As I sat down to prepare a review of Bryan Burrough’s latest work, DAYS OF RAGE: AMERICA’S RADICAL UNDERGROUND, THE FBI, and THE FORGOTTEN AGE OF REVOLUTIONARY VIOLENCE I learned that today a gunman had opened fire on a Navy and Marine Reserve Center in Chattanooga, Tenn., leaving four Marines dead, and a recruiter wounded. These types of what appear to be “lone gunman attacks” symbolize the increase in domestic terrorism in the United States, attacks that I fear will continue and be further exacerbated by the call for even more violence by the likes of the Islamic State. I hate to say that Burrough’s book is timely as it takes the reader back to a time period in American history when domestic attacks against targets that symbolized the government, in addition to banks, corporations, and other venues was very common. Over forty years ago the United States went through a period of domestic terror that it had never experienced in its history. Groups like the Weathermen, Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), the Black Liberation Army (BLA), the Black Panthers, and the Fuerzas Armades de Liberacion Nacional Puertorriquena (FALN) as well as a number of freelance operators conducted bombings, murder, prison escapes, and robberies. Though they seemed to concentrate on New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, and Detroit, their targets were as far flung as Maine and Oregon. Many of the names will be familiar; Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Mark Rudd, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Patty Hearst, Donald DeFreeze, and Mutulu Shakur. However, Burrough’s assiduous research has turned up the work of many lesser known radicals whose deadly campaign caused much greater damage and impact than those mentioned. What is fascinating is that many people have forgotten how violent this period in our history was.
Burrough’s is to be commended for putting together an exceptional history of the 196o’s through the early 1980s concentrating on the rise of domestic radicalism in the United States that began as a movement against the Vietnam War, but included demonstrations against racism, discrimination against blacks, the unequal distribution of wealth, and a movement for Puerto Rican independence. Burrough’s contribution to this enormous topic is an almost encyclopedic narrative of every important radical group that appeared during the time period under discussion. He seems to have interviewed every important radical who would speak to him that is still alive, and spent a great deal of time researching the response of the FBI and New York Police Department to situations that they had a great deal of difficulty containing. What emerges is a complex story of bombing operations, including planning and implementation; sexual triangles among the radicals; sources of funding from surprising groups in society, particularly radical leftist lawyers; and a federal government that turned to many illegal weapons, from wiretaps, breaking and entering, and other methods to try and control the violence. The book is not an easy read because of the somewhat disjointed way that it is organized. There are chapters dealing with the rise of the Students for a Democratic Society and its split with the Weathermen, then it jumps to the development of the Black Panthers and the split that fostered the BLA, then returns to the Manhattan Townhouse bombing that killed a number of Weathermen. Further, after ending a discussion of the Weather Underground, Burroughs moves on to the SLA, then after discussing the Hearst kidnapping, the Weathermen return.
(William Ayers and Bernadette Dorhn today)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book revolves around the rise of the Puerto Rican independence movement that existed for decades before the FALN emerged as the most dangerous radical group that the FBI and assorted urban police forces had to deal with. The biographies of, Oscar Lopez and Carlos Torres, the leaders of the FALN, and Guillermo “Willie” Morales, the FALN bomb maker are fascinating as well as disturbing. The reader is exposed to two young FBI agents, Don Wofford and Lou Vizi, who were tasked to investigate the group, but the government had very little information to work with. Both men pursued their prey for years, but had little to show for it for a long time.
Throughout the radical “movement” there was a great deal of disagreement. The leftist underground was more concerned with the plight of black Americans than being against the Vietnam War. Burroughs discusses the rise of a new generation of black militants who were influenced by Malcom X, the Cuban Revolution, and in particular the work and writing of Che Guevara. He also spends a great deal of time detailing the split between the Black Panthers and the rising Black Liberation Army. Black militants had a jaundiced view of the Weathermen because they saw them as white bourgeois types who were not militant enough. Burroughs explains the different factions within the Weathermen (later underground) movement and how its split with the SDS hindered their growth. All the important personalities are examined, including their relationships both personal and as soldiers in the “movement.” What is most obvious about the majority of underground radicals is that these young people, as Burroughs points out “fatally misjudged America’s political winds and found themselves trapped in an unwinnable struggle they were too proud or stubborn to give up.”
Most of Burrough’s work is a narrative of what seems to be every major “action” taken by these radical groups which can make reading parts of the book a grind. However, throughout the book there are a series of nuggets that are very important. For example, in 1970, 23 states had little or no regulation for the sale of dynamite. It will amaze the reader how easy it was to purchase dynamite and other components to assemble a bomb, steal dynamite from construction sites, and the lack of security that existed at banks, corporations, and government venues that allowed radicals easy access to scope out their targets, and leave their explosives in bathrooms, elevators, and empty offices. Another interesting detail involves the FBI as they created the 47 Squad to try and capture and control the radicals who were determined to overthrow the American government. The tactics employed were ordered by the Nixon administration at the same time they were involved with dealing with the Watergate break in and investigation. Despite the resources and the illegal tactics employed, the FBI made little headway in arresting these people, and any successes they experienced were more the result of luck than good police work. Perhaps the most surprising thing that Burroughs unearthed was the makeup of the radical groups, particularly the SLA, BLA, and FALN. Many of their members were criminals who had served time in Soledad, Attica, and San Quentin. Some escaped, others paroled, but a significant number of “ex-cons” made up the membership of radical groups. They had meshed in prison and they became a working network of soldiers to carry out operations in what they perceived to be a revolutionary struggle.
At times the narrative comes across as a “Bonnie and Clyde” type movement. Operations were funded by robbing banks, explosives are stolen, and planning takes place in a network of safe houses nationwide. Burroughs presents the major characters through mini-biographies, as well as their foot soldiers. There is really no over ridding theme to the book other than the “rage against the system” that all radicals seem to believe in. There are attempts to link some of the groups discussed and how they interacted, but in many cases it does not work. For me the material is too bifurcated at times, but overall, Burroughs has written the definitive work on his topic, particularly because of his access to many of the participants forty years later. If you are interested in this topic this book will be very satisfying, but keep in mind it is not an easy read.