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Sterling Hall, 40 years on
August 21, 2010 10:02 PM   Subscribe

“No, no. Academia is now part of the real world. Everything goes.” Just before dawn, on August 24, 1970, Dwight and Karl Armstrong, Leo Burt, and David Fine parked a van outside Sterling Hall at the University of Wisconsin. The van was filled with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, and when it blew, it killed Robert Fassnacht, a young physicist working through the night. The Army Mathematics Research Center, the bombing's target, was untouched. The bombers, known as the "New Year's Gang," went underground, and enthusiasm for the radical movement in Madison was permanently dampened. The University of Wisconsin collection of transcribed interviews about the Sterling Hall Bombing.

More interviews:

"I think what it’s important to, to realize is that there were dozens, probably hundreds, maybe thousands of Karl Armstrongs out there. There were firebombings constantly. There were probably hundreds of fire bombings a year at that time. There was, you trashing going on constantly. It was inevitable that Army Math was going to be blown up. And I think everybody knew it." (Sarah O'Brien, student)

"They were going around saying, “Ho, ho, Ho Chi Minh.” And I worked in sociology. And actually I quit that job, because the grad students in one area were flying a big red flag. And they said they were supporting the North Vietnamese against the American soldiers. I tried to talk them into taking the flag down. It didn’t do any good. [laughs] I took an American flag in and hung it in the room that I was working in. And I’m not an American. Canadian." (Emily Chapman, student)

"Although, during that time, uh, the kids had started to clean up, and we built up quite a retail business in shampoos and started selling an awful lot of shampoos and conditioners. And they started taking care of their hair and their personal appearance again." (Herbert Eberhardt, barber)

Tom Bates's RADS is a book-length account of the bombing, and the strange world of radical UW, with undergrads storing explosives in the basements of their fraternity houses, and studying for exams while simultaneously planning firebombings on campus. RADS reviewed in the New York Times in 1992.
posted by escabeche (32 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
No wonder Hoover was so freaked out by the hippies.
posted by Bonzai at 10:27 PM on August 21, 2010


the 70s were a strange and isolating time, long history of radicalism in the midwest where this happened that is often forgotten about--thanks for all the links.
posted by PinkMoose at 10:58 PM on August 21, 2010


Thanks for the post. As a UW student, I feel like many of my peers aren't even aware of the radical past of their own university.
posted by mcarlson85 at 11:12 PM on August 21, 2010


Good post. I often think about this point: There were firebombings constantly. There were probably hundreds of fire bombings a year at that time

and how this bit of history has been utterly erased. Those of us born in the 70s or later, even those of us who have made it our business to learn a bit about Vietnam and third-world and feminist movements of the 70s really don't hear about this. The closest we get is maybe bits about Patty Hearst.

Anyway, I love this resource. Thanks for the post.
posted by serazin at 11:54 PM on August 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Can you imagine students flying Iraqi or Taliban* flags in protest these days?

*Taliban linked only to show that they have a flag
posted by rhizome at 12:12 AM on August 22, 2010


enthusiasm for the radical movement in Madison was permanently dampened.

Well, yes. When you kill human beings without any more reason or rationalization than the four students at Kent State who were shot, your peers might look at you as being of the same grade as those Ohio National Guardsmen who pulled the triggers.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:17 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Can you imagine students flying Iraqi or Taliban* flags in protest these days?

I can see Iraqi flags being flown, but the Taliban? They assisted a terrorist attack on the US.

The other thing is that N. Vietnam was communist, which is, thankfully, a more constructive philosophy then stoning women.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:18 AM on August 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


Can you imagine students flying Iraqi or Taliban* flags in protest these days?

The Taliban gave shelter and assistance to radical terrorists that attacked the USA. This is different from the disingenuous premises upon which Vietnam and Iraq were invaded.
posted by Throw away your common sense and get an afro! at 12:46 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Hah. Those silly antiwar guys. We've progressed so far past them that we now have half a dozen wars going at any one time, be they direct, proxy, covert, you name it. Plus large-scale systemic police actions like the fabulous "war on drugs". In fact, war has become so necessary to the functioning of the world that I propose that we replace the designation "homo sapiens" with "homo martians". As in "warring man", which is the natural state of man and his nations, among and within.

From our advanced perspective in this enlightened age, we can perceive that being "anti-war" is about the same as saying that one is "anti-breathing" or "anti-Sun".
posted by telstar at 2:49 AM on August 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


The Taliban gave shelter and assistance to radical terrorists that attacked the USA.

The Taliban gave shelter to the New Year's Gang? I'm confused.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:00 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


I propose that we replace the designation "homo sapiens" with "homo martians"

This will never fly. It's going to make lots of people think that Martians are in favor of same sex marriage, and we NASA will get permanently defunded.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:47 AM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


More proof in the power of Ghandi.
posted by caddis at 4:47 AM on August 22, 2010


many of my peers aren't even aware of the radical past of their own university.

I was at UW-Madison in the early 80s, and there was virtually no mention of the bombing only a decade later. So, it's not surprising that students 40 years down the line have no memory. Most of the faculty and staff who experienced the bombing have long since left, retired, or died, student memory cycles are only a couple of years long, and the institution doesn't have a lot of incentive to bring up the event.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:53 AM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


More proof in the power of Ghandi.

Yeah, he did it all by himself, and without any sort of armed insurgency operating in India- oh, right.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:19 AM on August 22, 2010 [5 favorites]


Thank you for this post, escabeche. The links are fascinating. RADS looks good and I think I will find a copy.
posted by daisyk at 6:25 AM on August 22, 2010


Leo Burt is apparently still at large.
posted by humanfont at 6:27 AM on August 22, 2010


There were firebombings constantly. There were probably hundreds of fire bombings a year at that time

While true (and not just for Madison), it's also important to remember even at its peak how few students were involved in the anti-war protests, never mind the extremist violence like the firebombings. Most of the students were like Dick Cheney (also at UW at that time) -- they went to classes, got trashed at parties, and engaged in very 1950-ish rituals like panty-raids and formals. I have no evidence that Cheney took part in any panty-raids. They had shortish hair and were in school so they could get a good job after.

