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The Past Is Present: Watergate, Vietnam & Iraq

Bernard Weiner 
Co-Editor, The Crisis Papers

August 4, 2003

A few years ago, while visiting Bellingham -- one of the few times I'd been back to that Northwest town in decades -- I walked out of a downtown drugstore, happened to look across the street, and suddenly started shaking and sobbing. 

What I saw was the Federal Building. It was at this very intersection in the late-1960s and early-'70s that I, along with thousands of other demonstrators, had come time after time to register our anger and revulsion at the immoral Vietnam War being waged in our names by an arrogant, bullying government. 

We rallied here, we gave speeches here, we read the names of dead Washington State soldiers here, we confronted the police and risked arrest and beatings here, we took rotten eggs thrown by passing motorists here. My shaking body was remembering all that. 

It had happened to me once before, after seeing "Born on the Fourth of July," and telling my older son about the movie. Suddenly, I got all choked-up when trying to explain why we young activists at the time were so appalled by our government's policies and why we put our bodies on the line to try to stop that senseless slaughter.

Just a few days ago, two recently-released documentaries grabbed me by the emotional lapels and refused to let go: "The Weather Underground," a movie about that same Vietnam-war period, and "Watergate Plus 30: Shadow of History," a two-hour PBS documentary on the Watergate scandal that also grew out of those same years.

It isn't just being thrown back into those tumultuous times that's stimulating my emotionals these days. It's the feeling that, in many ways, our country is still IN those times. Many of the issues are the same -- an immoral war, the gross lies that got us deep into the big muddy, a corrupt administration, the unhealthy power of the military-industrial complex, the crimes and then the coverup, the repressive police agencies, the growing anti-war sentiment, etc. -- and even some of the players are the same, on both sides. 

The operative lesson of history seems to be that nobody learns the lessons of history. Reagan didn't learn from Nixon, and lied and covered up about the administration's illegal policies in Iran and Nicaragua. Clinton didn't learn from Nixon and Reagan, and lied and covered up about his relationship with a young intern in his employ. And now, Bush&Co. lie and coverup about how and why the administration sent our young soldiers into war with Iraq. 

The House of Representatives voted to impeach Nixon and he resigned, Reagan escaped impeachment but a number of his aides went to jail (interestingly, many of those convicted felons are now in positions of power in the current administration), Clinton was impeached but not convicted, and it's looking more likely by the day that the Bush/Cheney/Ashcroft/Rumsfeld cabal will face impeachment in the foreseeable future. 


One has to keep pushing the "refresh" button when considering history; one generation lives it, the next two or three are only dimly aware of it.

When I got back from the movie theater after seeing "The Weather Underground," I learned that my younger son, for example, had never heard of the radical group in the late-'60s and '70s who called themselves the Weathermen (the name came from a Bob Dylan lyric: "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

The Weathermen were a militant faction inside the largest anti-war student group, Students for a Democratic Society, an organization that had grown out of the non-violent civil rights movement. SDS was mobilizing hundreds of thousands of college students in peaceful marches opposing the Vietnam War, but the war kept expanding. To the Weathermen, millions were dying but the marches and demos were having no demonstrable effect. 

Their slogan was "Bring the War Home." That is, if the U.S. was going to continue bombing Indochina -- having taken over from the French colonialists -- the government would have to face a citizen-war in the streets of America. The Weathermen, who basically took over SDS, began their militant actions as "urban guerrillas," smashing up storefronts of banks, making alliances with radical black groups, setting off bombs in government offices, etc. Deep into self-delusion, they truly believed that full-scale revolution was just around the corner and all they had to do was to provide the spark. (Numerous African-American leaders thought these privileged white kids were merely playing at revolution, and were a bit too spacey at that.)

After three Weather people died in an explosion at a Manhattan townhouse -- they were preparing a bomb for detonation at a military dance -- the rest of the organization went underground and seriously re-thought their bombing strategy, since they nearly had committed mass murder of hundreds of innocent folks at a dance. From that time forward, they always called in warnings in enough time for the occupants to clear the buildings, and nobody was ever injured or killed in their blasts -- though the symbolic bombings did major damage to government institutions. 

The political world was changing and they were still underground, cut off from the everyday action; one by one, they surfaced in the '80s, and, oddly enough, few wound up in jail, mainly due to police or prosecutorial blunders.

The movie -- which excitingly captures the chaos and weirdness of those days -- took me back mentally to what I had thought of the Weather Underground at the time, in the late-'60s and early-'70s. I was deeply involved in writing about and helping organize non-violent mass demos and actions, but many of us protesters found something attractive about the Weathermen. It was like we non-violent types were attacking from the inside, as it were, and the Weather Underground from the outside; it seemed to me that, even though we clearly differed in tactics and moral point of view, the one-two combination was somewhat effective, reminiscent of the "inside" power of Martin Luther King Jr. and the traditional civil rights movement, buttressed by the "outsider" power of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

The establishment was more willing to deal with King and his issues because if they didn't, the more militant Malcolms, along with the Panthers, were out there waiting to launch their program and troops. (There is great footage of the intelligent, powerful oratory of another African-American leader, Fred Hampton, who would be murdered in his bed by the Chicago police.) Similarly, if the establishment didn't start to take into account the demands of the non-violent anti-war movement, it would have to deal with a growing revolutionary force as represented by the Weathermen.

