How dangerous was the Weather Underground? While its followers and supporters hovered around no more than 100 to 500 at any time, it nevertheless posed a major threat to America’s national security. Eckstein cites a memo written to President Richard M. Nixon in March 1970 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, counselor to the president for domestic affairs. No one could accuse the careful and scholarly Moynihan of being a McCarthyite. Yet he wrote the following to Nixon:
For about a year now I have been keeping a file and thinking about sending you a memo on terrorism. The time has come . . . . We have simply got to assume that in the near future there will be terrorist attacks on the national government . . . and the president himself . . . . The war has already begun . . . . For the last week or so bombs have been exploding up and down the eastern seaboard. We have to assume, for example, that the Mad Dog faction of the Weathermen will in time learn to make anti-personnel bombs, as they evidently were trying to do in Miss Wilkerson’s house. We have to assume that those folks blowing up corporate headquarters in New York will soon turn to blowing up corporation heads.
Moynihan added that the WU amounted to “the onset of nihilism in the United States” combined with an “element of psychopathology.” It was so dangerous for the security apparatus, he concluded that “dealing with the old Stalinist Communist Party was child’s play compared to dealing with the Weathermen.”
As Moynihan drafted his memo, the Weathermen were planning to bomb the 13th Precinct Police Headquarters in Detroit, where they had placed a large bomb in the women’s bathroom. A New York City townhouse (the one owned by the parents of the “Miss Wilkerson” in Moynihan’s memo) had itself exploded when the WU bomb-makers made a faulty connection and blew themselves up. Their mistake meant that the intended target—a military dance at the Fort Dix Army Base in New Jersey—was not blown up. The night before Moynihan wrote the memo, a series of bombings of corporate sites around New York had also taken place.
As Eckstein reveals, rather than being a run-of-the-mill anti-Vietnam war group, the WU was a Marxist-Leninist organization that sought to bring a Communist revolution to America. Its members were going to accomplish this task by “bringing the war home,” leading the struggle by organizing students, and affiliating with the Black Panther Party, the radical black group led by Huey Newton. Ideology was taken seriously by its leaders, who believed that the imperialist system was collapsing all over the world. In their eyes, Eckstein writes, “all it would take [in America] was a good sharp shove to push over the entire tottering edifice and send it crashing to the ground.” Their goal was to “sentence the government to death.”
The group’s leaders decided that armed struggle would be necessary to achieve their goals. They followed the tactics developed by the French radical Regis Debray, who promoted the idea of revolution through creating guerrilla focos, small groups that would use violence against the state, which would eventually lead the oppressed in the United States to build a “people’s army.” The key was to set the guerrilla war in motion.
This begot the “Days of Rage” in Chicago in 1969, when 400 of their cadre battled the police in Lincoln Park for three days, went into wealthy neighborhoods where they smashed cars and windows, and then attacked people at the Loop on October 11. It also included the use of homemade incendiary devices, meant (as the group itself said) to “force the disintegration of American society via a bombing campaign to create chaos.”
Bomb they did. Here Eckstein’s account reveals the ongoing deceit practiced by William Ayers, the key member of the WU’s Central Committee—and after his revolutionary days a longtime Chicago academic and education activist with ties to Barack Obama. Ayers has long denied having anything to do with unsolved bombings that took place in Michigan and the townhouse explosion in New York. He admits the WU took such actions but says that the organization had changed tactics after a meeting of the leaders in May 1970—it would end the bombing and the turn to militant public demonstrations. The WU would bomb property only to avoid killing people.
Despite those claims, Eckstein provides strong circumstantial links between Ayers and his eventual wife, Bernadine Dohrn, and a February 1969 explosion, at the Golden Gate Park police station in San Francisco, of a dynamite bomb wrapped with nails. It killed one police officer, blinded a second, and injured 12 more. Eckstein reveals that the FBI had extensive evidence of Ayers’s detailed knowledge of the plan, which had been devised by the Weathermen collective in Berkeley. The bombs came from the same batch as those later found in March 1970 at a WU safe house in Chicago. Yet there was never an indictment of Ayers for his involvement. Why?
The government was worried that its main witness might not be believed, or that she might simply assume all responsibility after she was given immunity. If she took all the blame herself, that would mean the others working with her would get off scot-free. The Bureau preferred to wait and indict all the perpetrators.
Another informant, the late Larry Grathwohl, had warned of bombs planted at the Detroit Police Officers Association in March 1970, and they discovered and defused them just where Grathwohl had testified they would be. The lethal nature of the bombs would have, if detonated, killed many people, and the second more powerful bomb would have destroyed the entire headquarters and killed everyone in the building.
Oddly, Eckstein does not emphasize his findings about Ayers, even though the Chicagoan remains an important figure. Perhaps he chose not to do so because, as the book’s second half makes clear, Eckstein does not think Ayers and the WU are the true villains in the story. His villain is the FBI.
