Other Group

Weather Underground (Weatherman/The Weathermen)

Type:

Radical-left violent extremist group

Active:

Late 1960s – Mid 1970s

For more see: Students for a Democratic Society, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

The Weather Underground (also known as Weatherman or the Weathermen) was a radical-left violent extremist group that was active from the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. What became known as the Weather Underground began in 1969 as “Weatherman,” a dominant faction within Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a left-wing-turned-revolutionary Communist organization that split apart shortly after founding of Weatherman.

In separate books detailing the history of the Weathermen, professional historian Arthur Eckstein and Vanity Fair journalist Bryan Burrough used law enforcement documents and personal recollections of numerous former Weathermen leaders to demonstrate that through at least May 1970 the organization aggressively promoted efforts to kill police officers and military personnel as part of its goal of sparking the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. While no murders have been conclusively tied to the Weathermen, police officers were injured in at least two Weatherman attacks. As late as 2003, several former Weathermen leaders were the subject of a federal probe into the February 1970 bombing-murder of a San Francisco, California, police officer that occurred two days after a known-Weatherman bombing that injured police in nearby Berkeley. [1] [2] [3]

Eckstein and Burrough both provided strong evidence that two coordinated Weathermen bombing plots set for March 6, 1970, were intended to produce massive fatalities among police in Detroit, Michigan, and among military personnel who would be attending a dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Operating on the advice of an FBI informant, local law enforcement in Detroit discovered and disabled two large explosives on the morning of March 6. On the same day, the New York City Weathermen faction, working on bombs intended for Fort Dix, accidentally detonated a device, collapsing the townhouse in which they were working, killing three of them. [4] [5]

In May 1970, on the run from the FBI following the townhouse explosion and discovery of the Detroit bombs, the Weathermen leadership declared the organization would pivot to a strategy of non-lethal bombings. This meeting and a subsequent public declaration in December 1970 promoted a false mythology that the townhouse bombers had been a violent and misguided faction within a larger Weatherman movement that had supposedly always pursued only property damage, and not personal injury. The Weathermen conducted at least 25 bombings between 1969 and 1975, and after May 1970 began phoning ahead warnings that prevented injuries after June 1970. Noteworthy actions included bombings of the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, and aiding in the prison escape of LSD guru Timothy Leary. Burrough has written that members of the left-wing National Lawyers Guild provided crucial financial and other assistance to the Weathermen. [6] [7]

Despite a significant investigation, costing an estimated $86.6 million in 2020 dollars, the FBI was never able to catch and secure prosecution of any major Weatherman participants, two of whom appeared on the Bureau’s list of ten “Most Wanted” fugitives. In its desperation, the FBI resorted to unconstitutional methods to pursue the Weathermen, including warrantless break-ins and electronic surveillance of family members of Weathermen leaders. This behavior compromised the ability of federal law enforcement to prosecute the Weathermen, leading the U.S. Department of Justice to drop the most serious charges in 1973 and allowing nearly all the Weathermen leaders to come out from hiding and avoid serious felony prosecutions. [8] [9]

Eckstein and Burrough each wrote that federal law enforcement and the administration of President Richard Nixon severely overestimated the size and threat posed by the Weather Underground, affording the group more attention and lasting historical reputation that it otherwise deserved. Burrough concluded, “In every conceivable way, the young intellectuals who had come together in 1969 to form Weatherman had utterly failed: failed to lead the radical left over the barricades into armed underground struggle; failed to fight or support the black militants they championed; failed to force agencies of the American “ruling class” into a single change more significant than the spread of metal detectors and guard dogs.” [10] [11]

Origins

What became known as the Weather Underground began as one of two feuding factions emerging from the June 1969 national convention held by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). As it turned out, the June 1969 convention would be the last national meeting before SDS ceased to exist.

One SDS faction was aligned with the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Maoist organization created in 1962 by disgruntled former members of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA). By 1969, PL was pushing SDS toward de-emphasizing campus-based student activism in favor of student activists organizing the blue collar, mostly white working class. PL was either skeptical of or sometimes explicitly opposed to student activism that might be perceived as alienating culturally conservative and militarily hawkish, blue collar workers. PL eventually opposed SDS’s call to end the military draft, and opposed SDS participation in the violent demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In place of these policies, PL promoted a student-worker alliance as the path to growing a Communist revolutionary movement, and advocated placing students in working-class communities and in jobs as factory workers. [12] [13]

Aligned against PL were two loosely affiliated caucuses calling themselves Revolutionary Youth Movements I and II (RYM I and RYM II). The RYM I faction arrived at the convention united behind the so-called “Weatherman Manifesto,” a 16,000-word paper spelling out their objectives for the future of SDS. RYM II included those not in complete ideological or tactical alignment with RYM I, but also opposed to the PL Maoists. [14] [15]

RYM I included the primary leadership of what would become the Weatherman faction that emerged from the SDS convention: Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, John Jacobs, Jeff Jones, Jim Mellen, Mark Rudd, Howie Machtinger, Diana Oughton and Terry Robbins. According to Days of Rage, a history of leftist revolutionary violence in the 1970s written by Vanity Fair correspondent Bryan Burrough, Dohrn and her then-boyfriend Jacobs became a “force of nature” within SDS after Dohrn’s election as a top officer at the June 1968 national convention and her declaration that she was a “revolutionary communist.” From that point forward, according to Burrough, the pair “had their eyes on seizing overall control of SDS,” and their Chicago apartment became the “epicenter of SDS politics” for “several who would achieve prominence in Weatherman.” [16]

The 1969 convention, and effectively SDS itself, ended shortly after the Weatherman-RYM II faction tried to expel the Progressive Labor members for being “objectively anticommunist” and “counterrevolutionary.” Historian Guenter Lewy states that the Weatherman-RYM II group and PL each commanded roughly one-third of the 1,500 delegates, with the remaining third either first-time delegates or otherwise unaffiliated with either warring side. This might have compromised the prospects for a successful expulsion vote, but no such vote occurred. Having deemed the PL faction to be “counterrevolutionaries,” the Weathermen-RYM II partisans further reasoned it was logically absurd to allow the supposed counterrevolutionaries a vote on their “counterrevolutionary nature.” [17]

Dohrn led the expulsion proceedings against PL. A very acrimonious convention that had included fistfights between the factions concluded with two rival SDS organizations voting themselves to be the genuine SDS. But, according to Burrough, “everyone understood that Weatherman had carried the day, in large part because its members had taken control of the national office in the days before the convention.” The Weathermen-SDS elected Dohrn, Rudd, Ayers and Jones as its national leadership. [18]

Using recently declassified FBI files for Bad Moon Rising, his 2016 history of the FBI’s pursuit of the Weather Underground, historian Arthur Eckstein revealed that FBI informants had infiltrated the Weatherman faction of SDS and likely comprised “dozens” of those who aligned with the Dohrn-led effort to expel the Progressive Labor caucus. Eckstein provides documents proving the FBI ordered these secret allies to side with Weatherman and “to the extent that it could, attempted to steer SDS toward Weatherman—which the FBI saw, initially, as less dangerous than PL.” [19]

Eckstein gives this analysis of the incident: “This was the first FBI misjudgment of Weatherman; it would not be the last.” [20]

Weatherman Manifesto

The Weatherman Manifesto was drafted for the 1969 SDS convention by John Jacobs and co-signed by Dohrn, Rudd, Jeff Jones, Machtinger, Robbins and Ayers. The document and thus the initial ideology of the Weathermen was heavily influenced by French political theorist Regis Debray, an ally and admirer of Cuban communist dictator Fidel Castro. Jacobs also, according to the account in Days of Rage, idolized the murderous “Civil War-era anti-slavery zealot” John Brown, and was fond of the rallying cry “John Brown! Live like him!”[21] [22]

Debray proposed that successful communist revolutions did not initially require a mass of support to succeed, but could instead be jump-started by a small group of what historian Arthur Eckstein characterized as “committed revolutionaries” willing to commit “exemplary violence” that would inspire the masses to join the revolt. Debray believed Castro and his small cadre of followers had won because they launched successful assaults on the Cuban state’s police and military, thus showing the Cuban people that an oppressive government’s authority was not invincible. [23]

Summarizing Debray’s thinking as it was internalized by the early Weathermen, Eckstein wrote: “The population’s assumption that the police and the army were unassailable could be undermined only by killing soldiers and policemen.” In this way a “small guerilla band, if committed enough, could—through violence against the state … eventually become the nucleus of a large people’s army.” [24]

But Eckstein noted that Debray (and thus the Weathermen) were embracing a mythology of successful revolutionary violence that ignored crucial facts regarding Cuba:[25]

“What Debray failed to mention were the years of resistance and political organizing that had taken place in Cuba’s cities. He ignored the significant role played by the urban resistance, composed mostly of middle-class moderates. Instead, he swallowed hook, line, and sinker Castro’s view of his own path to success, which tended not to recognize the diversity and contribution of other actors in the effort to overthrow [former U.S.-backed Cuban military dictator Fulgencio] Batista.” [26]

Eckstein wrote that the Weather faction was committed to a communist overthrow of the United States, and “tired of protest”—the non-violent path to revolution taken by SDS up until that point. “They wanted to prepare for war,” observed Eckstein. [27]

