This post is the fifth in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 18, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. (Link to PARTS I, II, III or IV)
During the late fall of 1969 the Weathermen had few illusions about their ability to spark a revolution in the United States, but their fanaticism only seemed to increase as a result.
Diana Oughton, fundamentally gentle, had nevertheless been exhilarated by the violent days of rage in Chicago in October. In spite of their fear, their fewness and the hopelessness of their cause, the Weathermen had gone into the streets to fight the police and had not found their courage wanting. When Diana went to Washington for the massive Nov. 15 demonstration against the war, it was in an almost buoyant mood.
The night before the demonstration Diana’s boyfriend, Bill Ayers, went to the moratorium headquarters and tried to shake down the group for $20,000 to help cover legal expenses incurred by the Days of Rage. In return for his token “Fraternal Solidarity,” Ayers said, the Weathermen would not provoke a violent battle with police.
Ayers was asked what the Weathermen program was.
“Kill all the rich people,” Ayers answered. “Break up their cars and apartments.”
“But aren’t your parents rich?” he was asked.
“Yeah,” Ayers said. “Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.”
The moratorium said it didn’t have $20,000 to spare and the following day Ayers and Diana, their faces decorated with war paint, joined in a march on the Department of Justice after the main rally. The brief collision was more a revolutionary theatrical than a serious street action, marked by shouting and scuffles with police and clouds of tear gas.
It was the last time the Weathermen found a kind of fun in politics, their last action before turning to a politics of terror which had no place for the humor that called for war paint.
That night Diana drove across Washington to visit her sister Pam and to meet Pam’s husband for the only time. Diana was breathless and keyed up by the day’s battle with police and said she felt the revolution was near.
“When blue collar workers are making $6 an hour, where is the support coming from?” asked Carol, another of Diana’s sisters, also living in Washington.
Diana simply dismissed the question. “The revolution is here,” she insisted. “It’s a world-wide thing.”
Diana saw her family in Dwight, Ill. for the last time on Christmas Day, 1969. It was a special holiday for the Oughtons with caviar, aunts and uncles, lots of presents and a fir tree that reached the ceiling. Diana had called to say she would be there but the family, disappointed so often in the past, was not really sure she would come until the last moment.
Diana finally arrived after midnight, hours late, wearing blue jeans and a borrowed sweater and carrying a toothbrush and a nightie in a paper sack. Mrs. Oughton was upset by Diana’s thinness, her arms not much thicker than her wrists, but the family avoided talking about politics and other touchy subjects. Diana seemed happy to be home and asked all kinds of questions about the family, wanting to know what everybody was doing and what had been going on in Dwight.
On Christmas morning she went into the kitchen and gave her old nanny, Ruth Morehart, a peck on the cheek and helped her make dressing for the Christmas salad. Ruth felt for a minute that the old Diana had returned until she asked what Ruth thought of the SDS. Ruth gave a vague answer and Diana seemed to cool.
Diana had not brought any presents for anyone but she seemed pleased, for the first time in years, by the presents she received–a shirt and slacks from her mother, a heavy fisherman’s sweater from Carol, other odds and ends.
The family pressed Diana to stay but she left immediately after Christmas dinner, as abruptly as she always had in the past. Her father thought Diana felt threatened by the warmth of her family, as if her commitment to a life of denial and privation might be weakened if she remained at home too long.
That afternoon Diana returned to Flint, Mich., to help with final preparations for the Weatherman war council which began on Dec. 27, a well-publicized meeting that attracted as much attention from the Flint police and the FBI as it did within the radical movement.
The atmosphere of the convention hall was far different from the heady excitement and optimism of student meetings in the early 1960s. Guards frisked everyone entering the building, the women as thoroughly as the men. Signs proclaimed “Piece (that is, guns) Now” and an eight-foot-high cardboard pistol stood by the door.
Mark Rudd, a persuasive, witty speaker, described Weatherman as a kind of political joyride, an explosion of creative energy made possible by total commitment to revolution and an end to the “bourgeois” fear of violence.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to hit a pig,” he said with the tone of a boy describing his first trip on a roller coaster. “It must really be a wonderful feeling to kill a pig or blow up a building.”
For many of those at the council, however, the talk of violence was oppressive and degrading, not liberating. They felt slightly sick when Bernadine Dohrn, once among the most articulate of American radical leaders, praised the alleged murders of actress Sharon Tate and four others.
“Dig it!” she told the 400 people gathered in the meeting hall. “First they killed those pigs, then the ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim’s stomach! Wild!”
When Weathermen grinned and held up three fingers symbolizing the fork, non-Weathermen found the gesture obscene.
Much of the argument in favor of violence centered on the killing of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago police on Dec. 4, 1969. Weathermen argued that the entire radical movement should have taken to the streets and avenged Hampton’s death.
