Weather Underground

Introduction

The Weather Underground was a radical, militant organization founded in 1969 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Emerging from opposition to the Vietnam War, the Weather Underground adhered to a communist and anti-war ideology, targeting what it saw as symbols of U.S. military power, authoritarianism, and racism. The Weather Underground was responsible for multiple bombings in the 1970s targeting police, military, government offices, and other symbols of authority.*

The Weather Underground originated as a faction of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Bernardine Dohrn, James Mellen, and Mark Rudd belonged to the Third World Marxists faction of SDS and formed what became known as SDS’s “action faction,” advocating street fighting to weaken the United States. At the June 1969 SDS convention, the Third World Marxists published their position paper, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. The paper called for a white revolutionary movement to support black liberation, which the faction called central to SDS’s anti-imperialist fight.* The paper’s title—and the Weather Underground’s name—referenced a lyric from the Bob Dylan song “Subterranean Homesick Blues”: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”* This paper became a founding document of the Weather Underground.* The Weathermen, as the group was originally known, formally emerged in December 1969 after a meeting of SDS’s so-called “war council” to discuss the need for further education on the use of firearms and bombs. SDS had collapsed earlier that year and the Weathermen advocated transforming the remnants into an underground guerilla warfare group that would target U.S. sites of power.* The group later changed its name from the Weathermen to the Weather Underground at the behest of members who found the original name sexist.*

The Weather Underground took a more violent approach than SDS as it sought to “dismember and dispose of US imperialism.”* According to some who were present at that December 1969 meeting, there were discussions on the Weathermen’s tactics and willingness to kill in the name of the goals of targeting the U.S. war machine. Police and military became legitimate targets. In January 1970, the Weather Underground divided into three subgroups based in San Francisco led by Howard Machtinger, New York led by Terry Robbins, and a loose network of cells in the Midwest led by Bill Ayers.* According to the group’s 1974 manifesto, Prairie Fire, the group’s goal was “to disrupt the empire ... to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks.”* By 1970, the Weather Underground had inspired the creation of three- to five-person cells across the country that were overseen by the group’s leadership, called the Weather Bureau.* By 1975, the Weather Underground had claimed responsibility for 25 bombings around the United States, including at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the California Attorney General’s office, and a New York City police station.*

The FBI-New York City Police Anti-Terrorist Task Force—a precursor to the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces in FBI field offices nationwide—reportedly played a key role in disrupting the Weather Underground’s activities.* The FBI began infiltrating the Weather Underground as early as the 1969 SDS conference and reportedly encouraged the formation of the Weathermen out of a belief that faction represented the least threatening option. Some historians argue the Weather Underground—despite carrying out some prominent bombings in its early years—never achieved a large following and the FBI devoted too many resources and attention to the group.* In 1973, federal prosecutors dropped all major charges against Weather Underground members because of legal questions surrounding FBI tactics—including wiretaps and illegal searches and seizures—while pursuing the group.*

By 1974, the organization’s bombing campaign had slowed significantly. The Weather Underground underwent another name change to the Weather Underground Organization as its leaders struggled with fading relevancy among other far-left radical groups. This led to the creation of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, which released the group’s 1974 manifesto in a bid to recapture its influence on the far left.* Internally, the Weather Underground began to fracture over whether to continue embracing violence. The Prairie Fire committee had concluded the Weather Underground needed to win the support of the working class, which set up a division between pro- and anti-violence factions within the group. Original members such as Ayers either left or were expelled.* In December 1976, the Weather Underground underwent a public split over an “inversion” plan for members to come resume public lives. Dohrn accused other members of the group’s Central Committee of being “white, male supremacists” for supporting the plan. Though she had initially supported the plan, she released an audio tape denouncing “the counter‐revolutionary politics” in the Weather Underground and acknowledging the group’s “real” split.* More radical leftists accused the Weather Underground leadership of abandoning armed struggle and diluting their ideology to win over the working class.* The Weather Underground officially disbanded in 1976.* Radical leftist Clayton Van Lydegraf seized control of what remained of the Weather Underground, expelling any remaining original leadership. By 1977, all that remained of the Weather Underground was Van Lydegraf and four followers, all of whom were arrested that November for conspiring to bomb the office of California State Senator John Briggs.*

After spending years in prison, a handful of Weather Underground leaders reformed and took positions as academics and writers. Ayers and Dohrn were indicted in 1970 and spent 10 years in hiding. Charges were eventually dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.* At the end of his term in January 2001, President Bill Clinton pardoned Weather Underground member Susan L. Rosenberg.* Prominent former Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin, who spent 22 years in prison for her role in an October 1981 Brink’s armored truck robbery in Nanuet, New York, was hired as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work in 2013.* Despite these reformations, critics continued to view former Weather Underground members with suspicion.*

Leadership

Bernardine Dohrn, James Mellen, and Mark Rudd led the original Weathermen faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), initially known as SDS’s “action faction.” After SDS’s collapse in 1969, Dohrn, Mellen, and Rudd led the newly emerged Weathermen.*

