Weathermen Manifesto Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded in 1960 and became the largest campus group of the New Left. In its early years, SDS identified with the nonviolent civil rights movement and organized around the issues of racism, student rights, and poverty. After 1965, SDS focused on opposing the escalating war in Vietnam. SDS's actions evolved from legal protests of the war to forms of militant resistance, such as building occupations and confrontations with police. By 1969, a faction of SDS concluded that protest and resistance had accomplished little and only revolution could bring about change. This faction named itself the “Weathermen” (although it included men and women), took over SDS in 1969, and issued its “Weathermen Manifesto.” In the early 1970s, the Weathermen went underground and carried out a series of bombings to protest the war, racism, and state repression.

Summary Overview

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was founded in 1960 and became the largest campus group of the New Left. In its early years, SDS identified with the nonviolent civil rights movement and organized around the issues of racism, student rights, and poverty. After 1965, SDS focused on opposing the escalating war in Vietnam. SDS's actions evolved from legal protests of the war to forms of militant resistance, such as building occupations and confrontations with police. By 1969, a faction of SDS concluded that protest and resistance had accomplished little and only revolution could bring about change. This faction named itself the “Weathermen” (although it included men and women), took over SDS in 1969, and issued its “Weathermen Manifesto.” In the early 1970s, the Weathermen went underground and carried out a series of bombings to protest the war, racism, and state repression.

Defining Moment

SDS's actions evolved in the late 1960s from legal protests and teach-ins to acts of resistance. Examples included the building occupation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1967 to demonstrate against Dow Chemical Company, manufacturer of napalm, and the Columbia Student Uprising in 1968 to protest university racism and complicity in the war. In both actions, hundreds of students were beaten by police and arrested. By 1969, a faction of SDS concluded only a revolution could bring about an end to war and racism. In June, this faction took over SDS after a divisive national meeting in Chicago.

They called themselves “Weatherman” (but became known as the “Weathermen”) after a line from a Bob Dylan song, “You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” The idea was that the Weathermen were pointing in the direction of the revolutionary winds blowing across America.

The Weathermen issued their manifesto on June 18, 1969. In it, they argued that student radicals must ally themselves with third world revolutionaries, such as those in Vietnam and Cuba, in the fight against US imperialism. White radicals needed to follow the lead of African Americans, the most oppressed people in America, and therefore the most revolutionary group. The manifesto also described America's culturally rebellious youth as ripe for revolution.

The Weathermen's first major action was billed as “the Days of Rage,” a destructive rampage through the wealthy neighborhoods of Chicago, where a few hundred Weathermen engaged in vandalism and street battles with police and were arrested.

In early 1970, the Weathermen decided to go underground (that is, into hiding) and renamed themselves the “Weather Underground Organization.” Henceforth, the organization would not number more than fifty members. Throughout the early 1970s, the Weather Underground carried out bombings of buildings they associated with the war and racism. These included a bombing of the Capitol building in 1971 and of the Pentagon in 1972. These bombings tended to destroy small sections of these buildings and were responsible for no loss of life. However, in the spring of 1970, three Weathermen were killed when a bomb they were preparing to detonate at a military dance at Fort Dix, NJ, accidentally exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse. By 1970, members of the Weathermen joined Black Panthers on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List.

Author Biography

John Jacobs, known as “JJ,” is considered the primary author of the Weathermen Manifesto. Raised in Connecticut, Jacobs, along with his close friend, Mark Rudd, was one of the major leaders of the Colombia Student Uprising in the spring of 1968. He was expelled from the Weathermen in 1970 over ideological differences. Jacobs went underground to hide from the FBI during the 1970s and held odd jobs until his death from cancer in 1997.

