The Annotated MAD MEN: An Explosive Year

Joan is worried about people blowing up department stores - and with good reason. In March of 1970 alone New York City suffered 13 bombings. 

“Bombs are back,” Howard R. Leary, New York City Police Commissioner, told a Senate committee in 1970. “Bombing has reached gigantic proportions.”

From January 1969 to October 1970 New York City experienced a wave of bombings that averaged out to an explosion every other day, 370 attacks from radical groups intent on bringing the Vietnam War home to the streets of America. Across the country there had been 4,330 explosions, with 43 people killed.

When Don and Joan talk about bringing Topaz stockings to department stores she talks about the fear of bombings, and that fear was very present in the minds of New Yorkers, especially only a few weeks after three members of the Weather Underground blew themselves to pieces while preparing a bomb in their Greenwich Village headquarters.

The bombings grew out of a sense of frustration with the tactics of peaceful protest; by 1970 the war in Vietnam raged on, a constant background hum of death and horror, just as it is for Don in the season seven and a half premiere, Severance. The dream of the late 60s - peace and love - had turned to ash as it became clear that mass movements weren’t getting the job done fast enough. That realization would be confirmed just a few days after the events of the episode, as Richard Nixon announced the Vietnam War was metastasizing to include an ‘incursion’ in Cambodia (the US had secretly been bombing Cambodia for a year at this point).

The wave of bombings that hit New York City had a remarkably low body count; for many of the bombers the actions were a form of political theater. Professor Jeremy Varon told the New York Times: “The bombings that year were an expression, an act of, if not foolhardy, optimism. They were desperadoes. They had the belief that they could bomb old ideologies out of existence.”

Dr. John Spiegel of the Brandeis University Lemberg Center for the Study of Violence contextualized it for people back in 1970, as it was happening: “You can attack property rather than people. I mean you have to snipe at a human object whereas this is a way of symbolically attacking the Establishment without attacking human beings. There is something symbolically satisfying about a pure explosion, the emotional satisfaction and drama attached to it, calling everybody’s attention to the fact that something has been done.”

People were, of course, injured and some killed, but most of the bombings seemed intended to avoid mass casualties. At least of civilians - police and army recruiters were fair game to the militants.

March of 1970 had been particularly busy - thirteen explosions rocked the city, including a pipe bomb at the Electric Circus, the club where Joan had taken her friend back in season six; a Black Panther named Ishmael Brown exploded a bomb on the dance floor on March 22nd, injuring 17 people. The Black Panthers claimed Brown was acting alone.

“We’ve got to turn New York City into Saigon,” Ted Gold said not long before he blew himself up. Gold was a member of the Weather Underground, also known as the Weathermen. They grew out of the fragmented pieces of the Students for a Democratic Society, a major anti-war group that fell apart as the New Left found itself in a state of flux. The Weather Underground took their name from Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues lyric ‘You don’t need a weatherman/To know which way the wind blows,’ and they saw the wind blowing against American imperialism. To the Weathermen the chief evil of the world was US imperial aggression, and they wanted to make Americans taste what the rest of the world experienced at the receiving end of American guns and bombs.

Talking to Vancouver Magazine in 1998, Weather Underground founding member John Jacobs said: “Weatherman would shove the war down their dumb, fascist throats and show them, while we were at it, how much better we were than them, both tactically and strategically, as a people. In an all-out civil war over Vietnam and other fascist U.S. imperialism, we were going to bring the war home. 'Turn the imperialists' war into a civil war', in Lenin's words. And we were going to kick ass.”

The Weather Underground was actually very progressive in its politics - the group spoke out against racist and chauvinist activism, and railed against whites who thought they were oppressed; their language would foreshadow the modern conversations about privilege.

The collective had a series of actions - the Days of Rage in Chicago, which included blowing up a statue dedicated to cops killed in the Haymarket Riots, and the gasoline bombing of the judge presiding over the trial of the Panther 21, a group of Black Panthers who were being held by the government and who would, eventually, be freed. The group was gaining momentum, and they had no problem with the idea of taking lives - the Greenwich Village explosion that killed Ted Gold, Terry Robbins and Diana Oughton happened when they were making nail bombs to blow up an officer’s dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey.

That explosion rocked the Weathermen more than it did the establishment. In the aftermath the group decided to move away from deadly force, but still remained underground and, in late May, declared war on the government of the United States. They hoped to spark a second American Revolution.

By the time Joan was concerned about bombs in department stores the energy behind the bombing waves was dissipating. This timing feels right in an episode about change and death (look to the book the waitress is reading, by John Dos Passos. Dos Passos died a few months after the events of this episode (fitting for an episode concerned with premonitions of death), and he himself was famous for undergoing a massive political change - early in his life he had been a radical leftist, but by 1970 he was a Nixon supporter. The question of whether Don can change seems to be the driving thematic point of Mad Men). And there’s more change and death around the corner, likely happening between episodes - the invasion of Cambodia that is happening in the background of Severance would lead to a massive wave of college protests, including one at Kent State University, where National Guardsman murdered four college students and wounded nine others in a hail of 67 bullets.

It seemed like Ted Gold had gotten what he wanted after his death - the war was here in America.