The Weatherman Manifesto, according to Eckstein’s analysis, proposed that SDS lead America’s radical youth movement to become a communist “Red Army” that was “clandestine, centrally controlled, and trained in military tactics.” Proposing to ignite a communist revolution in the United States, it called for working-class white youth to open a domestic battlefront in the supposed world-wide war against capitalism and imperialism. This battle included allies such as the Vietnamese communists fighting U.S. forces in Southeast Asia like the Viet Cong and black militants such as the Black Panthers fighting what the Weathermen asserted was an identical war of liberation against the U.S. government at home. Eckstein also noted the Manifesto judged that the “white working class in general” (apart from the youth) were “bought off by a combination of materialism and racism,” and thus not a useful ally in the communist liberation struggle. [28]

Future Weathermen bomber Cathy Wilkerson said of this perspective among the overwhelmingly white Weather leaders: “I think in our hearts what all of us wanted to be was a Black Panther.” [29]

All of this was a direct challenge to the revolutionary strategies advocated by the Progressive Labor faction of SDS, which held that an alliance with the American working-class (the large majority of which was white) was the essential pre-requisite to a successful communist revolution. Eckstein wrote: “PL pushed a traditional Marxism, focused on industrial workers as the engine of revolution, and they viewed blacks as merely an intensely exploited part of the working class.” [30]

Days of Rage

In July 1969, in the weeks after they seized control of the fractured SDS at its final convention, the Weatherman leadership traveled to Cuba to meet with Cuban communists and representatives of the Viet Cong. According historian Arthur Eckstein in his book Bad Moon Rising, notes taken at the meetings by Bernardine Dohrn (and later captured by the FBI) prove that both the Vietnamese and Cubans “advised the Weather leaders not to engage in violent actions” and to instead to concentrate on creating more of the “aboveground antiwar demonstrations that had shaken the American administration [of President Lyndon Johnson] in 1967.” [31]

Eckstein reports this advice—which ran contrary to Weather’s impatience with peaceful protests—was both ignored and quickly misrepresented when Dohrn’s group returned home. Eckstein wrote that John Jacobs and Bill Ayers engineered the change in the story to account in which “the Vietnamese and the Cubans urged Weatherman to violence against the American state.” In his memoir of the era, Ayers confirmed this distortion had taken place, but tried to place the blame for the switch exclusively on Jacobs—a claim Eckstein refuted using Ayers’ own published essays from the era and the account of fellow Weather Underground leader Eleanor (Raskin) Stein. [32]

The public statements of Weather leaders promoting this distortion led the New York Times to credit Cuban and Viet Cong advice as instrumental in the turn to violence by the Weathermen. As a result, reported Eckstein, high officials in the administration of President Richard Nixon began to suspect foreign communists were controlling the Weathermen. [33]

The first major manifestation of the turn to violence was planning for the so-called Days of Rage, scheduled to begin in Chicago on October 8, 1969. In his book, Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough writes the Weathermen leaders “crisscrossed the country” telling media the event would be “the largest, most violent mass protest the Movement had seen” and an “urban Armageddon.” Weatherman Mark Rudd predicted “thousands and thousands” would show up to fight against the government and police. Bill Ayers advised “we’re also going to make it clear that when a pig gets iced, that’s a good thing, and that everyone who considers himself a revolutionary should be armed, should own a gun.” [34]

The Days of Rage was intended as the practical execution of Regis Debray’s strategy. Eckstein wrote that in showing “toughness and violence against the authorities,” Weathermen leadership believed they could politicize the “anger, alienation, and hostility to cops” supposedly felt by the “working-class street youth” being targeted for recruitment as soldiers for the revolution. [35]

Recruitment efforts to draw in the “thousands and thousands” expected for the Chicago violence included public demonstrations such as the displaying of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags at high schools, community colleges, public beaches and other venues where the youth from blue collar homes were expected to be found. However, both Burrough and Eckstein noted that this behavior led to few converts and instead often violent confrontations with the intended recruits; in one instance, Mark Rudd was hospitalized after a beating inflicted by Milwaukee teenagers. [36] [37]

Weather also failed to recruit noteworthy “New Left” allies for the Days of Rage. Black Panther leader Fred Hampton publicly denounced the plan as “Custeristic”—presumably a reference to the 1876 Battle of the Little Big Horn, in which U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry Regiment was destroyed by Lakota Sioux warriors. Leaders of the National Mobilization Committee (the “Mobe”—responsible for many of the largest anti-war demonstrations of the era) disagreed with the inclination to provoke battles with police and refused to participate. [38]

The response from Weather leaders, according to Eckstein, was to “condemn the Panthers” as “revisionists,” a “term of Marxist abuse.” Similarly, in September a Cuban diplomat informed Bernardine Dohrn that his government opposed the anticipated confrontations with police. Dohrn responded by declaring the representative from the communist government to be a counterrevolutionary. [39]

Inside Weather leadership, according to Burrough, “the surest way to lose face” was to express doubts about the Days of Rage. Mark Rudd committed this ideological error, later writing that he received “smirking contempt” from Ayers and denunciation for being “weak” from Terry Robbins. Eckstein identified Ayers and Robbins as the leaders of a “Michigan group” within SDS that was “notorious for its extreme conduct.” [40] [41]

The first known detonation of a Weathermen bomb occurred two days before the Days of Rage, destroying a bronze statue of a policeman at a Chicago park, but causing no injuries. The Days of Rage began on schedule the evening of October 8, 1969, but with an estimated 200 participants—far short of the “thousands and thousands” Weather Underground leaders had expected. [42]

The account in the book, Days of Rage, reports the night’s vandalism and violence with police resulted in a “humiliating debut for Weatherman.” Non-serious gunshot wounds were inflicted on six Weathermen rioters and a Chicago city attorney sustained an injury leaving him a quadriplegic. More than 120 arrests were made, resulting in criminal charges against all top Weather leaders, and a bail tally that inflicted a $2.3 million expense ($16 million in 2020 dollars) on a the fractured and soon to be non-existent SDS organization. [43]

The following month, during a November 1969 anti-war demonstration in Washington, D.C. that was attended by a quarter-million demonstrators, a small group of Weathermen within the larger march participated in more street fights with police. Beforehand, Bill Ayers had threatened the organizers of the march with a troublesome disturbance unless he was given $20,000 (more than $140,000 in 2020 dollars) to help offset the bail and fines incurred by his own organization during the Days of Rage. The march organizers refused to pay. [44]

Going Underground

The decision to abolish what remained of Students for a Democratic Society and become a secretive guerilla army of violent saboteur-bombers was made shortly after—and in response to—the poorly attended Days of Rage. Mark Rudd wrote of a meeting of the Weatherman leadership ten days later at which he says Bernardine Dorhn informed the group they would begin to emulate Cuban Communist insurrectionist and Castro regime figure Che Guevara by “working clandestinely” on an “armed struggle,” because open fights with police had proven too costly and left the Weathermen too vulnerable. Rudd also wrote that Dohrn announced a change in leadership at this meeting, appointing herself, John Jacobs, Jeff Jones, and Terry Robbins as the supreme Weatherman decision-makers. [45]

Self-Criticism Sessions

The ability of the Weatherman-SDS leaders to command this obedience had been inculcated since the final SDS convention through individuality-crushing initiatives known as “criticism/self-criticism” and “Smash Monogamy.” [46]

Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough wrote that criticism/self-criticism was “borrowed from the Maoist Chinese” and involved a “marathon all-night interrogation in which members were accused of every conceivable human weakness, from cowardice to insubordination.” The objective was to “break down all traces of individualism,” drive out the “weak and unready,” and transform what remained into “obedient, unquestioning” soldiers. [47]

The Smash Monogamy campaign was also, according to Burrough, intended to “sever individual Weathermen from every meaningful relationship except that with the group itself.” Romantic couples were required to break up and engage in sexual relations with others, a policy that in some instances led to mass orgies. [48]

By February 1970, according to historian Arthur Eckstein, these policies allowed the Weathermen leaders to place fully compliant allies in charge of the remaining local Weather-SDS collectives and that conditions in these collectives became “so spartan that it led to widespread physical illnesses.” But in addition to obedience, these measures eventually drove all but one FBI informant to leave the Weathermen. [49]

Rudd credited the indoctrination with turning the Weathermen into a “classic cult” of “true believers surrounded by a hostile world.” [50]

The Flint War Council

Four hundred members of the Weatherman-SDS faction gathered in Flint, Michigan, during the interval between Christmas 1969 and New Years 1970, for what has become known as the “Flint War Council”— the final meeting of SDS. Bryan Burrough wrote that it was a “pep rally from Hell, a five-day orgy of violent rhetoric intended to set the stage for the underground revolution.” [51]

A banner with a rifle hung over the meeting hall, with images of supposed revolutionary heroes along one wall and enemies on the other. Communists such as Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh and Fidel Castro adorned the “hero” wall; the “enemies” side included President Richard Nixon, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, and Sharon Tate—the pregnant Hollywood actress brutally murdered months earlier by the cult “family” of Charles Manson. One participant later defected and informed the FBI that Bill Ayers’ Michigan sect of SDS—hosts of the Flint event—considered Manson to be a hero. [52]

Speakers at the war council both praised severe acts of violence and advocated for more.

