Have you noticed how the modern-day Left tends not to be at war with itself as it was in the old days? No more internecine sniping over doctrinal purity. No more blame game. Where’s that old-time fissiparous spirit when you need it? These days it seems the only crime a leftist can commit in the eyes of another leftist is apostasy. The current imperative—as exemplified by Robert Redford’s latest film The Company You Keep—could be a line lifted from a Soviet-era poster: “Comrade, leave no radical behind!”
The Company You Keep is about the Weather Underground Organization (WUO), America’s first homegrown terrorists. The film begins with a newsreader from another time speaking in melancholic tones: “Never before has America fought a war in which dissent has been so intense and so emotional.” The film immediately cuts to Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon) on the morning of her arrest some thirty years after a botched bank hold-up. The music is sad because Solarz has a young family who need her, but now she is going to jail for being an anti-war militant all those years ago. A lot of Americans became intense and emotional about the Vietnam War, and Solarz’s only apparent crime, apart from the robbery that resulted in the death of a guard, was to have been a little more intense in her opposition to the Vietnam War than everyone else.
The actual Weathermen did a lot more damage than their make-believe counterparts in The Company You Keep. Not that key players such as Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, both members of the WUO leadership team, the Bureau, did much time in jail when they eventually turned themselves in. Ayers and Dohrn, now husband and wife, have the kind of guile that makes Bill Clinton seem honest and transparent. Fortunately for posterity, Larry Grathwohl (with Frank Reagan) wrote the book Bringing Down America: An FBI Informer with the Weathermen (1976). Grathwohl gives us the true story of Ayers and Dohrn and their nihilistic cohort.
If Redford failed to read Grathwohl’s book (now republished) he is a fool. Neil Gordon’s lame 2003 novel, on which Redford has based his movie, is no match for Bringing Down America, a gritty and suspenseful tale, not the least reason being that Grathwohl put his life at risk to go undercover with the Weathermen bombers in 1969–70. After his true identity was revealed in May 1970, the Weathermen circulated a “Wanted” poster for Grathwohl “for crimes against the people”. The underground newspaper Berkeley Tribe ran a two-page story on August 21, 1970, with the headline: “The Most Dangerous Police Agent Ever to Infiltrate the American Revolutionary Movement.” The underground revolutionaries called for Grathwohl to be “wiped out”. Bringing Down America is an exciting movie waiting to happen.
In the fantasy world of The Company You Keep, we are meant to sympathise with Sharon Solarz. The feisty former Weatherman, played so faithfully by Sarandon, calls all the shots. Her FBI interrogators skulk behind a two-way mirror while Solarz lectures the young and supposedly cynical journalist Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) about the reason for her militancy all those years ago: “Kids our own age were being murdered by our own government.”
True, the Ohio National Guard, on May 4, 1970, fired on Kent State University students protesting against Nixon’s Cambodian incursion. Four students lost their lives that day; another young person was horribly maimed. It is also correct that the WUO bombed the National Guard headquarters in response. If you stitch these two moments in time together, and ignore everything else that occurred before and afterwards, Solarz’s haughty demeanour—“We made mistakes, but we were right!”—might make some sense. Even then, it would only confirm the adage that there is a kernel of truth in every good lie.
The Weathermen emerged from the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) movement, a leftist and anti-war organisation that grew to some 200,000 by 1967 as a reaction to conscription and LBJ’s escalation of America’s military role in Vietnam. The politics of the SDS took an even more radical turn in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive (March 1968) and the student uprising in France (January 1968). In June 1969, the Marxist-Leninists expelled the Progressive-Labor bloc for failing to back unreservedly Ho Chi Minh’s assault on the Republic of Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, the Marxist-Leninists—also known as the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM)—split into two irreconcilable factions, effectively killing off the SDS. Remarkably, the less radical of the two groups saw itself as Maoist; the other crowd, which constituted the nucleus of the WUO, sought to instigate a violent revolutionary war in the USA.
