Thursday, August 12, 2010

Book Review: "Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath," by Tom Bates

Earlier this summer, the New York Times had an obit for Dwight Armstrong, one of the culprits in the Fall, 1970 bombing of the building at the University of Wisconsin's Sterling Hall, which contained a U.S. Army math research facility-- and, unfortunately, several other unrelated labs. I discovered that the only book that had ever been published on the incident has Mr. Bates' book-- a book I'd purchased in the early nineties when it was published. I dug it out of the basement and took advantage of my more relaxed schedule to read it and reflect on it.

Those of us who are in our late forties will probably be the last people alive eventually who remember the supercharged atmosphere of the United States in the late sixties and early seventies. The Vietnam War, which was supposed to be a short skirmish, was now nearing the end of a decade. Many thought that the United States would start disengaging after the early 1968 Tet Offensive, which while being a huge military defeat for the Viet Cong (the communist rebels within South Vietnam), it was a public relations blow to the war effort-- much of the US public, even those in the middle, were losing their will to commit to the loss of life and treasure that the war was creating. And the regular North Vietnamese Army had taken up the slack created by the near-annihilation of the Viet Cong, turning the war, ironically, into more of the set-piece conventional war the United States had been able to fight in the first place.

In the meantime, Nixon and Kissinger were secretly (at first) expanding the war into Cambodia and Laos, in 1970. The uproar was enormous. There were riots at nearly every campus in the United States. At Jackson State in Mississippi and Kent State in Ohio, students were shot dead.

It was in this cauldron that four men, brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong, along with U of W students Leo Burt and David Fine hatched a scheme to bomb the Army Math Research Center in Sterling Hall.

The men had committed other attempted acts of political violence, all of them pretty much "Keystone Radical" in execution. In one bombing, the men got the address wrong and instead bombed a animal research facility. In another incident, Dwight Armstrong, who had had a few flight lessons, stole an airplane while his brother Karl dropped a bomb on the nearby (and now-defunct) Baraboo Munitions Works, which was producing a great deal of the ordinance that was being dropped and launched onto Vietnam. The bomb failed to explode, and later authorities mused that it was miraculous the the perpetrators hadn't gotten themselves killed, flying in a snowstorm, and missing electrical wires during their landing by inches.

The local radical press had taken note of the "gang," their utter failures not-withstanding, and had dubbed them the "New Year's Gang." Karl Armstrong, who was unable to hold down a job or relationship, seemed to be the center of it all. He comes across as a pathetic figure, having to borrow his mother's car for his purported blows against the war. Dwight was even more pathetic than Karl, impressing even hippies with his ability to do absolutely nothing but lay around and smoke dope.

After a period of spending time with a ne'er-do-well criminal uncle in St. Paul, Minneapolis, the brothers returned to pull of one more big job. Somehow, they mustered up the resources to gather up the materials to create an enormous truck bomb-- the same kind of bomb, a fertilizer and fuel oil bomb, that Tim McVeigh would use 25 years later to slaughter 168 people in the Murrah Federal building.

The scheme was hare-brained from the start. They did some cursory casing of Sterling Hall for patterns of use-- they did not want to kill anybody. Yet, they failed to discover that maintenance people were there at all hours-- as were physicists using the super-cooling facilities. This would include Robert Fassnacht, a thirty-three year old post-doctoral researcher working on super conduction, which held out the possibilities of creating future transportation systems that would be virtually pollution-free. He was married, with three young children-- and against the Vietnam War.

Loading a stolen van with over a thousand pounds of fertilizer/fuel bomb-- and a five minute fuse, the team set up their bomb near Sterling Hall, and called the police. A campus police officer raced across campus, and was about a block away when the bomb went off, lifting his squad car off the ground. He later realized that if he actually had been able to get to Sterling Hall a minute or two quicker, he would have died there.

The bomb went off, demolishing the physics lab. The Army Math Research Center, several stories up, was virtually untouched. Dr. Robert Fassnacht was killed instantly and several others injured.

The repercussions were fast and furious. The Madison Police began to come down hard on the students. The FBI was brought in to the case, and immediately began a cartoon-like battle with the local police over the case. Bates points out the odd similarity to the 1963 murders of civil rights activists Schwerner, Cheney and Goodman, where local authorities and the FBI were at loggerheads.

As incompetent as the police and FBI investigation was at times, the perpetrators proved to be even more incompetent, leaving a trail of evidence and witnesses that allowed authorities to quickly start tracking them.

Bates' accounts of the pursuit, capture and subsequent trials is fascinating, rivalling the best detective tales. The trial of Karl Armstrong, who was defended, among others, by William Kuenstler, turned into a circus. Karl and Dwight Armstrong, as well as David Fine served prison sentences.

Leo Burt was never apprehended, and he continues to issue missives defending his participation in the bombing.

Karl Armstrong eventually apologized for his role in the bombing and the death of Robert Fassnacht.

I think that before anybody has a discussion about the morality and efficacy of political violence, they need to read this book.

I discovered that "Rads" was the only book Tom Bates, who was a journalist, ever wrote. He had been motivated to write it by the fact that he'd been a grad student in Madison at the time, and the fact that nobody had ever written a book about the bombing. Mr. Bates died in 1999 of cancer, and the book has gone out of print, unfortunately; I believe it's a key piece of the puzzle to understanding the sixties and early seventies. I hope that somebody eventually republishes it. In the meantime, there are plenty of used copies out there to be purchased, and I highly recommend it.


SkylersDad said...

I have never heard of that book, it sounds good!

Brent said...

I found it to be one of the most interesting books that I have ever read.