Dohrn applauded the murder of Tate and others by the Manson cult: “Dig it, they murdered those pigs and then ate dinner at their dining table then stuck a fork in their bellies! Wild!” Afterward, Weathermen began greeting one another with a “fork” symbol—four fingers extended upward. [53] [54]

“It must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building,” said one speaker to the crowd. [55]

“We will burn and loot and destroy,” John Jacobs told the attendees. “We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare.” [56]

Citing the accounts of Weather leader Howard Machtinger and another attendee, Bryan Burrough writes that during “sensitive” private talks at Flint the leadership decided “they would, in fact, kill people,” with police being the primary targets. Historian Arthur Eckstein concurred with this evaluation, also referencing the recollections of Machtinger and an FBI account. Weatherman Mark Rudd later wrote of his perception after Flint: “I believed it was moral to kill people.” [57] [58]

In January 1970, shortly after the Flint meeting, what remained of SDS ceased to exist when Weather Underground leaders destroyed SDS offices in Chicago (also destroying some records) and donated what papers remained to the University of Wisconsin. [59] [60]

The Consolidation

Beginning the day after Flint, January 2, 1970, Weather leaders conducted what Weatherman John Jacobs referred to as “the consolidation.” They swiftly identified no more than 150 people deemed committed and ready to disappear underground as guerilla bombers. By the end of January this group began assuming new identities, obtaining fake identification, and reporting to one of three reorganized Weather Underground outposts: California (San Francisco), New York City, and the Midwest. [61]

Roughly 100 people either were not selected or decided they did not wish to participate. Some of these remained as the aboveground supporters of what soon became known as the Weather Underground. [62]

Bryan Burrough wrote that those who made the cut to go underground were “exactly the kind of people the leadership wanted: obedient soldiers, stripped of individualism, ready to attack “Amerika.””[63]

Of the rest, he noted:

Anyone who wasn’t willing to shed the trappings of bourgeois life—a wife, a boyfriend, a child, a job, anything—was unceremoniously thrown out of Weatherman. Anyone who questioned the leadership, who deviated from the political line, who hadn’t demonstrated adequate bravery at the Days of Rage, who was considered weak or undependable or the least bit tentative: out. [64]

Jim Mellen, one of the signatories on the Weatherman Manifesto, was skeptical of the decision to become a guerilla organization and voluntarily left during this period. While watching Super Bowl IV on January 11 with Bill Ayers, John Jacobs, and Bernardine Dohrn, Mellen heard Jacobs declare that anyone who quit from that point forward would need to be killed. At halftime, Mellen left his erstwhile friends to finish watching the game and never returned to the Weathermen. [65]

Bombing Campaign

Intention to Kill

The period from Flint War Council through March 1970, according to the book Days of Rage, was “bluntly put, when Weatherman set out to kill people.” In the middle ranks of the underground soldiers who remained after the consolidation, wrote Bryan Burrough, “it was widely expected that Weathermen would become revolutionary murderers.” An example of ideas under discussion was one to detonate a bomb on the Chicago Railroad during rush hour that would maximize commuter deaths and injuries. [66]

Howard Machtinger has said there was competition between the leaders of the Weatherman outposts to be the first to set off a bomb. Cathy Wilkerson, who would become a primary Weatherman bomb maker, later noted: “That was the real problem: all these macho guys with their macho posturing, seeing who could be the big man and strike first.” [67]

The conclusion of historian Arthur Eckstein in his book Bad Moon Rising: “Weatherman in the first three months of 1970 was, by any reasonable measure, a band intent on committing radical violence, not only against property but against people as well.” [68]

Bay Area Police Bombs

The Berkeley, California, police department was the target of the first two bombs set off after the Flint decision to go underground and attack with intent to injure and kill. Two pipe bombs filled with dynamite were placed in the police complex parking lot on the evening of February 12, 1970, and detonated within seconds of each other. Timed for a shift change when people would be in the lot, the explosions inflicted minor injuries on six police officers and severe injuries to the arm of one other, who needed six hours of surgery. [69]

The account in Days of Rage quotes one of the Weatherman bombers’ recollection of the event: [70]

“We wanted to do it at a shift change, frankly, to maximize deaths. They were cops, so anyone was fair game. Basically it was seen as a successful action. But others, yeah, were angry that a policeman didn’t die.” [71]

Another bomb timed to detonate during a police shift change blew up two nights later in nearby San Francisco. It grievously wounded a police officer who died two days later, blinded another, and injured many more. In 1980, during a federal criminal trial of two former senior FBI officials, a federal agent testified under oath that FBI explosives experts had identified dynamite seized from a Weather hiding spot in Chicago during March 1970 as coming from the same batch used in February to kill the San Francisco officer. [72]

Former Weatherman members have denied the organization was responsible for this murder. One told Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough that because the Berkeley bombs had required “weeks of planning,” it wasn’t likely his compatriots could “turn around and do another one four days later.” [73]

Burrough wrote that three different informants connected to the Weathermen provided investigators with statements implicating specific leaders as responsible for the San Francisco attack. One of the accusers was Larry Grathwohl, an FBI informant placed within Weather. Under oath, Grathwohl told a U.S. Senate investigation two years later that Bill Ayers had credited Bernardine Dohrn with overseeing the San Francisco bombing. [74]

A 2009 retrospective report on the San Francisco bombing published in San Francisco Weekly revealed that as recently as 2003 “Dohrn, Machtinger, and Ayers were all targets of a secret federal grand jury investigation” regarding the murder. Also, a criminal forensics official working on cold cases uncovered a fingerprint on one of the fragments from the San Francisco bomb, but (as of 2009) this evidence was “still too undefined to be used for identification.” [75]

The San Francisco magazine piece quotes Dohrn, Ayers and “other former Weathermen” as claiming it was a “right-wing conspiracy theory any suggestions that their organization was responsible” for killing the officer. [76] Ayers has alleged that Grathwohl was a liar. [77]

New York City Firebombs

On February 21, 1970, a little more than a week after the bombing of the Berkeley police station, the New York City Weatherman group coordinated four separate firebomb attacks using Molotov cocktails. This group was led by bomb-maker Terry Robbins, the then-boyfriend of fellow Weatherman bomber Cathy Wilkerson. [78]

Two bombs were used against a New York Police Department patrol car but exploded without causing injury or serious destruction. Two others were used to destroy military recruiting booths at Brooklyn College. One was used against the Columbia University Law Library. [79]

The fourth and main target was the home of the judge overseeing a criminal trial involving the Black Panther Party. While the judge and his family were asleep inside the home, three firebombs were simultaneously detonated at the front door, another on a window ledge, and the third underneath the gas tank of the family car parked next to the home.  An alert neighbor saw the explosions, called the police, and then used snow to extinguish the fire underneath the car before the gas tank exploded. [80]

Extensive damage was done to the home but did not harm the occupants. Historian Arthur Eckstein wrote that the firebomb underneath the car may have been lethal if it had detonated the gas tank. [81]

Cleveland Firebombing

On March 2, 1970, Cleveland teenagers attached to Weatherman threw two firebombs onto the front porch of the home of a Cleveland police detective who was also the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police union. The detective and his son were able to put out the flames. [82]

In 1972 a young man claiming to have been one of the teens involved in this attack voluntarily came forward to tell his story to the FBI. The report was declassified in 2013 and written about by Arthur Eckstein. According to the young man’s account, Bill Ayers, leader of the Midwest Weatherman branch, had encouraged the Ohio team to choose a target related to a homicide prosecution against a leftist accused of killing three Cleveland police officers. Eckstein also noted that evidence provided in this young man’s account matched circumstantial evidence about the inner workings of the Midwest group provided to the FBI by an earlier informant unrelated to the Cleveland firebombing. [83]

March 1970 Failed Bombings

According to the account of historian Arthur M. Eckstein, Weathermen cells in Detroit and New York plotted several coordinated and deadly bomb attacks to occur on March 6, 1970. Eckstein is a professor of history at the University of Maryland—College Park and is the author of Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground beat the FBI and lost the revolution. [84]

The Detroit assaults were targeted at police officers, while the New York team was hoping to detonate a large bomb during a dance for military couples at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Despite multiple witness accounts to the contrary, as of April 2020 Bill Ayers had maintained that he and his Detroit organization did not coordinate with the New York team’s plan to kill military personnel at Fort Dix. [85]

For different reasons, none of these bombs were used against the intended targets. The explosives being built for the Fort Dix attack detonated the day before their intended use (i.e.: March 5, 1970) in a Manhattan townhouse owned by the father of New York Weather leader Cathy Wilkerson, killing three Weathermen and leveling the building;[86] law enforcement was tipped off to the locations of the Detroit bombs and disarmed them. [87]

Detroit Police Bombs

FBI informant Larry Grathwohl, one of only two FBI sources still within Weathermen after the severe indoctrination and purges following the Days of Rage, was attached to the Midwest cell led by Bill Ayers. Grathwohl reported that he assisted Ayers’ in the planning of the attacks against Detroit police officers on March 6. Grathwohl’s reports allowed law enforcement to locate and disarm both bombs. [88]

