The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 22 April 2002

The Way the Wind Blew

A History of the Weather Underground

by Ron Jacobs

Bob Dylan sang the line "You don't need a weather man to know which way the wind blows". From that line, this book, and its subject got their names. The Weathermen, or the Weather Underground (though don't search the web with that term unless you want countless weather forecasts), were a group of radical anti-imperialists who came to dominate the Students for a Democratic Society in the late 1960s, and promulgated a vision of violent revolution in the United States as a response to numerous perceived and real elements of oppression in this country. This book is a sympathetic overview of the rise and fall of this organization. At first, the Weathermen organized anti-war and anti-imperialist protests, especially the 1969 Days of Rage in Chicago (not unlike recent anti-globalization protests). Later, though, as the leaders insisted on radical purity, the group splintered and shrunk, eventually going underground to pull off a long series of selective bombings of various targets throughout the country, rarely inflicting injury with the bombs (except upon themselves), but always trying to make a point. Jacobs paints a broad portrait of the organization and does a fairly good job placing the Weathermen in the context of their times.

The organizers, including, particularly, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers (though the group numbered in the hundreds at its peak), struggled with the meaning of anti-racist, socialist, anti-imperialist revolution in the United States. They bickered over the details of statements and manifestoes, and they sincerely debated what was the most effective method for their goals. They tended to opt for armed revolution, allied themselves with segments of the Black Panthers, and showed sympathy (and still do, as witnessed by recent arrests and trials) for the SLA. As the Vietnam War ended, the group was adrift in a more cynical environment and among actual and imagined infiltration by the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies. Alongside the debate over the role of women in the movement (not unique to the Weathermen), the Weather Underground eventually split into other organizations, including Prairie Fire, which still organize and operate with a more moderate methodology. There are also other splinters, one of which fatally botched an armored car robbery in 1981. Today, the meaning and methods of the Weathermen are still debated.

Jacobs' depiction is very sympathetic, but it is somewhat thin. He describes the environment and the events in the history of the Weathermen, but doesn't really talk much about the personalities and lives of the people who made up the organization. He doesn't seem to have interviewed many of the major players in the story. And he spends most of the book relating the first two years of the organization, leaving the next seven or eight years to the last quarter. At times, the book becomes bogged down in events and theories, so that some points are muddied or left unexplained by Jacobs' writing style. His subject, and the many survivors of that time, remain to critique the topic. Still, this is a pretty good overview of the history of an organization which had a subversive affect on American culture in the 1970s.

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See also: [Fugitive Days by Bill Ayers]

[Other History and Biography]

[Other books on the 60s & Counterculture]