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Stormy Weather
By Beverly Gage JANUARY 08, 2017

Bad Moon Rising: How the Weather Underground Beat the FBI and Lost the Revolution,
By Arthur M. Eckstein
(Yale University Press)

In late October, the veteran left-wing activist Tom Hayden died from complications related to a stroke. As a young man, Hayden had been one of the firebrands of the New Left, a founding member of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and the chief author of its famed manifesto, "The Port Huron Statement." In death as in life, his story captures an important generational experience: The brash young radicals of the 1960s have become senior citizens. In another 10 or 20 years, their youthful adventures will be "history," enshrined in the documentary record but no longer part of our living memory.

Perhaps as a result, the past few years have seen a spate of books on the New Left and its struggles with the U.S. government. In 2014, the former Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger published The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, revealing the identities of antiwar activists who stole secret files from an FBI office in Media, Pa. — and got away with it. In 2015, the Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough came out with Days of Rage, a plunge into "America’s Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence." Most recently, Jeffrey Toobin’s re-examination of the 1974 Patricia Hearst kidnapping landed near the top of The New York Times bestseller list. All of these books highlight the FBI’s longstanding role not only in hunting down lawbreakers, but (as we’ve been reminded recently) in shaping the limits and possibilities of American politics.

Arthur M. Eckstein’s Bad Moon Rising offers another contribution to this growing literature, exploring the tit-for-tat struggle between the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground) and the determined (if sometimes hapless) agents of the FBI. The story’s outline is well known: In 1969, a small cadre of radicals took over SDS, declaring themselves the revolutionary vanguard of the antiwar movement. Over the next few years, by Eckstein’s count, they carried out more than two dozen bombings, including attacks on the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. Despite years of investigation, the FBI failed to bring most of the members to justice. Instead, by the end of the 1970s, FBI officials themselves ended up on trial for violating the constitutional rights of the fugitives’ friends and families.

Eckstein does not seek to retell this story in its entirety. His aim is more modest: to present "a new exploration, based on important new information, but with no claim to being a final picture." Professionally, the subject marks a departure for Eckstein, who was trained as a historian of ancient Rome. Personally, it takes him back to his formative years at Berkeley, where he counted himself among the "vaguely sympathetic leftists" who observed the exploits of more radical students "as spectators and spectators only." This combination places him somewhere between scholar and enthusiast, bubbling with the energy of a researcher new to his subject if not fully engaged with more expansive academic debates.

Like Burrough’s Days of Rage, Bad Moon Rising emphasizes the Weather Underground’s genuine commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology and revolutionary violence; its members were more than "rich kids throwing a tantrum," Eckstein writes. At the same time, the book criticizes the FBI and the Nixon administration for overreacting to the group’s exploits. Despite the Weather Underground’s over-the-top rhetoric and fondness for dynamite, the group never killed civilians (aside from its own members), and after 1970 its bombings were far fewer than its outsized reputation would suggest. The experts at the FBI should have seen and understood the more limited nature of the threat, Eckstein insists, judging the bureau harshly through the rearview mirror.

Bad Moon Rising presents a detailed dissection of the events that set these two groups on their collision course. Eckstein makes two especially noteworthy discoveries. Drawing on newly available FBI files, he suggests that the bureau inadvertently helped to create the Weathermen. In preparation for the critical SDS meeting where the Weather faction stood down its rivals from the Progressive Labor Party, the FBI instructed its informants to back the Weathermen as the lesser of the two evils.

Several months later — Eckstein’s second significant finding — the Detroit Weather collective planted two bombs intended to maim and kill civilians, making "hash" of later efforts by leaders such as Bill Ayers "to depict Weather as having never been intent on lethal violence." At least one informant warned law enforcement before the bombs went off, preventing what could have been the group’s greatest human tragedy. In New York, its members were not so lucky. On March 6, 1970, the same day set for the Detroit operation, a bomb detonated accidentally in a Greenwich Village townhouse, killing three members and setting off a crisis of both conscience and strategy within the organization.

Those bombing incidents "convinced the FBI leadership in Washington that Weatherman posed a significant threat on a national scale," Eckstein writes. The Nixon White House put tremendous pressure on the agency to take more aggressive action against the New Left and the antiwar movement, including illegal break-ins, wiretapping, and bugging. No schoolboy on such matters, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover nonetheless resisted Nixon’s tactics, pointing out that the "antiauthoritarian" mood of the country made them politically unwise. "The old man was right," Eckstein notes, giving Hoover credit for a fine-tuned political antenna if not a sensitive moral compass.

The FBI escalated its campaign soon after Hoover’s death in 1972, increasing its use of break-ins and surveillance. These activities ultimately led to criminal charges against high-ranking FBI officials — a landmark case in the history of intelligence. Indeed, much of the new material in Eckstein’s book comes from the files amassed for the trial of the FBI officials Edward Miller and W. Mark Felt (revealed in 2005 as Watergate’s "Deep Throat"), charged and convicted of conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of friends and family members of Weather fugitives. Ronald Reagan pardoned both men in early 1981, thus ending the great showdown between the Weathermen and the FBI with a whimper.

Given this anticlimax, Eckstein writes, "A historian has to ask how important, really," was the Weather campaign? Though it evaded the FBI, Eckstein concludes, "Weatherman’s political impact on the New Left was in fact primarily destructive," a cautionary tale of how violent tactics can destroy the legitimacy of mass movements. The FBI, in turn, overestimated the scale of the New Left "terrorist" threat, and used that exaggerated threat to justify egregious violations of the Constitution. Taken together, their stories remind us that there is no separating law enforcement from politics, and that to understand the history of the New Left, we must also understand the inner workings and political influence of its greatest adversary.

Beverly Gage, a professor of history at Yale University, is writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.
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