Just as Barack Obama’s victory seemed assured, the long shadow of 1960s political extremism fell across his messianic ascension to the Presidency of the United States. In the last months of 2008 his campaign hit a major hurdle when he was forced to confront accusations that he had a long-time association with two of the America’s leading terrorists, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, ex-leaders of the Weathermen terrorist group, but now prominent members of the far Left in Chicago, where they played a key role in promoting Obama’s political career.
These claims became a live issue in the presidential campaign after they were raised by Sean Hannity and other conservative commentators. They were taken up by Senator Hillary Clinton when she was running against Obama in the Democratic primaries, and were canvassed in a debate between Obama and Clinton in April 2008. Then, after Obama won the nomination, the Republicans pursued the issue, launching an aggressive campaign in October 2008, involving television advertising, automated phone calls, and mass mailouts, supported by speeches by the candidate, Senator John McCain, and his running mate, Governor Sarah Palin.
In response, Obama, his campaign team, and his political and media allies denounced the claims and downplayed his association with Ayers and Dohrn. For example, his campaign manager conceded that while Obama may know Ayers “slightly” this was only because they lived in the same neighbourhood and their children went to the same school, ignoring the fact that Ayers’ and Dohrn’s children are much older than Obama’s and never went to school together. Similarly, it was claimed that Obama knew nothing of Ayers’ and Dohrn’s terrorist past, a highly unlikely situation. As Jerome Corsi remarks in his best-selling exposé, The Obama Nation, people familiar with Chicago politics “wonder how Obama can think we are so gullible as to believe Obama was the only person in Chicago who did not know Ayers’ bomb-throwing terrorist fame”.
Nevertheless, given the widespread media support for Obama, this campaign of denial was largely successful. The New York Times was typical of many major newspapers and other media outlets in reporting that no significant relationship existed between Obama and Ayers (Scott Shane, “Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths”, New York Times, October 3, 2008). An article in the New Yorker uncritically accepted Ayers’ insistence that he knew Obama only slightly and their relationship was the same as that “of thousands of others in Chicago” (David Remnick, “Mr Ayers’s Neighborhood”, New Yorker, November 4, 2008).
Despite such denials, it appears clear that Obama and Ayers were much more closely associated than Obama and his supporters wanted the public to know.
Certainly it is not in dispute that Obama launched his political career in 1995 in the home of Ayers and Dohrn, in Chicago’s Hyde Park district, when his sponsor, Illinois state Senator Alice Palmer, arranged for him to meet some influential leftists, potential campaign supporters, and contributors who could back Obama’s attempt to succeed her in the state legislature.
Palmer herself was on the far Left of the Democratic Party and had been a champion of the Soviet Union as late as 1986, when she attended the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and made a point of commending its “comprehensive affirmative action program” (Obama Nation, p. 136).
Ironically, after her own plans for political advancement were stymied, Palmer tried to rescind the arrangement with Obama and return to the Illinois Senate. However, she was steamrolled by Obama and the team he had assembled, who used various legal manoeuvres to disqualify not only Palmer but all the other candidates from the election, allowing Obama to run unopposed. Unsurprisingly, Palmer later endorsed Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Obama made a big impression on his debut at the home of the sixties radicals and ex-terrorists. Corsi reports that one of the attendees at the meeting recalls how Ayers and Dohrn introduced Obama as “the best thing since sliced bread”, while another recalled how friendly Obama and Ayers were. And indeed:
Palmer would never have introduced Obama to the Hyde Park political community at the Ayers-Dohrn home unless she saw an affinity between Ayers’ and Dohrn’s radical leftist history, her own history of far-leftist politics, and the politics of Barack Obama.
In fact, that affinity appears to have existed for some time. In The Audacity of Hope (2006), Obama declares himself to be a “pure product” of the sixties, and specifically distinguishes the “pre-1967 liberalism” of his counter-culture mother with its “sweet-natured romanticism”, from his own radical political outlook based in the hardcore revolutionary currents of 1968 and the other violent years that followed (p. 29). Obama also described how he was driven by adolescent rebellion into alcohol and drugs and drawn to the “Dionysian, up-for-grabs quality of that era”, and how his vision of the sixties was shaped by images of Black Panther leader Huey Newton, the fierce battle between police and demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the ignominious last-second escape of defeated US personnel from Saigon, and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont where Hell’s Angels bashed a young man to death (p. 30).
