The weathermen began their bombing campaign in 1970 when Silas and Judith Bissell placed a home-made bomb under the steps of an R.O.T.C. building. On March 6th Cathy Wilkerson’s town house in Greenwich Village, New York, blew up killing several weathermen who were in the process of assembling bombs.
Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia on May 1st. High school and college campuses erupted. Five days later the National Guard opened fire with live ammunition on a group of students at Kent State. The students were unarmed, standing in a loose group at least a football field away. Sixty-two to sixty-seven bullets killed four. One girl bled to death while she waited for an ambulance that came forty-five minutes later. Nearby ambulances were reserved for the national guard.
Some Americans applauded the guard’s response. A sister of one of the victims wrote, “… we were getting so much hate mail …’You’re a communist, and you’re communist-lovers, these students should have been shot.’” Only a few days later, on May 8th two-hundred construction workers attacked an anti-war rally on Wall Street chanting, “Kill the Commie bastards …” At Jackson State in Mississippi police shot and killed two African-American protesters.
After Kent State and Jackson State, two and a half million students boycotted classes, shutting down seven hundred colleges. During that academic calendar year, nine thousand protests and eighty-four acts of arson and bombings plagued schools. Thirty ROTC buildings were firebombed and governors ordered the National Guard to occupy 21 campuses in 16 states.
By 1970, military discipline in Vietnam was breaking down. American soldiers regularly refused commands to fight in the field and purposely avoided enemy engagements. The military recorded 68 cases of fragging—attacks by soldiers against their own officers—and many more cases went unreported. Army desertion rates rose 400 percent and in 1971 were the highest in modern history. GIs rioted at more than 30 military bases and military jails, and circulated 250 antiwar underground papers.
In the United States thousands of fugitives were on the run from the draft, bombings, and draconian drug laws. The Nixon administration initiated the drug laws as a tool against students and African-Americans. Nixon’s confidant and domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman explained later: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Federal prisons held 3,250 draft resisters and the Department of Defense reported that more than 400,000 men had deserted the armed forces. At least 100,000 people had fled to communes. As Tom Hayden later said, “There were different undergrounds. There was a Catholic underground against the draft. There were Panther undergrounds. There were draft resistance undergrounds. Drug dealer undergrounds, marijuana undergrounds. All across America, a lot of people were breaking one law or another.”
Nixon was not about to back down. On April 7th, 1970 Attorney General Mitchell told a Women’s National Press Club Cocktail buffet, “Listen, there is no such thing as the New Left. This country is going so far right . . . you are not even going to recognize it.”
On August 24th, 1970, in Madison, Wisconsin, an anti-war group called the New Year’s Gang” blew up an army mathematics research building killing one student who was unexpectedly working late. In September, Timothy Leary, in prison on a drug charge, escaped with the help of the Weather Underground.
The Madison bombing appalled most people while the Weathermen engineered escape of Leary made them heroes. Here’s Tim Leary writing about the Weathermen in his Confessions of a Hope Fiend . “They are not in hiding, but are invisible. They are in every tribe, commune, dormitory, farmhouse, barracks and townhouse where kids are making love, smoking dope, preparing for the future.” Listen to the revolutionary romance in those lines, because it affected millions of Americans to one degree or another,
“If you didn’t experience it back then,” Nixon aide Stephen Bull once said, “you have no idea how close we were, as a country, to revolution.”
What seemed least likely, was the possibility of changing the country though non-violent political action. The period of hopeful exuberance about collective, non-violent action to make social change was short-lived, maybe five or six years at most. It’s not that the movement stopped, it just changed direction. Those who did not adopt violence to make structural change turned their attention to self-realization, the right to be who they wanted be.
A piece of graffiti in the men’s room of Café Triest in San Francisco said it all, “Off the pig inside before you off the pig on the street.” A noble thought, but of course multi-national corporations don’t care if you’re gay, transgender, white or black, for or against abortion so long as you’re cheap labor or a well paid protector of the one percent and a high consumer willing to go into debt.
The post second world war progressive movement had been demolished by an anti-Communist crusade. The 1960s progressive movement was destroyed by savage repression and drugs, both of which turned progressives inward.
An era of self-actualization was about to begin.