People never find it easy to confront the past; they generally prefer to consign it to oblivion. In today’s society, the model citizen is too often one without memory. Complex events are simplified; history is coarsened and turned into a species of exorcism and kitsch. This is especially true whenever one hears talk about the radical upheavals of the 1960s and their afterglow in the 1970s. Pundits prefer turning those over-oxygenated years into a kind of exotic folklore: Twiggy, the Beatles, Timothy Leary, Godard, Vietnam, Huey Newton, the Weather Underground, Patty Hearst. The mosaic of moods and movements that colored and shaped that period are flattened and made safe for our collective consumption. The many divisions and differences, inherent in any time of social dislocation, are ignored. Thus is the hegemony of particular experiences created (Woodstock Nation, say, or Altamont), a hegemony that neglects or diminishes the importance of others (the so-called Silent Majority, for instance). It is worth recalling that there was much political conservatism and quietism in the 1960s and ’70s.
There also was what Philip Roth would memorably call in his 1997 novel American Pastoral “the indigenous American berserk,” the decision by some young Americans to take up arms against the regnant order. What happened to them, what they actually did, the web of conceits they wove then and later to justify their revulsion, and the efforts by the authorities, largely unsuccessful and often illegal, to catch and crush them is the subject of Bryan Burrough’s new book.
A former business reporter for the Wall Street Journal and since 1993 a star writer for Vanity Fair, Burrough is justly admired for his meticulously researched Barbarians at the Gate, written with John Helyar, a best-selling epic of the avarice that led to the $25 billion leveraged buyout of the RJR Nabisco Corporation, a book that caught something of the zeitgeist of Wall Street’s go-go years in the late 20th century. Struck by the disparity between today’s overheated response to the specter of terrorism and the relative complacency that Burrough believes greeted the bombings carried out in the 1970s by what he calls “apocalyptic revolutionaries,” he decided to take a closer look, to perform a kind of autopsy on the corpse of a past that, he says, is all but forgotten. He had a lot to choose from, for a bewildering array of groups and grouplets had declared war on the American imperium. They included the Weatherman, the militant faction that arose in June of 1969 from the breakup of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS); the Symbionese Liberation Army, the brainchild of ex-con Donald DeFreeze, which grabbed headlines with its killing of Marcus Foster, Oakland’s black school superintendent, and kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst; the Black Liberation Army, a violent cabal, based largely in New York City, that rejected Huey Newton’s Black Panther Party for its alleged timidity and soon embarked on a shakedown of drug dealers and bank heists, a gang which, aided by a number of white radicals, successfully executed the spectacular jailbreak and flight into Cuban exile of Assata Shakur; and the FALN, a deadly serious clandestine group devoted to the cause of Puerto Rican independence, whose bomb-maker would prove to be among the more skilled of the radical pyrotechnicians until the day something went terribly awry in his Queens flat, blowing off nine of his fingers and shredding most of his face.
Who were these people and what did they want and why did they do the things they did? Very largely they emerged from the despair and perceived defeats of the New Left, a term created to mark the difference between the dull apologists for the Soviet Union that had so compromised the Old Left and the fresher, less ideological voices that had been forged in the crucible of the civil-rights movement. Like much of the postwar generation it reflected, the New Left was rooted in utopian romanticism. It was often tainted, especially in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with a disturbing streak of intolerance and messianism. It was frequently intemperate, unreasonable, arrogant—that is to say, it was a movement of the young. It was, in the words of Al Haber, a founder in 1962 of SDS, a mixture of “mysticism, humanism, innocent idealism and moral urgency.”
In its early years, the New Left declared its belief in reason, in persuasion, in moral sobriety. It opposed the use of violence. It set in motion an unwieldy and diverse movement of vigorous dissent that helped to end the American intervention in Indochina, improve the lot of the poor and the disenfranchised, and spark a cultural upheaval felt all over the world. For a time, the New Left advanced seemingly from victory to victory, from strength to strength. That it would falter (even collapse) at the moment of its greatest triumph—the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam—is an enduring irony. That it finally splintered into dozens of squabbling sects whose critique of American society was derived largely from a bad conscience peculiar to the privileges of the upper middle class cannot be denied. Why and how some of those sects became cults for zealots willing to countenance murder is the subject of Burrough’s inquiry.
No one who was whipsawed by that turbulent era ever forgot it. Burrough’s assertion that its intoxications, crimes, and misdemeanors have been neglected is inaccurate. He concedes that over the past four decades there have been “thousands of words written about Weatherman … including six memoirs, three other books, two films, and countless news articles.” The spectacle of the sons and daughters of the American middle class renouncing their spoiled patrimony by embracing violent methods of rejection has been over the decades a mesmeric subject for some of our most gifted writers. Fiction often yields more insight than nonfiction. A short list of the indispensable novels on the temptations of terrorism would include Don DeLillo’s Players (1977), Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer (1977), Marge Piercy’s Vida (1979), Walter Abish’s How German Is It (1980); Henry Bean’s False Match (1982), Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997), Robert Hellenga’s The Fall of a Sparrow (1998), Neil Gordon’s The Company You Keep (2003), Susan Choi’s American Woman (2003), Russell Banks’s The Darling (2004), Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document (2006), Christopher Sorrentino’s Trance (2006), and, most recently, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013).
Burrough’s neglect of this literature is unfortunate, for it enfeebles the story he wants to tell. He is strikingly deaf to the ambiguities that are at the heart of any exploration of character, whatever the ostensible and usually self-serving political rationales. It’s too bad Burrough omits this dimension since such an approach might have helped vivify his story with an irony and an empathy otherwise lacking in the way he’s chosen to tell his tale. As a result, the drama he tries to convey is mostly stillborn.
The book is both bloated and thin. Burrough’s style gives the game away, his writing marred throughout by lazy sentences. The potted history he uses to set his scenes is of the Information Please almanac variety. Doubts deepen when he confesses his M.O. in a brief altogether inadequate “Note on Sources” that most of his information is derived from “previously published books, contemporary interviews, and personal interviews.” In addition, “Documents generated by the FBI and the NYPD, along with an oral history or two, were also used.” Yet he says that the “highly redacted” FBI files “are almost useless … almost all of it is dreck.”
His endnotes are embarrassingly unhelpful. Whole chapters are given just one or two notes; others a half-dozen or so. Mostly the reader is forced to take Burrough on faith. He is an unapologetic stitchmeister. His book isn’t so much written as it is knitted together from the yarns of others. The pixie dust of the clutch of interviews with ex-radicals he obtained (others refused to speak to him) isn’t enough to save his book from the suspicion that the real story is elsewhere.
To be sure, clandestine activity is inherently murky stuff, but for all of Burrough’s self-congratulatory huffing and puffing he hasn’t come up with much. Sure, he’s put a name to the one guy who was probably the sole expert bomb-maker for the Weatherman, now living free and unrepentant in Brooklyn. As for his other “scoops,” it’s hardly news that the strongest motivation for Weather’s actions wasn’t so much its wanting to hasten an American defeat in Vietnam but rather its desire to become a fifth column of modern-day John Browns aiding black resistance to racism. Such vaulting ambition was declared at the time by the Weather people, who were at pains to spurn what they condemned as “white-skin privilege.” Burrough’s big discovery: that in the 90 days between Weather’s going underground in January 1970 and the shocking explosion of March 1970 which demolished a Greenwich Village townhouse—killing the three people who were assembling an anti-personnel bomb in the basement, apparently intended to be detonated at an officers’ dance at Fort Dix—Weather stalwarts had contemplated attacks that would actually kill and maim people.
They wanted, as the slogan du jour then proclaimed, to “bring the war home.” No bystanders were innocent. You were either part of the problem or part of the solution. They aimed at giving Americans, whether in uniform or not, a taste of the undiscriminating terror that was being visited upon the Vietnamese. In the event, whatever their intentions, they were about as inept as they were deluded.
