The Bombing of Sterling Hall

Here’s another summer rerun, which has little to do with our regular subject matter except for being about one of the seminal events in Madison history at the dawn of the 1970s. This post appeared at my first blog, the Daily Aneurysm, on August 24, 2005, and I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, although I’ve had to remove several now-dead links that appeared in the original version. I’ve edited it to reflect today’s anniversary.

Forty years ago today—3:42AM on Monday, August 24, 1970—the largest truck bomb ever detonated in the United States (until Oklahoma City) exploded outside Sterling Hall on the campus of the University of Wisconsin here in Madison. The target was the Army Math Research Center, housed in the building. A researcher working in the building, Robert Fassnacht, was killed in the blast, and 26 buildings were damaged. The blast was audible 30 miles away. Damage was eventually estimated at $1.5 million, which was real money back then.

The day of the bombing, Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles said he believed it was the work of a nationwide conspiracy of radicals who wanted to destroy American society. Well, not really, although there was a conspiracy. Four Madison men were eventually sought in connection with the bombing. Karl Armstrong, the leader of the group, was arrested in Canada in 1972, fought extradition, and eventually agreed to a plea deal that got him 23 years in prison. He was paroled in 1980. David Fine, who was only 17 at the time of the blast, was captured in 1976 and served three years. Armstrong’s brother, Dwight, remained on the run until 1977. After his arrest, he made a deal for a seven-year sentence and, like his brother, was paroled in 1980. The fourth conspirator, Leo Burt, has never been found.

What I remember most about the bombing (I was 10 that fall, growing up in a small town an hour from Madison) is the immediate and irrevocable characterization of Karl Armstrong in particular as the embodiment of evil. I’m sure I got this impression through news reports, and doubtless from whatever my parents said about the story. Surely that was the way many people viewed the conspirators in the days immediately following the bombing. In the intervening years, however, reactions to the bombing have become more ambiguous.

It’s clear now, in a way that wasn’t clear then, that events on the UW campus from 1967 onward were leading toward some sort of cataclysmic event. By 1970, the UW campus had been the scene of frequent anti-Vietnam protests, some violent. Many students perceived that the police and university officials preferred tear-gassing first and asking questions later, a practice that tended to radicalize even the apathetic. The Sterling Hall bombers wanted to take the protests up a notch, and make a more powerful statement than merely marching, by targeting a military installation on the UW campus. And so they stole a truck and built a bomb.

The bombers’ remorse, and the number of movement veterans and sympathizers who still live here, has left mixed emotions 40 years later. Some understand the bombers’ motivation. Karl Armstrong himself claimed his foursome didn’t set out to kill anyone—they planned the bombing for the wee hours of a Monday morning, called in a warning, and were horrified when their van, packed with a ton of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, exploded prematurely. But there’s also the indisputable fact that Fassnacht left a wife and three young children behind—and none of them were responsible for what was happening in Vietnam.

Undoubtedly, some of our local conservatives have already begun composing angry letters to the editor of the local papers, and will use the latter point to bash anyone who fails to categorically condemn the bombing. Yet you’d find very few people around here today who wholly support what the bombers did. Even those who wore “Free Karl” t-shirts back in the day have moderated their views. If nothing else, age will do it. Things that seemed earth-shatteringly important when we were in college are put into perspective with the passage of time. Yet the passage of time has also invested Karl Armstrong with a touch of the folk hero—and as long as that lasts, what he did 40 years ago is always going to be controversial.

The Sterling Hall bombing was a turning point in the antiwar movement, not just here but across the country. The movement, which had already been rocked by the Kent State shootings in May 1970—the event that galvanized Karl Armstrong to action—was further shaken by Sterling Hall. How could the movement continue to criticize the killing of innocent civilians in Vietnam when it had killed an innocent person, too? On the local level, students once went out protesting at the drop of a hat (sometimes out of sheer boredom), but after Sterling Hall, antiwar demonstrations in Madison simply stopped.

The best book on Sterling Hall is Rads: A True Story of the End of the Sixties by Tom Bates. It’s apparently out of print, but you can still find it at various used book stores and websites. . . .

The Armstrongs are still around. For years, Karl owned a juice cart (still does, as far as I know), and for a while he ran a restaurant called the Radical Rye. Dwight drove a cab. [He died last June at age 58.] That they’d return to Madison after doing time for the bombing says something about the hold this town can have on people. David Fine went to law school in the ’80s and sought admission to the bar in the state of Oregon, but was denied. Leo Burt—well, nobody knows where he is.

For all you know, I could be him.

4 thoughts on “The Bombing of Sterling Hall

  1. Really good summary! I actually FORCED my kids to read “Rads” – and to sit through my videotape copy of “The War At Home” with me, as a part of their freshman indoctrination to the UW. I also took each of them to lunch at the Gritty just before they started school, and had Marsh (Shapiro) come over and tell them about how the bombing was planned at his joint (he’d point to the booth where they always sat) and how it changed things forever.

    1. jb

      “The War at Home” is highly recommended to anybody interested in this period, particularly if they have some familiarity with Madison–we spent as much time trying to figure out what buildings we were seeing in the background of the archival footage as we did following the narrative.

      On a related matter, I was disappointed by the relative lack of coverage of the anniversary by our local media. Channel 27 did a little bit and 15 mentioned it, but I don’t find anything at Channel3000. There was nothing I could find at, either, although there may have been something in the paper itself, but I dunno.

  2. Pingback: To Be There in the Garden | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

  3. Pingback: August 24, 1970: Spill the Wine – The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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