Moreover, as Obama explains in his autobiography, Dreams from My Father (2004), when he started college in 1979 he carefully chose his friends from amongst the radicals: “The more politically active black students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors and the structural feminists and punk-rock performers” (p. 100). He describes how they discussed “neocolonialism, Franz Fanon [the Black Power hero and apostle of ‘cleansing violence’], Eurocentrism, and patriarchy” (p. 100); and how he read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (the iconic text of post-colonialist theory) “to help me understand just what it is that makes white people so afraid … [and] how people learn to hate” (p. 103)—an unfortunate piece of racial stereotyping, it must be said.
Obama makes clear that he was seeking to construct an identity as an African-American activist, drawing inspiration from Malcolm X, the radical face of the Nation of Islam, whom he praised for his “unadorned insistence on respect [which] promised a new and uncompromising order, martial in its discipline, forged through sheer force of will”, and recalling a line from Malcolm X’s autobiography that “stayed with me … the wish that the white blood that ran through him … might somehow be expunged” (p. 86).
With the 1995 debut, the critical link was established between the rising young leftist politician and the veteran far Left agitators and ex-terrorists, as Corsi concludes: “connections between Obama and Ayers-Dohrn have actively continued since Obama launched his political career in their living room in 1995”. For example, in his 1997 book A Kind and Just Parent, Ayers specifically refers (p. 82) to “writer Barack Obama” as one of “our neighbors”, while Obama wrote a review of the book for the Chicago Tribune on December 21, 1997, in which he described Ayers’ book as “a searing and timely account of the juvenile court system, and the courageous individuals who rescue hope from despair”.
A more momentous outcome of this political and personal alignment occurred in 1995 when Ayers procured a $50 million grant from a national education initiative funded by US Ambassador Walter Annenberg and used it to co-found the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), selecting Obama to be the project’s first chairman of the board, on which Obama served until 2001. Together they participated in board meetings, retreats and press conferences and other activities during a period when “the group poured more than $100 million into the hands of community organizers and radical education activists”, and Ayers freely described himself as “a radical, Leftist, small ‘c’ communist”, as Stanley Kurtz reported in the Wall Street Journal (“Obama and Ayers Pushed Radicalism On Schools”, September 23, 2008).
Ostensibly, the CAC was created to improve Chicago’s public schools, but its aims were political, and the relevant archives “show that Mr Obama and Mr Ayers worked as a team to advance the CAC agenda”, as Kurtz explains:
[This agenda] flowed from Mr Ayers’s educational philosophy, which called for infusing students and their parents with a radical political commitment, and which downplayed achievement tests in favor of activism … Mr Ayers wrote that teachers should be community organizers dedicated to provoking resistance to American racism and oppression … CAC translated Mr Ayers’s radicalism into practice. Instead of funding schools directly, it required schools to affiliate with “external partners”, which actually got the money. Proposals from groups focused on math/science achievement were turned down. Instead CAC disbursed money through various far-left community organizers.
These included the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (“ACORN”, apparently from which great oaks grow), the South Shore African Village Collaborative, the Dual Language Exchange (which focused more on political consciousness, Afro-centricity and bilingualism than traditional education), and the Developing Communities Project, Obama’s own organisation.
With substantial funding from the CAC, Ayers founded the “small schools movement”, which promoted the development of schools around specific political themes designed to push students to confront alleged issues of inequality, war and violence. Ayers also believed that teacher education programs should serve as “sites of resistance” to an oppressive social system, and the CAC funded his teacher-training programs designed to promote this. The aims were to “teach against oppression”, denounce America’s history of evil and racism, and achieve social transformation. Unsurprisingly, as Kurtz revealed, even CAC’s own in-house evaluators, who “comprehensively studied the effects of its grants on the test scores of Chicago public-school students … found no evidence of educational improvement” as a result of this funding.
Later, Obama and Ayers served together on the board of the philanthropic Woods Fund for three years up until 2002, when Obama left to pursue his political career. He also served on the Leadership Council of the Chicago Public Education Fund with Ayers’ father and brother. Obama and Ayers were also involved together in academic panel discussions, for example on juvenile justice and municipal libraries, and one such discussion was organised by Michelle Obama, who had worked at the same law firm as Dohrn in 1984–88. These relationships are neither incidental nor insignificant and, as Joanna Weiss concludes in the Boston Globe: “In political circles in Chicago, where Obama rose in politics and Ayers is now a college professor, an Ayers-Obama connection has been known for years” (“How Obama and the radical became news”, April 18, 2008).
