review published August 1998 in San Francisco Bay Guardian
A philosophical history of the Weather Underground
The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. By Ron Jacobs. Verso, 216 pages, $15.
By Daniel Burton-Rose
IN THE CRUCIBLE of late-'60s white radicalism, a fomenting militancy pushed an element of Students for a Democratic Society toward a more immediate solidarity with the Vietnamese people, one born of shared repression. As the state reacted with dumb authoritarian brutality to questions it knew were too on-point to answer, a small group of middle-class activists took the steps they felt were necessary to end the U.S. regime once and for all. Revolutionary violence was, as Weather member Bernardine Dohrn put it, "The best thing that we can be doing for ourselves, as well as for the Panthers and the revolutionary black liberation struggle...."
Their efforts are the twisting tale that Ron Jacobs tells in his history of the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew. Jacobs -- a worker at the University of Vermont library and avowed New Leftie -- gives a documentary history that includes photos, posters, and underground comix. The Way the Wind Blew transplants you to a time of widespread domestic government repression and foreign aggression. A time in which change was not just an ideal but an imperative.
The history of Weather is the story of radicals for whom nothing could come too fast. Weather needed to immediately end everything it hated about the U.S. government, and it did not have time to waste on tolerating the unconvinced -- those who could have given it the numbers to realize its goals. Weather denounced the U.S. working class as hopelessly blind to its own oppression, supporting imperialist war and racism. In fits of self-righteousness Weather stomped into working-class communities and berated youth as "pigs," often getting an ass-kicking as their payback. With the Days of Rage in Chicago, Weather whipped up efforts to "tear the motherfucker apart" but experienced only low turnout and unfocused street violence.
Jacobs has written a history of ideas rather than personalities. His book is more instructive than either the flat-out denouncements of paramilitary violence or the uncritical celebrations that have thus far constituted the history of late-'60s and '70s guerrilla movements. Jacobs traces Weather's long ambivalent dance with youth counterculture. At times the group saw youth's lack of a stake in contemporary society as the hope for a new nation, but Weather retained a great "distrust of its own potential base of support." Militant feminist analysis by Weather women made the Weather men realize that the men themselves were also capable of counterrevolutionary thoughts. This epiphany made them acknowledge "that individuals were capable of change, whatever their previous prejudices." It was a step from revolutionary purity to real-world maturity.
As the war in Vietnam escalated, Weather's military actions seemed less extreme to New Left folks. A bomb in the Pentagon in May 1972 was well-received in the antiwar community. Conversely, as the war wound down it became clear that there would be no galvanizing force of comparable strength for the next decade. Weather foundered.
So Jacobs goes on to tell of the flip side of the Jerry Rubin and Eldridge Cleaver-style '80s sellouts -- terribly fractured guerrilla cells trying desperately not to drown in the political tide turning away from an open society. Because of Weather's death in a flurry of acronyms, The Way the Wind Blew seems like a book without a conclusion. For that reason it is somewhat unsatisfying. But at closer look, the tapered anticlimax captures the nature of the period and the feeling of the participants. In the end, both they and you want more.
Jacobs admires Weather Underground members for their dedication and strength. Indeed, he dedicates his book to "those who gave their lives and freedom in the struggle against racism and imperial war." The book explores what Weather got right and what it screwed up. To read it is to understand one of the most fascinating attempts to create revolutionary change in modern American history.
(Daniel Burton-Rose is the editor of The Celling of America.)