What I Learned Writing a Novel About the “Weathermen”
It Was More a Cult Than a Political Movement
Caleb Stewart Rossiter, April 2019
Much to my surprise, I recently found out that writing fiction may get you closer to the truth than writing non-fiction. The truth I was seeking by writing my first novel, published in January by Algora as The Weathermen on Trial: A Bombshell Story About Bringing the War Home, was the same truth I had sought in writing a non-fiction book that was published in 1996 by TCA, The Chimes of Freedom Flashing: A Personal History of the Vietnam Anti-War Movement and 1960's.
Why on earth did a group of maybe fifty wealthy, white, and well-schooled members of the Students for a Democratic Society split off from the rest of the millions-strong anti-Viet Nam war movement in 1969, declare war on the United States, and start bombing people they considered their enemies?
I also wanted to know how the Weathermen’s moral decision to use violence for what they believed was a greater good -- stopping the U.S. empire from carrying out its own bombings -- compared to the similar decision by Americans who supported our system of global military intervention and backing for friendly dictators. After all, these people also supported using violence for a greater good: victory over communism in the Cold War struggle for control of the former colonized countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America.
These Americans, to the Weathermen, were state-sanctioned killers and their defenders, protected by law and culture: cops and judges, soldiers and officers, and most importantly, the elites of empire, what prosecutors call the “intellectual authors” of a crime. They included pro-war academics and politicians, corporate capitalists, and even the “Good Germans,” citizens who either voted for pro-imperial politicians or were complicit in the empire by working for it, or even by not doing enough to resist it.
This really meant that just about everybody in America could be the Weathermen’s enemy -- even the Weathermen’s own parents and especially people like me who agreed with their analysis of imperialism, voted and marched against the war, and resisted the draft, but opposed using violence as a means of changing things.
* * *
In my 1996 history I had academically categorized anti-war protestors on a continuum of activity from Voters to Marchers to Sitters to Trashers. Voters backed candidates who were committed to ending the war. Marchers helped spread their opinions by participating in increasingly large legal demonstrations. Sitters is shorthand for people willing to “sit-in” illegally at rallies and draft boards, so it also refers to anybody who broke laws or otherwise non-violently disrupted the normalized business of war.
The Sitters were creative. They resisted the draft, blocked induction centers and troop trains, refused to load equipment for the war on commercial ships, and entered draft boards to seize files and pour blood on them. My favorite effort was undertaken by my friend Joe Volk, a politically-aware private who went to military prison for refusing to go to Viet Nam and later became head of the Quaker lobbying office in Washington. Joe and some pals rowed boats out in front of an aircraft carrier trying to leave a Virginia base for duty in Asia. The common element in all these illegal actions of the Sitters is that they were non-violent, a sort of political theater to attract attention and discussion.
In contrast, the Weathermen were the leaders of the Trashers, in the parlance of the day, because they believed in “trashing” windows in cars and storefronts on the fringes of legal demonstrations. Having crossed the threshold to violence, they then saw both intended and unintended casualties of their bombings as the acceptable collateral damage of fighting the greater violence of war and empire. For them, as for all warriors and intellectual authors of both revolutions and interventionist governments, the happy ends justified the brutal means.
* * *
Writing fiction showed me how shallow my scholarly approach had been. Only as a novelist did I discover the depth and the inexorable logic of the Weathermen’s racial and ideological beliefs. As my characters took over their own dialogue and action they developed plots I had not anticipated and revealed motivations I had missed. It was a strange experience to sit at the computer keyboard and watch my fingers type out emotions, words, and actions that I had not considered.
This was especially true for the characters who were real Weathermen. I first watched their interviews and read their voluminous communiqués from the years they were underground and evading the FBI. Then I studied their later-year interviews and memoirs. In the case of the few who continued politically-motivated violence after the Weathermen ended their terror in 1975, such as the 1981 robbery of a Brinks armored car in which two police officers and a guard were murdered, I also read their revealing statements in court and before parole boards. I was swimming in the Weathermen’s own words, and I think that primed my brain to let them take over the writing.
The Weathermen on Trial revolves around a real “Cold Case” of a sergeant killed and an officer blinded during a bombing of the Golden Gate Park police station in San Francisco in 1970. The Weathermen have never admitted to or been charged with that bombing, although they have admitted to a similar one in Berkeley the same month. At the Berkeley station, officers only avoided injury and death because their scheduled shift change was delayed by chance until after the bombs in their cars in the police lot had exploded. As with all their few dozen bombings, the Weathermen were not prosecuted when they came up from their years living Underground. The FBI had broken the law in their surveillance while chasing the Weathermen, a crime for which the “Deep Throat” of the Watergate story, associate director Mark Felt, was convicted.
In the novel the Park Station investigation is restarted by a Trump tweet, and we eventually get to courtroom scenes in which the dominant Weatherman, Bernardine Dohrn, explains their beliefs, then and now, about empire and how to fight it. Those beliefs, by the way, have been virtually unchanged by the intervening 50 years. And in my opinion, that’s understandable: the names of the wars and dictatorial allies have changed, but America’s global role as successor to the colonial powers after World War II remains the same.
It turns out that what really distinguished the Weathermen from the rest of the movement was not, as I had thought as an academic, that they saw the use of violence to stop the war as a tactical and not a moral issue. It was that they had adopted an ideology of communist revolution and rule. When Dohrn made her unexpected statement in 1968, “I consider myself a revolutionary communist,” the rest of the anti-war movement dismissed it as an oddity. In fact, it was the start of the construction of a complex ideology that every Weathermen eventually had to adopt or be expelled.
The ideology stated that youthful black and white revolutionaries, fighting separately as urban guerrilla bands, could overthrow the United States as quickly as Castro had overthrown Batista in Cuba. They would then ally to rule the country as dictators on behalf of the People, putting in place a communist system of economics and politics. Based on a tortured reading of Karl Marx’s tomes on economic and politics, the Weathermen convinced themselves that rapid revolution, spurred especially by a black revolt that white youth would rally to, was inevitable. To maintain their credibility with the often-hostile Black Panthers in this struggle, the Weathermen directed many of their bombings at police officers and judges who were involved in Panther arrests and trials.
The Weathermen’s interviews in the 1976 documentary Underground show them clinging to their dream of Cuban-style revolution even as it turns into an objective nightmare of irrelevance. The withdrawal from Viet Nam (and hence the end of the draft) that was forced on President Nixon by the anti-war movement and North Vietnam’s military perseverance ended street protests. The nation quickly turned away from debating foreign policy. Still, in Underground, the handful of remaining Weathermen kept on claiming, in pathetic, subdued rote, that a general uprising was just a few “armed propaganda” bombings away.
* * *
How did Bernardine Dohrn transform the Students for a Democratic Society from tens of thousands of non-violent partisans of American democracy to, by the end, a band of less than ten communists willing to kill for the receding revolution? As I wrote in the voices of the characters in this descent, the answer became clearer and clearer: they had become a cult. Dohrn created an obedient cohort using classic techniques, such as mantra-like repetition of ideology, ostracism, intense group sessions of criticism and especially self-criticism, isolation, rapid shifts of ideology to enforce loyalty to the leader’s whims, group sex with all genders, the end of monogamous relationships, and threats of killing dissenters.
In this the Weathermen mirrored other murderous cults of the same era: Charles Manson and his Family, Jim Jones and the Jonestown congregation, Donald DeFreeze (a.k.a Field Marshall Cinque Mtume) and the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the cop-hunting Black Liberation Army of Joanne Chesimard (a.k.a Assata Shakur), now in exile in Cuba after a conviction for police murder and a 1979 jail-break, and Jarel Williams (a.k.a Mutulu Shakur), who was convicted for the jail-break and is still in prison for murder during the Brinks robbery.
Why the Weathermen went off the rails is more complicated than what one said in a 2001 interview: “If you think you have the moral high ground, you can do some really dreadful things.” No, it takes more than a belief in your cause to start bombing. It takes a cult-like atmosphere to sustain and prod you. And only people psychologically susceptible to cult-like behavior, for their own particular and peculiar reasons and genetics, are going to go the distance. They are self-selected, and they are few and far between when the behavior is rejected by the mainstream culture. That’s why so few made the transition from SDS marches to terror, because so few dissidents are willing to be, as the Weathermen styled themselves, Outlaws of Amerika.
However, cult-like behavior has a lower barrier when it is constantly promoted and respected by the majority culture. It even has a more respectable name: “group-think.” Just as it was more comfortable for the average citizen or author or policy-maker to support the Viet Nam war than to oppose it, social pressure made it easier for a police officer or a soldier than an anti-war activist to “pick up the gun” and be ready to use it for the greater good. That’s why there were so many FBI agents chasing so few Weathermen.
There will always be people in America’s social movements who are drawn to violent protest. It’s in our blood as an historically violent nation. Consider the Boston Tea Party against the British rulers and the Whiskey Rebellion against the new American rulers, the slave revolts in the South and the mob actions against enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act in the North, the labor revolts of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the urban revolts of the 1960’s, and opponents of apartheid and benighted believers in fossil-fueled climate catastrophe storming university board meetings to demand divestment.
Sometimes violence spurs political change, although always with the risk of weakening the process and dialogue we need for the next challenge. But with the Weathermen, as the Rolling Stones sang in No Expectation, violence was “like the water that splashes on a stone…it’s here, and then it’s gone.” Nobody on the Left turned them in, the old Weathermen love to brag, seeing in that some sort of validation, but nobody on the Left turned to them for the way forward, either.
* * *