A 1970 FBI report declassified in 2013 and reported by Eckstein shows that on the morning of March 5 two Michigan State Police officers engaged in a stakeout of the Detroit Police Officers Association headquarters—the location Grathwohl had warned would be a bombing target the next day. The MSP troopers conducted a two-hour surveillance of a man who arrived to inspect the exact spot where Grathwohl said the bomb was to be placed. One of the officers followed the suspect from the DPOA site to a nearby home and recorded the license plate number of a vehicle located close by, the owner of which was later identified as a relative of Ayers. Shown a photo array of possible suspects by the FBI later that summer the trooper identified Bill Ayers as the man he had followed. [89]

The DPOA bomb contained nine sticks of dynamite and was located and defused on March 6. Eckstein wrote that it was placed in an alleyway between a police union headquarters and a restaurant where it would have inflicted “many casualties.” In sworn trial testimony Grathwohl stated he had warned Ayers about the likelihood of killing people in the restaurant but was told by Ayers that “sometimes innocent people have to die in order to attain your ultimate goal.” Grathwohl also stated he had been sent to the scene by Ayers to determine when a bomb would hit the largest number of officers and that there was no plan to place a warning call before the detonation. [90]

The second Detroit bomb—this one to be used against the 13th Precinct headquarters of the Detroit Police Department—was also defused that morning, also in the spot where Grathwohl said it would be located. Eckstein writes that it was four times larger than the DPOA bomb, and “would probably have destroyed the precinct headquarters and everyone in it.” [91]

Grathwohl had been in Madison, Wisconsin, for another Weather-related assignment during the two days before the bombs were placed. This was confirmed by the FBI agent in Madison. From this evidence, Eckstein concluded Grathwohl could not have fabricated the plot nor planted the bombs himself and was thus unlikely to be lying about those who had. [92]

On March 30, according to FBI reports cited by Eckstein, the Bureau raided a “bomb factory” in a Chicago apartment used by the Weathermen and traced those explosives and the dynamite used in Detroit to the same Colorado company. In a memo assessing these discoveries, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote that an occupant of the apartment before the raid was Weather member Naomi Jaffe, who—according to Hoover—had been “in contact with Ayers shortly prior to March 6, 1970, when the dynamite was found in the Detroit police installations.” [93]

Evaluating the veracity of the FBI reports, Eckstein noted that the agents and Hoover wrote the documents in real time and also had the (flawed) expectation that their work would remain classified, just as all FBI materials had been prior to the passage of the federal Freedom of Information Act in 1974.  Furthermore, Eckstein’s book extensively notes that the FBI’s analysis was often based on the Bureau using unconstitutional investigation methods (such as illegal wiretaps) that would later lead to the prosecution and conviction of high-level FBI officials. “They were discussing real law-enforcement problems among themselves,” surmised Eckstein, and had powerful incentives not to lie to one another or exaggerate what they were saying. [94]

Fort Dix Plot

A few days after the New York City firebombs were set off in late February, New York City Weather sect members Terry Robbins, Cathy Wilkerson, Ted Gold and Kathy Boudin relocated to a townhouse in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The home was owned by Wilkerson’s parents, who were leaving town for a vacation and did not know it would be used as a bomb-making facility. [95]

The group quickly decided on a plan to bomb a dance for U.S. Army officers and their dates set to take place on March 6. Bryan Burrough wrote in Days of Rage that the Weather bombers intended to commit “mass murder.” Burrough also stated that Bill Ayers had visited the townhouse during the same week, evidence that he and bomb-maker Robbins were “trying to coordinate their strikes.” [96]

According to Burrough, Ayers “almost certainly knew” of the Fort Dix planning and that a “Weatherman confidant” of Bernardine Dohrn and Jeff Jones said the pair also knew. [97]

Diana Oughton, the girlfriend of Bill Ayers, was transferred from the Midwest team to join the townhouse bombers. Historian Arthur Eckstein summarizes the 2007 autobiography of Wilkerson in which Wilkerson claimed that Oughton arrived already aware of the Fort Dix attack and ready to participate in it. Also, Eckstein cites Wilkerson and other sources, all of whom stated that Ayers and Robbins had an extremely close relationship. Thomas (Tim) Ayers, the older brother of Bill, once told the FBI that Robbins “follows Bill around like a puppy.” [98]

In 2002, a New York Times reporter, citing an FBI investigation, wrote that the townhouse occupants had “enough explosives on hand to level everything on both sides of the street.” On the morning of March 6, while preparing for the attack planned for later in the day, Robbins accidentally set off an explosion that partially collapsed the home, killing himself, Gold, and Oughton. Mostly unharmed by the blast, Wilkerson and Boudin escaped from the rubble, disappeared, and remained fugitives for many years afterward. [99]

That same morning in Detroit, operating on the information provided by Larry Grathwohl that implicated Bill Ayers, law enforcement officers discovered and disabled two bombs planted with the intent to murder Detroit police officers. Eckstein reports that one of them—the one intended for the 13th Precinct house of the Detroit Police Department—was “larger than any of the unexploded bombs found in the townhouse.” [100]

Pivot from Lethal Attacks

From March 1970 through the remainder of the year, the Weathermen leaders attempted to erase evidence of their history of seeking death and harm to police and military personnel. In concert with this they pivoted their bombing strategy to target property damage while avoiding injuries to persons. The last known Weather-connected bombing to inflict injuries occurred in June 1970. [101]

Fallout from Townhouse Explosion

The decision to pivot away from what historian Arthur Eckstein referred to as “lethal violence” was not immediate. In a report sent to the FBI informant Larry Grathwohl stated that a meeting took place on April 2, 1970, in Buffalo, New York, in which Bill Ayers “stressed that the war must be continued” despite the deaths in the townhouse explosion. [102]

Summarizing and quoting from Grathwohl’s account, Eckstein wrote:

Ayers … declared that “Weathermen had to be one-hundred percent Marxist-Leninist indoctrinated and [he dwelled] on the ill effects of monogamy and male chauvinism to operate at the highest levels of violence.” By this, Grathwohl claimed, Ayers meant lethal bombs. [103]

Eckstein wrote of similar reactions among other Weather-connected individuals and members: “Larry Gray says that among the Weather people he knew, the explosion was seen not as a dreadful warning against lethal violence but as a recruiting device … Jonah Raskin concurs.” [104] Referencing his reaction right after learning of the townhouse explosion, Weatherman Ron Fliegelmen said: “I gave a thought to giving up, and I had a gun pulled on me and was told I was not leaving.” [105]

A significant uptick in federal law enforcement attention toward the Weathermen also occurred after the townhouse explosion, which the FBI quickly assumed was connected to the bombs intended for the Detroit police targets on the same day. In July, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and eleven other Weather members were indicted on terrorism charges. Eventually more than three dozen Weathermen were charged with crimes, and Dohrn became one of the FBI’s ten “Most Wanted” criminal suspects. [106]

Two low-level Weather Underground members—not leadership—were arrested on April 15, 1970, after being set up for a meeting by Larry Grathwohl. Weathermen leader Mark Rudd claims he too was supposed to be at this meeting but sensed a possible trap and fled. The minor figures served short jail terms. [107]

These early arrests were ordered by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Grathwohl cooperated with the order but objected to the plan, telling his FBI handlers that more patience and plotting would make it possible to apprehend some, or even all, of the senior Weathermen leaders. The use of Grathwohl to arrest the two less significant figures resulted in the immediate exposure of him as an informer and eliminated the only remaining source the FBI had within the Weather organization. The Bureau would not be able to place another informer within the Weathermen until after the founders and senior leaders of 1970 had left it. [108]

“Responsible Terrorism”

The policy shift away from seeking to kill or maim with their bombings occurred at a May 1970 meeting of Weather Undeground leaders in the northern California town of Mendocino. According to author Bryan Burrough’s account in Days of Rage, Bernardine Dohrn and Jeff Jones called the secretive meeting with the intent to “take control of Weatherman” and steer the organization in a “life affirming” direction of “armed propaganda.” Dohrn told the group future bombings at police and other facilities would occur only when injuries were unlikely and after warnings were given beforehand. A writer for a radical left publication later identified this as “responsible terrorism.” Cathy Wilkerson, one of the survivors of the townhouse explosion who would become one of the bombmakers under the new strategy, said they had “decided to take violence out of the equation.” [109]

Bill Ayers was persuaded at this meeting by Dohrn and Jones to endorse the change and join them in the leadership of the Weathermen. John Jacobs, the author of the Weatherman Manifesto that launched the movement, objected to the change, and was expelled from the movement. Mark Rudd, an ally of Jacobs and on the FBI’s top ten “Most Wanted” list as a top Weather leader, was demoted and would leave the organization by the fall. [110]

Initially, the change in bombing policy was neither total nor made public. Immediately after the May gathering, the leadership released its first public statement: “A Declaration of a State of War.” The audio recording made by Dohrn endorsed “revolutionary violence” as the “only way.” She made no mention of a renunciation of violence and said there were “several hundred members of the Weatherman underground” who “fight in many ways” that included “guns and grass.” [111]