Yet Burrough can’t help but hype the story. He quotes a retired FBI agent who claims that in 1972 there were over “nineteen hundred domestic bombings … Buildings getting bombed, policemen getting killed. It was commonplace.” But was it? Or was this J. Edgar Hoover pushing his campaign to expose the reds he was convinced were under every bed, reds who had to be rooted out by any means necessary, however illegal? Burrough is not unsympathetic to Hoover’s obsession; he seems to believe that had the FBI not been constrained by the revelations of the bureau’s skullduggery, Hoover’s G-men could have put the kibosh on the crazies who had gone to ground. That can hardly have been the case, however, as the long-running secret FBI campaign to identify and suppress suspected dissenters, COINTELPRO, preceded by many years its exposure by the daring radicals who burgled the FBI field office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 and the subsequent Church Committee hearings on intelligence, held in 1975. Burrough makes plain his disagreement with the retired agent who told him that “Some of us felt that what the Bureau did constituted a far greater danger to society than what the Weatherman ever did.”
Burrough claims that in all of 1969 there were about 100 bombings. The following year the number trebled. Then, in “an eighteen-month period in 1971 and 1972, the FBI reported more than 2,500 bombings on U.S. soil,” a period which, he tells us, saw a precipitous decline in Weatherman’s membership, especially after the Townhouse debacle. By January 1971, Burrough reports, the group likely consisted “of a core group of barely a dozen people,” and he quotes the band’s chief bomb-maker admitting that the “the ones who did things, was ten or twelve people, no more than fifteen.” By then Weatherman had publically abandoned its romance with violence as a “military error,” acknowledging that “the townhouse forever destroyed our belief that armed struggle is the only real revolutionary struggle.”
A year later the group was all but finished. Burrough notes that “In 1972, for example, the Los Angeles collective consisted of six or seven people who never participated in a single bombing.” He concludes that “Less than one percent of the 1970s-era bombings led to a fatality” and, in fact, “the single deadliest radical-underground attack of the decade killed four people.” The bombs “basically functioned as exploding press releases.” Weather’s largely ineffectual attempts at armed propaganda may well have prompted others to imitate them, however, and Burrough believes that almost all the bombings the FBI recorded were “the work of ‘one-off’ student rage.” The real story lay elsewhere, but Burrough tosses it away in a single sidelong sentence: according to the Associated Press, by 1971 “three thousand communes had opened, taking in three million people,” but he’s evidently uninterested by this remarkable statistic and what it suggests about America and its discontents.
Burrough prefers dynamite and sex. He affects a hard-boiled prose when, cribbing from Jane Alpert’s memoir of radical wilding, he opens his book by describing Sam Melville, Alpert’s lover and an aspiring bomber, removing the yogurt and salad from their refrigerator to make room for the boxes of red dynamite sticks he’d stolen and how, afterward, they’d made love, “the most tender and passionate in a long time,” as Alpert recalled. Burrough’s use of Alpert’s solipsistic book gives him the curtain-raiser to his tale of feckless ambition and radical derangement, but in truth there’s nothing in his approving and uncritical acceptance of her pomposities that causes one to revise the unsentimental view advanced by the late, great, and altogether sober Murray Kempton, who reviewed the book when it was published more than 30 years ago. Kempton saw that Alpert’s “memories abound with occasions that might have been moments of revelation, and yet her account of them reads like transcriptions from a parrot.” As for Melville, Kempton’s characterization sticks: his “only credential was the air of command.” Yet for Burrough, Alpert’s book is “excellent.”
