Meteorology, Mercosur-Style

Postcard from Buenos Aires, Argentina

On the list of things I expected to gain a deeper understanding of in Buenos Aires this summer, American history ranked only slightly below sane driving techniques. But as I’ve learned boldly attempting to cross streets, expectations don’t mean much in this city.

While I didn’t anticipate that American history would be at the center of too many conversations, I did expect that the U.S.’s role in the world would be open to ample contestation. In Argentina, George Bush is about as divisive a public figure as Eva Peron—it´s just as difficult to find someone to celebrate him as to denigrate her

Yet agreeing with my twenty-something Argentine peers by simply opposing the war in Iraq or Bush’s disregard for an Argentina on the brink of collapse in 2001 doesn’t redeem me in their eyes. Engaged in an Argentine-beer-fueled, late-night debate about the evils of the U.S.’s foreign policy, I explained that I had voted against Bush in 2004, and that I would be happier to see him go than most. The Argentines present weren’t placated. “He’s ruining your country and the world,” they said. “You can’t just vote against Bush. You have to take to the streets and bring him down!”

Taken aback by the suggestion that I could personally participate in overthrowing American democracy, my first reaction was to say, “That’s not how we do it in the United States.” Maybe Argentina—a country in which a twenty-year regime of any sort is a remarkable bout of stability, and in which the Montoneros, a leftist paramilitary group of the 1960s and ‘70s, continue to capture the imagination of the young intelligencia—had taught its youth to value radical action over respect for democracy. But American kids wouldn’t dream of pursuing serious political objectives through violence. After all, I thought, while the Montoneros were out blowing up buildings and laying the groundwork for Latin America’s bloodiest military dictatorship, the “radicals” in the U.S. were protesting the Vietnam War on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and embracing free love in Golden Gate State Park.

My Argentine acquaintances preempted me before I could even finish translating my sentiments into bad Spanish. “What about the Weathermen?” they asked. Though I had vaguely recalled hearing the name before, I admitted that I didn’t remember who the Weathermen were. Needless to say, the debate was over.

The Weathermen—or the Weather Underground, as they were later known—were, as my intoxicated adversaries explained to me, America’s own Montoneros. They had abandoned passivity in favor of concrete action in the late 1960s and 1970s, bombing public buildings across the country, including the U.S. Capitol. They had made the leap that my fellow American anti-Bushies and I are too meek to even consider. U.S. history isn’t devoid of examples of radical resistance, they said. We simply choose to ignore them.

On my way home, the Argentines’ story seemed very improbable. “I’ve taken so many U.S. history classes and I’ve never hard of this stuff,” I thought. “And if the Capitol were bombed we’d all know about it.”

When I got back to my apartment and turned to the Internet, I verified the shocking information I had just heard; I saw that I hadn’t been lied to. Sure enough, the Weathermen—who rose from the ashes of the defunct Students for a Democratic Society in 1969, taking their name from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” lyric, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—carried out a casualty-free campaign of pre-announced bombings of dozens of public buildings; the U.S. Capitol truly was among them. And I had no idea.

What disturbed me most about the Weathermen, I realized, wasn’t that the group had violently attempted to overthrow the U.S. government but that I had to come 5,500 miles to learn about it. Perhaps Argentina’s young radicals aren’t so far off the mark, then, with their accusations of selective history. Twentieth century U.S. history classes that fail to even mention this brief, but real, violent insurgency do their students a disservice by painting the story of resistance in artificial hues of patience and temperance. If we are to understand the U.S. in the 1960s and ‘70s, we must not teach Martin Luther King, Jr. without mention of the Black Panthers; we should not invoke Woodstock without noting the Weathermen. To do so is to offer a two-dimensional picture that conforms to an imagined trajectory of continuous progress rather than the more complicated—and more interesting—reality of U.S. history.

Perhaps Bob Dylan was right—in the 1960s, at the height of American radicalism, it probably didn’t take a weatherman to see where the country was headed. It’s unfortunate that today, it takes an Argentine to see where we Americans came from.

Paul R. Katz ’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a history and literature concentrator in Mather House. He just wants the truth!