The Declaration concluded with a warning that in solidarity with “all black revolutionaries” fighting “behind enemy lines,” the Weathermen would “attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice.” [112]

Twenty days later in June 1970 the Weather Underground phoned the headquarters of the New York Police Department, warning of a bomb that journalist Bryan Burrough said later “demolished two walls of the bathroom and blew a hole in the floor twenty feet wide and forty feet long” while ejecting “chunks of granite the size of cinder blocks” that “crushed two cars below.” The were 150 people in the building when the warning call came in, but the threat wasn’t taken seriously, and no effort was made to clear them out. Eight people received minor injuries. [113] [114]

Scapegoating of Townhouse Bombers

The public renunciation of lethal bombing by the Weather Underground leadership occurred in early December 1970, with the release of a statement titled “New Morning—Changing Weather,” signed only by Bernardine Dohrn, but using the collective “we” as its pronoun throughout. The statement portrayed the townhouse bombers as an uncharacteristically violent sect of the Weathermen that had evolved from “fire-bombing to anti-personnel bombs.” Dohrn defined this as a “military error” and said it had not reflected the ostensibly less violent behavior of the larger Weathermen movement. When referring to the townhouse group, Dohrn’s statement switched from using the “we” pronoun to the collective “they.” In contrast, Dohrn wrote that actions from the rest of the “Weatherpeople” had “obviously not gone in for large scale material damage” and inflicted damage equal to nothing more than a “bee sting.” [115]

Citing multiple witnesses from within the Weather Underground, historian Arthur Eckstein has argued this portrayal was a whitewashing of Weatherman’s history of violent intent—a myth he argued was perpetuated for decades afterward by a few very vocal Weather leaders. [116]

Writing in 2016 that Bill Ayers was “currently the most visible and loquacious ex-Weather leader,” Eckstein summarized how Ayers has portrayed the organization’s attitude toward injuring and killing:[117]

Ayers has repeatedly asserted … that—except for the Townhouse Collective—the Weathermen were not intent on lethal harm, and were guilty merely of vandalism. They attacked, he insisted, only property and took pains never intentionally to injure or kill anyone. [118]

Eckstein wrote that Ayers has also made repeated attempts to cast Terry Robbins—the bomb maker who died in the townhouse explosion—as a rogue Weather leader who succumbed to “hyperviolence.” In 2004, Ayers compared Robbins’ personality to that of Charles Whitman, the sniper who murdered more than a dozen people while shooting from the clocktower at the University of Texas in 1966. (An autopsy of Whitman conducted just after the murders, known at the time of Ayers’ 2004 statement, revealed a brain tumor that may have damaged Whitman’s mental state). [119] [120]

Eckstein wrote that the ejection of Weather leader John Jacobs at the May 1970 meeting in Mendocino, following the townhouse explosion, was also part of the carefully orchestrated effort to rewrite and pacify Weatherman history. That Jacobs strenuously objected to the new strategy of avoiding lethal violence is not in dispute. But Weatherman leader Mark Rudd—a best friend of Jacobs—has stated that this was a deliberate effort by Jacobs to act as a scapegoat. [121]

Immediately after Jacobs was purged at Mendocino, according to Rudd, the two men went to commiserate at a nearby tavern. Rudd wrote that the following conversation took place:[122]

Jacobs: “I’m accepting my expulsion for the good of the organization. Someone has to take the blame. Bernardine, Billy, and Jeff are right about the military error.”

Rudd: “But everyone knew what was being planned. We were all together in New York with Terry the week before the action, and nobody raised any objections.”

Jacobs: “It doesn’t matter. We have to create the fiction that they were always right so that they can lead the organization.” [123]

Summarizing this incident, Rudd wrote that the Jacobs expulsion was a “brilliant maneuver” with the result being that Weatherman history “had been conveniently cleaned” by offloading the lethal bombing blame onto John Jacobs and Terry Robbins alone. [124]

Weather leader Howard Machtinger agreed, telling an interviewer the following in 2011: “The myth, and this is always Bill Ayers’s line, is that Weather never set out to kill people, and that’s not true—we did. You know, policemen were fair game.” [125]

Weatherman Ron Fliegelman, interviewed by Eckstein in 2013, said the actions of Jacobs and Robbins were fully in line with the Weather leadership as a whole: “Terry JJ [Jacobs] didn’t go off and do something on their own . . . All the main leaders knew what was going on with the townhouse.” [126]

Fliegelman, along with townhouse survivor Cathy Wilkerson, became the primary bomb makers for the Weathermen after the townhouse explosion. [127]

Summarizing the accounts of these witnesses, plus the FBI reports regarding the attempt to bomb the Detroit police targets on the same day as the townhouse group’s intended attack on Fort Dix, historian Eckstein concludes that the weight of evidence leans toward the likelihood that the “characterization of the townhouse plan as an essentially rogue operation was false” and that it is equally probable that “much of the disobliging truth was being concealed in the ‘New Morning‘ communiqué.” [128]

Motives for the Pivot

According to historian Arthur Eckstein, the Weathermen pivot away from lethal bombings in May 1970 occurred in large measure because the American left had begun to embrace a “new militancy” including large demonstrations in response to several events that spring, such as the U.S. military incursion into Cambodia, the fatal shooting of students at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard, and the prosecution of Black Panther leaders in New Haven, Connecticut. Weather leaders had founded the organization with the assumption that it was needed to lead such a militant movement, but by May 1970 radical student protesters had taken it upon themselves to commit dozens of non-lethal campus fire bombings without direction from the Weathermen. [129]

According to Eckstein, Weather leaders were still convinced they were the “vanguard” of this movement, and the May 1970 decision to give up “lethal violence” demonstrated that Weatherman “needed to align itself with its supporters (basically radicalized hippies and students) and not get ahead of the ‘level of struggle’ being pursued on campuses.” [130]

Additionally, Eckstein argued that Weather leaders “faced continuing public pressure from the wider radical Left to back off” and that the “counterculture was more in sympathy with nonviolence and didn’t naturally embrace acts that might risk human injuries.” [131]

“Weather yearned for a revolutionary mass to follow it,” concluded Eckstein regarding these points. “Its leaders believed they had a constituency and wanted to keep it—and the pressure of this constituency helped push them away from lethal violence.” [132]

This pivot in strategy became more pronounced six months later when the “New Morning—Changing Weather” communiqué made public Weather’s May decision to steer away from lethal attacks. This statement, according to Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough, is where Weather officially made a break with its strategy of “supporting black revolutionaries” and replaced it with “more attempts to reach out to hippies and freaks.” Violent Black Panther groups that had once allied with Weather in a policy of deliberately harming police denounced the abandonment of lethal violence represented in the “New Morning” statement. [133]

Burrough quoted a “radical attorney of the period” who was critical of the pivot:[134]

That right there is the moment when they [Weather] abandoned the blacks, abandoned everything they ever said about helping the blacks, and we all knew it.  . . . Bernardine, Billy, that pretty boy Jeff Jones, all of them, they decided they didn’t want to die, they didn’t want to go to jail. So they walked out on everything they believed so they could stay free and stay alive. [135]

New Morning also demonstrated a tilt toward an appeal to a different form of identity politics. According to Sing A Battle Song, a compendium of Weathermen statements co-edited by Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones: “Confirming the abandonment of macho male posturing that had typified the immature organization, New Morning was the first time a statement was signed by the Weather Underground, a more gender-neutral sobriquet.” [136]

Non-Lethal Terrorist Actions

No injuries have been recorded from bombs alleged to have been detonated by the Weather Underground after the June 1970 attack on the New York Police Department headquarters that injured eight. Historian Arthur Eckstein wrote that after the May 1970 decision to avoid or eliminate injuries, Weather bomb targets were selected for “maximum political spectacle and publicity.” [137]

The bombings and other noteworthy acts were also few and far between: In the five years after the December 1970 “New Morning” statement, there were only 12 total bombings credited to or claimed by the Weather Underground. Eckstein noted that this slowed pace of activity allowed the Weather Underground members to hide within their false identities, lead “seemingly ordinary lives,” and (with one minor exception) totally avoid capture by law enforcement. [138]

Non-lethal and more spectacular attacks, according to Eckstein, “could be countenanced by supporters otherwise repelled by violent acts,” allowing the Weather Underground to build an aboveground support base critical to both Weather’s survival and lasting mythology. But Eckstein concluded there was a critical flaw built into the slow and careful strategy: “Weathermen could not gain momentum, let alone ignite a revolution, if for long months it simply disappeared from public view.” [139]

Timothy Leary Prison Break

On September 12, 1970, after the May decision to renounce violence but before the December public announcement of the decision, the Weathermen helped LSD and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary escape from a California minimum-security prison. In the account in Days of Rage, author Bryan Burrough wrote the “escape was news around the world and probably did more to elevate Weatherman’s visibility than any single bombing.” [140]

Leary had been arrested for possession of a small amount of marijuana and sentenced to ten years. Burrough wrote that Leary’s wife arranged for a “rag tag bunch” of “hippies” to finance the jail break that—allegedly unbeknownst to Leary—would be successfully carried out by the Weathermen. The amount raised and paid to Weather has been variously estimated at between $25,000 and $50,000 ($167,000 to $333,000 in 2020 dollars). Weatherman Jeff Jones, in a biography written by his son, stated that he picked up the payment, which Jones said included “several doses of acid” to be used in the post-escape celebration. [141]

With false identification provided by the Weather Underground, Leary and his wife obtained passports and fled the United States for Algeria. [142] In a Weather Underground compendium edited by Dohrn, Ayers, and Jeff Jones, the trio state that after his capture in Afghanistan in 1974 Leary “informed on his rescuers, telling the FBI some of what he knew about the Weathermen and their underground operation.” [143]

Seeking to capitalize on the notoriety from the Leary jailbreak, the Weathermen carried out several bombings within a month afterward.

On October 5, a team led by bomb maker Ron Fliegelman blew up, once again, the Haymarket statute of a police officer in downtown Chicago. This monument had been destroyed by the Weathermen in advance of their 1969 ‘Days of Rage’ one year earlier, and then rebuilt. Blowing it up once again, wrote Bryan Burrough in Days of Rage, was meant to symbolize Weather’s “Phoenix-like rise from the ashes of the Townhouse” seven months earlier. [144]

The next day at a New York press conference, Bernardine Dohrn’s sister, Jennifer Dohrn, played an audio recording of Bernardine that warned of future bombings that would occur from “Santa Barbara to Boston.” Beginning two days later and continuing for a week, the Weathermen successfully detonated five bombs at law enforcement and military targets in San Francisco, California; Seattle, Washington; Santa Barbara, California; New York City; and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Some of the attacks inflicted extensive property damage, such as a destroyed courtroom in San Francisco, but none inflicted injuries. [145]

U.S. Capitol Bombing

On March 1, 1971, the Weather Underground placed a bomb in a first-floor restroom at the U.S. Capitol Building. The bomb blew up after a warning call was placed to the facility. There were no injuries, but the explosion inflicted $300,000 in damage to the building ($1.9 million in 2020 dollars). Bryan Burrough wrote that several of his sources within the Weather organization recall the bomb being placed by Bernardine Dohrn and Kathy Boudin, but that it was a “rare Weatherman action in which all, or almost all, the leadership gathered to take part.” [146]

This was the first bombing after the release of the Weather Underground’s “New Morning—Changing Weather” statement. In its coverage, ABC News declared this the first assault on the U.S. Capitol Building since the British burned it during the War of 1812. The inspection of visitors’ bags by Capitol security began after this bombing. [147]

Pentagon Bombing

To commemorate the birthdays of black radical Malcolm X and North Vietnamese Communist dictator Ho Chi Minh on May 19, 1972, the Weather Underground placed and detonated a bomb in a bathroom at the Pentagon. A warning call was placed in advance and no personal injuries occurred. The explosion caused an estimated $1 million in damages ($6.2 million in 2020 dollars). A computer used in the air war in Vietnam was destroyed, delaying military operations for a week. [148]

The bold and destructive attack led to FBI fears that a summer of audacious bombings from the Weather Underground would follow, with the 1972 Democratic and Republican national conventions later in the summer being possible targets. Instead, the bombers appear to have taken a year-long hiatus afterward, as no other explosions credited to the Weather Underground occurred until May 1973. [149]

Other Terrorist Actions

Beginning with the bombing of a statute of a policeman in Chicago to kick off the Days of Rage in the summer of 1969, and continuing through the September 1975 bombing of the Kennecott Corporation in Utah, the Weathermen conducted 25 bombings, with half occurring in 1970. In addition to Kennecott, other corporate targets included ITT, Gulf Oil, Anaconda Corporation, and the New York headquarters of the Argentinian Banco de Ponce. Examples of other attacks against government targets included the U.S. State Department, the Presidio military base in California, a federal government welfare office in San Francisco, and another attack against a New York Police Department precinct house in May 1973. [150]

According to historian Arthur Eckstein, Bill Ayers claims to have investigated the possibility of attacking the White House as another spectacular target, but never acted on it. [151]

Weatherman Howard Machtinger, in a 2001 interview with Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough, said that after the May 1970 Declaration of War statement, he was ordered by Weather leaders to take a group to Maine on a scouting mission to plan the kidnapping of a member of the Rockefeller family. The voyage lasted a week, according to Machtinger, and his group failed to find the home or their kidnapping target nor formulate a plan. Burrough writes that this spectacular crime, had it been attempted or succeeded, “might have altered the history” of the organization. Machtinger said that his failure to move the plan forward resulted in his being swiftly and purged from the Weathermen when he returned from Maine. [152]

Financing and Supporters

The Weather Underground had the support of “perhaps hundreds” of above ground supporters, wrote Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough, in a book based in part on interviews with some of these figures. These supporters included friends and family of the Weathermen, plus former members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and Weathermen who left the movement or had been purged. [153]

The most important group, according to Burrough, was “an array of determined radical attorneys” who “helped with a range of tasks, raising money, arranging secret meetings, and acting as couriers.” Nearly all of these lawyers were members of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG). In his history of SDS, Kirkpatrick Sale described the NLG as the “center of legal advice and strategy for the New Left.” Before becoming an officer in SDS, Bernardine Dohrn had been the NLG’s assistant executive secretary. [154] [155]

One of the NLG lawyers, Elizabeth Fink, told Burrough that without lawyers like her the Weather Underground “couldn’t have survived.” She described the Weathermen as the “heroes” of lawyers such as herself who “didn’t have the balls to go underground,” but were “revolutionaries in our hearts.” She said the group of radical lawyers “would’ve done anything,” for the Weathermen, including providing “money, strategy, passports, whatever it was we could do.” Summarizing her motives, she said: “This was the revolution, baby, and they were the fighters.” [156]

Radical attorney Dennis Cunningham told Burrough he “gave them money, sure, but I raised even more,” and that without lawyers “they couldn’t have survived.” Weather Underground bomb maker Ron Fliegelman said these lawyers were responsible for all the organization’s funding, an assertion Burrough wrote was “echoed by several other Weather alumni.” [157]

Cunningham told Burrough that radical San Francisco attorney Michael Kennedy was “the most important friend” the Weathermen had. Kennedy and his wife were close friends of Dohrn. Burrough also described Kennedy as a having a “close friendship” with San Francisco attorney Leonard Boudin—father of Weather member Kathy Boudin, one of the two survivors of the townhouse explosion. [158]

Logistical Assistance

An example of the assistance provided by the lawyers and above ground supporters was the use of the children of attorney Dennis Cunningham. Cunningham’s wife, Mona Mellis, was also an original supporter of the Weathermen and had attended the Flint War Council. After the couple separated in 1971, Mona moved to San Francisco with her four children. The kids were then used by Weather leaders as cover to evade law enforcement, under what became a valid assumption that police and FBI agents looking for the Weather Underground would be less suspicious of young couples with children. [159]

Another example is Michael Kennedy’s alleged assistance as a participant in the (Weather-assisted) plot to break Timothy Leary out of prison. Burrough wrote that Kennedy denied all involvement and survived an FBI investigation of the jailbreak without being indicted, but also that Leary “in multiple interviews” had described Kennedy “as the driving force behind everything that happened.” Adjusted for inflation to 2020 dollars, the amount raised and paid to Weather for just this one illegal action was estimated at $167,000 to $333,000. [160]

High Living of Leadership

Burrough wrote that after 1970, the above ground support allowed the top Weather leadership—Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, and Jeff Jones—to move into a “modern gated home” in a waterside San Francisco suburb that one visitor describes as a “big, glamorous house” that included a “beautiful deck” and “four bedrooms” that were “totally empty.” However, Burrough noted this was not the lifestyle of non-leaders, who “lived on the edge of poverty,” and that the disparity led to resentment. [161]

Cathy Wilkerson said the leadership trio would “go to restaurants we could not afford” and that the disparity in lifestyle between the leadership level and her level “became really gross.” [162]

Likewise, Rick Ayers said he and his compatriots were “dangerously poor” while his brother Bill, along with Jones and Dohrn, “always ate good food,” and “always slept between clean sheets.” According to Rick Ayers, the leadership level “lived off radical lawyers and moneyed friends who told them what they wanted to hear—what courageous revolutionaries they were—while all the rest of us did the shit work and went around blowing things up to maintain their reputations.” [163]

FBI Investigations

Federal law enforcement made apprehension of the Weathermen a high priority immediately after the March 6, 1970, discovery of bombs planted in Detroit and the explosion of the New York City townhouse that same morning. The order came directly from President Richard Nixon, who within the week called a meeting of top advisors and—according to historian Arthur Eckstein—told them he was worried the Weathermen represented a “serious physical threat (including kidnapping and possibly outright assassination)” against “high officials in the government, including himself.” [164]

On March 19, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to all of his field offices, stating the Weathermen had “implemented plans to go underground and form commando-type units to engage in bombing, arson and assassination as  political weapons to bring about the revolution.” All FBI agents were instructed to locate nearly three dozen suspected top Weather leaders, including Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Mark Rudd. [165]

