What Mother Country Radicals Misses About the Weather Underground
A new podcast examines the life and times of the Weather Underground and several of its members. It’s a moving story. But an assessment of the New Left’s turn toward political violence, rooted in political weakness rather than strength, is missing.
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” In 1969, a militant faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) borrowed this line from Bob Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the title of a manifesto they read at the organization’s national convention in Chicago. Led by the charismatic young attorney Bernardine Dohrn, the Weathermen, as the group would become known, called for building a youth guerrilla army and broke away from the larger organization, for all intents and purposes spelling the end of the organized New Left.
This story has been told many times before and is told again in Mother Country Radicals, a new podcast about the Weather Underground produced by Zayd Dohrn, a communications scholar and son of Bernardine Dohrn and fellow former Weathermen leader, Bill Ayers.
In the months after the Chicago convention, Weathermen radicals transformed themselves into urban guerrillas, changed their name to the Weather Underground, and carried out around twenty-five bombings in the United States before disbanding in 1976. Most of their blasts were intended to protest the war in Vietnam or racist police violence at home. Listeners familiar with the Weathermen may be interested in new revelations offered in Zayd Dohrn’s extensive interviews with his parents, other ’60s radicals, a retired FBI agent, and fellow adult children of leftist militants. Listeners new to this story may find this well-produced podcast, which also includes impressive archival news footage, to be highly entertaining.
But listeners should know that the story they are getting is not exactly a balanced history of the Weather Underground. For better and for worse, this is very much a “family history,” with some notable historical omissions, driven largely by the viewpoints of Dohrn’s parents.
The podcast’s story revolves around narrator Dohrn’s quest to explore why his parents and other young, white, middle-class Weathermen radicals decided to embrace revolutionary violence. Dohrn also probes the moral ambiguities of Weather Underground actions, including the group’s flirtation with mass murder as a revolutionary tactic, which they moved away from after three members died on March 6, 1970, in an accidental explosion in a Greenwich Village town house; the group’s cultlike structure, involving group sex, ego-destroying “criticism/self-criticism” sessions, and an authoritarian paramilitary command with periodic internal purges and power struggles; and members’ decisions to have children while they were underground, knowing that a clandestine lifestyle with imminent risk of arrest was less than ideal for child-rearing. The series also includes a side story on the Black Panther Party and its guerrilla offshoot, the Black Liberation Army (BLA), recounted primarily by Jamal Joseph, a member of both groups who went on to a career as a writer, director, and professor at Columbia University.
The focus on Bernardine Dohrn is part of what makes Mother Country Radicals different from other Weather Underground chronicles. Dohrn was the sole woman in SDS’s elected leadership and is one of the only prominent members of the New Left who never published a memoir. Her account of turning down an opportunity to travel to Mississippi for the civil rights movement’s Freedom Summer in 1964 at age twenty because her then boyfriend told her not to is one of several anecdotes revealing a human side to a woman best known as a feminist leader of a communist guerrilla group whom J. Edgar Hoover placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Zayd Dohrn uses this story to narrate his mom’s political trajectory over the course of the 1960s.
“She wasn’t born a revolutionary,” he explains. “She became one.”
However, Dohrn was only willing to go so far in scrutinizing his mother’s story. For example, his account of the May 1970 Weathermen retreat in Mendocino, California, after the town house explosion glosses over Bernardine Dohrn’s demotion of Mark Rudd, a fellow leader and cofounder of the organization who ended up leaving by year’s end. According to Rudd’s memoir, as she sought a new course for the group, Dohrn made him a fall guy to deflect from her own participation in a culture of support for deadly attacks that had been widespread in the group prior to the town house tragedy.
Similarly, Zayd Dohrn’s interviews with his father offer new revelations with limited context. We learn from Ayers that Diana Oughton, one of the three casualties in the town house blast, had been his girlfriend. The pair had met while working as elementary teachers in a Detroit “freedom school” founded by civil rights organizers. Ayers’s recollection reveals a trauma that still haunts him more than fifty years later.
“It was a horrifying thing to come to terms with,” he recalls, “and frankly, I may never have come to terms with it.”
It’s understandable that Dohrn would hold back from scrutinizing his father on this sensitive topic, but he leaves out information about other early Weather Underground actions. The podcast doesn’t mention that on the very same day of the town house explosion (which averted a potentially far deadlier bombing planned for an officers’ dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey), police in Detroit discovered two dynamite bombs outside police buildings. The devices had not exploded due to faulty homemade detonators, but they could have killed cops and bystanders alike.
No one has ever been charged for this botched attack, but Larry Grathwohl, the FBI’s sole informant in the Weathermen at the time, claimed the explosives had been placed by the organization’s Detroit collective, led by Ayers. Police informants are hardly reliable sources, but historian Arthur Eckstein found additional evidence suggesting that Weather was responsible. And given the kinds of actions Weather was carrying out at the time, it would make sense that they would attempt to carry out such a bombing.
The Detroit bombs fortunately didn’t hurt anyone. But mentioning this incident could have helped illustrate how initial support for lethal attacks went beyond the Weathermen’s New York collective.
To Zayd Dohrn’s credit, the podcast does discuss the Weathermen’s February 1970 firebombing of the house of New York judge John T. Murtagh and includes later archival recordings of Murtaugh’s son, John Jr, reflecting on his frightful experience waking up as a nine-year-old with his house on fire.
Yet in repeating the line that the Weather Underground’s bombings never hurt anyone, Dohrn overlooks the bombing of a Berkeley police station nine days earlier that severed the arm of a police officer. In 2015, a journalist reported that former members of the group informed him that the Weathermen were responsible for the Berkeley attack.
Like various Weathermen memoirs, history books, and the 2002 documentary The Weather Underground, Mother Country Radicals explains the radical organization’s political motives: they sought to overcome the much greater violence of the US military in Vietnam and police at home, the latter including the December 1969 police murders of Chicago Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
But what’s absent here — and this is a serious missed opportunity two years after the uprisings of 2020 — is a critical assessment of political strategy. At no point does this podcast deal with the strategic merits of urban guerrilla warfare as a means for changing American society. Instead, we get radical nostalgia.
This includes well-worn mythology about the Black Panther Party that goes like this: young black radicals in Oakland formed the party to combat police brutality, and the FBI and police agencies throughout the country responded with violent and illegal but ultimately successful efforts to destroy the organization because of the revolutionary political threat they posed to America’s status quo.
However, the history of the Black Panther Party and American police agencies encompasses a far more complicated story involving black youth taking up arms in response to police violence and the escalation of an asymmetric but mutual exchange of gunfire that alienated potential supporters and resulted in casualties on all sides — including fratricide, as Panthers in some instances also turned guns on one another.
Dohrn had an opportunity to tell a more accurate history of the Black Panthers through his interview of Joseph. The former Panther recalled cops kicking down his grandmother’s door and arresting him in April 1969 after state prosecutors indicted twenty-one members of the New York Panthers on a slew of complicated charges involving an alleged conspiracy to carry out bombings and shooting attacks on police officers.
Joseph concedes that at the time, members of the group had been involved in some sort of paramilitary training. “Yeah, we did do some midnight drills,” he remembered, “and we did run through Central Park and we did hand-to-hand combat and we did . . . some gun-range kind of stuff.”
Yet by omitting broader context and critical analysis, Dohrn’s account of the “Panther Twenty-one” case implies that the indictment was, as the Panthers and their supporters claimed at the time, nothing more than a fabricated government plot to repress black radicals.
A jury’s ultimate “not guilty” ruling surely suggests that prosecutors rested their case on shaky legal grounds. But Dohrn makes no mention of the fact that the charges had been preceded by Panthers shooting at cops on January 17, 1969, after attempting to bomb the Bronx Highbridge police station. It is not a stretch to consider that some New York Panthers had made the turn to armed struggle before the indictments — especially given, as the podcast explains, that members of the Panther Twenty-one went on to form the core of the BLA, whose militants robbed local drug dealers and assassinated police officers.
The podcast’s most compelling segments come in the later episodes, when Dohrn and other adult children of Weather Underground and BLA members offer their complicated reflections on their parents’ actions and how it affected their lives. There is little romance here. Instead, we hear painful accounts of children growing up with incarcerated parents and coming of age while grappling with the question of why their mothers and fathers chose to have them or chose to prioritize “the cause” over their emotional needs.
A particularly heart-wrenching testimonial comes from Kakuya Shakur, whose mother Assata Shakur (aka JoAnne Chesimard) fought with the BLA and was incarcerated from her capture in 1973 until 1979, when a team of BLA operatives and white supporters broke her out of prison, later facilitating her to exile in Cuba. Separated from her mother for most of her life, Kakuya Shakur was never able to rebuild an emotional bond with her.
At the time of her interview, Shakur hadn’t had contact with her mother for twenty-two years, and her children had never met their grandmother. She tells listeners that for her, personally, “there’s this deep feeling of loss.”
These episodes offer a rare glimpse into the realities of childhood in the guerrilla underground. Yet many adult children of the Weather Underground and BLA were not included, not to mention children of other leftist guerrilla groups like the Puerto Rican Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN) and the predominantly white anti-imperialist United Freedom Front. Both groups planted dozens of bombs in the Northeast in the late 1970s and early 1980s and were the targets of intense FBI manhunts, yet neither are mentioned in the podcast. There are other adult children of American guerrillas out there with unique stories to tell, and perhaps this podcast will open space for these voices to come forward in the future.
Mother Country Radicals deals with motives, morality, and parenting. But what about the politics of the guerrilla left? Scholars have pointed out that leftist bombers of the 1970s were part of the “society of the spectacle” that emerged in the era of satellite television and other mass media. In the United States and Western Europe, small bands of clandestine radicals were no match for what Max Weber famously called the modern state’s “monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.”
State violence was far more vicious than the violence carried out by groups like Weather, and Weather was responding to a horrifically bloody, unjust war in Vietnam. No one should lose sight of that. But these realities shouldn’t distract us from another important truth: political violence was an expression of political weakness on the Left, as militants staged spectacular attacks in efforts to draw fleeting media attention to their causes rather than engaging in the kind of mass organizing that made the civil rights movement and SDS at its best so effective.
The allure of the spectacle endures. Media makers with various agendas have revisited stories of groups like the Weather Underground over the years, often forgoing analysis for either demonization or romanticization. Producing Mother Country Radicals must have been a deeply emotional experience for all involved, particularly for Zayd Dohrn. But the podcast’s depiction of ’60s-era radicals leans toward guerrilla romance. That’s the wrong impression for today’s radicals to take from the period.