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Bringing the War Home
The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies
By Jeremy Varon
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
"Agents of Necessity"
Weatherman, the Red Army Faction, and the Turn to Violence
To describe how one became a Weatherman, Bernardine Dohrn is reported to have said: "One day you'll wake up and look out your window. And there, on your front lawn will be a great flaming W and you will know the time has come for you to be a WEATHERMAN!" The initiation, in this account, was a moment of near-holy illumination. One did not so much choose to be a Weatherman as one was chosen by Weatherman.
In May 1970, Ulrike Meinhof helped free Andreas Baader, imprisoned for an act of political arson, from a research institute in West Berlin. Following a firefight, Baader and Meinhof jumped from the second story of the building and fled. Within days, Meinhof, Baader, and their accomplices announced the formation of the Rote Armee Fraktion. The leap was patently metaphorical: Baader plunged into a precarious freedom. Meinhof, a gifted journalist and outspoken critic of West German society, leapt into an entirely new life of danger and notoriety, in which bombs replaced words as her main weapons. More than anything else, they both took a leap of faith; trusting in their cause, each other, and their comrades forming the RAF, they somehow imagined victory in a literal war against the government of the Federal Republic.
But if those forming Weathermen and the RAF had the sensation of being seized in an instant by a calling, the roads that brought them to that point were long and winding ones—through the passionate beginnings of the student movement in each country; through years of questioning, organizing, demonstrating, and, as the 1960s ground on, angrily confronting the authorities; and through the urgent discussions toward the end of the decade about the possibility of making revolution by means of violence. The early path of the members of Weatherman and the RAF was, then, little different than that traveled by tens thousands of young Americans and West Germans in the 1960s. To understand the choice for armed struggle is therefore to understand something of the New Left's origins and evolution—and how the idea of violence became so captivating by the decade's end.
If many were called to serious, sustained violent insurrection, few were ultimately chosen. Shortly after forming, Weatherman declared the need "to be a movement that fights, not just talks about fighting." The RAF, in its first manifesto, announced, "We will not talk about armed propaganda, we will do it." In making good on their pledge to match action to words, the Weathermen and members of the RAF distinguished themselves within their movements, where talk of violence always greatly exceeded violence itself. To understand the two groups is also to understand the extraordinary nature of the leap they took.
* * *
Trails of trouble,
Roads of battles,
Paths of victory,
We shall walk.
"Paths of Victory"
In the United States in the early 1960s, young, gifted thinkers, confessing a profound unease with the world they had inherited and calling themselves a New Left, judged their society by measuring it against its promise. America, in their view, had failed to live up to its democratic and egalitarian ideals. As the southern civil rights movement brought to national attention, racism barred a segment of the population from participating fully in American civic life, while poverty riddled the "affluent society" with pockets of misery. Hatred of a foreign, communist enemy provided a rationale for a policy of nuclear brinkmanship that threatened the globe with annihilation. Mainstream politics, in the eyes of New Leftists, were dominated by elites who preferred a docile public to an engaged one. And the middle-class culture in which young dissidents were socialized appeared politically and spiritually debilitating, because it encouraged unquestioning obedience to authority, the narrow pursuit of self-interest, and superficial comfort through ever-expanding consumption.
The New Left set out to change all that. Drawing on a blend of American pragmatism, existential humanism, and ideas about participatory democracy derived largely from the civil rights movement, young leftists combated the widely pronounced "end of ideology" as itself an ideology that denied disturbing realities in declaring liberal, capitalist democracy the unequivocal moral victor in the global clash of political systems. At the same time, they rejected as inflexible the "strong" ideologies of the socialist groups that made up the "Old Left" of the 1930s and 1940s. They especially criticized the "labor metaphysic" that dogmatically considered the working class to be the necessary agent of radical change. Wary of ideology in general, New Leftists held that knowledge derived primarily from hands-on experience and favored practical efforts to change society over abstract theorizing.
In the early 1960s, northern students returned from trips to the South filled with a passion for organizing. SDS, as it rapidly spread across campuses, bristled with optimism born of a belief in the transformative possibilities of civic initiative, critical thought, and the democratic process that it vigilantly practiced. In governing itself by means of participatory democracy, SDS sought to model the new, vigorously democratic society it desired. Immersion in activist culture offered individuals a potent sense of identity. For the future Weatherman Jeff Jones, who first encountered SDS at Ohio's Antioch College in 1965, the attraction was immediate. To him, the SDSers seemed "very smart, sophisticated, courageous, ... people I wanted to be with, and work with, and be like." SDS soon became "the only thing that was really important" to him, as it did for the burgeoning ranks of the SDS faithful. The New Left's initial radicalization—its belief in its capacity to dramatically change American society—reflected enthusiasm over its accumulating size and strength.