In July 1970, federal law enforcement secured indictments of thirteen Weathermen for “conspiracy to commit terrorism.” [166] Bernardine Dohrn and Mark Rudd both appeared on the FBI’s ten “Most Wanted” list by fall 1970. [167]

A special Weatherman Squad within the FBI was formed on March 26 and would spend $14 million ($86.6 million in 2020 dollars) pursuing the Weathermen. During its six years in existence the Squad captured only one significant member of the Weathermen, Howard Machtinger. He was released on just a $2,500 bond to await trial, and within three weeks had jumped bail and disappeared underground once again. [168]

In 1976, following the discovery of illegal activities used by the FBI in pursuit of the Weather Underground, the U.S. Justice Department disbanded the FBI’s Weatherman Squad and began a criminal investigation targeting senior federal law enforcement officials. [169]

Despite the large commitment of resources, Eckstein and Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough both concluded that the federal government misunderstood and exaggerated the threat posed by the Weathermen. [170] [171]

In the aftermath of the townhouse bombing, according to Burrough, the Weathermen were “in shambles,” even though federal officials believed “exactly the opposite: that Weatherman constituted a dire threat to national security.” [172] According to Eckstein, the FBI was “creating a bogeyman” by absurdly inflating the size and impact of the Weathermen, with one official telling Time magazine the group was responsible for 150 bombings and had as many as 1,000 underground terrorists and 5,000 above ground supporters. [173]

By 1972 the FBI’s Weatherman Squad had learned their target was far smaller and responsible for only a limited number of bombings. According to Burrough, the agents began to doubt the threat justified the expense and time they were dedicating to it. The Weatherman Squad began to refer to their prey as the “terrible toilet bombers”—a reference to the Weather Underground’s preference to placing bombs in public restrooms and then calling in a warning to prevent injuries. [174]

Missed Opportunities

With few exceptions, according to historian Arthur Eckstein, the Weathermen reported rarely feeling a significant threat that the FBI would capture them. Even as Bernardine Dohrn was one of the Bureau’s ten most sought-after fugitives during the fall of 1970, she and Bill Ayers were vacationing in California with above-ground allies Dennis and Mona Cunningham. Later, illegal FBI listening devices placed at Mona’s home “failed to comprehend” the help she was providing by allowing her children to be used as cover by Ayers and Dohrn as the bombers moved about scouting locations for future attacks. [175]

In 1975, filmmaker Emile de Antonio produced a documentary about the Weather Underground after both locating and interviewing his subjects. Asked by the FBI to provide information about Weather, he refused and mocked the much-better funded federal investigators for failing to “locate a network of fugitives that a middle-aged film director had found with little difficulty.” [176]

The FBI came close to apprehending Jeff Jones and Bernardine Dohrn in early 1971, after an investigation revealed both Dohrn’s false identity and an apartment the pair was using. An elaborate attempt to capture them led to a car chase in which Dohrn (driving) and Jones (the passenger) successfully eluded the agents. Dohrn and Jones disappeared once again. [177]

A similar close call occurred a few months earlier, in December 1970, when the then-girlfriend of Ron Fliegelman was identified entering a New York City movie theater near the local FBI headquarters. Agents confronted her inside the theater, and she was captured after leading them on a brief chase. The agents did not notice or did not realize that Fliegelman, Bill Ayers and possibly other Weather leaders were seated nearby and quietly escaped as the girlfriend was being pursued. [178]

The women had been a participant in the Days of Rage and as a result, after capture by the FBI, served a brief sentence in an Illinois jail for charges related to that event. She continued to help the Weathermen as an above-ground supporter after her release. [179]

FBI Misconduct

The only defendants ever brought to trial by the federal government in a case involving the Weathermen investigation were two senior level FBI officials: former assistant director Edward Miller and former associate director Mark Felt, later famous after he revealed that he was the anonymous source used by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in reporting on the Watergate scandal known popularly as “Deep Throat.” Miller and Felt were convicted in 1980 by a jury on charges that they had authorized more than a dozen warrantless break-ins of the homes of family members and supporters of the Weathermen, usually for the purpose of planting a telephone wiretap or other surveillance device. [180]

Both men were pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. The FBI misconduct they were involved in led directly to the federal government dropping nearly all major charges against the senior leadership of the Weather Underground. [181]

According to historian Arthur Eckstein, the warrantless break ins and surveillance occurred because of the FBI’s inability to find or obtain information about the Weathermen in any other fashion. A hasty arrest of two low-level Weather participants in April 1970 on minor charges had exposed Larry Grathwohl as the only remaining FBI informant still working within the Weathermen. After this, the FBI’s Weatherman Squad was unable to place another informant within the group. [182]

The targets of the FBI’s warrantless surveillance were Jennifer Dohrn, sister of Bernardine Dohrn, and other friends, family, and alleged supporters of the Weather Underground. Because none of these persons were criminal suspects, and no warrant had been obtained to enter their residences nor listen to their conversations, the prosecution was able to prove to the jury that the FBI had violated their Fourth Amendment rights. [183]

The Bureau had been operating under a presumption that these break-ins were entitled to a national security exemption from U.S. Constitutional protections because the Weathermen were receiving support from foreign communist governments. This national security concern was believed by President Nixon, but never supported by any evidence, despite an exhaustive search by the FBI and other federal agencies. To the contrary, the FBI knew of only minor contacts between Weather and officials of the Cuban and Vietnamese communist governments, and in both instances, the foreign regimes had tried and failed to dissuade the Weather leaders away from violent behavior. [184]

At the trial of Felt and Miller, Nixon told that jury that when “authority from the President of the United States is given for surreptitious entry for good cause, under those circumstances, what would otherwise be unlawful or illegal becomes legal.” [185]

Historian Arthur Eckstein observed that many other FBI and government officials were aware or should also have been aware that the break ins of the Weather supporters were violations of the Fourth Amendment. [186] In Days of Rage, Bryan Burrough quotes one agent regarding the behavior of the Weatherman Squad when the internal investigation began:[187]

Guys were literally burning files, tossing them in bags and taking them home to throw in their fireplaces. I know. I watched ‘em do it. Before long you couldn’t find a single folder in the New York office with the name Weather Underground on it. [188]

In June 1973, Damon Keith, a federal judge in Detroit overseeing the indictment of Weather leaders ordered the FBI to reveal any illegal break ins or surveillance involving the suspects. Lawyers representing the Weather Underground leaders told the judge that the FBI was harassing family members with illegal break ins and warrantless surveillance. Less than two weeks later the FBI provided an affidavit stating that none of this illegal conduct had occurred. Had the Weather Underground leaders been captured and brought to trial, this false assertion may have been disproved with severe legal repercussions for the agents who attested to it. [189] [190]

Later in 1973 federal prosecutors dropped all serious charges against the Weathermen related to their bombings and other illegal actions. This decision allowed most of the major participants to resurface and face no or only minor criminal charges. [191] [192]

End of the Weather Underground

By 1974 the Weather Underground had begun calling itself the “Weather Underground Organization.” The top leadership—Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Jeff Jones, Eleanor Stein, and Robbie Roth—had engaged in what Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough characterized as “months of anguished discussion of Weather’s irrelevancy” and about a strategy to resurface from the underground. Burrough quoted Ayers, who said staying under had become a “high-cost fantasy,” and Dohrn, who characterized it as “inappropriate.” [193]

Central to their concern, according to Burrough, was that a secretive existence had cut them off from a radical left that had become reinvigorated by the Watergate scandal and revelations of FBI and CIA abuses. Founded and operating on the assumption that the Weatherman movement was itself the leadership of the radical left, Weather leaders were struggling to obtain a strategy that would allow them to reclaim this supposed position of authority.

Prairie Fire Movement

Their solution was Prairie Fire, a sprawling political manifesto released in May 1974. It was to become the springboard for the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), what Burrough described as Weather’s “most crazily audacious plan ever,” a “grand scheme” whereby the Weather leaders would resurface from the underground and seize control of a massive coalition that included all of the radical left. [194]

The Prairie Fire manuscript, according to historian Arthur Eckstein, represented the full repudiation of the Weatherman Manifesto, the organization’s founding document from 1969. Prairie Fire denounced the strategy of trying to spark a revolution strictly through guerilla violence and advocated instead working openly to seek broad alliances with the working class. By comparison, the Weatherman Manifesto had written off the working class as hopelessly racist and a slave to capitalism, while promoting the idea that a small cadre of violent guerillas could spark a revolution by assaulting the state. Prairie Fire, wrote Eckstein, was a “stunning reversal of position.” [195]

The follow up strategy to Prairie Fire was executed by the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee (PFOC), the above-ground front for the Weather Underground. Disingenuously promoted as a grassroots movement not attached to the Weathermen, PFOC was designed to clandestinely attract and then consolidate the radical left into a single movement to be led by the Weather leadership. Bryan Burrough wrote that the “dishonest” plan was that the “radical left … was literally going to be fooled into returning Weather’s leadership to the exalted positions they had abandoned on leaving SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] four years before.” [196]

The PFOC failed in its objective, but not before attracting some genuine supporters who were unaware of the Weathermen-connected puppet strings. Burrough quotes one participant’s bitter memories: [197]