Others found a certain ambivalence in this, since it had been Hampton who had denounced the Weathermen as “anarchistic, adventuristic…masochistic and Custeristic” during the Days of Rage. When one Weatherman argued that the white race was itself the problem–“all white babies are pigs” he said–others felt he was expressing self-hate rather than a coherent political opinion.
When Weathermen insisted blacks would be the vanguard of the revolution and that they were fighting on the side of blacks, their words rang false. Radical black groups had turned against them and the organization, despite its efforts to recruit blacks, was as lily-white as the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
Rudd urged radicals to be like Captain Ahab in “Moby Dick,” who lived with “one thought–to bring down the white whale.”
The rest of the movement realized that Rudd’s white whale included virtually everyone with a white skin and pointed out that it was Ahab, not the whale, who was destroyed in the end. Like Ahab, they said, Rudd and the Weathermen were themselves on a “death trip.”
During the four-day council in Flint, Weathermen leaders slipped away to meet secretly in a seminary across the city where they debated the fate of the organization . The enormous legal difficulties which sapped their energies and finances following the Days of Rage, and the hostility of much of the radical movement, made it clear that “Wild in the Streets” was not a strategy that could be sustained. Before the council ended on Dec. 30, Weathermen leaders decided they should make a final break with American society and go underground.
During the following weeks the Weatherman collectives began breaking up into smaller groups. Members severed their relationships with friends and family and one by one began to disappear. It was not an easy decision to make. Breaking windows in Chicago and making bombs were far different things, and Weathermen knew there would be no turning back.
The policy of the Weathermen was that every member would participate, so far as possible, in every illegal act, whether obtaining, making or planting explosives. They knew their chances of a normal life were being irretrievably put behind them. They knew they might have to die. Of the 400 people who attended the Flint council, fewer than 100 went underground. For those few, committed to the revolution above all else, it was a matter of logic. Community organizing had failed. Mass demonstrations had failed. Fighting in the streets had failed. Only terror was left.
The activities of Diana and the other Weathermen between the end of the Flint council and the bomb explosion in New York on March 6 are extremely difficult to reconstruct. People who knew what they were doing are naturally reluctant to talk and even the federal indictment handed up in Detroit in July gives only the barest outline of the alleged activities of the group’s leaders.
Diana is connected with only three of the 21 overt acts cited in the indictment and those fall on two dates, Dec. 26, when the Flint council opened, and March 6, the date of her death.
A Weatherman who dropped out of the organization when it decided to go underground said that Diana had begun to question the policies of the group’s leaders–that she was no longer sure the young, the poor and the black would ever support the kind of revolution the Weathermen were committed to making. Despite her doubts, however, Diana was prepared to go underground with a small group of friends.
On Feb. 4, Diana appeared in court in Chicago and was fined $450 for her part in the women’s action the previous Oct. 9. When her name was called the judge raised his head and asked, “Are you related to Jim Oughton, the legislator?”
With a smile of amusement, Diana admitted that she was.
Later that day she called her friend, Karin Rosenberg, and was invited for dinner. “Is it safe?” she asked, knowing that Karin lived on the edge of a Negro ghetto.
Karin said of course, and asked if Diana were serious.
“You don’t know how deep the hate of the black man is,” Diana said.
When she arrived she looked tired, underfed and somehow “scruffier” than ever before. She was quiet during dinner, vague about what she was doing. In the past she always answered that question by saying, “high school organizing.” Now she did not even mention that.
The old liveliness and the sense of humor had disappeared completely. She seemed somber, sardonic, at moments almost heavy-hearted.
She told Karin that the 16 people in her collective had decided to break into groups of four and five because of mounting harassment by police.
The Rosenbergs were going to a ballet and dropped off Diana in the loop on their way. When she got out of the car Diana gave Karin a kiss, something she had not done for a long time, and urged her to keep in touch. She made a point of giving Karin the SDS address in Detroit, a box number since the group was now moving from place to place. A few days later she did something else uncharacteristic. She sent Karin a copy of the Weatherman manifesto with a brief note across the top:
“Karin–I’d love to talk to you about this–Love, Diana.”
Before going back to Detroit Diana called her parents in Dwight and told them she had paid her fine with part of the bail money put up by her father and that she intended to keep the rest.
“You know, Diana,” her mother said, hurt by Diana’s cold tone, “you’re killing us both off.”
“I’m sorry, mummy,” Diana said.
Not long afterwards Mrs. Oughton told a friend, “we have lost our daughter.”
During her last weeks of life Diana was torn by conflict, determined not to falter and yet reluctant to make a final break with her friends and family. The ambivalence ran deep. She loved people and at the same time tried to use them. On one occasion in these final weeks she tried to involve a friend in a complicated scheme to “rip off” (that is, defraud) a Travelers’ check company.
