Rads, by Tom Bates
Rads: The 1970 Bombing of the Army Math Research Center at the University of Wisconsin and its Aftermath.
by Tom Bates.
HarperCollins. 465 pp. $25.00.
Among the many changes ushered in by the election of Bill Clinton has been a rather dramatic shift in America’s political culture. This is most apparent in the palpable nostalgia for the values, causes, personalities, and even the drugs of the 1960’s. Hippie garb has made a comeback as high fashion; the children of the Berrigans, Kunstlers, and Cleavers have been featured on the style pages of major newspapers; the memoirs of former Black Panthers have received respectful reviews, their authors treated as serious leaders of the struggle for racial equality; and marijuana and, to a lesser degree, LSD have won renewed popularity.
The 60’s nostalgists themselves are not members of a younger generation in search of causes and commitments, but the men and women who actually lived through those years. Many of them are bitter about the scorn in which their youthful “idealism” was held during the era of conservative political ascendancy, and are now determined to recast the image of the 60’s as a time of high principles, dedication to change, and fun.
The project is not without its perils, however, especially since even many liberals today regularly identify the “excesses” of the 60’s as a major reason for the Democratic party’s quarter-century of malaise. Indeed, one sympathetic observer, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, has already issued a word of caution, noting that there were “aspects of the 60’s that were just plain mean” and worrying about “the silliest things that were said back then,” including the New Left’s celebration of revolutionary violence.
Violence was, of course, not only talked about, it was almost routinely resorted to during the latter stages of the antiwar movement. The most notorious, and tragic, incident was the 1970 bombing of the Army Mathematics Research Center at the University of Wisconsin; the bombing caused the death of Robert Fassnacht, a young, brilliant, apolitical researcher who happened to be conducting studies in the building at 3 A.M. when the attack took place. Rads tells the story of that event.
Until the Army Math bombing, no one had died from violent acts committed by the antiwar movement. Nevertheless, by 1970 the New Left had clearly jettisoned its earlier policy of nonviolence, and the tone of radical politics was being set by the Weathermen and Black Panthers. While these two groups were not active at Wisconsin, the political violence they celebrated was increasingly viewed on campus as an acceptable way to express opposition to the Vietnam war. On several occasions the university had received national attention as the result of rough clashes between students and police—including an ugly episode in which a Dow Chemical Corporation recruiter was chased from the campus—and a series of bombings which preceded the explosion at Army Math.
The attack itself was carried out by four young antiwar enthusiasts: Karleton Armstrong, his brother Dwight, Leo Burt, and David Fine. Only Burt and Fine were students at the time; Armstrong, the instigator of the action, was a sometime student who took maximum advantage of the university’s relaxed attitude toward undergraduates with poor grades and records of dropping-out.
Although much of Bates’s book focuses on Armstrong, the motivation for his political radicalism is never really explained. The son of working-class parents from Madison, Armstrong was not part of the student intellectual Left; when he discussed the war or politics generally, he tended to repeat the clichés of the day. Armstrong was also responsible for several other bombings on and around the campus, including a New Year’s Eve expedition in which he and his brother stole a private airplane and made an unsuccessful raid on Badger Ordnance, a big munitions plant near Madison. In all these encounters, Armstrong displayed a mind-boggling lack of concern for the possible consequences, eventually coming to enjoy the notion of himself as a revolutionary who committed acts of violence in the cause of peace.
Yet if the blithely irresponsible Armstrong was most directly to blame for the death of Robert Fassnacht, a heavy share of overall guilt must fall on the shoulders of those in the antiwar movement who condoned, excused, and even encouraged the violent acts committed by their impressionable young followers. The university mood was vividly reflected in an editorial which appeared just prior to the bombing of Army Math in the Daily Cardinal, a student newspaper. The editorial declared that if violent acts “are needed to strike fear into once fearless men and rid this campus once and for all of repressive and deadly ideas and institutions, then so be it.”
These, of course, were the words of students (albeit members of a generation which was, at the time, widely judged to be one of the most impressive America had ever produced). But what of their counselors—the teachers, clergymen, writers, and theorists who established the intellectual and moral tone of the movement? Although the Wisconsin bombing drew the condemnation of many antiwar activists and was disavowed by almost all liberal opponents of the war, a number of the most influential leaders of the movement came forward to testify in Karleton Armstrong’s behalf at his deportation hearing in Canada, where he had fled, or later at his trial in Madison.
Thus, the former Catholic priest Philip Berrigan observed that “Christ never said anything against the so-called violent revolutionaries.” To Daniel Ellsberg, the bombing was “misguided” but nonetheless “conscientious.” Staughton Lynd compared it to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, another incident which had produced “accidental and unintended deaths.” Noam Chomsky advanced the theory that, because of its conduct of the war in Vietnam, the United States had forfeited the right to prosecute antiwar activists. Chomsky came perilously close to welcoming bombing and similar acts on the grounds that violence exhausted the will of the ruling elites.
Other witnesses prominent in academic and antiwar circles spoke in a similar vein. Gabriel Kolko said that to condemn Armstrong was to condemn “an entire anguished generation.” Howard Zinn spoke of those who “rebelled out of important and good and social motives.” Anthony Russo said dissenters like Armstrong “may be the only difference between the way history views us and the way it viewed Nazi Germany.” This theme was also taken up by Richard Falk, who declared that American political leaders and those corporate executives who contributed to the war effort were potential candidates for Nuremberg trials.
Taken together, the testimonies of Armstrong’s defenders—combining vacuousness, self-importance, cynicism, and historical ignorance—constitute a summary statement of the moral and intellectual condition of the antiwar community. The statements also reflect a callousness noteworthy in a movement which had claimed the mantle of peace and brotherhood. Indeed, there can be little doubt that had Fassnacht been conducting research of direct use to the military, some of Armstrong’s witnesses would have condoned his death as that of a war criminal.
True enough, the Berrigans, Ellsbergs, and Chomskys were not merely opposed to the war but actually favored a Communist victory, and their views therefore did not reflect the more moderate sentiments of Americans who only wanted the United States to withdraw from the conflict. But it is also true that what amounted to a pro-Communist perspective did predominate within the active antiwar movement during its later phase. Even those who were genuinely appalled at the Army Math bombing, who mourned Fassnacht’s death, and who believed that the antiwar movement bore some responsibility for the tragedy, qualified their judgment by also citing the government, the war, and the sickness of the American soul.
Tom Bates, a graduate student at Wisconsin around the period of the bombing and a New Left activist, has written a thorough and generally honest account. He is a sympathetic observer, but to his credit his sympathies encompass almost all of the participants, including the harried university administrators, the campus police who bore the brunt of demonstrations gone out of control, and the prosecutors who brought Armstrong to justice. (Armstrong was sentenced to 23 years, and served nearly seven; his brother and David Fine drew lesser terms, while Leo Burt disappeared in Canada and was never seen again.)
On the face of it, the Army Math bombing, although certainly a fascinating story in itself, would seem to have little relevance to American politics today. For the veterans of 60’s politics, the period of New Left violence is a subject best avoided, and those who are so impudent as to remind them of it are castigated for unfairly exploiting the excesses while ignoring the achievements of the period.
Yet there are lessons in this story worth pondering. If some revolutionaries, like Karleton Armstrong, are regarded today as little more than curiosity pieces, others, particularly if they are black and/ or female, can still command the respect of the liberal culture. One such is Elaine Brown, a former Black Panther leader whose activist years were steeped in violence, not only between the Panthers and the police but between the Panthers and other black radical groups and within the Panther movement itself. Yet her recently published memoir, A Taste of Power, has been lavishly praised, and she herself has been the subject of laudatory profiles in the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere.
Then there is the question of the influence still wielded on the young by veterans of radical movements. Although the adult figures prominent today on the campus Left are not goading students toward acts of nihilistic rage, they continue to fill their minds with ideas just as irresponsible as those imbibed by undergraduates 25 years ago—ideas about race, about relations between the sexes, about Western civilization, and about American society. The Army Math bombing may’ have brought the 60’s to a close (as one reviewer of this book put it), but the legacy of that period haunts us still.