Revisiting the Violent, Sometimes Wacky World of America's 1970s Radical Underground

Dr. Timothy Leary, right, and Black Panther Information Minister Eldridge Cleaver leave Algiers Airport in October 1970. Leary's earlier escape from prison and evasion of the FBI was aided by radical group the Weather Underground. Bryan Burrough's new book examines leftist extremists who in the 1970s engaged in acts we would now call terrorism. AP

After 9/11 many Americans were forced to re-examine their support for groups (the Black Panthers, the Irish Republican Army) that engaged in violence to make a political point. As Bryan Burrough reminds us in his compelling new history, Days of Rage: America's Radical Underground, The FBI and the Forgotten Age of Revolutionary Violence, leftist extremists engaged in acts we would now call terrorism in the 1970s and garnered some favorable press while sparking a similarly hysterical reaction in the White House and among members of law enforcement across the country.

Weatherman, a violent offshoot of the mostly nonviolent Students for a Democratic Society, is the best-remembered of those groups, but its thinking seems doctrinaire and deluded in Burrough's retelling, like Dostoevsky's Demons but with the cast of Dumb and Dumber: Its most famous bombing, of a townhouse on New York's West 11th Street, destroyed their headquarters and killed two of their own; and their attempt to kidnap a member of the Rockefeller family in Maine consisted of driving around for couple of days. Far more effective—and lethal—were New York's Black Liberation Army and the all-but-forgotten blue-collar band of bombers and bank robbers, the United Freedom Front. The veteran Vanity Fair and Wall Street Journal reporter spent more than five years researching his subject, and found some former fugitives willing to speak for the first time. He spoke to Newsweek by phone about what's left of the old radical left.

You make a good case for the radical underground being not about the Vietnam War but about fighting for black justice in a racist society.

They were vehemently anti-war, but the war was a secondary focus [for them]. This was always about the plight of black Americans. It is kind of startling to look at the quotes in the newspapers since Ferguson and see how closely they parallel similar quotes we saw in the newspapers [in the early '70s].

Your argument is that Weatherman et al. were created in response to the Black Power Movement.

Absolutely. I have as much respect for Dr. [Martin Luther] King as anyone, but Dr. King was not the be-all [and] end-all of the movement. There were others out there, like Malcolm [X], who were arguing for a darker, harsher remedy to all that blacks had undergone.… It was the Black Panthers who really took this to its logical conclusion, and beyond.

After 1968, many of the groups you write about seemed to think the coming of a great American revolution was at hand. Why?

There was a type of person in the movement who… believed a new world order was imminent, that governments were falling and it was a matter of time 'til it happened here. And when it didn't happen in 1969, people started getting very angry. The most desperate, and the most committed starting putting dynamite in the refrigerator like [proto-bomber] Sam Melville. And when [President] Nixon comes along and literally starts busting heads, and you had the killing of [Black Panther] Fred Hampton, you can understand how there was a kind of end-of-days element.…

Hampton [who was murdered by the Chicago police in December 1969] was an incredibly powerful symbol for Weather… As awful as [his murder] was, Fred Hampton was an incredible marketing moment for Weather. They could point to it and say, "This is why we need to go underground; this is why we're resorting to violence."

It is difficult for [some people] to understand that there was a time in the early 1970s when bombs were planted [in the U.S.] that were intended to kill indiscriminately and they weren't planted by "crazy people"; they were planted by people with legitimate grievances against the government. We know that the Nixon administration was almost as corrupt as [the left] said; we know that the war was wrongheaded; we know that there were centuries of abuse and oppression of black Americans.

The foundation of our country was one of violence, and what a lot of people would call terrorism. Do you think that's something people tend to forget or deny?

As Americans we like our history cut and dried. We like our heroes and bad guys and we long ago decided that our Founding Fathers were heroes. But one man's terrorist is another man's revolutionary.

Do you think there was a great misreading of the mood of the country in the '70s and how ripe it was for change?

[Black Liberation Army founder] Sekou Odinga, giving his first interviews in this book, said it was all a mistake. They misjudged the readiness of the American body politic for revolution. … There's this great moment later in the book, when you get to the [United Freedom Front founder] Ray Levasseur stuff where they've been out there in the underground for five years bombing shit and one of them comes to the other one and says, "If you look out that window there's not a lot of people following us into revolution. You really think this makes that much sense?" And the answer ended up being kind of like, "Well, I'm not sure what else we would do."

Aside from the real tragedies of people dying, there's something almost comic about some of these stories.

I'm not sure that's the word I would use.… When you get to the [Levasseur] stuff they have kids [while living] underground, and they would have debates about whether buying diapers was a proper use of revolutionary funds. One thing you have to say about the far left is that, though well-meaning, the doctrinaire arguments can border on the comical. The one I'm thinking of is the young woman who after one of the [Weatherman] orgies turns to another and said, "Well, I'm sure the North Vietnamese [women] have to do this too."

You say that Weatherman thought it could tip the scales with bombings as revolutionaries in Cuba and China had. Were those misreadings of history?

If these people just got out more, if they talked to people who didn't share the same beliefs, I think they would have realized that it was over-the-top thinking.

The story of this "movement" starts with Weather trying to get the working class whites to rise up with them. And that doesn't really work out.… So then they focus on the blacks just as the [Black Liberation Army] does, just as the SLA [Symbionese Liberation Army] does. And it turns out the blacks don't really want to rise up in revolt either. So their final effort is black prisoners in California. They finally found a group that would rise up with them, and what we learned from that was that these black prisoners were gaming these white revolutionaries from Berkeley to get out of prison.

Do you think they look at groups like Occupy as heirs?

Absolutely. Cathy Wilkerson said the most important legacy that the radical underground had was just that it existed. It stands as an example to the young radicals of today of the passion and commitment that is necessary to push for change.…

Were they all simply deluded? Do you respect them or their actions?

I go through phases. Clearly they were deluded and misread the political winds. But that doesn't stop me from having some grudging respect for those who pursued these mistaken beliefs with the purity of an Odinga or Ray Levasseur. Having spent hours talking to these guys you can't help but be impressed by their commitment, even if they pursued it in ways they would never try doing again. Listening to Ray talk: "Jesus Christ, I can post something on the Internet and 10,000 more people read it than ever read one of my communiqués after a bomb." Ninety percent of the violence in the '70s that these revolutionary groups did was all about getting people to read their stuff. You don't have to explode something now to get people to read your stuff. Just put it on your Facebook page.