The 1970s in the United States was a time of love and counterculture. Jimi Hendrix, tie-dye, acid, sexual freedom, and personal liberation were key themes of the iconic “Me Decade.” The new era marked the beginning of the public’s struggle for political and social change.
The environmental movement, women, gay and lesbians, African Americans, Native Americans liberations competed with Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the rising “New Right” movement; a defense in line with traditional family values and political conservatism.
It was a decade of picking sides, much like the one we live in today.
Before any of this occurred, there was one group which lit the match of political and social change that would ricochet across the nation. They were the Weathermen.
The Weatherman Underground or Weathermen Underground Organization was a collection of Students for a Democratic Society, active between 1969 through 1970. It would be known as the most infamous “domestic terrorist” organization committed to political change.
Peace, Love and Dynamite
By the summer of 1970, the Weathermen made its way to the top of FBI’s Most Wanted List. Posters of its top members – mostly college-aged kids from the Students for a Democratic Society club at the University of Michigan – could be spotted in every post office within the country, they would remain there for years.
To have the FBI dedicate countless resources and time to finding a group of 20-something students is an astonishing feat, especially since not a single Weathermen’s “terrorist actions” resulted in civilian deaths.
It really ticks them off like nothing else, similar to the White Rose Movement during Hitler-controlled Germany, the organization was rather small-scale.
Some refer to the 1970s as the “Golden Age of Terrorism.” Around 1,470 instances of terrorism transpired in the U.S. with a total of 184 people killed. Compare that to 21st century which, in total, endured 214 acts of terrorism from 2002 to 2013 with 61 people killed. With the abundance of radicalized groups operating at the time like the Jewish Defense League (detonated 44 bombs,) the Black Panthers (set off 24 bombings and hijackings,) and the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Nacional – a Puerto Rican extremist group responsible for 82 bombings that targeted civilians.
Unlike other groups that were active in the 70s, the Weathermen were dedicated to the use of dynamite bombs as an act of protest against the Vietnam war, racial inequality, corporate greed, and political control.
The Weathermen craved a revolution as it saw itself as a vigilante witnessing crimes going unpunished. It resorted to taking things into its own hands, believing it was its duty to punish those who were powerful for their sins.
The Bad Moon Rising
In the seven years that the organization was active, it set off a total of 25 bombs. The majority of which were detonated in the year 1970. The group’s extreme response toned down in the years following when it only detonated one bomb every six months, mainly in the restrooms of corporation headquarters and government buildings.
By the time the organization had passed its heyday, the FBI remained focused on the Weathermen’s trail. The obsession was unnecessary since the Weathermen was no longer threat, some would even argue it was never prominent enough for the FBI to spend millions of dollars on the chase.
That’s not to say the organization was innocuous, it had some notable operations, including: the bombing of the Capitol in 1971 and the bombing of the Pentagon in 1972. As college-aged students, they were notable and persistent enemies who never made a move uncalculated. In 1970, the FBI estimated the Weathermen leaders numbered in the thousands and were scattered across the U.S., a gross overestimation. The FBI were terrified, and the Weathermen made a point of preaching its intention known that it planned to destroy everything the FBI was dedicated to protecting.
In wasn’t until the fall of 1971 when the FBI realized it had miscalculated the scale of the organization’s size and danger, this did little to cease the resource dump into investigating the Weathermen. The Bureau was humiliated not only by its dismissible and erroneous claims about the group, but it was constantly taunted about its blunder every time it walked past the group’s wanted posters hanging in local shop windowsills. The FBI’s reputation was on the line and it would be forced to face that failure into the next decade because the reality was, the FBI was unable to catch a single major player within the organization.
It wouldn’t be the might of the FBI that brought on the cessation of the Weathermen organization, but simply a loss of faith. By 1980, it is likely the remaining members decided to abandon their revolution in exchange for a life in the public eye, free from hiding within the society they once deemed corrupt.
Where Oh Where Have the Weathermen Gone?
The Weathermen Underground saw itself as larger than the sum of its parts, it wasn’t just resentful students acting out against racism and the Vietnam war.
It was “revolution incarnate.”
Fighting in the shadows wasn’t a strategic decision, it was an unavoidable expedient. The Weathermen wanted to be seen, acknowledged for its politically-minded actions because it was righteous. It viewed much of the white working class as tainted by privilege, prosperity and inescapable racism. The “white skin privilege,” as it coined, was irredeemable.
It wanted to ignite a flame beneath the discontented youth and put its faith in the counterculture to empower revolution.
It wouldn’t be until 1974 when the Weathermen leaders accepted this fact. In the organization’s 186-page manifesto titled Prairie Fire – both printed and successfully distributed across the nation – the Weathermen admitted that the only way to spur a revolution in the U.S. would be to win over and incentivize the American working class.
The release of this document would mark an ideological split within the Weathermen organization between those who wanted to continue the radical guerrilla war on society and those who favored an aboveground, politically-recognized organization. In the spring of 1976, the latter triumphed and the members who disagreed either left or were exiled.
Mugshot of three Weathermen members that turned themselves in in 1980 after years of living as fugitives. From left to right, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and unnamed third member. Photo from @palefaceoffical on Instagram
From then on, the remnants of the original Weathermen members and their purpose deviated from everything but name. By 1977 the group was caught under the leadership of Clayton van Lydegraf – a Stalin supporter.
Although considered a failure at the time, the echo left behind by the passionate members of the Weathermen can be heard fifty years later; from the progress in women’ s rights, racial equality, to democratic change and individual choice. The legacy continues through politically-active youth of today with non-violent organizations like “March For Our Lives,” “Me Too,” and “Black Lives Matter.”
Whether you view them as crazy domestic terrorists or courageous revolutionaries who took up the sword when no one else did, the fact remains. A small-scale organization with few resources managed to knock the FBI off its throne of prestige and forced American society to take a hard look at the political actions being taken at the time. All just because of some meddling kids.