Can you imagine students flying Iraqi or Taliban* flags in protest these days?

Again, most protesters weren't flying NVA flags -- the photographs tend to look more like this (though within a few years hair was longer and no one was wearing a suit), not like this. That said, I agree -- there's a really different tone now, where even an ironic waving of the Taliban flag (which needs the services of a graphic designer) would be suppressed from within the protesters as a strategic error.
posted by Forktine at 6:43 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


> N. Vietnam was communist, which is, thankfully, a more constructive philosophy then stoning women.

Wow, people still believe this?
posted by languagehat at 7:15 AM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


There was a sandwich shop here in Madison called "The Radical Rye" which Dwight and Karl bought in 2001. It's where I had my first date with my previous girlfriend. It was torn down along with a huge chunk of State Street shops to make way for that bullshit gentrifying Overture Performance Center.
posted by symbioid at 7:16 AM on August 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


Interesting links, thanks escabeche!

What Forktine said. This event was more of an aberration, which is why it was such a shocking watershed point. According to the linked NYT review: It was not a deed typical of the New Left, despite that movement's romance at the end of the 1960's with armed insurrection. Only a tiny number of militants ever moved from rhetoric to terrorism.
posted by madamjujujive at 7:21 AM on August 22, 2010


Also, along with Rads I'd recommend the book (and later film) They Marched Into Sunlight. It overlays, in a very nuanced and careful way, the events in Madison with those in Vietnam, and is both well-researched and moving, presenting no easy answers.
posted by Forktine at 7:23 AM on August 22, 2010


I was at UW-Madison in the early 80s, and there was virtually no mention of the bombing only a decade later. So, it's not surprising that students 40 years down the line have no memory.

I started school at the UW in 2003; the bombing happened fifteen years before I was born. I worked with many people who remembered the bombing, and heard the story a few times just in freshman year. The school is not trying to hush it up-- there's a plaque right by where the guys blew a hole in the front of Sterling Hall. Memory of this outside the University is strong as well, especially among those who are politically active on the left.
posted by yomimono at 9:13 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


The Taliban gave shelter and assistance to radical terrorists that attacked the USA.

The Taliban gave shelter to the New Year's Gang? I'm confused.


Yes you are.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:51 AM on August 22, 2010


Only a tiny number of militants ever moved from rhetoric to terrorism.

Sure, I mean, you can look at this history from the perspective of trying to downplay militancy by pointing out, accurately, that people involved in bombings, riots, and militant organizing numbered probably in the thousands while those engaging in non-violent, sanctioned protest numbered at some points in the low millions.

Or you can look at it from another point of view that there was this moment in this country where a significant number of its citizens were involved in efforts that they hoped and believed would result in the physical overthrow of our government. And I think this is an important tidbit, whether or not one thinks these tactics had any merit, because it points out that the anger and dissatisfaction with the institutions of this country was much deeper and more intense than is ever explored by mainstream historians or the media repackaging of history.

And for me as a critic of our institutions, learning about this kind of action didn't, obviously, serve as a model for my life, but it did broaden my imagination, it allowed me to think about change on a bigger scale, not just in reformist terms.
posted by serazin at 10:16 AM on August 22, 2010


> N. Vietnam was communist, which is, thankfully, a more constructive philosophy then >stoning women.

>Wow, people still believe this?


I think it's a 'leper with the most fingers' kinda better, languagehat.
posted by leotrotsky at 10:20 AM on August 22, 2010 [4 favorites]


Can you imagine students flying Iraqi or Taliban* flags in protest these days?

In the 60s, USPS mailboxes were painted red and blue like this or this.

It was quite common for war protesters to go around cities with a stencil and spray paint a yellow star in the middle of the red field to make a North Vietnamese flag. It was an act of political graffiti. As a result, in 1971 the USPS switched to the all-blue color scheme you see today, although it took a number of years to complete the switch.
posted by JackFlash at 10:54 AM on August 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


war has become so necessary to the functioning of the world that I propose that we replace the designation "homo sapiens" with "homo martians". As in "warring man", which is the natural state of man and his nations, among and within.

“This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games.”

-- William Burroughs
posted by the bricabrac man at 11:04 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Burroughs always was a sucker for romantic fantasies.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:14 AM on August 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yes you are.

Perhaps you could clarify with a Venn diagram showing the intersection of the sets 'radical terrorists that attacked the USA' and 'the New Year's Gang'. Oh wait, here's one:


posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:02 AM on August 23, 2010


My mom was at UW when the bombing happened. Apparently, the crowd (or at least parts of it) was not terribly sympathetic to those who came out of the building after the bombing. Not hostile, but there were apparently cat calls (if I remember my conversation with her correctly- it's been quite a while since we talked about it).

These days the left burns SUV dealerships and sits in trees to get called terrorists. I'm glad for the decrease in violence from the far left, but the shifting baseline is disturbing.
posted by Hactar at 3:58 AM on August 23, 2010


Apparently, the crowd (or at least parts of it) was not terribly sympathetic to those who came out of the building after the bombing.

She may be thinking of another incident. The Sterling Hall bombing took place a little before four in the morning; I don't think there was a crowd. And I'm not sure anybody came out of the building.
posted by escabeche at 9:11 AM on August 23, 2010


“The condition of man . . . is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”
-Thomas Hobbes
posted by telstar at 4:27 PM on August 23, 2010


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