Weatherman (known colloquially as The Weathermen) was a political faction elected in 1968 to lead the radical group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The organization took its name from a line in the Bob Dylan song Subterranean Homesick Blues (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”). Emerging in 1969 as the most militant wing of the SDS’s Revolutionary Youth Movement, the fledgling Weatherman issued a “manifesto” eschewing nonviolence and calling instead for armed opposition to U.S. policies; advocating the overthrow of capitalism; exhorting white radicals to trigger a worldwide revolution by fighting in the streets of the “mother country”; and proclaiming that the time had come to launch a race war against the “white” United States on behalf of the non-white Third World.
Grounded in identity politics, Weatherman ideology and rhetoric rebelled against what later came to be known as America’s “white skin privilege.” Weatherman opposed the strategy of a rival SDS faction, Progressive Labor, which rejected the sexual and chemical excesses of the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s in favor of a purer, Marxist-Leninist popular front movement aimed at developing student-labor alliances.
FBI files from 1976, recently made public under the Freedom of Information Act, confirm the connections between Weatherman, Castro‘s Cuba, and Moscow. Weatherman leaders like Mark Rudd traveled illegally to Havana in 1968 to engage in terrorist training. There, camps set up by Soviet KGB Colonel Vadim Kotchergine were educating Westerners both in Marxist philosophy and urban warfare.
At a 1969 “War Council” in Flint, Michigan, Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn (currently a law professor at Northwestern University and a Board member of the ACLU) praised the serial murderer Charles Manson and his accomplices: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them. They even shoved a fork into the victim’s stomach. Wild.” She then proclaimed that the time had come to launch a war against “Amerikkka” (Weatherman always spelled “America” this way, to convey the group’s belief that the nation was ineradicably racist to its core). Toward this end, Dohrn advocated the formation of an even more radical “Weather Underground” cult to carry out covert terrorist activities rather than public acts of protest. By early 1970, her wish would be realized.
Weatherman’s first public demonstration was its October 1969 “Days of Rage” protest in Chicago, timed to coincide with the trials of the Chicago Seven (a group of radical leftists led by Tom Hayden), who had fomented a riot at the Democratic Party nominating convention in that city the previous year. Advertised with the slogan “Bring the war home,” “Days of Rage” sought to create enough chaos to shock the American public out of its alleged complacency vis a vis the Vietnam War.
The opening “Days of Rage” salvo, designed to glorify the anarchist movement, was the October 8 demolition of a statue dedicated to the memory of eight policemen who had been killed in the Haymarket Labor Riot of 1886. Thereafter, some 300 people — both members and supporters of the Weatherman agenda — ravaged Chicago’s business district, smashing windows and destroying automobiles. Six people were shot and seventy were arrested. The violence continued, though on a smaller scale, for each of the next two nights. As Sixties historian Todd Gitlin observed, however, no popular uprising was sparked by these events, much to the group’s dismay. Notable “Days of Rage” leaders included Bill Ayers, now a Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, and Mark William Rudd, currently a mathematics professor at a New Mexico community college.
Weatherman was further radicalized by the December 1969 shooting death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police. Hampton was a street thug who, in his much-heralded “morning education” programs, taught black youths that violent opposition to the U.S. government was a worthy goal. He was quoted in a 1969 Chicago Sun-Times article as saying, “I am at war with the pigs,” and forecasting an armed struggle between blacks and whites. He routinely carried weapons and instructed his subordinates to do the same. For Weatherman, Hampton’s death provided one more excuse to pursue a revolutionary agenda. In July 1970 the organization 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 pledging to pursue covert activities only.
Shortly after that Declaration was made public, three members of the Weather Underground accidentally killed themselves in a Manhattan townhouse while attempting to build a powerful bomb they had intended to plant at a social dance in Fort Dix, New Jersey — an event that was to be attended by U.S. Army soldiers. Hundreds of lives could have been lost had the plot been successfully executed.
The Weather Underground went on to claim credit for some 25 bombings over the next several years, detonating explosives at the rebuilt Haymarket statue, a bathroom at the Pentagon, the Capitol barber shop, the New York City police headquarters, and a variety of other targets.
The Weather Underground also (for a fee of $25,000) helped psychedelic drug guru Timothy Leary break out of a California prison and arranged for his transport to Algiers. When Leary was re-arrested in 1974, he cooperated in the FBI investigation of WUO in exchange for a lighter sentence.
The Weather Undergound aspired to take over the U.S. government and establish re-education camps in the American southwest; the organization estimated that it would be necessary to kill some 25 million people “die-hard capitalist[s]” who could not be reformed.
By the time the U.S. withdrew its military forces from Vietnam in 1975, the Weather Underground was clearly losing vitality as an organization, having failed to invigorate a new radical movement in the U.S. or to inspire an all-out war against the government. In the wake of President Jimmy Carter‘s amnesty for draft dodgers, members of the group began to emerge from hiding. Many were never prosecuted; others had their convictions overturned. Some, like Rudd, Dohrn, and Ayers, claimed places for themselves in academia, while others attempted to return to the mainstream.
On October 20, 1981 — long after the Weather Underground had ceased to exist — former Underground member Kathy Boudin and her soon-to-be husband, David Gilbert, were accomplices in the robbery of a Brinks armored car in Nyack, New York. In the course of that heist, one Brinks guard and two Nyack police officers were murdered. Also involved in the robbery was Judith Clark, who had served a prison term for her participation in the “Days of Rage.” Boudin hired attorney Leonard Weinglass, a law partner of her father, to defend her in the case. Weinglass arranged for a plea bargain whereby Boudin pled guilty to one count of felony murder and robbery, in exchange for a prison sentence of twenty years to life. She was paroled in 2003, however, over strong opposition from New York State police. Gilbert remains in New York’s Attica State Prison, having refused to bargain.
In 1985, former Weather Underground members Susan Rosenberg (who also was implicated in the Nyack robbery) and Linda Evans were apprehended while transporting 740 pounds of explosives which they both acknowledged were slated for use in additional bombings. Rosenberg was sentenced to 58 years in prison, Evans 40; President Bill Clinton pardoned both women in January 2001.