For years, protests against the Vietnam War swept through the United States. Protesters fumed over events like the My Lai Massacre, and the police retaliated with violence at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the Kent State shooting on May 4, 1970. In response to the latter, University of Wisconsin administration declared a state of emergency, canceled final exams, and filled the streets with 1800 National Guard and 400 police officers. Officers would pepper spray antagonists and bystanders alike. Just as the campus prepared for the return to classes that fall, the New Year's Gang decided to make a statement.
That statement consisted of about 2000 pounds (900 kg) of ammonium nitrate soaked in aviation fuel packed into six barrels in a stolen Ford van. The blast killed Robert Fassnacht, injured four others, caused six million dollars in damage to 26 buildings, woke residents living 30 miles away, and blew the top of the van atop an eight-story building three blocks away. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols used a similar recipe when they bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in the Oklahoma City bombing 35 years later.
Unlike the Oklahoma City bombing, the Sterling Hall bombing did not target any people. By exploding the bomb at 3:42 AM, the crew thought no one would be around to suffer injury. The group even called the police to warn them and celebrated at a nearby truck stop when initial reports said no one was hurt. After the later news that one died and four others were injured in the blast, the gang fled to Canada the same night. The bombing placed the guilty on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. Three of the four were eventually caught and served time. The eldest of the four, Karl Armstrong, has since returned to Madison to sell fruit juice on library mall and play Scrabble with his mom.
Before committing this act, the four culprits known as the New Year's Gang had already attacked three other locations. Their attack on the Badger Ordinance Works, an ammunition plant outside of Madison, Wisconsin, on December 31, 1969, earned the crew their title. The other two targets were on the campus: the Armory Gymnasium (or Red Gym) which housed ROTC and the UW Primate Research Center. By bombing Sterling Hall, the New Year's Gang hoped to disrupt activity of the Mathematics Research Center, or “Army Math”. The New Year's Gang — Karl Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, David Fine, and Leo Burt — along with many other activists wanted to shut down this research facility which they believed had no place on a public university campus.
Mathematics Research Center
* * * United States Army * * *
The University of Wisconsin
This sign represents the institution which provoked the Sterling Hall bombing by four men early in the morning of August 24, 1970. According to the Daily Cardinal, one of the campus papers at the University of Wisconsin, “Army Math” professors and graduate students conducted secret weapons research aimed at killing civilians in southeast Asia. Instead of damaging “Army Math”, the bomb killed the physicist Robert Fassnacht. This tragedy obscured the political message and ended the antiwar movement on most campuses across the United States. Meanwhile, weapons research continued virtually uninterrupted.
No memorial exists for Robert Fassnacht. Tour guides leading flocks of potential students and their families often point out the line between new and old bricks on the corner of Sterling Hall and remember the dramatic past. After 13 quiet years on the UW - Madison campus, organized protests returned with “Army Math” once again at the center of contention. The protests in the 1980s led to the eventual close of the Army Mathematics Research Center.
For more information on the Sterling Hall bombing, read the articles by the Associated Press and check out these other resources:
- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
- Federal Bureau of Investigation — Milwaukee Field Office
- Choose Your Own Adventure, © William Cronon, section by Winn Collins
- The War at Home by Glenn Silber and Barry Brown
- The Bombing of Sterling Hall by Christopher Lee
- The Madison Bombing by Michael Morris
- Rads by Tom Bates