Given the long-term and sustained far Left commitments of Ayers and Dohrn, it is easy to see why Obama and his team would want to deny, downplay and obscure his personal, political and ideological links with them. However, there is a great deal more to the story than potential political embarrassment, because these revelations about the significance of such people in Obama’s career highlight the persistence of the values, attitudes and programs promoted on the far Left in the 1960s, many of which are set once again to exert a baleful influence on American society as it proceeds further into economic crisis.
Therefore, to comprehend the full implications of the influence of extremists like Ayers and Dohrn it is necessary to review their activities when they were leaders of the Weathermen (also known as the Weatherman, and the Weather Underground Organization) during the sixties—activities with which they continue gladly to associate themselves, as can be seen from their appearances on YouTube and in the documentary The Weather Underground (Free History Project, 2003).
The Weathermen were a far Left, Maoist-inspired revolutionary organisation that advocated urban guerrilla warfare and terrorism to sow the seeds of a communist revolutionary movement in America. They were characterised by their infatuation with Black Power and Third World revolutionary movements as the motors of global revolution, and by their rejection of the white working class as racist and reactionary. They carried out an extended campaign of bombings, robberies, violent demonstrations, riots and jailbreaks that began in October 1969 with the abortive “Days of Rage” in Chicago and continued through the 1970s.
They emerged as a far Left splinter group from the leading New Left organisation the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), effectively destroying it at its 1969 Chicago National Convention, as Todd Gitlin, a New Left activist and leading historian of the period, laments:
‘Long live the victory of people’s war!’ were Bernardine Dohrn’s parting words before leading seven hundred fist-waving delegates out of the convention hall, chanting, ‘Ho, Ho, Ho, Chi Minh’ … The Weathermen had no qualms about dismantling the largest organization anywhere on the Left in fifty years … They reveled in the thrill of cutting loose—true outlaws at last. [The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, 1993, p. 388]
The Weathermen’s first bombing destroyed a major Chicago monument to the police killed in the Haymarket Riots a century earlier, with hundreds of windows in surrounding buildings being smashed by the blast. Pamphlets distributed by the group at the time announced a violent new direction for the Left:
We move with the people of the world to seize power from those who now rule … We’ve got to actively fight. We’re going to bring the war home to the mother country of imperialism. AMERIKA: THE FINAL FRONT … We start to build a Red Army by fighting in the streets now. We’re going to knock the pig on his ass in those streets. [Tom Thomas, “The Second Battle of Chicago 1969”, in Harold Jacobs (ed.) Weatherman, 1970, pp. 197–99]
Violence was a non-negotiable necessity for the Weathermen as they desperately sought credibility in the eyes of the Black Power activists they idolised:
“We’ve got to show people that white kids are willing to fight on the side of black people and on the side of the revolution around the world. If you’re not going to fight, then you’re not part of us. It’s as simple as that.” [p. 199]
Weathermen fantasies about the nature of bloodshed characteristically included rapturous immersion in films like the ultra-violent Bonnie and Clyde (1967)— whose murderous heroes died in a hail of police gunfire, fetishistically depicted in slow motion—“likening the ‘consciousness-expanding’ outlaws to Franz Fanon and the NLF hero Nguyen Van Troi” (Gitlin, p. 386). Ayers himself “had this Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid attitude—they were blessed, they were hexed, they would die young, they would live forever”. But these fantasies also included meditations on violent street confrontations and murder, as one Weathermen mused:
It’s a wonderful feeling to hit a pig. It must be a wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building. We’re against everything that’s ‘good and decent’ in honkey America. We will burn and loot and destroy. We are … your mother’s worst nightmare. [Gitlin, p. 399]
Committed to acts of exemplary violence to establish their revolutionary credibility, Weathermen lived in a fantasy world of ultra-radical political posturing that progressed quickly from verbose polemical denunciations of American society, to deliberate street violence, vandalism and crime, and ultimately to terrorism. Their pamphlets denounced all police as “pigs”, and described strategies to engage and defeat them in street violence.
