Thursday, July 1, 2010

Dwight Armstrong Of the Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight Dies

As reported in the NY Times a few days ago, Dwight Armstrong died of lung cancer at age 58 in Madison, Wisconsin. At 3:40 AM on Aug. 24, 1970, almost 40 years ago, he and the other three members of the New Year's Gang, parked a Ford Econoline full of gasoline-soaked ammonium nitrate next to Sterling Hall (once the home of the econ dept.) on the University of Wisconsin campus, and set it off, making the largest terrorist explosion in the US up to that time. They were targeting the Army Mathematics Research Center (officially the "Army" had been dropped from the name by then, although it continued to be funded by the US Army). However, they were The Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight, having earlier in the year set off a bomb in the Primate Center, thinking it was the Selective Service office, which was across the street. So, instead of the (A)MRC, they blew up a bunch of physics labs, injuring four, and killing post-doc, Robert Fassnacht, who was reported to be anti-Vietman War in his views, and was the father of three children. In many ways, this was the highwater mark in terms of intensity of the anti-Vietnam War movement in the US, although badly bungled as the participants later admitted.

Dwight was a kid from the east side of Madison whose dad worked at the Oscar Mayer plant. Dwight had been a high school dropout and was a personally troubled individual who was arrested in Indiana in 1987 for running a meth lab. He was apprehended in 1977 and served two years in jail. The main leader of the New Year's Gang was his older brother, Karl Armstrong, who was the first apprehended in 1972, and served seven years in jail. Karl runs a fruit juice stand on the Library mall these days in Madison. David Fine was the youngest and from Maryland. He was apprehended in 1975 and served four years, later becoming a paralegal in Oregon. The fourth, Leo Burt from Pennsylvania, has not been apprehended to this day.

I must note my own connection to all this. I was in grad school in econ at UW at the time, in between my first and second years. My father, the late J. Barkley Rosser, Sr., was the Director of the Center at the time. We disagreed about politics (and the war in particular), but I always personally respected him, and I always opposed the use of any sort of violence in protesting the War in Vietnam.


Cirze said...

Thanks for commenting on this auspicious event.

I always wondered who those "college" bombers could be.

Cleared up!


Anonymous said...

Considered within the context of the mass murder carried out in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos by the United States government, the egregious police brutality against civil rights and antiwar protesters, government spying, coercion and the murder of progressive activists by the FBI and local police departments, the thousands of bombings of various levels that took place in late sixties and early seventies were a natural progression in the spiral of internal violence within the American empire. Sad times indeed.

I knew Dwight Armstrong and he had his faults but he was a fundamentally decent human being.

Jack said...

Probably the most significant deterent to a major change in a political/economic system in this country is the very limited use of violence by genuine revolutionary idealists. Since the days of John Brown there has been little sign of actively violent protest in this country. That's a very good thing, but it also assures the continuation of the status quo. Why change when the populace is so well self controlled?

It is a curiosity to me that the violence that has taken place in this country has usually been carried out not by so-called left wing ideologists, but by right wing reactionaries or unaligned mad men. Yet the conservatives and the media, which they control so effectively, continuously suggest that the left side of the political spectrum is always trying to "take over." And even when the perpetrator is an outside agent, as in the WTC 9/11 attack, it is always innocent and uninvolved people that are killed and injured. Such acts never make any sense to the mass of the ;populace for that very reason, only the innocnet seem to be the victims. The result is that such acts never foment revolution, but instead encourage revoltion for the ideas expressed by the designated perpetrators. said...


I would note that Dwight was the only one of the three who was not a college student, although his older brother, Karl, had been sort of in and out of the UW off and on for a number of years. Both David Fine and Leo Burt were "regular" students, shall we say, both of them working on the campus newspaper, The Daily Cardinal, with Leo Burt having been a member of the crew team.


I only met Dwight once very briefly, but he seemed like a sort of low key nice enough guy. I also met David Fine once, who seemed like a spoiled brat, an opinion held by others knowing him better than I did. I have never met Leo Burt, to the best of my knowledge. I know Karl moderately well, having conversed with him on a number of occasions at his fruit juice stand. I consider him to have paid his debt to society and to have been sincere in what he was trying to do, even if it was bungled and fundamentally misguided. I also think that Dwight was largely under his influence in all this.

Before writing the main post, I went to see all the Wikipedia entries on the bombing, which I had not done before. There is a main one, plus ones on Dwight, Leo, and Robert Fassnacht. There are some minor errors in the main one, and some oddities in the others.

I shall note regarding Leo Burt that there are a large number of rumors about him, most not mentioned in the Wiki piece, ranging from that he is dead to that he was actually an FBI agent provocateur, and various things in between and on top of. I doubt the a.p. story as I know that he is still wanted by both the FBI and the State of Wisconsin, although he stopped being one of the FBI's "ten most wanted" in 1976.

Regarding my wisecracks about "The Gang That Could Not Bomb Straight" (a line I made up many years ago), it was not just them. If you read Rads or any of the other more detailed accounts of what went on, there was massive bungling on all sides, with the police from the local to federal levels coming off like Keystone Cops at many points (with wrangling between the locals and feds adding to the bungling on their side of things). A sign of this bungling is in the NY Times obit for Dwight. He was actually apprehended at one point, 1976 I think, in San Diego on some auto-related charge, but was released without them realizing who he was (he was using a false identity). It was after that he took off for Toronto where he was later caught.

