“Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary” by Jonathan Lerner— A Contemplative Memoir

Lerner, Jonathan. “Swords in the Hands of Children: Reflections of an American Revolutionary”, OR Books, 2017.

A Contemplative Memoir

Amos Lassen

Jonathan Lerner was a founding member of the militant Vietnam-Era group the Weathermen. Hid memoir is an important addition to literature about the New Left in the Sixties and Seventies and the famous Weather Underground as well as essential reading for progressives struggling with how to act and survive in the Age of Trump.

Lerner gives us a very powerful account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology but there is also something else her. Lerner is a gay man and Weather Underground. At this point you might ask how could Lerner have hidden his sexuality for so long?

Lerner is a brutally honest, worldly, self-reflective gay raconteur who had once been an officer in an underground guerrilla army that was dedicated to the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. He has unbelievable true stories from the ‘revolution’ of fifty years ago. His short book chronicles the rise and fall of one of America’s most notorious radical groups of the Vietnam Era. Today, Lerner is a journalist specializing in environment and urbanism and chair of Hudson Valley’s Conservation Advisory Council but he had been the minister of propaganda for the Weather organization as well as the editor of its publication “Fire!”. He has changed and today he speaks out against the group’s misogyny and violence, but agrees with its rejection of the Vietnam War and endemic racism.

Today he lives a quiet, small-town life with his husband. He came to radicalism, like so many others of his generation as a result of the Vietnam War. In 1967 he was a student at Antioch University, a product of a liberal Jewish family. He fell in love with the shock tactics of guerrilla street theater but realizes that doing something like what he did is objectionable. The members of his underground went on to rob banks and bomb draft boards. He seems himself as a revolutionary “compromised by the desire to keep out of trouble”. He was once willing to endorse the most drastic actions but was not willing to dirty his hands.

As he gained awareness of himself as a gay man who had other battles to fight (“in those days admitting to being gay was an enormous humiliation” and in some cases illegal and considered a mental illness), Lerner distanced himself from the Weather movement that ultimately disintegrated in the mid-1970s.

Lerner’s dishes about now-well-known radicals and probes the impulses that led a small group of educated, privileged young Americans to turn to violence as a means of political change. He also tells the true story of “an intellectually adventurous but insecure gay man immersed in the macho, misogynistic and physically confrontational environment of the Weathermen”.

Sometimes known as the Weather Underground, the Weathermen, or Weatherman, the group unleashed a series of bombings across the United States, attacking the Pentagon, the Capitol Building, and the U.S. State Department, among many other places. At its height, the organization consisted of several hundred people, all committed to violent change and toe-to-toe battles with the police.

Lerner invented himself first as “minister of propaganda” for the movement and participated in the Venceremos Brigade in Cuba and he saw the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee. He then became an expensive gay hustler (My mother have said, “What a tragedy for a Jewish guy”), and shares American journey from idealism to destruction and beyond. There have been other memoirs from Weatherpeople but this is the only one that explores the painful history of the group with such brutal honesty. This is “A powerfully written account of idealism undercut by submission to a rigid ideology” and it is “As emotionally bruising as it is beautiful.”

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