The mentality of the group can be further measured by their many ideological statements. For example, Ayers and Dohrn were co-authors of such ultra-radical manifestoes as You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows, which was named after a Bob Dylan song. As Daniel Flynn remarks: “SDS leaders once discussed the weighty ideas of Albert Camus and Norman O. Brown. Now they took political direction from rock records”. This reflected the general anti-intellectualism into which the far Left declined, when ideology was, as Paul Hollander has observed, “self-consciously garbled, inchoate, and atheoretical”.
Released at the SDS convention in 1969, the Weathermen’s 16,000-word ideological diatribe opens with a quote from the Chinese communist leader Lin Biao, identifying “the contradiction between the revolutionary peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America and the imperialists headed by the United States [as] the principal contradiction in the contemporary world” (Jacobs, p. 51). This Maoist dictum formed the basis of the Weathermen’s political strategy.
(Lin Biao had a high profile on the far Left in 1969, having just risen to prominence in the Cultural Revolution and appearing to be Mao Zedong’s designated successor. He then fell out with Mao and died mysteriously in a plane crash in September 1971 after a failed coup attempt against Mao. He was subsequently officially condemned by the Maoists as a leading “counter-revolutionary”. In 1969 however, he was still a New Left luminary.)
Consequently, for Ayers, Dohrn and the Weathermen leadership, “the main struggle going on in the world today is between US imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it. This [defines] political matters in the whole world.” They therefore rejected the concern of the traditional Left for the economic contribution and political rights of the working people of America, asserting instead that the latter’s “relative affluence” is based on the exploitation of “the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians and the rest of the peoples of the Third World” (Jacobs, p. 52). As even a generally sympathetic analysis of the Weathermen concedes, such claims are “grossly exaggerated” and without credibility (Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home, 2004, p. 51). Nevertheless, Ayers, Dohrn and the rest insisted that it was not the American people but “the oppressed peoples of the world who have created the wealth of this empire and it is to them that it belongs”, and that therefore “the goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism” (Jacobs, pp. 52–53).
In addition to world communist revolution, the Weathermen called for the victory of communist North Vietnam in the Vietnam War and the creation of multiple Vietnam-like guerrilla wars around the world, designed to consume all America’s military resources. Dohrn herself had gone to Cuba with another Weathermen leader in 1969 to meet with a delegation from North Vietnam and the Viet Cong and to express solidarity with this global struggle.
The communist dictator of North Korea also attracted their adoration. They devised a song sung to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story:
The most beautiful sound I ever heard
Kim Il Sung …
I’ve just met a Marxist-Leninist named Kim Il Sung
And suddenly his line
Seems so correct and fine
Kim Il Sung
Say it soft and there’s rice fields flowing
Say it loud and there’s people’s war growing
Kim Il Sung
I’ll never stop saying Kim Il Sung …
[Gitlin, p. 386]
Kim Il Sung would have been delighted, however inane the song.
In addition to this ideological Third Worldism, the 1969 Weathermen manifesto was notable for its insistence that the vanguard role in the revolution would be taken by American blacks led by the Black Power movement, operating in conjunction with Third World revolutionary groups. White university students and other young people in America were to serve in an auxiliary role only, this status reflecting their need to atone for their “white skin privilege”, which always left whites in a compromised position within the global revolutionary movement, according to the Weathermen (Varon, p. 50).
This racial orientation contributed to the affinity between Ayers and Dohrn and Obama, and it has remained the central dynamic of the ideological position of Ayers and Dohrn to this day, as the synopsis on Amazon.com of their imminent book, Race Course Against White Supremacy, makes clear:
White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days—and that it is still very much with us—the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors’ own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, [and] reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues.
Within this ideological paradigm, Dohrn, Ayers and the other self-styled “urban guerrillas” in the sixties saw themselves as the leaders of white American youth, fighting imperialism behind enemy lines as partisans of the far Left, modelled after Che Guevara and the Tupamaros, the Uruguayan guerrilla group that carried out bank robberies, bombings, kidnappings, murders, and other terrorist activities in the 1960s and 1970s.