I am going to add one further comment here that contradicts something in the main Wikipedia entry on the bombing. There is a quotation from 1986 by Karl Armstrong in which he sort of defends the bombing. I can tell, however, that 21 years ago this month at a "radicals' reunion" that took place in Madison in July, 1989, attended by the newly (re-)elected Mayor Paul Soglin, and many old demonstraters coming in from out of town (the only such event to have occurred that I am aware of), Karl Armstrong stood up in the middle of it and delivered a long speech in which he unequivocally apologized for the bombing, declaring it to have been wrong on all grounds, but especially focusing on the matter of the death of Robert Fassnacht, along with the broader damage to the anti-war movement. He had been sitting at my table just before he stepped up to give that speech, and I had no idea that he was about to do anything like that.

Cirze said...

Thanks for really clearing that up, Jack.

Having followed this a little over the years (and believing that Burt probably was a CIA agent provocateur - although that may have been a part of my having been negatively involved with a Burt previously!), it's good to hear the actual data.

Kudos for getting the word out.

Peter Dorman said...

Let me chime in briefly on the topic of Leo Burt. I knew him -- not well, but to some extent. I was working with underground newspapers and had an eye toward journalism; Leo was reporting for the Cardinal on The Movement. He and I would get together from time to time at the Rathskeller to talk about the state of things. I was impressed by his sober view of politics; he seemed to be able to urge the movement on while critiquing its blindnesses and excesses. I knew a lot of the Madison left-gurus of that era, but I thought Leo was clearer-eyed than any of them.

That's why I was shocked to see his name connected to the bombing. It seemed completely out of character. I have always suspected that he got involved as an "embedded journalist", so to speak -- on to a story that seemed too good to give up.

I would be very surprised if it turned out he was a mole. If that's what he was, he excelled at forming balanced judgments and failed at preventing exactly the sort of thing he would have been paid to prevent.

Just for the record, I had no contact with Leo after the AMRC bombing. I hope he has been able to do something constructive with his second life. said...

Two further minor clarifications on matters mentioned that might be confusing in this thread. The name I put in the title is mine, but "The New Year's Gang" was what they were known as in the press all through 1970. That was because their first effort (with just the Armstrongs and Karl's then-girlfriend) was on New Year's Eve, 1969, a bungled effort to bomb from the air the Badger Ammunitions plant northeast of Madison. The bombs did not go off. Indeed, most of the various efforts they made were bungles one way or another, wrong location, bombs fizzling, and so on. But when they shifted to ammonium nitrate they hit the big time, like Timothy McVeigh in OK City, even if they kind of missed the target.

Regarding Paul Soglin, he was a student rad who got onto the City Council in 1968 and was arrested in some demos then. He was initially elected mayor in 1973 and served three two-year terms. The man he defeated, the previous mayor, Bill Dyke, had been elected on an anti-student platform and in 1976 was the running mate of Lester Maddox on the American Independents Party ticket.

Soglin stepped down in 1979 and having a law degree went into private practice. Then in May 1989 he ran again and was elected, which was just before that 1989 reunion, which he attended. He served until 1995, during which time the controversial Monona Terrace project (derived from a Frank Lloyd Wright design) was completed, and again he stepped down. He ran again in 2005, I think, to be defeated by the current mayor, Dave Czislewitz (sp?), who ran to the left of Paul, who by then had come to have strong support from local business interests. Ah, success.

Barkley Rosser said...


Can't resist asking. So, did Leo Burt ever say anything about the New Year's Gang? He did not get in with them until the summer of 1970.

Peter Dorman said...


No, nothing. He discussed demonstrations, the politics of SDS, the problems of a student movement being more appropriate to the surrounding community -- stuff like that. I was completely taken by surprise when he was (apparently) involved in the bombing. said...

A minor clarification for the record on one of my earlier comments. The (former) Badger Ammunition plant is northwest of Madison, not northeast.

Unknown said...

Dwight was my best friend,the older brother I never had. Driven by youthful idealism, he was party to the death of an innocent man, something that tortured him for the rest of his life.

I didn't know who Dwight was when we met, but quickly found him to be one of the most brilliant people I'd ever known. From metaphysics to subatomic particle physics, poetry to politics, he knew something about everything, a true polymathic autodidact. He was more intelligent than almost every PhD I've ever known.

Dwight was kind, compassionate, generous and loyal. If anyone ever needed help, the question wasn't if he would help but just how quickly he'd get there.

He was also hilarious, with a deft and lightning-fast wit. He made me cry with laughter.

I persuaded him to get the MRI that led to his cancer diagnosis. He moved in next door to me during the last year of his life. I took him to chemo and radiation therapy, but was soon rendered nearly irrelevant by his close and loyal family, especially his daughter Drew, who is simply one of the best people I've ever known.

It has been my honor to be Dwight's friend. My family and I miss him terribly.

Rest well, my brother.



Allen said...

Some commented that people who knew David Fine better than he/she "held" that David Fine was a "brat". Nothing could be further from the truth. Not only did I know David better, he was my friend. I spent many hours with him and Leo, and we called them not by their first names but instead as Chip and Buzz. They were both great guys and once my wife and I traveled a thousand miles with them and camped out with them at Yellowstone. However, I haven't spoken to them since 1969 right before they blew up the AMRC and killed Bob Fassnacht, who was my friend also and was indeed against the war. I never met the Armstrong brothers, but after Karlton was identified I remembered being curious about who he was the one time I saw him walk past my residence with a glum expression on his face. Only later did I find out why he looked so glum.