Thus, the Weathermen were no more anti-war than their revolutionary heroes, Lenin, Che and Ho. Lenin, for instance, opposed Russia’s participation in the First World War but was no peacenik: in October 1917 he mounted a putsch in Petrograd with the aid of his militia; in January 1918 he set the Latvian Riflemen loose on civilians demonstrating peacefully against his closure of the democratically elected Constituent Assembly; and by the middle of 1918 his Red Army had begun vanquishing the vast Russian hinterland. And so it was with the Weathermen. They were not only on the side of the communists in the Vietnam War—“Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Cong are going to win!”—but also wanted to “bring the war home”. Their taste for blood and carnage predated Kent State.
Larry Grathwohl was an eyewitness to the infamous Flint War Council held from December 27 to 30, 1969. The Weathermen joined the Black Panthers, the White Panthers and other assorted “freedom fighters” in Michigan to discuss how an armed struggle might bring down the US government or, at the very least, show the communist movements in the Third World “they had support within the imperialistic mother country”.
Probably the highest-ranking member of the Weather Bureau was Bernadine Dohrn, who set the tone for the War Council, praising Charles Manson for the slaying of the pregnant Sharon Tate and seven others back in August of that year. Exclaimed Dohrn: “Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room. Then they even shoved a fork into one’s stomach. Wild.”
Too many people witnessed Dohrn’s nauseating invective for Bill Ayers, fellow Bureau member, to be able to deny it, and so later he claimed Dohrn was being ironic if somewhat tasteless. In 1980, the radical-cum-conservative writer David Horowitz interviewed thirty witnesses to Dohrn’s outburst, and all corroborated Grathwohl’s account of the occasion. Dohrn meant every word of it.
The Flint War Council, according to Grathwohl, was “an encampment for budding guerrillas”. What followed in 1970 was an unprecedented wave of bombings and terrorism throughout America. The Weather Bureau—Dohrn, Ayers, et al—had been gripped by a millennialist psychosis. In the first weeks of 1970, the Bureau purged WUO collectives of those with no stomach for the bloodbath ahead. Partly because he was an ex-Vietnam vet, Grathwohl managed to convince the leadership team that he was ready to kill and be killed for the cause.
On one memorable night WUO apparatchik Dianne Donghi (and followers) subjected Grathwohl to an LSD-spiked cross-examination. It might have ended very badly for our FBI informer had he not tricked his drug-crazed inquisitors into thinking he too had swallowed a capsule. A clear head allowed him to remain relatively in control during the rising storm of accusations. A vicious and wild-eyed Donghi, in the midst of the ensuing hallucinogenic frenzy, screamed at him: “Who are you, Larry Grathwohl? Where did you come from? What’s inside you?” In the next instant, Weatherperson Anne Walton was grabbing a knife from a White Panther and pointing it at Grathwohl. “You’re a pig, Grathwohl,” accused Donghi. “Pig, Grathwohl. Pig. You’ve been lying to us.” Soon the chant went up: “Roast pig. Roast pig.”
Grathwohl, almost paralysed in the harsh spotlight of the escalating insanity, eventually rallied. His ex-vet-gone-rogue pantomime is the most sardonically humorous moment in Bringing Down America, and it possibly saved his life. The WUO always promised death to spies. As it was, Grathwohl’s impersonation of a madman proved good enough to see him later transferred from the Weathermen’s Cincinnati collective to their Detroit focal, or active terrorist unit. Another factor worked in his favour. He was working-class, a greaser, and those who dominated the upper echelons of the WUO, intellectuals from privileged, upper-class families in the main, hoped he might be handy with dynamite—and car mechanics. The Bureau’s plan was to kick off a nation-wide socialist revolution by “blowing up buildings that were symbols of authority, kidnapping government officials for ransom, and assassinating others when it was politically expedient”.
Grathwohl, as a member of the Detroit focal, came to know Bill Ayers only too well. It was Ayers who manoeuvred the Detroit terrorist unit into planning an attack on the city’s Police Officers Association building: “We blast the [expletive deleted] building to hell. And we do it when the place is crowded. We wait for them to have a meeting, or a social event. Then we strike.”