On Monday, March 2, just four days before she died, she called her sister Carol in Washington. She asked lots of little questions about the family. Carol felt that perhaps Diana was beginning to move away from the violent politics of the Weathermen. About halfway through the conversation Diana asked: “Will the family stand by me, no matter what? Will they help me if I need it?”
Carol said of course. Later Diana asked if she could send Carol some papers and other personal items.
“The pigs have been rifling our house,” she said. “They aren’t anything important but I just don’t want anybody to find them.”
A couple of days later a large envelope arrived marked, in French, “Do not open.” It had been so long since Diana had used French expressions that Carol assumed someone else must have written it there. Nevertheless, she did not open the envelope until after Diana’s death. It contained letters from old friends, an address book, some pages from an appointment calendar, scraps of paper with names and addresses on them, papers about the family farm corporation, every document, in fact, which conceivably could have been used by police to identify her.
It was no accident that the Weathermen were the children of the privileged classes of America. From the very beginning of the student movement, when white students organized to support black sit-in demonstrations in 1960, the strength of their commitment was subject to ridicule and attack. Their defensive parents and teachers, their non-political friends, the public officials who always hoped they would go back to their studies, even, most painfully, the blacks they were trying to help, all suggested scornfully that white activists were summertime soldiers who would retreat into the middle class womb which had created them whenever the going became hard.
There was no way white students could defend themselves against this charge. The police might hit them over the head but the courts treated them indulgently and they would always be welcomed back by the establishment, perhaps even valued more highly for the spunk they had shown before settling down.
It was not until they became criminals that the Weathermen proved their commitment beyond a doubt. They could not believe in themselves until they had turned against the middle class world which had made them. It was their country, their class, their families, even themselves which they considered the enemy. In Dwight, Diana had hated being rich; in Guatemala she hated being an American; in the Weathermen she finally came to hate herself. How else could she have attempted, at such a cost in suffering, to destroy everything that she was?
In the end, Diana Oughton relinquished her humanity in hopes of creating a new world where she thought people could be more human. She denied her own nature and everything she loved. She grew more and more distant from her family; she gave up teaching children, the thing she loved to do best; she gave up her relationship with Bill Ayers when he argued the revolution came first. Willingly, she became an instrument of the revolution. She stopped asking questions to make bombs.
She regarded the world she saw around her as the implacable enemy of everything she believed in. Like the rest of the Weathermen, the privileged children of the world, in the end Diana had only one ambition: to be its executioner.
The bomb, which exploded a few minutes past noon on Friday, March 6, 1970, killing Diana and two other Weathermen in the townhouse at 18 West 11th Street in New York city, was a bomb designed to kill. It was made of dynamite surrounded by heavy metal nails which acted as shrapnel. The doctor who examined the remains of her body said she had been standing within a foot or two of the bomb when it exploded. It may, in fact, have gone off in her hands.
Four days after the explosion, bomb squad detectives found Diana’s body near a workbench in the rubble-filled basement of the devastated townhouse. At the end of another week a detective discovered the tip of the little finger from a right hand. A print taken by a police department expert was matched later that day with a set of Diana’s prints in the Washington files of the FBI. The prints had been taken in Chicago following her arrest during the Days of Rage in October, 1969.
That evening the New York Police Department called the tiny police force in Dwight. A member of the Dwight force then went to the Oughtons’ house on South Street and told Mrs. Oughton her daughter was dead.
The accidental explosion did not end the campaign of terrorism begun by the Weathermen. Remaining members of the organization are reported to be in hiding, staying off the streets almost altogether, but continuing to build bombs and plan attacks. Three of the Weathermen have reportedly gone to Cuba but the rest remain in the United States, as determined as ever.
In the months since the March 6 explosion there has been a steady stream of bombings, not all of them attributable to the Weathermen. In New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Omaha and Madison, Wis., among other places, bombs planted by terrorists have caused death, injuries and destruction.
The only friend Diana contacted in New York before she died was Alan Howard. Sometime that week, probably on Wednesday, Howard and Diana met. They talked about the Weathermen. Diana told him she still believed the only course open to American radicals was the building of a “Red Army” in the United States which would be part of the international army fighting for a world-wide revolution.
She admitted that the days of rage had been at least partly a failure, that the Flint war council had weakened the Weathermen even further, that the revolution was impossible without a mass base.
Nevertheless, she insisted that her role was to physically fight in any way possible.
“We have a lot to learn,” she told Howard. “We’ll make mistakes.”
On Friday of that week one of those mistakes ended her life.
This post is the fifth in a five-part series, originally published by United Press International on September 18, 1970, for which Lucinda Franks and Thomas Powers received the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting.
(Link here to PART I, PART II, PART III or PART IV)