I was stupid. I fell for it. [. . .] We didn’t realize their leadership had already abandoned any pretense at being true revolutionaries and wanted only to surface and take control of the Left and enjoy the middle-class lives they had left behind. None of us knew how we were being manipulated. [198]

The intended culmination of the Prairie Fire strategy, but what began the unraveling of the Weather Underground itself, was the January 1976 Hard Times Conference in Chicago. At least 2,000 delegates representing a wide cross-section of the radical left were inspired to come to the meeting by the PFOC’s desire to create a cohesive movement. [199]

Instead of unity, Burrough describes a conference that devolved into wild factional disputes based on identity politics. Russell Neufield, a main organizer for the PFOC strategy, said he was “almost lynched by a group of vegetarians because I hadn’t provided enough nonmeat meals.” A “Black Caucus” organized and opposed the PFOC focus on the “working class” rather than race issues. Likewise, a “feminist caucus” became displeased with a perceived lack of attention to its concerns. The exasperated Neufield remembered that every misfire led to him “constantly being accused of being a racist.” [200]

Weather’s covert plans for the PFOC was exposed as a result. An investigation was launched by disillusioned PFOC participants and led by Clayton Van Lydegraf, who had been thrown out of the Weather Underground but wandered back into the orbit by way of joining the PFOC. “Granted the opportunity to take his revenge” for being thrown out of Weather, wrote Burrough, “he proceeded to do so with grim determination.” [201]

By the time he was done, near the end of 1976, Van Lydegraf and his faction had expelled Dohrn, Ayers, and others from the movement they had created. The formerly top Weather leaders were accused of “counterrevolutionary crimes,” such as abandonment of the African-American cause and trying to wreck the influence of gays, lesbians, and feminists within the Weather Underground. [202]

During what Burrough wrote was a “Stalin-like purge,” Van Lydegraf’s interrogations had managed to wring a startling taped confession from even Bernardine Dohrn. She implicated herself, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones as participants in the “naked white supremacy, white superiority, and chauvinist arrogance.” Dohrn stated she was making the self-critical statement “to acknowledge, repudiate, and denounce the counterrevolutionary politics and direction of the Weather Underground Organization.” [203]

Under Van Lydegraf’s leadership, the Weather Underground deteriorated quickly in 1977 to become just himself and four other people hoping to resume the guerilla bombing campaign. Van Lydegraf enlisted two men to help train his group—both were undercover FBI agents. The first and only major action by this truncated Weather Underground—the planned bombing of a California state senator’s office in November 1977—was thwarted by the FBI before it succeeded. The Bureau captured all of what remained of the Weather Underground, the first and only substantive arrests of the Weather movement ever made by federal lawmen. [204]

Analyzing the total impact of the Weathermen, Bryan Burrough concluded it was a failure:[205]

In every conceivable way, the young intellectuals who had come together in 1969 to form Weatherman had utterly failed: failed to lead the radical left over the barricades into armed underground struggle; failed to fight or support the black militants they championed; failed to force agencies of the American “ruling class” into a single change more significant than the spread of metal detectors and guard dogs. [206]

Burrough also concluded that Dohrn’s confessions before being ejected from the Weather Underground demonstrated the “essential truth” that she and the other leaders had “sold out their dreams in return for their own personal safety.” [207]

Resurfacing Aboveground

Because FBI misconduct had led to federal prosecutors dropping most of the serious charges against the original Weather Underground in late 1973, only minor charges still confronted some of the Weathermen leaders when they began to abandon their underground life in 1977. [208]

Bryan Burrough writes that the first to turn themselves in went to a Chicago courthouse in April 1977 to answer for state charges related to their participation in the Days of Rage back in 1969. They weren’t arrested—the officer they spoke with told them to return the next day. The totality of their punishment was probation and a $1,000 fine. Many of the rest of the wanted Weathermen surrendered in 1977 and received no more than comparably small punishments. [209]

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

For more see: Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn

Weathermen co-founders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, in hiding together, later married. When the pair came out of hiding in 1980, Dohrn accepted a plea bargain on state charges, which cost her a $1,500 fine and three years of probation. [210]

In 2001, Ayers’ memoir of his SDS and Weathermen experiences was published. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” he said in the opening sentence of an article about his book that was published by the New York Times on September 11, 2001. [211]

“We weren’t terrorists,” Ayers claimed later in a 2008 interview with the Chicago Tribune. “The biggest challenges to democracy in my youth were the war in Vietnam and racism. The truth is, we weren’t extreme enough in fighting against the war, and we weren’t extreme enough in fighting racism, which is still a stain on America.” [212]

Fellow Students for a Democratic Society leader Todd Gitlin disagreed, saying of the Weathermen movement in general, and Ayers and Dohrn in particular, that they “planned on being terrorists” and “wanted to be terrorists,” but wound up “failed terrorists,” so “let’s give them a medal for not killing anybody besides themselves.” [213]

“He was one of a bunch of people who committed absolutely, I mean literally, incoherent and reckless acts in the name of nonsensical beliefs,” said Gitlin of Ayers to the Chicago Tribune in 2008. “They [the Weathermen] wrecked SDS.” Gitlin also said Ayers was “not a deep thinker.” [214]

Ayers later became a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. [215] Dorhn became an associate clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law, and for 23 years was the director of its Children and Family Justice Center. [216]

Following the arrest and conviction of Weather Underground guerillas David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin for murder and armed robbery in 1981, Ayers and Dohrn raised their son, Chesa Boudin. In November 2019, Chesa Boudin was elected the district attorney of San Francisco, California. [217]

According to historian Arthur Eckstein, Dorhn was prohibited from taking the bar exam and becoming a practicing attorney because she had gone to prison for contempt of court following her refusal to testify in the bank robbery case involving Boudin and Gilbert. Eckstein also wrote that Ayers, after his retirement as a university professor in 2010, was denied emeritus status because he had dedicated Prairie Fire to Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin who killed U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY). [218]

Eleanor (Raskin) Stein and Jeff Jones

Jeff Jones and Eleanor Stein had a son and were married in 1981. Their son, Thai Jones, later wrote a biography of his parents and their years in the Weather Underground. [219]

Stein became an associate professor at Albany Law School and an administrative law judge with the New York State Public Service commission. [220]

Jeff Jones became a political consultant in New York, specializing in helping left-leaning environmentalist organizations. [221]

Cathy Wilkerson and Ron Fliegelman

Cathy Wilkerson, who claims to have developed her math skills learning to build bombs, became a math teacher for 25 years in Brooklyn, New York. According to historian Arthur Eckstein, she no longer associates with any of her former Weather colleagues. She and fellow bomb maker Ron Fliegelman ended their relationship as the Weather Underground was dissolving. They have daughter from that union. [222]

As with his former romantic and bomb-building partner, Ron Fliegelman was also a schoolteacher in Brooklyn for nearly three decades. [223]

Mark Rudd

From 1980 until 2006, Mark Rudd was a math instructor at a community college in New Mexico. The biography on his personal website stated that he retired in 2007, and that he was also an “organizer and nonviolent activist locally on issues of native American land rights, nuclear, US military interventions, Palestine solidarity, unionization, environmental justice, and war and militarization.” [224]

John Jacobs

Despite predicting he would return to the Weathermen, John Jacobs never returned after being expelled following the 1970 townhouse explosion. He eventually fled to Vancouver, British Columbia, living under an assumed name, and never returned to the United States. Days of Rage author Bryan Burrough wrote that he became a “low-level marijuana dealer” who worked “odd jobs” and died of cancer in 1997. [225]

Howard Machtinger

Howard Machtinger became a teacher and a university administrator. [226]

Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert

Kathy Boudin was one of two survivors of the 1970 New York City townhouse explosion accidentally caused by the bomb-making work of her fellow Weathermen. Boudin had been showering in the townhouse at the time of the explosion, exited the rubble naked, received clothing from a neighbor, and then fled the scene, remaining a fugitive for years afterward. [227] [228]

In 1981 she and several other former members of the Weather Underground, now aligned with the so-called Black Liberation Army, participated in the robbery of a Brinks armored car, the murder of one of its drivers, and the murders of two police officers who were ambushed while trying to apprehend the suspects. David Gilbert, the father of Boudin’s son and later her husband, received a 75-years-to-life sentence for his participation in the attack. [229]

According to an account from the TruTV Crime Library, Boudin’s father, a civil rights attorney, secured her an expensive private criminal defense lawyer, an advantage not available to the other defendants in the felony robbery and murder case. Also, unlike other defendants, there was no evidence linking Boudin to the firing of the fatal shots that killed the policemen and armored car driver. In 1984, after a protracted prosecution effort, Boudin was offered and accepted a 20-years-to-life sentence in exchange for her guilty plea on murder and robbery charges. [230]

She was granted parole in 2003. By 2013 she had become an adjunct professor at the Columbia University School of Social Work and a scholar-in-residence at the New York University Law School. [231]

Chesa Boudin, the son of Boudin and Gilbert, was raised by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn while his parents were in prison. In November 2019, Chesa Boudin was elected the district attorney for San Francisco, California. [232]

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