A reconnaissance operation mounted by Grathwohl and one other convinced them that the bomb—thirteen sticks of dynamite, an M-80 firecracker and a burning cigarette as the detonator—would not only blow up the police station. The explosive impact might also destroy the Red Barn Restaurant immediately adjacent. When Grathwohl expressed his concerns to Ayers, he received the following response from the self-styled Secretary of Education for the WUO: “We can’t protect all the innocent people in the world.” Only Grathwohl’s timely call to his FBI contact averted an explosion.
Evan Williams, in his review of The Company You Keep for the Australian, blithely endorses Ayers’s cant. He claims, disingenuously, that the Weathermen, “by modern terrorism standards”, should be regarded as “a civilised lot”. Williams furthermore asserts that their bombings “were preceded by evacuation warnings to minimise casualties”. Grathwohl, however, makes it clear—in a chapter titled “Trying to Stop the Bombings”—that there were no evacuation warnings for the bombs in Detroit, which threatened not only the Police Offers Association building and the Red Barn Restaurant, but also a police station in the Thirteenth Precinct: “A search of the station turned up another bomb neatly wrapped in a waterproof bag inside a toilet tank in the women’s rest room. There were 44 sticks of dynamite in the two bombs.”
Williams also fails to make the point that the nail-packed anti-personnel bomb which accidentally detonated on March 6, 1970, in Greenwich Village, killing three Weathermen, was intended for non-commissioned officers and their dates at a dance in the Fort Dix army base. Utter incompetence on the part of the WUO—and being thwarted by Larry Grathwohl—is no excuse to treat Ayers and Dohrn as the symbols of “a forlorn sense of lost idealism”. All Williams does with this type of false piety is give credence to Ayers’s persistent avowal that he was never a terrorist, only a highly principled fellow who did his best to stop an “unconscionable war”.
The involvement of Ayers and Dohrn in a vast array of bombings is indisputable. Grathwohl includes Ayers’s comment after the bombing of a police station in San Francisco in 1970: “It was a success, but it’s a pity when someone like Bernadine has to make the bomb, and then place it herself. She should have to do only the planning.” The claim by Ayers that he had no knowledge of the goings-on in Greenwich Village sounds unlikely. The WUO was a top-down, Leninist-style operation, with the Bureau/politburo controlling all the decision-making and co-ordinating assignments.
The WUO, asserts Evan Williams, “became a nationwide protest movement”. More accurately, the SDS was a nationwide protest movement that the WUO exploited for their own nefarious purposes. The SDS did not survive the machinations of Ayers, Dohrn and their ilk. Grathwohl’s Bringing Down America shows the Bureau’s objective was to hijack the student discontent generated by the draft and the Vietnam War in order to advance a radical leftist agenda.
During the 1960s, key figures in the WUO enlisted in the Venceremos Brigades, initiated by pro-communist Americans to help Cuba harvest its sugarcane crop. Weathermen, according to Bringing Down America, seized the opportunity “to get training in weapons and guerrilla tactics” and learn how to use “sophisticated weapons such as the AK47 machine gun”. Grathwohl also provided evidence that in 1970 Ayers was making overtures to Al-Fatah, a terrorist organisation already planning to cause murder and mayhem during the forthcoming 1972 Munich Olympic Games. In 1974, the WUO issued Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism with a dedication (amongst others) to Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin.
Vladimir Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism served as the moral compass for the Weathermen. As a consequence, they viewed American foreign policy as rapaciously exploitative of Third World countries, nothing more than “a system” to prop up the final and terminal stage of the Western capitalist system. In other words, America’s involvement in Vietnam had little to do with protecting the sovereign and democratic rights of the citizens of the Republic of Vietnam, and much to do with squeezing super-profits out of the South Vietnamese proletariat. This, of course, has no connection to reality, and yet it was as good a pretext as any for America’s homegrown bomb throwers.
A few weeks ago Bill Ayers rejected the notion that the actions of the Weather Underground were in any way comparable to the Boston bombers: the Chechen brothers were nihilists; the Weathermen were rational in their ambition to spark a socialist revolution in the USA and “end the system” that created the Vietnam War. It was this destroy-the-system-to-save-humanity mentality that—after the WUO officially folded—resulted in Kathy Boudin and other Weathermen, along with some Black Panthers, carrying out the 1981 Brinks armoured truck robbery, which led to the murder of three police officers. At least Boudin sounded remorseful at a parole hearing in 2001: “I felt that whatever problems there were with the system, there were more problems with what I had been part of and I wanted to plead guilty, because I was guilty.” Ayers, in contrast, cannot see that anything he did—or encouraged and organised—during his time in the WUO can be measured against the damage “the system” inflicted on Vietnam.
