had ever suffered on its territory".
The group was investigated for a bombing that took place on February 16, 1970, in which a pipe bomb filled with shrapnel detonated on the ledge of a window at the Park Station of the San Francisco Police Department. Brian V. McDonnell, a police sergeant, was fatally wounded in the explosion, and Robert Fogarty, another police officer, was severely wounded in his face and legs and was partially blinded. The Weathermen, along with the Black Panther Party were initially investigated for the murder, which was never solved. An investigation was reopened in 1999, and a San Francisco grand jury looked into the incident, but no indictments followed.
The bomb preparations have been pointed out by critics of the claim that the Weatherman group did not try to take lives with its bombings. Harvey Klehr, the Andrew W. Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University in Atlanta, said in 2003, "The only reason they were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence. I don't know what sort of defense that is."
They wanted to convince the American public that the United States was truly responsible for the calamity in Vietnam. The group began striking at night, bombing empty offices, with warnings always issued in advance to ensure a safe evacuation. According to David Gilbert, "[their] goal was to not hurt any people, and a lot of work went into that. But we wanted to pick targets that showed to the public who was responsible for what was really going on." After the Greenwich Village explosion, no one was killed by WUO bombs.
On May 21, 1970, a communiqué from the Weather Underground was issued promising to attack a "symbol or institution of American injustice" within two weeks. The communiqué included taunts towards the FBI, daring them to try and find the group, whose members were spread throughout the United States. Many leftist organizations showed curiosity in the communiqué, and waited to see if the act would in fact occur. However, two weeks would pass without any occurrence. Then on June 9, 1970, their first publicly acknowledged bombing occurred at a New York City police station, saying it was "in outraged response to the assassination of the Soledad Brother George Jackson," who had recently been killed by prison guards in an escape attempt. The FBI placed the Weather Underground organization on the ten most-wanted list by the end of 1970. On May 19, 1972, Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, The Weather Underground placed a bomb in the women’s bathroom in the Air Force wing of The Pentagon. The damage caused flooding that devastated classified information on computer tapes. Leftist groups worldwide applauded the bombing, illustrated by German youth protesting against American military systems in Frankfurt.
In April 1971, The "Citizens' Commission to Investigate the FBI" broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania. The group stole files with several hundred pages, 98% of the files targeted left wing individuals and groups. By the end of April, the FBI offices were to terminate all files dealing with leftist groups. The files were a part of an FBI program called COINTELPRO. However, after COINTELPRO was dissolved in 1971 by J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI continued its counterintelligence on groups like the Weather Underground. In 1973, the FBI established the 'Special Target Information Development' program, where agents were sent undercover to penetrate the Weather Underground. Due to the illegal tactics of FBI agents involved with the program, government attorneys requested all weapons- and bomb-related charges be dropped against the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground was no longer a fugitive organization and could turn themselves in with minimal charges against them.
After the Church Committee revealed the FBI's illegal activities, many agents were investigated. In 1976, former FBI Associate Director W. Mark Felt publicly stated he had ordered break-ins and that individual agents were merely obeying orders and should not be punished for it. Felt also stated that acting Director L. Patrick Gray had also authorized the break-ins, but Gray denied this. Felt said on the CBS television program Face the Nation that he would probably be a "scapegoat" for the Bureau's work. "I think this is justified and I'd do it again tomorrow", he said on the program. While admitting the break-ins were "extralegal", he justified it as protecting the "greater good". Felt said:
To not take action against these people and know of a bombing in advance would simply be to stick your fingers in your ears and protect your eardrums when the explosion went off and then start the investigation.The Attorney General in the new Carter administration, Griffin B. Bell, investigated, and on April 10, 1978, a federal grand jury charged Felt, Miller and Gray with conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of American citizens by searching their homes without warrants, though Gray's case did not go to trial and was dropped by the government for lack of evidence on December 11, 1980.
The indictment charged violations of Title 18, Section 241 of the United States Code. The indictment charged Felt and the others
did unlawfully, willfully, and knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree together and with each other to injure and oppress citizens of the United States who were relatives and acquaintances of the Weatherman fugitives, in the free exercise and enjoyments of certain rights and privileges secured to them by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America.