Historical Document

The very first question people in this country must ask in considering the question of revolution is where they stand in relation to the United States as an oppressor nation, and where they stand in relation to the masses of people throughout the world whom US imperialism is oppressing.…

It is in this context that we must examine the revolutionary struggles in the United States. We are within the heartland of a world-wide monster, a country so rich from its world-wide plunder that even the crumbs doled out to the enslaved masses within its borders provide for material existence very much above the conditions of the masses of people of the world. The US empire, as world-wide system, channels wealth, based upon the labor and resources of the rest of the world, into the United States. The relative affluence existing in the United States is directly dependent upon the labor and natural resources of the Vietnamese, the Angolans, the Bolivians and the rest of the peoples of the Third World. All of the United Airlines Astrojets, all of the Holiday Inns, all of Hertz's automobiles, your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree, to the people of the rest of the world.…

The goal is the destruction of US imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism. Winning state power in the US will occur as a result of the military forces of the US overextending themselves around the world and being defeated piecemeal; struggle within the US will be a vital part of this process, but when the revolution triumphs in the US it will have been made by the people of the whole world. For socialism to be defined in national terms within so extreme and historical an oppressor nation as this is only imperialist national chauvinism on the part of the “movement.”

In this context, why an emphasis on youth? Why should young people be willing to fight on the side of Third World peoples?…

As imperialism struggles to hold together this decaying, social fabric, it inevitably resorts to brute force and authoritarian ideology. People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 20 years, and the antiauthoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools….

The struggle of black people—as a colony—is for self-determination, freedom, and liberation from US imperialism. Because blacks have been oppressed and held in an inferior social position as a people, they have a right to decide, organize and act on their common destiny as a people apart from white interference. Black self-determination does not simply apply to determination of their collective political destiny at some future time. It is directly tied to the fact that because all blacks experience oppression in a form that no whites do, no whites are in a position to fully understand and test from their own practice the real situation black people face and the necessary response to it. This is why it is necessary for black people to organize separately and determine their actions separately at each stage of the struggle….

In general, young people have less stake in a society (no family, fewer debts, etc.), are more open to new ideas (they have not been brainwashed for so long or so well), and are therefore more able and willing to move in a revolutionary direction. Specifically in America, young people have grown up experiencing the crises in imperialism. They have grown up along with a developing black liberation movement, with the liberation of Cuba, the fights for independence in Africa and the war in Vietnam….

This crisis in imperialism affects all parts of the society. America has had to militarize to protect and expand its empire; hence the high draft calls and the creation of a standing army of three and a half million, an army which still has been unable to win in Vietnam. Further, the huge defense expenditures—required for the defense of the empire and at the same time a way of making increasing profits for the defense industries—have gone hand in hand with the urban crisis around welfare, the hospitals, the schools, housing, air and water pollution. The State cannot provide the services it has been forced to assume responsibility for, and needs to increase taxes and to pay its growing debts while it cuts services and uses the pigs to repress protest. The private sector of the economy can't provide jobs, particularly unskilled jobs. The expansion of the defense and education industries by the State since World War II is in part an attempt to pick up the slack, though the inability to provide decent wages and working conditions for “public” jobs is more and more a problem.…

…the war against Vietnam is not “the heroic war against the Nazis”; it's the big lie, with napalm burning through everything we had heard this country stood for. Kids begin to ask questions: Where is the Free World—And who do the pigs protect at home? …

A revolution is a war; when the Movement in this country can defend itself militarily against total repression it will be part of the revolutionary war.

This will require a cadre organization, effective secrecy, self-reliance among the cadres, and an integrated relationship with the active mass-based Movement. To win a war with an enemy as highly organized and centralized as the imperialists will require a (clandestine) organization of revolutionaries, having also a unified “general staff”; that is, combined at some point with discipline under one centralized leadership. Because war is political, political tasks—the international communist revolution—must guide it. Therefore the centralized organization of revolutionaries must be a political organization as well as military, what is generally called a “Marxist-Leninist” party.

