Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies

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For many historians and participants in the various social movements commonly referred to as “the sixties,” the formation of Weatherman in 1969 as the faction that eventually came to control Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest student-based organization opposed to the war in Vietnam, was the beginning of the end of the antiwar movement. Rather than engaging in a serious evaluation of both Weatherman’s critique of non-violence and United States imperialism, as well as the tactical efficacy of their approach, numerous historians and movement participants have chose instead to ignore questions raised by Weatherman and dismiss the group as a sectarian cult of violence that led to the destruction of the antiwar movement. Of course, while such an analysis ignores many pivotal events that happened both after and during Weatherman’s actions, all of which-Kent State, the Winter Soldier investigation, and protests at Nixon’s 1972 inauguration reflect an antiwar movement that did not simply fall apart with the shift of some in the movement towards more militant tactics. While Varon states that Weatherman’s violence was “a dramatic failure from a tactical standpoint,” he is investigating the political violence of Weatherman to examine the broader revolutionary impetus of the late 1960s and early 1970s-a period in which there were innumerable physical confrontations with the state and, in the period from January 1969 to April 1970, 2,800 attacks on state and corporate property in response to the Vietnam war, with 281 attacks on ROTC buildings and 7,200 arrests on campuses alone.

Numerous individuals and collectives within the United States shifted towards attacks on state and corporate property during the late 1960s and early 1970s in response to the United States’ war on Vietnam-Weatherman was the largest and most well known group to make the shift. As such, Varon concentrates on Weatherman to construct an analysis of the wider violence of the New Left. In Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, the history of Weather is broken down into three distinct events-the Days of Rage in October 1969 and the Flint “War Council” in December of 1969 as examples of Weatherman’s politics, and focuses on the Weather Underground (the organization was renamed after going underground) by way of the townhouse explosion in 1971. These three events, while pivotal events in the history of the Weather Underground, are frequently misinterpreted and used as the basis for dismissing the group, and to each event Varon brings a level of analysis and interpretation that has been sorely lacking from previous examinations of the Weather Underground. Weatherman’s ideology is examined in the discussion of the Days of Rage, a week-long series of “militant” actions that Weatherman hoped would “bring the war home” and inspire working-class youth throughout the United States to engage in militant action against the state in support of black radicals and in solidarity with the Viet Cong. Of course, the Days of Rage was poorly attended-the projected attendance of “thousands” ended up being a few hundred-and many key leaders ended up with multiple felony charges-while fe, if any, working class youth joined the revolution. Varon uses the failure of the Days of Rage as a springboard for a detailed critique of Weatherman’s politics, specifically looking at its attitudes towards class and its conception of revolutionary communism. The December 1969 “War Council” showed the isolation of Weatherman from both the majority of people in the United States, as well as those in the antiwar movement-and cemented the group’s resolve to engage in “exemplary” violence to “inspire” others to “pick up the gun” against the state-violence that, had the townhouse explosion not occurred in 1971, would have likely progressed towards individual representatives of state and corporate power. The Flint War Council allows Varon to examine the popular support of the Weatherman and examine how their isolation led to increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Finally, Varon interprets the townhouse explosion, long a target of scorn from those on the right and the left, as a “recasting” of the Weather Underground’s politics and a shift from violence to the multifaceted antiwar movement that it previously berated rather than just n example of sixties “excesses” as it has been portrayed by many.

By contrast, the violence of the Red Army Faction (RAF) was undertaken for a less direct purpose, and in many ways, seemed more random than that of the Weather Underground. As with the Weather Underground, the RAF attacked state and corporate targets in an effort to challenge the West German government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. The RAF engaged in “armed struggle” as a result of its sense of “proletarian solidarity” with the Vietnamese and West Germany’s role in supporting the Vietnam War as well as a vague sense that West Germany was becoming “fascist” in its response to domestic dissent. Student radicalism in Germany was met with draconian laws restricting dissent, many of which students and university faculty viewed as the harbinger of a new fascism and as such extreme forms of protest including violence towards property were justified. However, unlike the Weather Underground and New Left violence in the United States, the RAF moved its war from attacking property to attacking people complicit in “the system” and by 1978 and the end of the “second wave” of the RAF, 43 people had lost their lives as a result of the RAF’s “guerilla warfare,” including 28 people who were victims of left-wing violence and 15 guerrillas.

Varon argues that had members of the Weather Underground not been killed in the “townhouse explosion” in 1971 where Terry Gold, Diana Oughton, Cathy Wilkerson, and Kathy Boudin were preparing anti-personnel bombs to use at an uncomissioned officers’ dance, the Weather Underground’s attack on the state would have likely been comparable to the RAF’s and many more people would have lost their lives in a form of “armed struggle” that would have served no end other than to increase state repression. This thesis sheds new light on the Weather Underground, illuminating a shift in the Weather Underground’s approach after the townhouse explosion as Weather purposely shifted towards “armed actions” in which bombings were used to draw attention and embarrass the state while precautions were made to ensure that no lives would be lost. While critics of the Weather Underground have dismissed the group as being ineffective and counter-productive for any number of frivolous reasons, Varon’s analysis allows for a more accurate appraisal of the use of violence by the New Left and a reevaluation of tactics and the New Left, specifically in terms of the role of “violence” and the gains of the movement. Tom Wells’ The War Within has long been cited as proof of the effectiveness of the non-violence of the New Left; with Wells going to great lengths to show how protest directly limited the state’s capacity to wage war, specifically Richard Nixon’s November 1969 withdrawal of a plan to unleash “savage” attacks on North Vietnam, likely with some form of tactical nuclear weapons. However, Varon concludes that it was the diversity of tactics that helped limit the war, not one particular approach, while pointing out that the actions of the New Left succeeded only in adjusting the magnitude of destruction. Rather than reading Wells’ book simply as a testament to the power of non-violent protest as is often done, Varon argues that the book repeatedly makes it clear that the state was worried about the militant attacks on the legitimacy of state power and the very stability of the state while pointing out that had more been known about the United States’ actions in Vietnam, it is likely that more would have embraced militancy. In the end, despite “thousands of violent acts,” New Left violence in the United States unintentionally killed three people (two at the townhouse and one innocent bystander in an attack unaffiliated with the Weather Underground)-a small number compared to the “countless deaths, the toppling of governments, and deliberate assaults on domestic dissidents” by the state, the war continued and no form of domestic protest was able to stop the war.

With the lack of writing on the Weatherman, Bringing the War Home stands out as the best analysis of the movement. While Ron Jacob’s The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground, the only other history of Weatherman, provides a more detailed account of some of the specifics of Weatherman, it suffers from a lack of research and analysis. Bringing the War Home‘s contribution to the history of the Red Army Faction is slightly more difficult given the reviewers limited knowledge of the German New Left, but given Varon’s well-crafted analysis of the Weather Underground, it can be generally assumed that he has presented a similarly competent portrayal of the Red Army Faction. By way of comparing the violence of Weatherman and the Weather Underground with the Red Army Faction Varon strengthens his analysis of the effectiveness of political violence. Bringing the War Home makes an important contribution to both scholarship on the antiwar movement in addition to providing an important evaluation of violent forms of protest in the United States and West Germany and the potential ramifications and likelihood of success should contemporary anti-war movements make similar decisions.

Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies, (University of California Press, 2004).

Author: mediamouse

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