Dohrn developed these ideas in 1970 in “Communique #1: From the Weatherman Under-ground”, which announced the group’s “Declaration of a State of War” against the government of what they dismissed as “Amerika”, a misspelling that was meant to imply the allegedly fascistic nature of American society. According to Dohrn:
All over the world, people fighting Amerikan imperialism look to Amerika’s youth to use our strategic position behind enemy lines to join forces in the destruction of the empire … Our job is to lead white kids into armed revolution … Protests and marches don’t do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way. Now we are adapting the classic guerrilla strategy of the Viet Cong and the urban guerrilla strategy of the Tupamaros to our own situation here in the most technically advanced country in the world. Che taught us that ‘revolutionaries move like fish in the sea’. The alienation and contempt that young people have for this country has created the ocean for this revolution. [Jacobs, pp. 509–10]
Dohrn also emphasised that sex and drugs had an essential place beside extreme violence on the Weathermen agenda:
We fight in many ways. Dope is one of our weapons … Guns and grass are united in the youth underground … Freaks are revolutionaries and revolutionaries are freaks … In every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and town house where kids are making love, smoking dope and loading guns. [Jacobs, p. 510]
Dohrn in fact had already achieved a degree of attention as the “revolutionary pinup” within the SDS for her enthusiastic approach to sexuality, as one SDS leader noted:
When I first met her, she … was clad in … a prominent lapel button announcing that ‘Fellatio Is Fun’. Her taste for black leather boots and mini-skirts … made her a popular figure with a certain segment of SDS’s more macho male leadership.
[Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity, 1998, p. 204]
Dohrn’s personal presence contributed to her highly influential role in the Weathermen, as Gitlin observes:
At the core of the Weathermen mystique stood SDS’s inter-organizational secretary, Bernadine Dohrn, who combined lawyerly articulateness with a sexual charisma—even more than her chorus girl looks—that left men dazzled … She fused the two premium images of the moment: sex queen and streetfighter. [Gitlin, pp. 385–86]
Predictably, this sexual dimension assumed pathological forms. Within the fanatical world of the Weathermen “collectives” the aim was to “smash monogamy” through various sorts of sexual experimentation, with the leadership demanding
that all female revolutionaries sleep with all male revolutionaries, and vice versa. Women were also to make love to each other. Private relations of love and affection were declared counterrevolutionary, because they represented bourgeois habits. [Ehud Sprinzak, “The psychopolitical formation of extreme left terrorism in a democracy: The case of the Weathermen”, in Walter Laqueur (ed.) Origins of Terrorism, 1998, p. 69]
Ayers himself has described how the Weathermen were “an army of lovers”, and how he had different sexual partners, including his best male friend (Dinitia Smith, “No Regrets for a Love Of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life With the Weathermen”, New York Times, September 11, 2001).
The group acted out other predictable cult-like and ultra-radical ideas: “‘Weathermothers’ who were suspected of devoting too much time to their babies … were told to give the revolution first priority [and some] were even ordered to give their babies to other, less committed, members” (Sprinzak, p. 69). There was also the same type of cultish public self-denunciations promoted by the Maoists in the Cultural Revolution with “members forced to confess and to admit their mistakes [and] the ordeals of these ‘deviants’ were not stopped even in cases of nervous breakdown … Everyone had to conform to the ‘groupthink’ and to be ready for the revolution” (Sprinzak, p. 69).
In line with their white self-loathing and their exaltation of Black Power, white babies were seen as “tainted with the original sin of ‘skin privilege’”, while one “Weathermother” was told as she breastfed her child that, “all white babies are pigs”, and that her baby should be put in the garbage (Gitlin, p. 400).
A particularly disturbing episode that illuminates the close link that operated amongst the Weathermen between sex, race and carefully cultivated white guilt was recounted in detail by a former casual girlfriend of Ayers. She claims he forced her to have sex with his black roommate after insisting that the only reason she wouldn’t do so was “because he was black—that I was a bigot. I had gone to school with black kids and had them as friends all my life. I couldn’t believe he was saying that to me”:
I felt trapped. I had to get out of the situation I was in and because he was so effective a guilt-tripper, I also felt I had to prove to him that I wasn’t a bigot. I got up from the couch and walked over to the black roommate’s bed and put myself on it and he *** me. I went totally out of my body. I floated beside myself on the outside and above the bed looking at this black stranger *** me angrily while I hated myself. [Donna Ron, “Remembering a Sixties Terrorist”, FrontPageMagazine.com, January 4, 2006]
It is difficult to imagine a better example of the way in which white guilt can be exploited by mendacious ideologues than this dreadful scene.
