My Life With SDS
William Morrow: 326 pp., $25.99
Mark Rudd is the guy from the Weather Underground who is not Bill Ayers. Both were leaders of the group that worked for the violent overthrow of the United States government in the 1970s, but while Ayers remains unapologetic, Rudd is full of regrets.
Rudd is not Bill Ayers in other ways: Sarah Palin did not accuse Barack Obama of palling around with him, nor has he been featured on the New York Times op-ed page or interviewed on "Fresh Air With Terry Gross." Instead, he has lived in obscurity, as a community college math teacher in New Mexico, since the government dropped charges against him in 1977.
The 2003 documentary "The Weather Underground" celebrated the "idealistic passion" that led Ayers and his comrades to their campaign of bombing public buildings. At the end of the film, Rudd appeared briefly for the first time in 25 years, "a befuddled, gray-haired, overweight, middle-aged guy" full of "guilt and shame." At least that's the way he describes himself at the beginning of "Underground: My Life With SDS and the Weathermen." It was that image, Rudd says, that drove him to write this book -- because in the film "I never get to explain what I'm guilty and ashamed of."
The Weather Underground was a splinter faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the radical antiwar group that by the late 1960s had chapters on hundreds of campuses. Around 1969, the Weathermen (who named themselves after Bob Dylan's line "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows") concluded that the American people would never stop the war in Vietnam. Rather, it was up to them -- a few dozen kids -- to act on behalf of the Vietnamese people by placing small bombs in places like the Capitol and the Pentagon.
The kids knew best
This, or so the logic went, would somehow spark an uprising of young blacks and Latinos to overthrow the government. Even the Vietnamese Communist leaders believed the Weathermen had the wrong strategy, that they should work to persuade mainstream Americans to end the war. But the American kids knew better.
Rudd gets right to the point in the opening pages of "Underground": "Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended," he writes. "We de-organized SDS while we claimed we were making it stronger; we isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI. . . . We might as well have been on their payroll."
Rudd's story begins with his parents dropping him off at Columbia University the first day of freshman week 1965. What follows is a straightforward narrative of events, in which he and millions of other young Americans were radicalized by the war. The book has a series of climaxes: first, the triumphant student occupation of Columbia's administration building in the spring of 1968 and the brutal police bust that followed -- which made headlines internationally and set an example for radical students at colleges across the country.
Next, he details the formation of the Weathermen in 1969 and the disastrous explosion that killed three members in a Greenwich Village town house in 1970. After that came seven years of life underground, lonely and intermittently terrifying. Finally, we get the happy ending -- Rudd coming up from underground in 1977, settling his legal case, embracing normal life and returning to antiwar activism when President George W. Bush invaded Iraq.
Rebellion in bloom
Rudd conveys well the festival-like joy of the springtime campus uprisings of the late 1960s: passionate discussions under the trees about the causes of war and strategies for stopping it; music and drugs on all sides; dancing long into the night; "a fluorescence of energy and imagination such as Columbia had never seen." It was like that at hundreds of other schools over the next few years.
The authorities looked at these developments and saw only violence and destruction. The New York Times quoted a Columbia administrator's description of Rudd as "totally unscrupulous and morally very dangerous . . . an adolescent having a temper tantrum." The media embraced this image of him as quintessential student rebel, but to his credit, Rudd says that "the organizing at Columbia was the work of hundreds of people at least as committed, intelligent, and articulate as I was."
The heart of "Underground" comes about halfway through, in 1969, when SDS was challenged by the hard-core Maoists of the Progressive Labor Party. The Progressive Labor faction had a strategy for revolution: a "worker-student alliance" to overthrow capitalism. The national leadership of SDS -- Rudd and his friends -- concluded that they needed one too. What they came up with was to call on young people to become urban guerrillas to fight "Amerikka." The overwhelming majority of SDS rejected both perspectives, but the faction fight destroyed the organization.
"The destruction of SDS was probably the single greatest mistake I've made in my life," Rudd declares forthrightly. "It was a historical crime."
You might think all that is obvious now. But it isn't -- at least not to Ayers. He wrote about the Weather Underground in the New York Times in December 2008, declaring that "our effectiveness can be -- and still is being -- debated." His only real regret, he said on "Fresh Air," is that the violent tactics of the Weathermen didn't end the war. But, he added, neither did peaceful protest -- so who can say who was right and who was wrong?
Both Rudd and Ayers want today's activists to learn from the mistakes of the 1960s. But nobody opposed to the war in Iraq thinks that becoming an urban guerrilla and putting a bomb in the Pentagon is going to help bring the troops home. Rudd's historical judgments are, to use a phrase from the era, "right on." Still, what may be most striking about "Underground" is how irrelevant its lessons are for our time.
Wiener teaches American history at UC Irvine and is a contributing editor to the Nation.