For Burrough, Bernardine Dohrn, a principal organizer and leader of Weatherman, is “the glamorous leading lady of the American underground, unquestionably brilliant, cool, focused, militant, and highly sexual.” The heavy breathing is unmistakable. He’s transfixed by her “tight miniskirt and knee-high Italian boots.” He quotes approvingly one anonymous former member of SDS as remembering, “Every guy I knew at Columbia, every single one, wanted to f–k her.” He is well pleased to recycle David Horowitz and Peter Collier’s Rolling Stone article of more than 30 years ago quoting Mark Rudd as having once remarked that “Power doesn’t flow out of the barrel of a gun, power flows out of Bernardine’s c–t.” The salaciousness is relentless. Burrough tells that when Dohrn was underground, living on a Sausalito houseboat, she liked to clamber to the roof and sunbathe, “sometimes topless.” Burrough can’t resist a flourish: “Overhead, seagulls swooped to and fro.” He breathlessly repeats an oft-quoted characterization by Timothy Leary, whom Weatherman broke out of a California prison, engineering his escape into exile in Algeria where Eldridge Cleaver, already on the lam, welcomed him with less than open arms. Leary recalled Dohrn as having had “unforgettable sex appeal” and “the most amazing legs.”
With the implosion of Weatherman, Burrough turns to the psychopathology of ever-smaller cults. He tells of the forlorn “New World Liberation Front,” which the FBI tied to “sixteen bombings and attempted bombings between 1973 and their final attack in 1978.” He admits the full story “will never be known” yet asserts that the mysterious NWLF detonated more explosive devices than any other radical group, nearly twice as many as the Weather Underground. Most of the bombs, he informs us, were the work of a nutcase named Ronald Huffman, described by Burrough as a “small-time marijuana dealer in the San Jose area, a balding radical typically adorned in biker regalia; his customers called him ‘Revolutionary Ron.’” Huffman was in cahoots with a girlfriend who is described as “a quiet hippie girl” who “graduated with honors from Berkeley.” Burrough’s source: the FBI, which estimated Huffman’s group as consisting of maybe six or seven people. Huffman would eventually murder his lover and chief follower, ordering her to kneel and then splitting her skull with an axe. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity; a jury disagreed, and he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to California state prison, where he would die in 1999.
Burrough is a serial exaggerator. He claims that the saga of Joanne Chesimard, aka Assata Shakur, “was a singular moment in underground history, the first time the press was obliged to introduce and attempt to explain a black revolutionary—and an attractive woman at that—to a mainstream audience.” Really? What happened to Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown and Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver, all of whom had earlier transfixed the white national media with their angry rhetoric, all of whom seemed to raise the specter of Nat Turner? And what, one is obliged to ask, was Angela Davis, chopped liver? He calls the Patty Hearst kidnapping “after Watergate, probably the greatest media event of the 1970s.” Bigger than the 1978 People’s Temple cyanide “revolutionary suicides” of more than 900 acolytes (and the murder of U.S. Congressman Leo Ryan) at the behest of the Reverend Jim Jones, bigger than the assassinations of Harvey Milk and San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone at the hands of Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor? Bigger than the partial meltdown in 1979 of Three-Mile Island’s nuclear reactor?
There isn’t an honest-to-God, flesh-and-blood character in the whole book. Everyone and nearly everything is reduced to cliché and caricature. For example, George Jackson is “a thug with a fountain pen.” His attorney and lover, Fay Stender, is a “plain woman with a smoldering sexuality,” who Burrough says was “utterly entranced” by the prospect of sexual congress with the “black inmates she represented.” She was, he writes, “a genius” at public relations and “Under Stender’s guidance, George Jackson emerged as the living symbol of everything the Bay Area Left yearned for: strong, black, prideful, masculine, and undeniably sexual.”
(Curiously, Burrough neglects to tell what happened to Stender, perhaps because it both bolsters and complicates his story. She would ultimately be branded an “enemy of the people” for having betrayed Jackson by refusing to slip him the gun he needed to escape San Quentin. For this sin, she incurred the wrath of the so-called Black Guerrilla Family, a California prison gang. She would be grievously attacked by an ex-convict, shot multiple times in her home in Berkeley, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. She spent her remaining years in agony before taking her life in a Hong Kong hotel room.)