The hideous violence associated with the Charles Manson-led Tate–LaBianca murders in 1969 appealed particularly to Dohrn, and the Weathermen elevated the Manson gang into revolutionary heroes:
[The Manson] slogan, ‘Helter-Skelter’, and their ‘fork’ sign [three fingers raised in a Hitler salute] terrified and haunted the country. But the Weathermen celebrated the event as an act of liberation of utmost significance. The brutal murder fit their new Weltenschauung perfectly [and the Weathermen adopted the sign and kept] a picture of Sharon Tate on the wall … The final assessment of the murder, and the crowning of the new morality of dehumanization, was voiced by Bernardine Dohrn: ‘Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!’ [Sprinzak, p. 70]
The Helter-Skelter outrages exemplified the loathing felt by the Weathermen for every aspect of mainstream American society. Indeed, their hatred and suspicion were so great that Ayers, Dohrn and other Weathermen leaders expected that they would have to direct a post-revolutionary extermination campaign, involving the killing of some 25 million Americans judged to be enemies of the new communist regime. As an incredulous witness to the discussion observed: “I want you to imagine sitting in a room with 25 people, most of whom have graduate degrees, from Columbia and other well-known educational centres, and hear them figuring out the logistics for the elimination of 25 million people” (Bob Owens, “Eyewitness to the Ayers Revolution”, pajamasmedia.com).
Aside from terrorism, the Weathermen put a lot of effort into ideological work, launching a far Left agitprop campaign in schools:
Their first project was to inspire white working-class youths to join The Revolution. They organized squads to barge into blue-collar high schools in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Boston, and other cities, pushing teachers around, binding and gagging them, delivering revolutionary homilies, yelling ‘Jailbreak!’ [Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, 1993, p. 386]
As one Weathermen leader declared: “The kids would learn that ‘their only choice is either joining the world revolution led by the blacks, the yellows, and the browns, or being put down as US imperialist pigs by the people of the Third World’” (Gitlin, p. 386). As the work of the CAC described above reveals, Ayers still promotes this highly politicised view of education, a project on which he worked closely with Obama.
UNSURPRISINGLY, it was against America that Dohrn promised vengeance in March 1970 when three Weathermen terrorists died when a bomb they were constructing exploded, destroying a New York City townhouse: “Within the next fourteen days we will attack a symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice”, she declared (Jacobs, p. 510). Somewhat belatedly, on June 9, 1970, the group bombed a New York City police station, allegedly in retaliation for the “assassination” of the black activist George Jackson, who had been killed by prison guards during an escape attempt.
The explosions in the Weathermen’s townhouse bomb-lab had destroyed the four-storey building, the wall of the house next door (owned by actor Dustin Hoffman), and shattered windows throughout the neighbourhood. It had occurred when members of the Weathermen terrorist cell misconnected some wires while “making anti-personnel pipe bombs composed of nails wrapped around an explosive centre, which would spray shrapnel everywhere when exploded” (Jack Sargeant (ed.), Guns, Death, Terror, 2003, p. 58). In his memoirs, Ayers confirmed that the bomb was
huge, many, many sticks of dynamite stolen from a railroad shed, taped together in a briefcase destined for the army base nearby … packed with screws and nails that would do serious work beyond the blast, tearing through windows and walls, and yes, people, too. This one was huge and would vomit death and destruction … [Fugitive Days, 2001, p. 272]
Three Weathermen were killed and two injured. One of the dead was Diana Oughton, Ayers’ then girlfriend. In his memoirs Ayers fantasises about Oughton’s death, rhapsodising about her “own one minute, straight and strong and beautiful and twenty-seven, forever … She fell into death, illuminated on all sides with the radiance of her hope in full eruption” (Ayers, p. 270), raising the question of whether such a romanticised death awaits all of us, or is reserved only those who die preparing an anti-personnel bomb in the service of The Revolution. Despite Ayers’ ethereal meanderings, the reality of this terrorist’s death was brutal and corporeal. Oughton’s “head was badly damaged, both hands were missing and her left leg was severed … and much of the body was missing”; it seems that she “had been standing within a foot or two of the bomb or may even been holding it when it exploded”; and she was only identified when “the tip of a little finger from the right hand was discovered a week after the explosion” (Sargeant, pp. 56–57).
