Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
By Mark Rudd
William Morrow, 324 pp., $25.99
Among the many micro-celebrities strewn across the 2008 campaign landscape was Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman singled out by G.O.P. veep nominee Sarah Palin for his reputed ties to Barack Obama.
Pieces were penned and voices were raised over the Ayers-Obama connection; much less was said about the Weathermen themselves, let alone 1960s white radicalism. Ms. Palin’s attacks notwithstanding, Americans are at best ambivalent and confused about their recent history of violent middle-class radical activism. Who were the Weathermen, and what did they mean?
By way of explanation, Mr. Ayers has re-released his 2001 Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist, complete with a post-Palin afterword. The new edition coincides with Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, the memoirs of Ayers’ Weather-comrade Mark Rudd, who helped lead the 1968 takeover of five buildings at Columbia by members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and soon after became a poster boy for white radical chic.
Underground is not as fluid or well written as Fugitive Days, but what Mr. Rudd lacks in style he makes up for in moral seriousness. While Mr. Ayers concedes that some of the Weather Underground’s actions were unwarranted, he returns time and again to a base moral equivalency: Because the U.S. military was engaged in a racist war in Vietnam, he and his cohort were allowed, even required, to bring the war home.
Mr. Rudd, on the other hand, believes the Weathermen were from beginning to end “a total failure as well as a tragic mistake”—for themselves, their cause and their country. Through an exercise of self-righteous extremism, they not only failed to bring about a better America or a shorter war, but they helped usher in the disastrous Nixon presidency and with it a multigenerational conservative backlash.
THE MORAL DIFFERENCE between the two comes into clearest focus in their treatment of the “Townhouse.” On March 6, 1970, a bomb being assembled by several Weathermen exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse, destroying the building and killing three. The bomb was intended for an officers’ dance at Fort Dix, N.J., a fact Mr. Ayers never mentions.
Central to Mr. Ayers’ account is a vague character he calls “C.W.”—most likely based on Mr. Rudd’s college SDS comrade and fellow Weatherman, John “J.J.” Jacobs—a die-hard leftist who pushed the group into “a new reign of intellectual terror,” one that led directly to the Townhouse. “We had devolved from freedom fighters into criminals,” he writes.
When the Weatherman leadership regrouped in California after the explosion, Bernadine Dohrn, who had been dating C.W. and would later settle down with Mr. Ayers, kicked C.W. out of the organization. “Where we’re going … you’re not welcome,” she reportedly told him.
Since Jacobs died in 1997, it’s unlikely Mr. Ayers is protecting him. Rather, by creating a fictionalized character, Mr. Ayers is able to unload all the Weathermen’s original sins on him. As Mr. Ayers tells it, after the purge came a golden age: more bombings (though now they called in warnings), long communiqués, fund-raising-by-theft, and a deep-set sense that revolution really was around the corner.
But for Mr. Rudd, the Townhouse and J.J.’s purge confirmed a growing fear that the entire project was morally bankrupt: Ideological obscurantism and pointless violence had replaced the SDS vision of peaceful mass organizing. Jacobs, who readily assented to his exile, “seemed to me like a victim of one of Stalin’s purges ready to falsely confess,” Mr. Rudd writes. The group, he concludes, was little more than a secular cult. By 1971, Mr. Rudd was out, and in 1977 he turned himself in to New York City police.
Mr. Rudd doesn’t go as far as some of his erstwhile left-wing colleagues, like Todd Gitlin (who led the SDS in the mid-1960s but left before it truly radicalized), in condemning the Weathermen. But the value of Underground is not to be measured by the depth of its self-criticism. Rather, it is worth reading as a travel guide into hell, a story-lesson and a warning about the risks of ideology inherent in all militant activism.
Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He can be reached at email@example.com