Heightened expectations also led activists to see the limitations of their efforts. The civil rights movement met barriers even as its success peaked. The eradication of legal segregation did not, in itself, address the relationship between racism and poverty, as the 1965 riots in Los Angeles's Watts neighborhood painfully dramatized. Nor did the movement's nonviolence speak to the experience and anger of many urban blacks. In 1966, the Black Panther Party formed in Oakland, California, to provide a militant response to poverty and police brutality. Panther chapters, which asserted the right of armed self-defense against the white power structure, quickly spread throughout America. Some black activists, challenging the integrationist dream, questioned the motives and doubted the contribution of whites working in alliance with them.
The New Left experienced frustrations in its own organizing. New Leftists recognized that activism on campuses, where they were most successful, had only limited impact and appeal beyond the university, but the Education and Research Action Project (ERAP), in which SDSers lived and worked in poor urban communities to combat economic inequality, largely failed to generate concrete, lasting results. They discovered that little progress could be made without a large, well-organized movement of the poor, and they had difficulty transcending the class barriers separating them from those they sought to help. Finally, the New Left faced a new challenge in the mid 1960s: thousands of miles away, U.S. military involvement in Vietnam was escalating into a full-blown war.
From their experiences, New Leftists developed a sense that all the injustices they protested were connected and could not be eliminated if fought in isolation. Analyzing their connection, activists sought to correct for what now appeared to some to be an ideological deficit, whereby broad commitments to equality and democracy substituted for an integrated critique of power and a broad-based strategy for social change. "It is time to stop fearing ideology and lay the basis for a new one, more suitable to the times," one SDSer insisted in the mid 1960s.
In April 1965, SDS's president, Paul Potter, addressed the first national demonstration, organized by SDS in Washington, D.C., against the Vietnam War. Potter's speech, widely recorded as a threshold in the history of the New Left, provided the broad outlines of such an ideology, as well as the ingredients that some would soon weave into a "revolutionary" consciousness. After intimating the existence of a system of oppression, Potter proclaimed:
We must name it, describe it, analyze it, understand it and change it. For it is only when that system is changed ... that there can be any hope for stopping the forces that create a war in Vietnam today or a murder in the South tomorrow or all the incalculable, innumerable more subtle atrocities that are worked on people all over.... [T]he people in Vietnam and the people in this demonstration are united in much more than a common concern that the war be ended. In both countries there are people struggling to build a movement that has the power to change their condition. The system that frustrates these movements is the same. All our lives, our destinies, our very hopes to live, depend on our ability to overcome that system.
Potter posited a unified structure of domination responsible for discrete forms of oppression, whose elimination required changing the whole. Consistent with this premise, New Leftists increasingly used "the system" as a label for the complex entity they opposed and focused their protest on the structures that elites served. Potter's successor as SDS president, Carl Oglesby, explained that the Vietnam War was perpetrated not by evil men but by decent, even "honorable" men serving an evil corporate system.
Though Potter did not himself name the system, capitalism was clearly the object of his polemic. To describe the system, New Leftists first used the language of "corporate liberalism," which stressed the alliance between business and governmental elites, but they soon graduated to a more overtly Marxist vocabulary. To the system, they counterposed "the movement," a capacious term that referred to everyone from student and antiwar activists to black militants and politically engaged hippies. It captured, in a word, activists' sense of "us"—of being an extended community distinct from a common adversary. With these contrasting terms, New Leftists cast political conflict as a battle of two fundamentally incompatible forces that could be resolved in their favor only through some radical, even revolutionary, transformation.