A search by police and firemen “found at least sixty sticks of dynamite, thirty blasting caps, and timing devices made from alarm clocks and a quantity of twelve inch pipes packed with dynamite. The bombs and dynamite had fuse wires attached to them.” Apparently, the bombs were intended to be used in “a large scale almost random bombing offensive, including plans to blow up an army dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey” (Sargeant, p. 58), and indeed Oughton’s body had puncture wounds caused by nails.
The cell had previously firebombed the home of the judge who had presided over a trial of some Black Panther militants on conspiracy charges relating to the planned bombing of police stations, Macy’s department store, and the Bronx botanical gardens. A series of FBI raids followed the explosion and indictments were quickly issued against Ayers, Dohrn and many other Weathermen, most of whom went underground. Within months the group had bombed the Presidio Army Base in San Francisco (to commemorate the Cuban Revolution), the Army Mathematics Research Center in Madison, Wisconsin (where a graduate mathematics student was killed in a major blow for the Revolution), the Haymarket Memorial (for a second time), the Marin County Court House, the Long Island Court Building, and the Centre for International Affairs at Harvard. Many other bombings occurred over the next few years. In the group’s later manifesto Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism (1974, p. 16) Ayers himself took credit for participating in some thirty bombings and other terrorist attacks, including on the US Capitol in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. (Prairie Fire is dedicated, incidentally, to Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy!)
Inevitably, the Weathermen were placed on the FBI’s Ten Most-Wanted list and Ayers, Dohrn and the rest went underground. During these “fugitive years” Ayers claims to have lived in fifteen states, using the names of dead babies in cemeteries who were born in the same year as he, and staying in safe-houses stocked with books by Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh, and festooned with Che Guevara iconography.
Ultimately Ayers and Dohrn married and had two sons: Zayd, named after a Black Panther “murdered by the police”, and Malik, named after Malcolm X. They eventually surrendered to police but escaped justice for their terrorist activities, thanks largely to expensive legal representation, information they provided, plea-bargaining, and a suspiciously “bungled” police investigation. They subsequently built prominent careers in the nurturing environment on the far Left of Democratic Party politics in Chicago.
They remain unrepentant. In an interview published to promote his memoirs, Fugitive Days, which appeared, incredibly, in the New York Times on the very day of the 9/11 attacks, Ayers declared that “I don’t regret setting bombs, I feel we didn’t do enough”, and when he was asked directly whether he’d do it all again, he replied: “I don’t want to discount the possibility”.
And, as their various recent media appearances make clear, they remain committed to the same old Black Power, Third Worldist and Maoist ideologies that they and other ideologues exploited to justify the terrorism demanded by their psycho-political fantasies. At a reunion of the SDS in December 2007, Ayers and Dohrn basked in their refurbished personae as triumphant rebels who have embraced “the spirit of resistance”, the message of “the Zapatistas”, and have risen once again to fame and influence in the face of the “empire resurrected and unapologetic” (Anonymous, “Michigan State SDS Reunion: Hope And History Come Together”, A-Infos, December 8, 2007).
Significantly, in November 2008 the Muslim-cultural Students Association at Northwestern University invited them to speak at a special conference alongside a radical Muslim Imam —an ominous indication of the Muslim students’ attitudes towards terrorism and the apparently comfortable fit they see between their present political program and that of the Weathermen terrorists of the sixties.
In their contempt for the people and institutions of America, Ayers and Dohrn exemplify the fundamental elitism and anti-democratic mentality that overwhelmed the New Left as it became consumed by a sense of impotence, self-hatred and a self-lacerating guilt. As the sordid history reviewed here indicates,
The Weathermen were traveling to the far reaches of loathing. Their immensely bad ideas and dreadful tactics must have had a root in some larger upheaval of the movement’s collective psyche. Charles Manson, the [sign of the] fork, the Weathermen as vandals and scourges—we have stumbled onto the realm of the demonic [where] the whole of the Left … discovered bottomless guilt and death around them and inside them. [Gitlin, p. 402–3]
The questions that the American people may have to ask themselves as the Obama presidency unfolds in this period of crisis is how much this extremist milieu still drives and directs the political outlook of their new leader and those around him, and how much it will guide their critical decisions, laws, policies and appointments throughout the vast federal government system overseen by the new President of the United States. To what extent will the Obama administration be heirs of the Weathermen?
Mervyn F. Bendle is Senior Lecturer in History & Communications at James Cook University.