Base of Operations

The Weather Underground undertook actions across the United States. Its leadership was divided into three subgroups based in San Francisco, New York, and the Midwest.*

Membership Size and Relevance

When the FBI began investigating the Weather Underground in 1969, the fledgling guerilla network had approximately 400 members across the United States.* Following the March 6, 1970, accident that destroyed a New York City townhouse and killed three Weather Underground leaders, the group reportedly lost hundreds of supporters and shrunk to about 30 members nationwide.* The Weather Underground officially disbanded in 1976.* Core members began surrendering to authorities in 1977.* Historians have written the FBI and the Nixon administration overestimated the strength and threat posed by the Weather Underground, which elevated the group’s profile beyond what it should have been.*

Some former Weather Underground members reformed after serving time in prison. They drew national attention after their incarceration. For example, Kathy Boudin, who became a fugitive after the March 1970 New York City townhouse explosion and later spent 22 years in prison for her role in a 1981 armored car robbery, was hired as an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of Social Work in 2013.* Boudin died in May 2022.* Republicans and other conservatives reignited interest in the Weather Underground during the 2008 presidential campaign after it came to light former Underground leaders Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn had hosted a campaign event for Barack Obama in 1995 when he was running for Illinois state senate.*

Recruitment and Propaganda

The Weather Underground was rooted in communism and promoted an anti-war ideology, particularly focused against the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. At the June 1969 SDS convention, Weather Underground forerunner Third World Marxists published their position paper, “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” in the SDS newspaper, New Left Notes. The paper called for a white revolutionary movement to support black liberation, which the faction called central to SDS’s anti-imperialist fight.* On July 25, 1974, the Weather Underground distributed its manifesto, Prairie Fire. The manifesto identified the Weather Underground as a guerilla organization made up of “communist men and women” seeking to “destroy US imperialism.”* The manifesto went on to explain the Weather Underground’s devotion to “armed struggle” in U.S. urban centers.*

Violent Activities

Rhetoric

  • Weather Underground claim of responsibility for bombing of Anaconda American Brass Company in Oakland, California, September 11, 1974: “We attack Anaconda Corporation in international solidarity with the Chilean people and their revolutionary struggle.”*
  • Prairie Fire, Weather Underground manifesto, July 1974: “We are a guerrilla organization. We are communist women and men, underground in the United States for more than four years.

    “We are deeply affected by the historic events of our time in the struggle against US imperialism. Our intention is to disrupt the empire ... to incapacitate it, to put pressure on the cracks, to make it hard to carry out its bloody functioning against the people of the world, to join the world struggle, to attack from the inside. Our intention is to engage the enemy ... to wear away at him, to harass him, to isolate him, to expose every weakness, to pounce, to reveal his vulnerability.

    “Our intention is to encourage the people ... to provoke leaps in confidence and consciousness, to stir the imagination, to popularize power, to agitate, to organize, to join in every way possible the people's day-to-day struggles.

    “Our intention is to forge an underground ... a clandestine political organization engaged in every form of struggle, protected from the eyes and weapons of the state, a base against repression, to accumulate lessons, experience and constant practice, a base from which to attack.

    “The only path to the final defeat of imperialism and the building of socialism is revolutionary war. Revolution is the most powerful resource of the people. To wait, to not prepare people for the fight, is to seriously mislead about what kind of fierce struggle lies ahead.”*

  • Prairie Fire, Weather Underground manifesto, July 1974: “At this early stage in the armed and clandestine struggle, our forms of combat and confrontation are few and precise. Our organized forces are small, the enemy's forces are huge. We live inside the oppressor nation, particularly suited to urban guerrilla warfare. We are strategically situated in the nerve centers of the international empire, where the institutions and symbols of imperial power are concentrated. The cities will be a major battleground, for the overwhelming majority of people live in the cities; the cities are our terrain.”*
  • Prairie Fire, Weather Underground manifesto, July 1974: “Attacks by the Weather Underground have been focused and specific. These actions were a catalyst for thousands of politically-directed armed actions between 1970 and 1972, almost all of which complemented mass struggles.”*
  • A Weather Underground warning call to the New York Times about a bomb at the International Telephone and Telegraph building in New York City, September 28, 1973: “Take this down because am only going to say this once. I am the Weatherman underground. At the I.T.T.‐American building, a bomb is going to go off in 15 minutes. This is in retaliation of the I.T.T. crimes they committed against Chile.”*
  • A Weather Underground warning call to the Kennecott Corporation in Salt Lake City, Utah, shortly before a bomb exploded in the building, September 5, 1975: “Only resistance will win. Call the police and have the building evacuated.”*
  • Bernardine Dohrn, after the Weather Underground broke drug advocate Timothy Leary out of prison, September 1970: “Now we are at war.”*
  • Weather Underground member Mark Rudd, December 1969: “It’s a wonderful feeling to hit a pig. It must be a really wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.”*
  • Slogan during Days of Rage protest, October 8-11, 1969: “The time has come for fighting in the streets.”*

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On November 29, 2020, an assailant detonated an explosives-filled military vehicle on an Afghan army base, killing at least 31 and wounding 24. 

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