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Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and Its Aftermath

by Tom Bates

HarperCollins Publishers
10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022 USA
1992, 504 pages, including 16 pages of photos, map, and index
ISBN 0-06-016754-8, cloth, $25.00 US, $33.50 Canada
ISBN 0-06-092428-4, paper, $12.00 US

At 3:42 am on August 24, 1970 a homemade bomb—barrels packed with ammonium nitrate fertilizer mixed with fuel oil, with a dynamite detonator—exploded in a stolen van parked at the loading dock outside the Army Math Research Center (AMRC) on the campus of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A young post-doc student in physics with no connection to the AMRC died in the blast, which injured five other people and caused six million dollars in damage to the AMRC building and twenty other buildings in the vicinity.

The Army Math bombing has been referred to in the media recently because of its similarities with the bombing at the federal building in Oklahoma City. Moreover, there have been any number of comparisons made between contemporary right-wing extremism and left-wing extremism of the sixties and seventies. Those who would spin history out of the Oklahoma City blast would be advised to read history first of all.

Just as obviously as there are similarities there are differences. The most dramatic difference is the scale of destruction. The Army Math bomb was timed to avoid killing anyone (and a bomb warning was called-in to city police) while the Oklahoma City bombing seems to have been intended to maximize the loss of life.

The Army Math bombing was the last in a series of bombings carried out by a small band of conspirators, who mostly moved on the fringes of the anti-war and pro-revolution movements at the University of Wisconsin. Some leftists in Madison and beyond approved of their activities, at least until the loss of life in Army Math. The four who bombed Army Math—the brothers Karl and Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt—were not politically sophisticated revolutionaries, but were determined to destroy property and take lives if necessary to make a dramatic statement against the war in Vietnam. Three of the four were eventually arrested and served prison time; Karl Armstrong served the longest, eight years. Leo Burt was never apprehended.

The account by Tom Bates in Rads is a fairly straightforward journalistic narrative which rarely strays from its story. Bates seems to have talked to everyone involved and made ample use of the archival sources. Vividly and with plenty of detail, Bates sets out the scene, the characters, and the action in Madison in the late sixties. Bates was a student there at the time.

The story centers on Karl Armstrong, the prime mover in the small group known as the New Year's Gang. In the nine months leading up to Army Math, Karl alone or with the assistance of one or two others, carried out several firebombings, tried to dynamite an electrical substation, and even dropped three ammonium nitrate and fuel oil bombs from an airplane onto an ordnance plant. (They did not explode.)

The aftermath in the subtitle is the story of the conspirators' flights, their captures and guilty pleas, and the sentence mitigation hearing of Karl Armstrong—which included testimony from, among others, activist Philip Berrigan, historian Howard Zinn, psychologist Robert J. Lifton, a dozen Vietnam veterans, and former US Senator Ernest Gruening—who all attempted to place the bombing within the political context of dissent. There is only a little analysis in this book of the motives for the bombing and its effects on the student movement or society in general. There are no footnotes, which makes the book difficult to use for further research. Rads is not theory or analysis, but a story, well-told in the main.

The bombing of Army Math divided the Left into those who defended the bombing and those who condemned it. Arguably the Army Math bombing was a key event that turned some activists away from revolutionary agitation and toward more tightly-focused movements to end the war or bring social liberation to a segment of American society. The Oklahoma City bombing could play a similar role in the evolution of the contemporary Right. On the other hand, it may be only the most serious skirmish so far in a shooting war that has broken out along a fault line in American society.

May 3, 1995
Reviewed by Dean Blobaum

Copyright © 1995 by Dean Blobaum. All rights reserved. This review may be quoted in accordance with the Fair Use provisions of the US Copyright Act. It may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that no fee is charged for access and provided that this entire notice is carried and the author of the review is notified. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the author.