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‘Kill Your Parents!’: The Weathermen and the Ideas that Inspired Them

November 19, 2018

In 1968, the world seemed as though it was coming apart [1].   Charles De Gaulle’s conservative government in France stood on the precipice of collapse as student protesters joined forces with striking industrial workers to paralyze the country.  In Prague, a Soviet directed invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact crushed popular efforts to reform the communist government there [2].  And most notably, in Indochina, North Vietnam launched the Tet Offensive against major cities and towns in South Vietnam.  Both the ferocity and suddenness of the offensive led to rapid gains for the North Vietnamese Army and their Viet Cong allies.  They even briefly infiltrated the American embassy in Saigon, where they exchanged fire with American marines guarding the building.  The superior firepower of the United States eventually prevailed and the Tet Offensive ended in military disaster for North Vietnam. However, that was not the perception of the American public.  For years, the administrations of John F. Kennedy and then drastically more so Lyndon Johnson had been assuring the American people that the United States was on the brink of victory in Vietnam. But as Americans watched Tet unfold live on their televisions each evening in 1968, many could not help but come away with the impression that the war was in fact not close to being won.  After the execution of a Viet Cong operative (pictured below) in Saigon was broadcast to the public and CBS anchor Walter Cronkite questioned the war, public support for involvement in Vietnam began to dwindle.

For the American anti-war movement the Tet Offensive seemed to be a sort of moral vindication.  Others on the left saw it as something far different. Those with Marxist-Leninist sympathies saw it as a Hegalian moment that justified their cause.  The capitalist United States was being beaten back by the communist North Vietnamese. It was a sign that the international revolution was at hand. On the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, this revolutionary fervor infiltrated the ranks of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  A small faction of the organization, calling themselves the Weathermen, began to advocate for terrorist attacks, bombings, and kidnappings all in an effort to spark a revolution among the young working class and poor African Americans [3].  This advocacy certainly made the group part of the minority.  Fifteen percent of young Americans in the 1960’s, mostly university students, were politically active on left and the vast majority promoted peaceful demonstration [4].  This begs the following question then: Why did the Weathermen resort to violence when the rest of their generation largely did not?  Ultimately they were inspired by a revision of Marxism by Regis Debray, which called for revolution from the top down. A small group of ideologues were to commit violence against the state, which would in turn rouse the slumbering population towards revolution [5]. It was this Debrayist ideology along with the Weathermen’s fascination with ‘propaganda by deeds’ as well as conflicts between them and their parents’ generation that led to the group’s radicalization towards terror and violence.

 

Classical Marxism rests on the assumption that in any industrialized society there are the oppressed, the industrial working class, and the oppressors, those who benefit from the exploitation of the working class.  Beginning from this assumption, the working class becomes the agent of popular revolution when they, in Marx’s words, “cast off their chains” and overthrow the bourgeoisie. But what if, as in the United States during the 1960’s, the standard of living for the working class is relatively comfortable? Who is the agent of revolution then? It was this question that Marxists in the student left grappled with during 1968 and 1969 [6].  The Weathermen, with their noted predisposition towards violence, found their answer in the writings of Regis Debray, a French intellectual and friend of Fidel Castro.  Debray’s revision of Marxism was in effect an idealization of the Cuban Revolution. Ignoring the widespread popular protests and riots in Cuban cities, he argued that it was attacks on the police and army by Castro and his band of guerillas, outnumbered 16 to 1, which led to the overthrow the Batista government in 1959 [7]. Only once the prestige of the governmental forces was destroyed did a popular revolution begin. For the Weathermen, these ideas were especially influential. They saw themselves as successors to Castro’s guerillas and sought to carry out attacks against symbols of the American justice system and armed forces.  In the group’s manifesto “You Don't Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows,” they chose African Americans as their inspirational target audience, declaring, “the black liberation movement, as a revolutionary nationalist movement for self-determination, is automatically in and of itself an inseparable part of the whole revolutionary struggle against US imperialism and for international socialism”[8]. They would later add young working class men to those they wished to inspire towards revolution.  These men were drafted disproportionally to fight in Vietnam, and according to the Weathermen despised the government for it, making them likely revolutionaries.  With their choice of revolutionary classes, the Weathermen succeeded in Americanizing Debray’s theory and “sentenced the United States government to death”[9]. In doing so, they completed their radicalization.  It would be the group’s infatuation with the theory of so called ‘propaganda by deed’ that maintained their radicalized state when the Weathermen’s chosen oppressed classes did not immediately rise up.

 

“Propaganda by deed,” Walter Laqueur said in A History of Terrorism, “in short, was a powerful weapon to awaken the consciousness of the people”[10]. Already influenced by Debray’s work, the Weathermen became obsessed with this idea.  In their minds, all it would take to bring about the revolution was one act of violence that stirred the oppressed classes towards action.  The group’s choice of bombing targets largely reflects the value they placed on the impact of propaganda. In 1969, the Detroit police headquarters and police association building were targeted because they had “connections to black discontent in the city in the aftermath of the great Detroit riot of July 1967”[11]. During the summer of 1967, the Detroit police shot and killed three black rioters outside the Algiers Motel.  The policemen accused of firing the shots were later acquitted, causing further unrest in Detroit’s black neighborhoods.  With African Americans as their chosen revolutionary class, the Weathermen hoped bombing the Detroit police would awaken the consciousness of the city’s black neighborhoods.  In the end, the FBI and police were tipped off to the plot. While the bombs failed to detonate, the motivations of the Weathermen were clear and suggest the organizations blind trust in propaganda by deed.  That same year, the group attempted to recruit poor working class teenagers to brawl with New York City police officers[12]. As before, the Weathermen hoped to carry out a violent attack against the police in order to inspire African Americans to join the revolution, the police being seen in this case as enemies of black communities.  However, this time they also attempted to employ the young, poor working class to carry out the plan. They were clearly hoping to rouse both revolutionary classes with the same action. Other attacks were in a similar vein.  For example, the Weathermen cell in New York City firebombed police cars as well as the Army Recruiting Center on the campus of Columbia University [13]. The latter attack being an attempt to protest the Vietnam War and gain the sympathies of potential draftees.

 

The Weathermen’s Debrayist influence as well as their belief in propaganda by deeds illustrates how the group’s radicalization was a product of the ideologies they followed.  However, something far simpler did play a role, a generational conflict. Many viewed their parents’ generation as having been seduced by American consumer culture. The older working class was especially despised for abandoning their position as the revolutionary class assigned to them by Marx.  For their part, the middle and upper classes were simply painted as inherently racist groups. Continuing, the Weathermen’s emphatic embrace of counterculture illustrates the spirit of rebellion against the older generation. “Long hair, rock ‘n’ roll (replacing folk music), freewheeling sex and recreational use of drugs such as marijuana” were all popular within the Weathermen organization [14]. The title of their manifesto was even taken from a lyric in the song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan.  But what made them different from the general spirit of rebellion that permeated the 1960’s was again the group’s advocacy for the use of violence.  One Weathermen leader went so far as to declare during a speech, “Kill your Parents! That’s really where it’s at!”[15] And they meant it.  In October 1969, the group organized what they called the “Days of Rage” in Chicago (pictured above).  The leadership hoped that thousands of people would descend upon the city and wreak havoc and destruction.  There were dreams of a Red Army being formed in Chicago. Instead, around four hundred Weathermen gathered in a city park.  Undeterred, they marched towards Chicago’s upscale Gold Coast neighborhood. Armed with clubs and chains, they clashed with police and smashed the neighborhood’s restaurants, homes, cars, and hotels [16]. Their choice of the neighborhood not only underscores the group’s hatred of the upper class but also of the prior generation, as the neighborhood was for the successful and the middle aged.

 

In 1955, during his criticism of the French communist movement, philosopher Raymond Aron called revolution the opium of the intellectuals and a decade or so later the Weathermen too, were simply intoxicated by the idea.   It was not that they did not recognize the very real problems the United States was grappling with. The South was struggling to desegregate, the government seemed less trustworthy, and the lower classes were being sent to Southeast Asia to fight a war in Vietnam that looked like a quagmire.  The problem was their radicalization and how starting the revolution became their singular and only focus. When revolution becomes the only end, any means become acceptable. For the Weathermen, this meant terrorism and violence. Albert Camus remarked in his essay, The Rebel, that in the 20th Century, revolutionaries “have the perfect alibi: philosophy, which can be used for any purpose - even for transforming murderers into judges" [17]. Camus was warning against the dangers of ideological extremism.  If one is radicalized to believe in the revolution, whatever that may mean, then any action that may bring about or protect the revolution, even murder, is deemed acceptable.  With this in mind, the Weathermen are an American example of radical ideologies and their dangerous consequences.

 

References 

 

[1] Ward, Geoffrey C. 2017. The Vietnam War. Directed by Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, Sarah Botstein, Peter Coyote, Buddy Squires, Tricia Reidy, Paul Barnes, et al. PBS Distribution.

[2] Fink, Carole, Philipp Gassert, Detlef Junker, and German Historical Institute (Washington, D.C.). 1998. 1968, The World Transformed. Publications of the German Historical Institute. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Varon, Jeremy. 2004. Bringing the War Home : The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies. Berkeley: University of California Press. Page 48.

[4] Eckstein, Arthur M. 2016. Bad Moon Rising : How the Weather Underground Beat the Fbi and Lost the Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press. Page 1.

[5] Varon. Bringing the War Home, 57.

[6] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 50.

[7] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 67.

[8] “You Don't Need A Weatherman To Know Which Way The Wind Blows.” New Left Notes (1969).

[9] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, Quotation to Begin Chapter 2

[10] Laqueur, Walter. 2001. A History of Terrorism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction. Page 50.

[11] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 27.

[12] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 25.

[13] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 40.

[14] Eckstein, Bad Moon Rising, 40

[15] Ward, The Vietnam War

[16] Varon. Bringing the War Home, 80.

[17] Camus, Albert. 1961. The Rebel. New York: Knopf. Page 3.

 

Note: Credit for the images used in this piece goes to the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal respectively. 

 

 

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