At 3:42 AM on Monday, August 24, 1970 a 2,000 pound bomb made of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel, the same formula used later at the Murrah building in Oklahoma City on a larger scale, exploded from within a Ford Econoline next to Sterling Hall in the central area of the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. While the target was the (Army) Mathematics Research Center (the Army had been officially removed from its name some years earlier, although its critics called it "Army Math"), the section of the building where its offices were located were on higher floors than those damaged by the bomb, with the damage concentrated on labs of the physics department. One graduate student, Robert Fassnacht, working on superconductivity and a married father of three who strongly opposed the war in Vietnam, was killed in the blast. Three others were injured, one of them, Paul Quin, later a physics professor at UW, now emeritus, who has never spoken of the bombing publicly to this day. The entire lab of nuclear physicist Henry Barschall, who had worked on the Manhattan Project, was completely destroyed, with this triggering him to change his field of work to medical physics after he took a two year leave.
Those who set the bomb were four young men who had come to be known as the New Year's Gang. The oldest and founder of the group was Madison eastside local (his father worked at the Oscar Mayer wiener plant), Karleton Armstrong, with his younger brother, Dwight, who had been working with him in a series of earlier bombing efforts that started the previous New Year's Eve, hence their name. They were also joined later by Leo Burt from near Philadelphia, who had been on the university crew team, and who has not been caught to this day, making him the longest at large person ever placed on the FBI 10-Most Wanted List. The final member was 18-year old David Fine of Delaware, who had only joined the group in July, just before the bombing.
They were the Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight, as their misplacement of their bomb at Sterling Hall showed, but there had been earlier evidence of this in other efforts, where bombs did not go off or were put in wrong locations, such as one that was aimed at the Selective Service Office, but was placed across the street at the Primate Research Center lab. Fortunately, when their earlier bombs had gone off, they did little damage, not being of the more damaging technology of the Sterling Hall bomb, since a major favorite of many terrorist groups around the world.
If they were the Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight, the police were The Gang That Could Not Capture Straight either. After the Gang fled the scene, they were actually briefly apprehended by police, who did not figure out who they were and let them go. Later accounts show that there were many crossed signals and rivalries between local police and the FBI, with the latter having spent lots of effort during that year when the Gang was engaging in their earlier efforts, watching Michael Meeropol, then an economic history grad student, whose parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Needless to say, this sort of thing was the last that the peaceable and much harassed Meeropol would be involved with, but apparently J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with him.
As it was, the Gang split into two pairs, the Armstrong brothers and Burt with Fine, with them making it successfully to Canada, and then later splitting further. The first to be caught by the Canadian RCMP was Karl Armstrong in March, 1973. He was returned to Madison where he plead guilty, but then asked for and got a mitigation hearing for his sentencing. His lead attorney was famed radical lawyer, William Kunstler, and this hearing was turned into a general hearing on the War in Vietnam, in effect arguing the bombing was at least partly justified by the horrors of the war, and the fact that research done by mathematicians at the Center (more frequently while visiting off-campus to other locations) was for the military, with some projects having specific applications in the war. In the end, while publicity about the war may have been achieved, Armstrong received the maximum sentence of 25 years, of which he served 7. After getting out, for many years he ran the Loose Juice fruit stand near campus, from which he is now retired. I shall comment further below on him and his views.
His brother, Dwight, would move to California and be captured in 1977 in San Diego. He would serve three years. He was a troubled person with major drug problems that got him arrested more than once. He died of lung cancer in 2010 at age 58.
David Fine also moved to California and was captured in 1976 in San Rafael. He too would serve three years. He returned to Delaware to get a BA in political science, and then to Oregon where he got a law degree. However, although he passed the bar exam, he was not allowed to practice law, with this decision upheld by a higher court due to his involvement in the bombing. He has been a paralegal since, and still is to the best of my knowledge. After his capture, he was viewed by some who met in Madison before his trial as being very arrogant, in contrast to Karl Armstrong.
As already noted, Leo Burt has never been caught. He had been an altar boy in Philadelphia. Especially five years ago around the 40th anniversary, the FBI made a renewed effort to find him, but he remains at large, with many theories about what has happened to him.
So, what was this all about? I am not going to give a complete answer here, especially given that there remain many loose ends far beyond the continuing at large status of Leo Burt. I must note that I have more information than most as I am the son of the Director of the (A)MRC at the time of the bombing, the late J. Barkley Rosser, Sr. I was a grad student in economics at the time it happened, and I have met and even known quite well many of the characters on many sides of this. Although at one time I had been more hawkish and conservative than my fairly conservative and hawkish father, by the time of the bombing I had turned against the War in Vietnam and become much more left/liberal in my general political views. Indeed, as criticism of the center mounted over a several year period prior to the bombing, my disagreements with my father became a matter of public record. But I most certainly never supported violent protest as appropriate, much less against the center that my father directed.
The criticism of the center, which my father directed from 1963-1973, began in earnest in early 1969 with a series of articles in the main campus newspaper, the Daily Cardinal, by James Rowen, son of longtime Washington Post economics and business editor, Hobart Rowen, who also happened to be married to Susan McGovern, one of George McGovern's daughters. Later, Jim would serve as Chief of Staff for Mayor Paul Soglin in his first six years, 1973-1979 (terms were two years then), and attempted to run in 1979 after Soglin stepped aside to succeed him. Rowen lost and moved to Milwaukee, where he worked for the Milwaukee Journal for many years. Soglin has since had two more rounds as mayor, one from 1989-1995, and he is back now since 2011, having just been reelected this past spring for his 8th term as mayor. Whereas he was viewed as a wild-eyed radical in 1973, he is now much trusted by the local business establishment, and his recent opponents have run against him from the left.
Rowen dug hard and unearthed the history of the Center, which indeed was funded by the US Army, and had been first set up on the campus in 1956. Work there was to open to the public and published, but also to be of use for the US Army. A central point of controversy indeed was the multiple nature of the use of mathematics, that any piece of math can have many uses, both non-military as well as military. A fairly simple example is that the mathematics of rocket trajectories is very close to the mathematics of economic growth trajectories. There are many other such examples. My late father's argument was that public funding for math research was needed in general, so why not tap the military if they were willing to support research of multiple uses? Of course, the critics, led by Jim Rowen and an Assistant Professor of English, David Siff, who was forced out of his job due to this, argued that any research that could have military use in the context of the War in Vietnam was wrong. More generally, the UW was a leading center of anti-war protest, and there was a rising drumbeat that the university should not be associated with any entity that had anything to do with the military. That meant ROTC, Selective Service, and, the (Army) Mathematics Research Center, or "Army Math," which "must go" as many chants in many demonstrations said.
In their debates, because Jim interviewed my (late, he died in 1989 at age 81) father several times before my father lost patience and would not see him any more, my father would emphasize that the place was open. Soviet mathematicians could walk in the front door and talk with anybody about their research and look at the papers published by the researchers. It was not secret, something my father was well aware of, having been involved in secret research on rockets during and after World War II and after, as well as even more secret research on cryptanalysis that none of us knew about for the NSA at the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) Communications Research Division (CRD) site in John von Neumann Hall on the Princeton University campus, 1959-1961. I knew what he did there was secret at the time, but all I knew was that it had to do with computers. Only with the publication of James Bamford's revelatory The Puzzle Palace in 1983, which reported on that and talked of my father's role, did I begin to realize how secret what he had done was. So, he considered Jim Rowen to simply be naive. There would be no matching of the minds there. I also note that my father viewed Jim Rowen to be the truly guilty party in the bombing, having in effect misled such innocents as the Armstrong brothers in particular into doing what they did.
I will note that both my father and my mother were personally harassed and their home threatened, with sugar put gas tanks of their cars, and my father essentially assaulted by a mob at one point on campus. I list sources on this below, but will not go into further details of this, although my father was a very tough man who was able to take a lot. I also note that in effect the bombing did succeed in ultimately damaging the center, even if its offices were not damaged in the bombing. Funding would be cut, and when my father stepped aside, he was unable to recruit an outside mathematician of his calibre to succeed him. The center went into a gradual decline, moved to the edge of campus on the upper floors of the WARF building, would eventually change its name again to the Center for Mathematical Studies in 1987, with that entity finally closing down some years later.
