n Bad Moon Rising, Arthur M. Eckstein has given us the most comprehensive look at the Weather Underground, the left-wing domestic terrorist group of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A professor at the University of Maryland, Eckstein is the first historian to use the FBI’s files on the organization, released as part of the trial record of FBI agent Mark Felt, and the documents prove to be a treasure trove of information. Felt (later to be revealed as the “Deep Throat” of All the President’s Men) was brought to trial in 1980 for using illegal methods in his quest for evidence that helped locate Weather Underground leaders who had vanished into the ether. To the extent Eckstein relies on Felt’s files, his book is revelatory. But Bad Moon Rising takes an unfortunate turn halfway through that almost invalidates its value as an account of the most serious domestic terror threat the United States had had to manage before September 11.
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.
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.”