Thursday, March 06, 2008

Good Morning, Vietnam: A Shout Out From An Old Radical To Some Younger Radicals

As a historian I know perfectly well that the war in Iraq has major differences from the war in Vietnam, and it's not just because depleted uranium weapons are now used in conventional combat, or because the troops are fighting in sand for oil, as opposed to fighting in jungles against Communism. But when I was driving to rowing practice at around 5:00 a.m. and heard about this bombing of the military recruiting center in Times Square, I thought, Wow. That I should live to see this again in my lifetime.

When I was a kid in the 1960's and '70's, such bombings were associated with an increasingly militarized anti-war movement, made up mostly of white college students. I followed the doings of the Weather Underground very closely: my research on this radical antiwar movement and an unhealthy fascination with the doings of the Philadelphia mob are probably what, in the end, either led me to being a historian or -- if you want to see that as more of a rational choice --shaped my interests as a historian who wrote her first book on the FBI and federal fugitives. If the mob was a little more geographically distant, I could encounter federal fugitives who were part of the anti-war movement by riding my bike down to the local post office. In those days, one went to the post office with some frequency: postage stamps were necessary household items, since we didn't have email and we didn't pay bills on line. In addition, if you wanted to send someone a present, you had to buy it, pack it up in a box, and take it to the post office and mail it. I'm mentioning this because, other than what I read in the newspaper (we didn't have alternative radical weeklies on the Main Line), what I knew of Weatherman was what I read off the FBI Most Wanted posters in the post office. And then, a lot of those folks had gone to school in the area -- Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr -- schools where Quaker pacifism and social engagement led students naturally into community organizing and anti-war work. And a very few of those people became radical domestic terrorists.

My favorite was Bernadine Dohrn, who is now a law professor at Northwestern. Once, when no one was looking, I quietly tore her wanted poster down and took it home. I was not alone in this fascination, of course. Read any memoir of the movement, and Dohrn is the quintessential movement woman who some peopel would follow anywhere (mostly men, I think) and some people resented (because she was a powerful woman, and because Weatherman generally gave women very little power.) I dug her because she was sexy, tough and smart. I wouldn't have put it that way then, but I think I wanted her to be my girlfriend. Some years later, when I had a girlfriend, not to mention a whole life, I finally met Dohrn for two seconds at a benefit of some kind. And I have to say, all these years later, she did not disappoint.

But let me say another thing: I have been catching up on my Weatherman reading as part of some new research on radical feminism, and I have also met a few other former cadre, many of whom have careers built around nurturing children and building peace from the ground up. But they also went through a painful process, some while doing serious jail time, of rebuilding lives that were shattered by the form of resistance they committed to as young people There are very few who do not deeply regret the violence for which they were responsible, and the ideological turn that work took that made them see such violence as a reasonable response to a violent war. So here's my message for whoever bombed the recruiting station: I get it. I am even sympathetic to your rage. But stop now, before it's too late. Because careful and confident as you may in relation to your technical skill with explosives and your capacity to plan the explosion around a time when no one is around, eventually you are going to kill someone who doesn't deserve to die because you have a fantasy that you are really damaging the war effort. You will either kill or maim someone you don't know who didn't expect to walk into history that way, or you will kill a friend, as was the outcome of the 1970 explosion of an Eleventh Street townhouse in New York City, a home that five Weatherman cadre were using as a bomb factory. The anniversary of that explosion, eerily, given today's events, is Saturday, March 8.

This post is in memory of Ted Gold, Terry Robbins and Diana Oughton, who were killed on that day.


Anonymous said...

Hey, TR, What if you really don't get it? What if that's not what bombing the recruiting station was about? Just what you want it to be about...

Tenured Radical said...

Well, what if? You need to work a little harder to say what you mean -- unless what you mean is that you go out of your way to read a blog you hate so that you can leave snotty comments about me.



Anonymous said...


I'm not a lot younger than you, at 36 - and from what I've read of the Weatherman, and Dohrn - I've never appreciated them - they strike me as arrogant and careless - and hot for self-centered drama.

I get especially turned off by the efforts of white wealthy young people to stick it to The Man by placing themselves in the spotlight as they speak out/act out on issues that primarily impact poor people and people of color. Seems like adolescent rebellion against mom and dad - dressed up in a larger political purpose...thus sapping the energy for real political power building among disenfranchised people that pivotal moments in history - such as the Vietnam War - might offer.