A Harlem squad of the Black Liberation Army boasts a “lean, charismatic thug” and a “squat, muscled gangbanger.” Detectives are “cigar-chomping,” and veterans are “square-jawed.” White radicals are almost always “shaggy” or “stringy-haired” or “aging” or “prematurely gray” or, worse, “balding.” Burrough sneers that by 1973 Berkeley was a “bizarre bazaar” chockablock “with radicals devoted to every conceivable cause” but which “now ran less to the brainy Ivy Leaguers of the Weather Underground than to the escaped convicts, janitors, runaways, and angry lesbians.” Whoa, angry lesbians. Steady, man, steady.
Purple prose is everywhere: New York in the 1970s is
a city that seemed to be entering its death throes. Gotham’s financial crisis had devolved into a new ring of urban hell … . Between bombings, riots, blackouts, and serial killers, the last shreds of civilization appeared to be disintegrating … a dying city, a softly throbbing bass line deep in the rhythms of a funeral dirge.
Or how about second-rate James M. Cain: “When he stepped inside, he could feel hatred radiating from the prisoners like bad cologne.” Or the Vietnam vet who reads Che Guevara’s diary and “downed it like a starving dog.” To say that he “was an angry young man is like saying Mozart could play the piano.” Or take Burrough’s description of Mayor Ed Koch closing a detox program run by radicals at a Bronx hospital, smashing them “like a clove of garlic.”
Odd errors, trivial in themselves, crop up. A single example will suffice: “Tania,” Che Guevara’s sidekick in his doomed Bolivian adventure, is described as “a noted Cuban revolutionary” when, in point of fact, she was of East German origin.
The truth of the matter, as Burrough well knows, was that the actual threat to the public posed by these American Narodniks was minuscule; the reality was that most of the wounds were self-inflicted. The violence that occurred, born of desperate delusions and accompanied by ideological fevers, was committed by renegades who were drawn to a world that placed a premium on secrecy and duplicitous behavior. The public was indifferent. Most of the left was appalled. All in all, it’s a sad story whose tragic and misbegotten essence was understood and denounced at the time. Robert Scheer, former editor of the muckraking radical magazine Ramparts, nailed it when he condemned
movements that aim to create zombies in the name of establishing some social utopia … . What the crazies do have in common is their distortion of ideas, and indeed history, in order to leave themselves at the center of our attention. They have a contempt for ordinary life, for the right and ability of individuals to make rational decisions. They become humorless, fanatical ‘saviors’ of our souls.
There was at the heart of these “apocalyptic revolutionaries” a hoary notion that revolved around the idea of authenticity: an end to estrangement and the construction of community were constant refrains. The injection of moral passion, with the concomitant suggestion that direct action and the willingness to embrace violent means is the best barometer by which commitment is measured and authenticity confirmed, proved a disaster, as dangerous as it was naïve. These ideas embodied a terrible logic: only by ever grander gestures could the veil of apathy be pierced in an America whose citizens’ political sensibilities had been dulled by the narcotic of consumerism and the relative prosperity derived from being beneficiaries of an imperial behemoth. Politics thus became a form of Gestalt, a species of social psychoanalysis. Its aim was not merely revolution but catharsis.
Burrough, alas, is neither the writer nor the thinker talented enough to tackle this subject with the seriousness and insight it deserves. In truth, the more dangerous terrorists were elsewhere, hiding in plain sight, living large in the nation’s capital, relentlessly pursuing a punishing war against the Indochinese, backed by the lethal power of the mightiest war machine the world had ever known. Millions would die, hundreds of thousands maimed, combatants and noncombants alike, leaving an open wound that has yet to heal. About this forgotten horror, however, Burrough has nothing to say.
Steve Wasserman, editor at large for Yale University Press and former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, lived in Berkeley from 1963 until 1977.