Glossary

cadre: disciplined members of a tight-knit revolutionary organization

chauvinism: a prejudiced devotion to one's own group

Marxist-Leninism: Karl Marx's philosophy as interpreted by Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks emphasizing the need for a disciplined, vanguard political organization to lead a workers' revolution

“pigs”: a term of derision used by many radicals and hippies in the Vietnam War era to refer to police and sometimes to any supporters of “the Establishment”

Document Analysis

The Weathermen Manifesto views the United States through the ideological lens of Marxism-Leninism as an imperialist, capitalist, and militaristic power that enriches its ruling class through exploitation of poor, non-white majorities around the world. Racism, poverty, and the war in Vietnam are seen as inevitable expressions of this imperialist system, which cannot be changed through reform, but only world-wide revolution. The authors condemn liberalism and pacifism as dead ends. White radicals must ally themselves with revolutionary forces in the third world, like the Viet Cong, and domestically with Black Nationalist groups, like the Black Panthers.

There are a few keys in this document to understanding why some middle-class white college students became so radicalized and ultimately resorted to violence. Many of these activists had grown up in the post-World War II era when America was celebrated as a beacon of freedom and democracy. In the 1960s, the ugliness of American racism and the brutality of Vietnam, often conveyed through television, highlighted the gap between America's high ideals and the often harsh reality. This resulted in a progressive disillusionment with America and ultimately the conclusion that America was the exact opposite of what they had been led to believe, in the words of the manifesto, “a world-wide monster.” A line that captures this disillusionment is “Vietnam is not ‘the heroic war against the Nazis’; it's the big lie, with napalm burning through everything we had heard this country stood for.”

The other key is the document's emphasis on African Americans and other oppressed non-white peoples. Throughout the 1960s, these white activists saw blacks arrested, beaten, shot, and jailed for seeking freedom. This induced a sense of guilt among many white radicals and a belief that to prove their commitment, they must be willing to put their own sheltered lives on the line. As the authors declare, “blacks experience oppression in a form that no whites do…” and thus whites cannot lead but only follow African American revolutionaries. They also state that America's “affluence… is directly dependent upon the labor and natural resources … of the Third World.” Thus, the Weathermen reject their middle-class, white privilege to make common cause with the oppressed of the third world in fighting for “a classless world: world communism.”

One area where the Weathermen broke with other ideological revolutionary groups was the role they ascribe to youth caught up in the social rebellion of the hippie counterculture. Many student radicals held hippies in disdain for focusing on lifestyle, music, and drugs rather than active politics, but the Weathermen see these alienated youth as ripe for recruitment into the revolution.

Essential Themes

Early SDS had rejected rigid ideologies for a generalized search for democratic ideals and lives of personal authenticity. By 1969, however, SDS had become radicalized in the face of the war and worsening racial unrest. Members of different factions of SDS looked for a roadmap to revolution in the ideologies of Marx, Lenin, Mao, Castro, and other communist revolutionaries. This led to bitter ideological debates that ultimately fragmented SDS and ended with the Weathermen taking over the organization.

The Weathermen saw themselves as a tight-knit revolutionary organization modeled on groups like the Viet Cong. This caused them to go underground in 1970 and carry out a series of bombings. Ironically, going underground cut them off from the very mass movement they hoped to lead, especially during the campus uprisings in May 1970 in the wake of the US invasion of Cambodia.

As the war slowly wound down for the US, the revolutionary visions of 1968–1970 waned and new movements, such as feminism, environmentalism, and the gay liberation movement, emerged as the vanguard of social change. The Weathermen, now the Weather Underground Organization, were joined by other guerrilla groups, like the Symbionese Liberation Army, which kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, and the Black Liberation Army, which killed several police officers. These violent groups—many would call them terrorists—ultimately effected little change in America. They had adopted third world models of revolutionary organization, which were never adaptable to the realities of an advanced industrial nation like the United States. Nevertheless, groups like the Weathermen stand as an enduring testimony of the extremes to which many idealistic young Americans were driven by the unrelenting war in Vietnam and the bitter struggle for racial equality.

Bibliography and Additional Readings
  • Berger, Dan. The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA: AK P, 2006. Print.
  • Burrough, Bryan. Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, the FBI, and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence. New York: Penguin P, 2015. Print.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage. New York: Bantam, 1987. Print.
  • Jacobs, Ron. The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. New York: Verso, 1997. Print.
  • Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973. Print.
  • Varon, Jeremy. Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and the Revolutionary Violence in the 1960s and 1970s. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 2004. Print.
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