By linking American activists and Vietnamese rebels, Potter spoke to the New Left's internationalism. The system, conceived most expansively, was a global capitalist order that above all served U.S. interests. Fighting their country's power, American activists assumed a place in an international movement. Likening domestic racism to U.S. aggression in Vietnam, Potter also conveyed the centrality of race in the New Left's worldview. Through the black struggle, whites learned about the worst abuses of American society and the connection between racism domestically and abroad. Some blacks described black America as an "internal colony," rendering the black movement one of "national liberation," akin to struggles in the Third World. Finally, Potter spoke with a sense of romantic desperation. He declared a condition of moral emergency whose ultimate stakes were life and death and that demanded that leftists actively fight the system in order to "overcome" it. Echoing Potter's spirit, the future Weatherman Scott Braley described how the frustration of making modest demands in the mid 1960s fed the more ambitious rebellion of the late 1960s: "There were very few wins in the sense that you got anything you wanted.... We might have fixed some smaller issues, but we didn't want to fix smaller issues. We wanted to fix issues that would change the world. It was clear to many people that something much more radical was needed."
But what? How did one go about fighting the system once one had begun to "name" and "analyze" it? One approach was to block the system's destructive operations; another was to attack the centers of its power. October 1967 featured both. As part of "Stop the Draft Week," thousands of demonstrators in Oakland tussled with police and temporarily shut down a military induction center. A few days later, protestors laid siege to the Pentagon, condemning the five-sided building as a demonic symbol of American militarism. Above all, the demonstrators brought a new energy: deep into the night they fought with police, argued with soldiers with fixed bayonets about war and duty, and danced around bonfires in scenes of almost pagan abandon. A final way to challenge "the System" was to attack the bigger issues by attacking the smaller ones—to address the whole by first confronting its parts. This is what the students did at Columbia University in 1968 and what made their rebellion so significant. The Columbia protests, as they escalated into the takeover of the university, also became one the primal scenes of New Left radicalism, from which the idea and then the reality of "armed struggle" emerged. A striking number of Weathermen participated in the rebellion, whether as students or as agitators from the outside.
Columbia had a strong SDS chapter, which in 1966–67 protested the presence of CIA and military recruiters on campus. The SDSers initially pursued institutional channels for changing university policies but soon came under the leadership of an "action faction" that favored polarizing confrontations. In 1968, two issues dominated SDS's attention: the proposed building of a university gym in Harlem and Columbia's involvement with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), which coordinated academic research used by the military in Vietnam. Critics charged that the proposed gym, which would encroach on neighboring Harlem but bring no benefit to its largely poor, black population, epitomized Columbia's racism, and that the relationship with IDA revealed Columbia's complicity with U.S. militarism. As the university ignored student demands and punished student leaders, "student power" became another potent issue.
After black students occupied a campus building in late April, whites seized four others. Together, they shut down the university, forming a makeshift government that "ruled" by means of participatory democracy. National activists, including Tom Hayden, a co-founder of SDS, rushed to the campus to join the rebels. Radicals, in a conscious play on Che Guevara's call to "create two, three, many Vietnams," proliferated the slogan "create two, three, many Columbias." (The slogan seemed to have real agency when, in May, French students—conscious of events at Columbia—occupied universities and then other institutions, precipitating a crisis that almost toppled the French state.) As national and international media descended upon the campus, student protest in the United States achieved unprecedented visibility. The initial uprising ended after a week when university officials called in over 1,000 police to clear the students from the buildings. Police made over 700 arrests, injuring dozens of students in the process.
The Columbia protest was significant for the links the students made among the issues of racism, militarism, economic injustice, and student power. One protester explained that "the uprising was begun ... not to achieve student power alone, but to advance the struggle for liberation outside the university itself." The protest was also important for its militancy, which enhanced the students' sense of connection to that larger "struggle." Shutting down a major university in America's premier city, the students felt a taste of power that encouraged them to think in the exalted language of revolution. They called the occupied buildings "liberated zones" and experienced the exhilaration of participating in what Jeff Jones described as a "culture of total resistance." The use of police violence against the students was another hallmark of Columbia. It fed an uncompromising rhetoric of condemnation and compelled the protesters to see political conflict in overtly confrontational terms. In variously heartfelt and grandiose language, a flyer asserted that the students now "know personally the brutality and inhumanity of a System which kills its young men without remorse and allows the poor to starve.... We will free Columbia of the Company men and profiteers and cake-eaters who control its future and direct its participation in the death industries. Our weapon is our solidarity." Another flyer encouraged new battles to be fought with more than the figurative arms of the spirit: "We must prepare ourselves to deal with the enemy. Our weapons: political education and tactical organization for students and workers: rocks, clubs, fire bombs, plastique, guns—but most of all—commitment and courage."
Excerpted from Bringing the War Home by Jeremy Varon. Copyright © 2004 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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