Eckstein draws explicit moral parallels between the FBI and the Weather Underground. There were, in his view, two organizations that took illegal actions harming American interests. “Both sides willingly engaged in illegal acts,” he writes, and then he charges that “the FBI bears the heavier weight in a polity where civil liberties are central.” To put it bluntly, he is claiming that setting off bombs that could have killed scores of people was no worse than trying to stop the perpetrators by using illegal means meant to prevent grave danger to American citizens.
The Bureau, Eckstein writes, “engaged in illegal conduct.” It staged burglaries not only of the homes of WU cadre but also of American citizens they suspected might know of the hiding places of underground members. They broke into the homes of supporters, their families, and even relatives. None of them, Eckstein writes, “had committed any crime and against whom no court would issue a search warrant.” The FBI referred to these raids as “Black Bag techniques.” Its agents read the mail of such people, to the extent of trying to find messages in birthday and holiday greeting cards.
Both sides, he argues, failed. The WU “was not very good at revolutionary war,” and the FBI took steps to stop them that were “repressive and stumbling.” In Eckstein’s telling, the Bureau were Keystone Cops who only ended up hurting their own reputation. In fact, FBI agents were trying to save American lives and bring murderers to justice.
It is a savage irony that while the WU leaders pretty much escaped legal sanction and prison, three FBI agents—Felt, Patrick Gray, and Edward Miller—were indicted and brought to trial.Eckstein denies the claim of many government officials, including Presidents Nixon and Reagan, that the Weather Underground had ties to foreign governments that were giving them advice and funding their work. Even the CIA, he notes, reached the conclusion that no ties could be proved, But that hardly ends the matter. Eckstein did not check records of the Stasi, the Czech intelligence agencies, and other files available of the former “People’s Democracies” that often worked in collaboration with the KGB.
Even more important, the complete FBI Weather Underground files, available for a few years online on the FBI’s website, contradict his argument. The files show that when the WU created the Venceremos Brigade to send young radicals to Cuba to help harvest the sugar crop in the 1970s, the Cuban intelligence service gave select members training in sabotage and military tactics and recruited some Weather members as DGI agents to engage in espionage after they returned home. The story is told as well in a book not cited by Eckstein—Frank J. Rafalko’s MH/CHAOS: The CIA’s Campaign Against the Radical New Left and the Black Panthers, as well as a two-volume German book demonstrating ties between the WU and the Stasi by Wolfgang Kraushaar, Die RAF und der linke Terrorismus. A 1982 Canadian TV documentary, The KGB Connections offers more evidence.
Eckstein argues that when the WU leaders went to Cuba, the Vietnamese and Cuban authorities to whom they spoke advised them to engage in public opposition to the war and not to continue with their terrorist and secret activities. That indeed is what they said, but it also proves that Ayers and Dohrn heeded their advice, and why it was that at the 1970 Mendocino meeting, the leaders suspended their bombing campaign.
The blurbs for Bad Moon Rising come from well-known figures on the American left—including the late Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Maurice Isserman, and Yippie co-founder Judy Gumbo. Many on the list have for decades hated the WU, because in their eyes, the move into terrorist violence destroyed the Students for a Democratic Society from whose ranks they emerged, and it kept SDS from becoming a major mass student organization that might have stopped the Vietnam War. Hayden, for one, points favorably to Eckstein’s argument that it was the Bureau itself that promoted the Weather Underground by having undercover agents who had infiltrated the organization voting with the WU when SDS split at their June 1969 convention.
This is nonsense. The FBI’s action had to do with complex internal splits among the SDS extremists too recondite to be explained in detail here. In any case, the adoption of terrorist tactics by the Weather Undergound was the direct outcome of the discovery by prominent SDS leaders of the tenets and practices of Marxism-Leninism. When SDS was created, the social democrats in its ranks argued against allowing Communist Party members into the group, but they lost the vote, and the majority said to do so would be Red-baiting. The nihilistic violence into which the group descended was the direct result of that fateful early decision.
Eckstein has done solid research, provided much new valuable information, and written a worthwhile book. It is unfortunate, though, that the more he wrote, and the more he attempted to be “balanced,” the more he accepted the ludicrous narrative favored by ex-SDS and Movement people that, in the middle of terrorist actions on U.S. soil, it was our government that did the real damage and harmed America the most.
It is a savage irony that while the WU leaders pretty much escaped legal sanction and prison, three FBI agents—Felt, Patrick Gray, and Edward Miller—were indicted and brought to trial. Felt and Miller were found guilty on November 6, 1980. Ronald Reagan pardoned them two months into his presidency on March 26, 1981, arguing in April that “America was at war in 1972” and that the convicted FBI agents “followed procedures they believed essential to keep” all government leaders “advised of the activities of hostile foreign powers and their collaborators in this country.” Noting that Jimmy Carter had pardoned draft resisters who opposed the Vietnam War, Reagan said the U.S. could “be no less generous to two men who acted on high principle to bring an end to the terrorism . . . threatening our Nation.”
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Moral Equivalence Run Amok
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A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.