So, this devout advocate of non-violent confrontation couldn't suppress my private admiration for the Weather Underground -- even when turned off by their overweening self-righteousness and their occasional loony excursions into political dementia --when they bombed the U.S. Capitol after Nixon invaded Cambodia, or bombed the Pentagon, or when they sprung Timothy Leary out of prison. These were romantic outlaws, constantly poking the government painfully in the eye, reminding the establishment that it, too, was vulnerable to attack and humiliation.

"The Weather Underground" film, expertly directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, is not merely a nostalgia-trip documentary of the events of those days. That would have been too easy. It shows how the craziness of the times engendered craziness in those caught up in the struggles, how the violence and repression of the government fed the militant movements in their extremes, how the music and drugs and sexual experimentation melded with the politics, how the ethics of struggle were derived and what horrific mistakes were made. 

And it weaves this tapestry with the warp of documentary footage, and the woof of interviews with Weather Underground honchos (and other leaders, such as Kathleen Cleaver), looking back from the perspective of middle age. And so we get to hear the reflections and commentaries of such Weather luminaries as Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Naomi Jaffe, Bill Ayers, Brian Flanagan and others; they are still trying to deal with the difficult ethical questions of how committed activists should respond to unjust and out-of-control governments, especially when those regimes are engaged in unwise, immoral wars abroad. Can it get any more relevant to today's situation?

Listening to Dohrn and Ayers and Jaffe proudly thinking back on their Weather days, or to the confusions of a still-troubled Rudd, or to the somewhat bemused look-backward of Flanagan -- these reflections mirror our own thoughts about those folks and their struggles then, and force us to confront our own selves now, and how we are dealing with the ever-constant issues of war and peace, tactics and strategies of opposition, violence and non-violence. 

In short, "The Weather Underground" is a powerful documentary of a period in American history that, in some ways, seems anxious to repeat itself. Check it out.


Again, three decades after the events that led to the first and only resignation of a U.S. President, hitting the "refresh" button is vital, since so many have little knowledge of this significant episode in recent American history.

This PBS documentary pulls no punches from its very first moments. The Nixon administration had engaged in felonious violations of the highest sort -- burglary, black-bag jobs of breaking and entering, suborning perjury, buying off witnesses, setting up a covert secret police unit inside the White House, manipulating the FBI and CIA for political reasons, taping conversations without permission, using the term "national security" to try to hide crimes, etc. -- all of which threatened to undo our constitutional form of government. It was that bad.

Eventually -- thanks to leaks from the inside, dedicated investigatory journalists from the outside, and a Senate committee that brought the TV media to the scandal -- the truth came out. President Nixon, impeached by the House (Republicans joining Democrats in wanting to get rid of this crook), resigned in disgrace. 

The documentary is mostly a chronological unfolding of the events in the early-1970s, as the plot was laid to bug Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. Five men were caught; the White House tried to dismiss the event as a "third-rate burglary," but the finger of guilt continued always to point to Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) and to the White House.

When the heat got intensely close to the Oval Office, Nixon tried to save himself and his program by throwing his closest aides overboard as the supposedly guilty parties. But they all were involved in the crimes and the coverup -- one of those who went to jail, Jeb Magruder, reveals here for the first time that he heard Nixon authorize the Watergate break-in -- and eventually many others were forced to resign and/or head off to prison. 

It was the closest we'd come in this country to an overt, fascist-like police state -- up until the current administration, that is. There was talk of the paranoid Nixon (who'd already used the CIA and FBI for political ends, and who fired the Independent Prosecutor in charge of the Watergate investigation) trying to use military troops to stay in power. There were intimations that murder of key witnesses was a possibility. It was a scary time.

As in the "Weather Underground" film, here too the documentary bounces back and forth in time: now we're listening to the secret audiotape conversations between Nixon and his closest aides, now we're hearing contemporary comments of some of the now-middle-aged participants: John W. Dean (White House counsel), CREEP official Magruder, Alexander Butterfield (who revealed the White House taping system), Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (the Washington Post reporters whose investigation broke the story wide open), Senators Howard Baker and Lowell Weicker and counsel Sam Dash from the Senate committee, and others. All enlarge the story by offering their perspectives 30 years on. 

It is not a pretty picture. Usually, the criminal inner workings of government are hidden away from the citizenry, but here -- as had happened also several decades previously, with the Army-McCarthy hearings -- television permitted us to see into the shadows, and the slime and sordidness were revolting. (We got to see more of this sort of thing later with the Iran-Contra scandal in the Reagan era, more seaminess during Clinton's term -- and we can anticipate something similar when the Congress and the American people finally have had enough of the Bush crimes and coverups and the true investigations begin.)

In the last few minutes of the Watergate documentary, this very issue is addressed. Did we learn anything from Watergate? the participants are asked. The link to today is drawn explicitly. There is arrogance, secrecy, "national security" lies and rationalizations, the feeling of those in power that they can get away with anything. 

Democracy is a fragile system of government, these Watergate figures remind us, and it is so easy for those in power to manipulate it, and to cover up their crimes. If the public is not well informed, or is too frightened to want to hear, the mechanisms of a healthy civic society do not work well.

In former scandals, they note, the press provided the corrective investigatory function, but these days most of the mass-media is conglomerate-owned and tends to side with the government. It's up to the citizens and their representatives -- and, I would add, to the independent journalists on the internet and elsewhere -- to ensure that our democratic institutions continue to function in an era where, once again, the overused term "national security" is hauled out to stifle dissent and to push through extremist programs.

Can I hear an Amen?

Copyright 2003 by Bernard Weiner


Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances