Bad Moon Rising by Arthur M. Eckstein

Review published on January 1, 2018.

With Trump in the White House, growing tensions in the Middle East and with North Korea, and suggestions that Russia has undermined democracy in the West, it’s tempting to believe that we’re living through unprecedented times. Reading about the discord of the 1970s is a good antidote to this. To be clear, I borrowed Bad Moon Rising from NetGalley for other reasons. I’ve long been interested in the militant political movements of the time, most famously the Black Panthers, but also the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) who kidnapped the heiress Patty Hearst, and the Weather Underground, the focus of this tome. This last movement was perhaps the most successful. The Black Panthers were destroyed by the FBI COINTELPRO programme, while the SLA were finally smashed in the mid-seventies, and though many of its members went on the run and weren’t caught for decades, when they finally were found many were jailed. The Weather Underground, however, fared better. In part this is due to the fact that after a disastrous explosion in a bomb factory which killed a number of its members, the group eschewed bombings that might kill and instead pursued a policy of destruction of property, in part they were just better at rooting out informants.

Bad Moon Rising is a fascinating account of this movement, the members of which now live openly in the United States having avoided prosecution. It is a fascinating account of the FBI’s failure to catch, build cases against, and convict its members. But to me the real importance of this book is a reminder of just how precarious the period was compared with the world of today. For anyone who didn’t live through the seventies (myself included) it is difficult to understand just how fragile the political situation was and the author does a great job of teasing this out. For all Trump’s faults, as yet he has not led his country into a disastrous war (though some might suggest that it is only a matter of time). Nixon, on the other hand, escalated the war in Vietnam (already a quagmire when he came to power) by authorising the carpet bombing of North Vietnam and Cambodia, and ground invasions of Cambodia and Laos, all of which were deeply controversial and sparked massive unrest amongst the antiwar movement.

Similarly, while resistance to Trump is spirited, it does not compare to the depth of feeling and antipathy that the antiwar and left-wing activist movements held for Nixon and it is in this context that armed movements materialised. The Weather Underground can only be understood in this context. The paranoia of the Nixon Administration, an instability at the heart of his government which led directly to the events of Watergate, is also apparent here. Nixon and his team really did see the Weather Underground as an existential threat. While in some ways this is surprising, for in reality the movement achieved little and their actions were certainly far less destructive than many contemporaries – the IRA, PLO, the Baader Meinhoff Gang in Germany – all killed many more people and destroyed much more property, but again, perhaps the administration can be forgiven for exaggerating the danger the group posed when one considers the febrile atmosphere of the time.

Of course, this comparison between Trump’s nascent administration (let’s remember he has only been president for just over a year) and Nixon’s might prove premature. Trump might well lead the United States into a disastrous foreign intervention and the resistance towards his administration might well become more militant. There are already worrying signs. Putting aside his baiting of North Korea and his deepening of US involvement in Afghanistan (lest we forget, he recently authorised Mattis to increase the number of US troops in the country), the far right is increasingly flexing its muscles as evidenced most vividly in Charlottesville, while militancy on the left is also on the rise: for example, one left-wing group, Redneck Revolt, was reported by The Independent to be arming working class people who want to defend minorities from attack. In such circumstances, one could well imagine the tide turning and Trump’s America mirroring the turmoil of Nixon’s. But until then, Bad Moon Rising is both a fascinating read in and of itself and a helpful anchor. As yet Trump has been more blowhard than real threat. For all his rhetoric he’s arguably achieved very little and America is still a relatively tranquil place compared to times gone past. Lets hope it stays that way.

James Pierson 4/4

Bad Moon Rising by Arthur M. Eckstein
Yale University Press 9780300221183 hbk Feb 2017

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