Robert Redford himself plays the leading male Weatherman character in The Company You Keep. Nick Sloan (alias Jim Grant) might be a former Weatherman but, as far as the audience can discern, he has done nothing wrong. The bank heist occurred without his participation, and so the thirty-odd years he has spent in hiding seems like a travesty. Solarz’s arrest indirectly results in his (not so problematic) Weatherman past becoming public knowledge. Sloan eludes the FBI in order to disappear, but not because he is guilty—quite the opposite. Redford’s character is an innocent man who sets off to find his former Weatherman comrade Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), the expectation being that she will turn herself in and clear Sloan’s name so he can continue being a first-rate single parent.
Evan Williams might be right to suggest Redford tries to project the “manifest beatific goodness” of his screen persona—that “raw Sundance Kid aura”—on his fictitious Weatherman character. On the other hand, the claim by Williams that Redford “looks terrific, as usual” is mystifying. Perhaps Williams brought to the screening his 3-D glasses from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The main message gleaned from watching Julie Christie and Robert Redford up close and personal concerns cosmetic surgery. It is a simple memo: Don’t do it. Still, Redford’s goal is obviously something else altogether.
Redford’s character persistently derides investigative journalism, personified in The Company You Keep by Ben Shepard, a reporter for an Albany newspaper. As Evan Williams says, Shepard’s “old-fashioned news-gathering techniques”, which include “cultivating contacts, searching out leads and combing through library archives”, lead the audience to wonder “how ethical” is young Ben’s fact-finding procedure, and “if he cares who gets hurt in the process”. The Ben Shepard character is only allowed to feel legitimately proud of himself when he realises that there is a higher truth than the literal truth or, as Marxists are wont to say, the “bourgeois truth”. How dismaying to reflect on the fact that Redford played the part of the pin-up boy of investigative journalism, Bob Woodward, in All the President’s Men (1976).
The theme of The Company You Keep would appear to be that mainstream Americans, rather than former Weathermen such as Redford’s Nick Sloan, are the ones in need of rehabilitation. This, crucially, begins to explain why American-style liberals have allowed radicals—including those who once dedicated their political manifesto to Sirhan Sirhan, for heaven’s sake—to commandeer the Democratic Party. One of the controversies that accompanied the 2008 presidential campaign was the allegation that Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father (1995). No need to panic, however, because the New York Times put a couple of ace reporters on the case and they were able to report back that Ayers and Obama had never met; and if they had met, had not met very often; and if they had met very often, that didn’t mean what some people claimed it meant.
Whether or not the mysterious “composite girlfriend” in Dreams from My Father might be Diana Oughton—Ayers’s girlfriend, who was blown up by a WUO bomb in Greenwich Village back in 1970—did not alter the fact that a New Left devotee was well on his way to the White House. Moreover, the radicals who believed America was toxic still believe America is toxic and in need of a radical overhaul. The only difference is that yesterday’s bomb throwers became members of America’s “new class”, with Dohrn an attorney, Boudin a professor, and Ayers an authority on education or, at least, indoctrinating the young with anti-American polemics.
As recently as 2010 Bernadine Dohrn claimed: “The real terrorist is the American government, state terrorism unleashed against the world.” The dogma or theology of Marxism gives people like Dohrn—one-time admirer of Charles Manson—a free pass to say and do anything the revolutionary spirit moves her to say and do, just as it did forty years ago. Dohrn’s ideology allows her and her husband to take the high moral ground on social issues with no apparent sense of embarrassment. The Company You Keep essentially endorses their immoral past, implying that their only crime was to care too much. Years ago, after avoiding jail time on a legal technicality, Ayers remarked to David Horowitz: “Guilty as hell, free as a bird—America is a great country.” Robert Redford’s film confirms Ayers’s point all over again.
Daryl McCann, a regular contributor, also has a blog at darylmccann.blogspot.com.au