Armstrong family photo
Dwight Armstrong died on Father's Day in UW Hospital, just over a mile away from the site of a bomb he helped set off at the Army Math Research Center in August of 1970.
By mid-week, few media outlets outside Wisconsin picked up the AP story of Armstrong's passing, of lung cancer at age 58. The death of a local boy was to remain local news.
Forty years had elapsed since the bombing and the death in the explosion of a physics researcher, Robert Fassnacht. After the first wave of national coverage, the bombing remained a local story within a familiar narrative: The bombing was the final act of self-indulgence by local representatives of a generation driven mad by drugs and liberal permissiveness.
Even after forty years, even in Madison, that narrative had barely changed. A long piece in the The Capital Times in May wondered whether Vietnam vets might finally be willing to forgive anti-war protesters.
But the frame for the story was always national and so was the context, which was the national emergency caused by the invasion and destruction of Vietnam and the ruthless repression of the student movement that arose to oppose it.
On Dec. 4, 1969, Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton was gunned down by state police in Illinois. On April 30, 1970, Richard Nixon announced the widening of the war to include the invasion (including secret aerial carpet-bombing) of neutral Cambodia. On May 4, after days of bitter national protests, the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University and wounded nine others. On May 14, state police in Mississippi killed two black students and wounded a dozen more.
Dwight's brother and co-conspirator, Karl Armstrong, who had worn a black armband on the day he learned of Hampton's death, later told a friend the message was unmistakable. "They want to kill us," he said.
The presentiment that Kent State and Jackson State were preludes for worse to come was shared by many anti-war activists at the time but largely dismissed as evidence of extremism by the mainstream press. But details that were either little noticed at the time or dug out or publicized in recent years confirm that the fear of murder as a government political strategy was more than a paranoid fantasy.
- Within weeks after the fatal gunfire at Jackson State, according to a later report by Howard Zinn, a white jury found the killing of students justified. (Zinn, A People's History, p. 454.)
- On the 40th anniversary of Hampton's death, Amy Goodman played an interview with Deborah Johnson, Hampton's fiancee in 1970, who said police acting for the state attorney general's office, after wounding Hampton in a burst of blind gunfire through a bedroom wall, entered the room and finished Hampton off with two gunshots to the head.
- On May 9 of this year, the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper reported the results of a study of newly discovered audio tape from the day of the Kent State shootings in which a command to fire was issued. "Guard," shouts a male voice, 'All right, prepare to fire.'" The newspaper continued, "The order indicates that the gunshots were not spontaneous, or in response to sniper fire, as some have suggested over the years." The Plain Dealer report was generally ignored.
After the bombing of Army Math, the Armstrong brothers and their confederates, David Fine and the still elusive Leo Burt, issued a "communiqué" justifying their action under the name "Vanguard of the Revolution."
A year earlier, at the national convention in Chicago, the Madison chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, the leading campus anti-war group, had withdrawn from the national organization in protest over its emerging vanguard politics.
Dave Wagner, a former Madison journalist, now lives in Arizona.