Felt and Miller attempted to plea bargain with the government, willing to agree to a misdemeanor guilty plea to conducting searches without warrants—a violation of 18 U.S.C. sec. 2236—but the government rejected the offer in 1979. After eight postponements, the case against Felt and Miller went to trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on September 18, 1980. On October 29, former President Richard M. Nixon appeared as a rebuttal witness for the defense, and testified that presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt had authorized the bureau to engage in break-ins while conducting foreign intelligence and counterespionage investigations. It was Nixon's first courtroom appearance since his resignation in 1974. Nixon also contributed money to Felt's legal defense fund, Felt's expenses running over $600,000. Also testifying were former Attorneys General Herbert Brownell, Jr., Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, Ramsey Clark, John N. Mitchell, and Richard G. Kleindienst, all of whom said warrantless searches in national security matters were commonplace and not understood to be illegal, but Mitchell and Kleindienst denied they had authorized any of the break-ins at issue in the trial.
The jury returned guilty verdicts on November 6, 1980. Although the charge carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, Felt was fined $5,000. (Miller was fined $3,500). Writing in The New York Times a week after the conviction, Roy Cohn claimed that Felt and Miller were being used as scapegoats by the Carter administration and that it was an unfair prosecution. Cohn wrote it was the "final dirty trick" and that there had been no "personal motive" to their actions. The Times saluted the convictions, saying that it showed "the case has established that zeal is no excuse for violating the Constitution". Felt and Miller appealed the verdict, and they were later pardoned by Ronald Reagan.
Despite the change in their status the Weather Underground remained underground for a few more years. However, by 1976 the organization was disintegrating. The Weather Underground held a conference in Chicago called Hard Times. The idea was to create an umbrella organization for all radical groups. However, the event turned sour when Hispanic and Black groups accused the Weather Underground and the Prairie Fire Committee of limiting their roles in racial issues. The conference enhanced a division within the Weather Underground. The Weather Underground faced accusations of abandonment of the revolution by reversing their original ideology.
East coast members favored a commitment to violence and challenged commitments of old leaders, Bernadine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Jeff Jones. By the end of 1976, the Weather Underground would collapse. Within two years, many members turned themselves in after taking advantage of President Gerald Ford’s amnesty for draft dodgers.
Mark Rudd turned himself in to authorities on January 20, 1978. Rudd was fined $4,000 and received two years probation. Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers turned themselves in on December 3, 1980, in New York, with substantial media coverage. Charges were dropped for Ayers. Dohrn received three years probation and a $15,000 fine.
Certain members remained underground and joined other radical groups. Years after the dissolution of the WUO, former members Kathy Boudin, Judith Alice Clark, and David Gilbert formed the May 19 Communist Organization, which eventually joined with the Black Liberation Army. On October 20, 1981, in Nyack New York, the group robbed a Brinks armored truck containing $1.6 million. The robbery turned violent, resulting in the murders of two police officers and a security guard. Boudin, Clark, and Gilbert were found guilty and sentenced to lengthy terms in prison, considered the “last gasps” of the Weather Underground.
Widely-known members of the Weather Underground include Kathy Boudin, Mark Rudd, Terry Robbins, Ted Gold, Naomi Jaffe, Cathy Wilkerson, Jeff Jones, David Gilbert, Susan Stern, Bob Tomashevsky, Sam Karp, Russell Neufeld, Joe Kelly, Laura Whitehorn and the still-married couple Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers. Most former Weathermen have successfully re-integrated into mainstream society, without necessarily repudiating their original intent.
Weatherman was referred to by some in its own time and afterwards as "terrorist". The group fell under the auspicies of FBI-New York City Police Anti Terrorist Task Force, a forerunner of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces. The FBI, on its website, describes organization as having been a "domestic terrorist group", but no longer an active concern. Others either dispute or clarify the categorization, or justify the group's violence as an appropriate response to the Vietnam war. In his 2001 book about his Weatherman experiences, Bill Ayers stated his objection to describing the WUO (Weather Underground Organization) as "terrorist". Ayers wrote: "Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate. No, we're not terrorists. Dan Berger, in his book about the Weatherman, Outlaws in America, comments that the group "purposefully and successfully avoided injuring anyone... Its war against property by definition means that the WUO was not a terrorist organization."
Bill Ayers, now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, was quoted in an interview to say "I don't regret setting bombs but has since claimed he was misquoted. Brian Flanagan has expressed regret for his actions during the Weatherman years, and compared the group's activities to terrorism. Flanagan said: "When you feel that you have right on your side, you can do some pretty horrific things. Mark Rudd, now a teacher of mathematics at Central New Mexico Community College, has said he has "mixed feelings" and feelings of "guilt and shame".
A non-violent faction of the Weather Underground continues today as the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee. Their official site reads: