In 2007, the historian Jon Weiner published an article in Dissent Magazine on “The Weatherman Temptation.” He defined this phenomenon as occurring when “young activists are drawn toward violent tactics, out of despair for democracy.”
Weiner’s is a common view of the Weathermen, the American student group that bombed buildings throughout the country in the 1970s. This perspective holds that the organization was enraged at American actions in Vietnam and turned to violence reluctantly and strategically, as a mean of changing US policy. The war “drove us crazy,” ex-Weatherman Mark Rudd said in a 2002 documentary.
Bryan Burrough’s new take on radical groups of the 1970s should cause many of those who believe that organizations like the Weathermen were driven by a fervent idealism to reconsider. “Days of Rage’’ makes clear that, as one former radical associated with the group puts it, it was “the whole thrill” of being a revolutionary that really motivated them, the “glamour of dealing with the underground.” The Weathermen did not despair for democracy — they disdained democracy.
And Vietnam was not their primary cause. “We related to the war in a purely opportunistic way,” an early leader of the group admits. Even after the war ended, the bombings continued. Instead, the political cause that motivated the many groups that flow through “Days of Rage’’ was the plight of black Americans. That was a noble cause, but the focus of the hundreds of figures that formed groups like the Weathermen was far from singular and clear. In fact, when confronted with the fact that one of their planned bombings was likely to kill innocent black people, one leader of the Weatherman said coldly that, “We can’t protect all the innocent people in the world . . . Some will get killed.”
Burrough also chronicles the emergence of other revolutionary groups besides than the telegenic Weathermen. These included the Black Liberation Army, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and the Sam Melville/Jonathan Jackson Unit, also known as the United Freedom Front. Combined they launched thousands of bombs — during an 18-month period in the early 1970s, there were 2,500 bombings, nearly five a day. It’s difficult to believe in a post-9/11 world, but less than one percent of these bombings led to fatalities. The deadliest one led to four deaths.
Not that these groups would have minded killing. Burrough has extracted astounding sentiments from these self-styled revolutionaries testifying to their indifference to human life. “The tactical mistake we made was killing the cops in uniform,” says one of them, “when we should’ve killed the higher-ups. That would have been more effective.”
In fact, none of it was effective. Burrough has interviewed dozens of people to compile what is surely the most comprehensive examination of ‘70s-era American terrorism. And yet none of those involved in “the movement” can name a single benefit resulting from their behavior.
Instead of triumphs, what “Days of Rage’’ compiles is a history of privileged white kids and alienated blacks who killed police officers and civilians, robbed banks and restaurants, and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, all in the service of causes ranging from personal cocaine addictions to Puerto Rican independence (for which most Puerto Ricans showed little support).
That may seem dispiriting, but it rarely makes for boring reading. Burrough, a longtime Vanity Fair correspondent, recalls story after story of astonishing heists, murders, orgies, and wiretaps. Few of his subjects are sympathetic, but all are vividly drawn. He refrains from making moral judgments, which makes the material he presents all the more powerful.
There are also more prosaic recitations. How did those in the underground survive so long?
Well, they had plenty of people above ground — lawyers, particularly — willing to help them. How did they avoid detection? Often they stole identities from dead children.
But there is a sense of “Days of Rage’’ being only partial history. Many stories recounted here appear thinly sourced, and plenty of people involved in the incidents have not spoken to Burrough or anyone else. Still, with the aging of the Baby Boomer radicals, this book is as likely as a definitive history of Vietnam-era political violence as we are ever likely to get.
Jordan Michael Smith is a contributing writer at Salon and The Christian Science Monitor.