Let me note the role of the bombing in the history of protests against the Vietnam War and in the development of the New Left radical movement in the US. It can be argued that it was the culmination of both. Many would say that the culmination came three months earlier during the demonstrations all over the US after four students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University. Indeed, that was the greatest spread of demonstrations, with demonstrations even happening in places such as Madison College, now James Madison University where I teach economics, with 26 students and two faculty (both of whom were fired) sat in at the main administration building. In Madison, Wisconsin there were pitched battles in the streets, with burning barricades and a grocery store burned down and many injured, although nobody killed, the biggest and worst of any there. But unlike earlier demonstrations, we did not make the national news. It was the sit-in at North Dakota State that did. But the bombing was not about the government killing students; it was students killing another anti-Vietnam War person, and it pretty much shocked everybody into a completely different pattern of behavior, it not into different ideologies, at least not at that time. But the movement towards a greater radicalization seems to have stopped then.
Indeed, it is worth noting how things had gone at UW-Madison. It had long been a center of progressive politics and thought, and many east coast radicals attended school there. Anti-war protests had started as early as 1965, initially very small and peaceful and legal. There was a major uptick, indeed one of national significance, in October, 1967, after the Summer of Love, when a demonstration against Dow Chemical interviewing students became violent as police attempted to remove students from a crowded corridor who were blocking the interviews. This spread into the outside where tear gas and billy clubs were used. David Maraniss has reported on this in depth in his excellent 2003 They Marched into Sunlight, Simon and Shuster, which also recounted events in Vietnam at the same time that would lead to LBJ deciding he could not win the war. Karl Armstrong was in this demonstration. I also happened to experience it, although accidentally. While I had come to oppose the war by then and did not like Dow, which made napalm, I also happened to support the right of students to interview for jobs there. So, I was on my way to an undergrad course on macroeconomics when I happened on the riot. I got my first taste of tear gas, although I managed to avoid getting billy clubbed. I naively went to see my father to complain about the police behavior, but he not only supported them but thought they should have been tougher.
Armstrong himself would be beaten by police in August, 1968 during the demonstrations in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention. This experience apparently strongly radicalized him and moved him towards thinking of using violence to oppose the war. However, I must note that one theory has it that he was perhaps more prone to this because of a history of physical abuse in his family. This theory was put forward by Tom Bates in his 1992, Rads, Harper Collins, probably the most in-depth and thorough study of the bombing, from which portions of this account are drawn.
In any case, I remember well that when the 1969-1970 school year began, my first as an economics graduate student, there was a general atmosphere of rising radicalism and impending violence. Not too many of us were surprised when that coming New Year's Eve saw the beginning of the various bombings and attempted bombings by the New Year's Gang.
Let me note two further sources that present quite opposite views of the Center. One that contains strong criticisms of the Center that came out at the time of Karl Armstrong's mitigation hearing in 1973 was The AMRC Papers, by the Science for the People Madison Wisconsin Collective. Much of its contents reflected the Daily Cardinal articles by Rowen and Siff from several years earlier, supplemented by some additional materials. Another much more recent one that defends the Center is The Uneasy Alliance: The Mathematics Research Center, 1956-1987, 2005, by Jagdish Chander and Stephen M. Robinson, Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM). Robinson was an associate director whom I knew very well and I have seen in more recent years. I note that the Center did support research in economics, including some years after the bombing hosting a very interesting conference that led to an excellent book. I note that both of these works are available on the internet.
While I could say much much more, and probably I shall add more in comments, I am going to wind this main post up with some items that have not been reported in print previously, although certainly there are other people who have known them.
The first is really sort of trivial, even slightly soap operatic. It involves the main victim of the bombing, physics grad student Robert Fassnacht. It might not have been him to die. I have been told that he was not supposed to be there that evening. His major professor was the late William (Bill) Yen, who died in 2008. Bill was married to an administrative assistant in the economics department, Ann. Their marriage was troubled and would end in divorce a few years later. In any case, he was supposed to go to the lab that evening, but in a marital dispute she demanded that he stay home to help their marriage, which led him to call the unfortunate Robert Fassnacht to take his place.