Would you be willing to write a little bit about what it is about Dohrn and the Weatherman that is inspiring to you?


Anonymous said...

I don't really understand -- I mean, I suppose we can just resist very quietly and politely like good girls and boys but -- I don't see the point in that. I mean, there have to be stakes, don't there? People holding signs are easy to ignore, but bombs not so much. I have never bombed anything, of course, but I don't understand this post. I wish I did. Maybe you can help me understand what you are saying here.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the Feds hired the same guy to bomb the recruiting station that they hired to set the "ELF" fires out west earlier this week.

Must be election time. Time to scare the masses.

Tim Lacy said...


I think this is a product of my relative youth, but I don't understand the Bernadine-Dohrn-was-sexy camp. She had some style, but it's not what I'd call sexy. De gustibus non disputandem est, I suppose.

Whoever bombed the place ought to dispassionately watch the reflections of former Weathermen in Sam Green's The Weather Underground, or read Mark Rudd's reflections (or other links at his site) on his past life. It's sobering stuff.

- TL

Anonymous said...

I like how when the government bombs the shit out of a city its ok but if someone takes a stand against a greedy, murderous system there a terrorist. fucking crazy, everyone need to wake and smell the coffee.

gwoertendyke said...

to me what was fascinating about the weather underground was the possibility of a radical position, no matter how misguided it ended up being. the willingness to leave everything for a cause, and especially the specific cause, hails from another era in american history.

the knee-jerk response to dismiss them because they were/are privleged enough to survive such history seems to miss what is ultimately interesting about it. the story of the weather underground is not romantic, as in devoid of critique, but also not to be dismissed out of hand.

Susan said...

Thanks for this, TR. If we know anything from history, one thing is that "violence will make the power of the state more oppressive and lead to revolution" does not work. And of course the irony is that the weather underground adopted the tactics that they objected to in Vietnam in the US. We had a family friend who lived on w. 10th st. in NYC, and I'll never forget what it was like on West 11th st in 1970.

So to turn the tanks on the banks, I'd say the point is that if it's not OK to do it in Baghdad, Mosul, etc., it's not ok in NYC either.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Marine Corps. Poolee and this is total garbage. In Vietnam there was a draft, nowadays it's a volunteer force; I've spoken with former military, and it's the difference between night and day in terms of quality.

What are these homebred terrorists even trying to protest? They can work at AT&T like everyone else and order a pizza with mommy's credit card and attend school on daddy's dime.

These people must have a mental disorder of some sort.

As far as the produced good music, and the only reason my parents generation went there was to get high and laid. Stop idealizing that idiotic period in our history, christ, if I want to rebel against people like you I'll have to join up against my grandparents, save money, attend church, and believe in myself.

Anonymous said...

The terrorists might be the Republican Party trying to create a situation that scares the American people into buying their war cause.
If not, then so what!
What happened?
Some glass broke.
There was worse in NYC that day.

George Vreeland Hill

Allen L said...


I remember the Weather Underground harming more innocent bystanders than people who had any control over events. Terrorists trade on the fact that you will be more concerned with protecting innocent bystanders than they are themselves.

What this person (and the Weathermen) don’t/didn’t understand is that Che was right:

Where a government has come into power through some form of popular vote, fraudulent or not, and maintains at least an appearance of constitutional legality, the guerilla outbreak cannot be promoted, since the possibilities of peaceful struggle have not yet been exhausted.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara

This person and Ms. Dohrn truly believe that they have the right to force me to accept their viewpoint at the point of a gun or a bomb. This person and Ms. Dohrn are no more worthy of respect than Timothy McVeigh.

Bardiac said...

Interesting post, thanks. I was too young to be aware of the Weathermen, but old enough to be aware of anti-war sentiments, if that makes sense. Good job bringing the threads together at the end.

Tenured Radical said...

To all my unfriendly commenters:

A post like this one is such a Rorschach test. Even though many of you seem to read this blog out of some demented desire to savage the left, try to respond to the ideas. To one snippy commenter, whose comment I removed: just because I use the phrase "deserve to die" doesn't imply that I believe that there are actually people who deserve to die (although our President has a long record of exactly believing that, adn so do many members of his administration.) Re-read that phrase in context.

And for other people who wage war on liberal ideas by visiting here: this is a post that is against the violence perpetrated in Times Square. It is also about childhood fantasies that get converted to grown up truths, and how real people came to understand that there are real-life costs and regrets associated with deploying violence in the name of peace.