The second is more serious, and involves a matter that is really unresolved and may never be. It involves the real view of Karl Armstrong about what he did. The Wikipedia entry on the bombing presents the following quote that appeared in a 1986 article by Michael Fellner in the Milwaukee Journal called "The Untold Story: Part II."
"I still feel we can't rationalize someone getting killed, but at that time we felt we should never have done the bombing at all. Now I don't feel that way. I feel it was justified and should have been done. It just should have been done responsibly."
Now, it may be that this is his view today, or maybe it has changed, and maybe it continues to change. I do not know as I have not seen him for quite a few years, much less discussed it with him. However, in July 1989, he had a different line. Somebody (I do not know and I went digging around the internet and could find almost nothing on this) organized a "radicals reunion," actually a two day conference, in the Great Hall of the Memorial Union at UW-Madison. There were sessions and speeches, and a whole bunch of people who had been involved in the demonstrations in the 60s came to town and participated. That was a politically sensitive time, with nations in the Soviet bloc beginning to break away from Soviet control, and this issue split the harder line leftists from the more moderate types, and of course, many people had become much less radical by then (myself included).
Anyway, there was a banquet one evening downtown, which I attended with my then pregnant wife. Recently elected for a second round Mayor Paul Soglin, whom I was and remain good friends with, was also there with his also pregnant wife, along with a bunch of other people. My wife and I were sitting at a table with some old friends and eating and all that, when in the middle of the thing up comes Karl Armstrong and sits at our table for a few minutes, basically chatting about nothing. Right after that he went up to the podium, where periodically somebody would get up and blather on about something or other. He made a statement that sounded more like his earlier view. He apologized for his actions, and I heard no hint of any exception or "it might have been OK if we did it right." He said that what he did was wrong, no ifs ands or buts or excuses. Part of the apology was actually to the anti-war movement for the damage the bombing had done to it. But he also went on and apologized to the family of Robert Fassnacht and quite a long list of others, pretty much anybody one could think of whom he might have apologized to. They all got it, whether they heard of it or not. This speech was followed by dead silence, and he walked out of the room after he gave it.
A final miniscule tidbit is that Robert Fassnacht's widow, Stephanie, worked for many years at the UW Institute for Research on Poverty, which still exists. Jim Rowen's wife, Susan McGovern, also worked there for a number of years. I do not know how they interacted to the extent that they did.
J. Barkley Rosser, Jr.
Two Addenda just before noon, 8/24
1) A very loose end is rumors that somehow the FBI or other police agencies were somehow involved in the bombing as agents provocateurs or something else. The wildest such rumor is that it was the missing Leo Burt, this providing an explanation of why he has not been found. There were a lot of strange things going on and the police at various levels had infiltrated and done odd things in connection with the student protest movement. But in the end I accept what Karl Armstrong told Tom Bates as reported in the last chapter of Rads. He was responsible for what happened, and he does not think Burt was working for anybody else either, even if there do remain a lot of strange loose ends about the whole thing. I think a sign of the FBI at least not being involved at least with Burt is their renewed effort to find him a few years ago, this I think being a real embarrassment for them. There have been lots of theories about what has happened to him, but if he died somewhere with those around him not knowing his true identity, we may never know. Otherwise, well, maybe we shall learn about some of those remaining loose ends eventually. Not all the shoes have dropped on this.
2) The second is that peaceful Michael Meeropol and his younger brother, the "reddest of red diaper babies" as Tom Bates said, recently had a New York Times column calling for the exoneration of their mother, Ethel Rosenberg, who was framed by her brother and partly executed because she would not testify against her husband. They were raised thinking their parents were innocent, but eventually came to accept that their father was indeed a Soviet "atom spy," if a not very important one. However, they are eloquent, and defensibly so, in their defense of their mother's reputation and that her execution, which was botched, was something reprehensible, a low point of McCarthyism in the US during the height of the Cold War.