Explosive Nonviolence: Two Bombings in 1970

· Posted by Joshua in History

The explosion at Sterling Hall blew out windows, scorched the building facade, and littered the ground with debris.

Sterling Hall at UW-Madison was bombed by peace activists on August 24, 1970. Photo from the UW Digital Collections

In August, 1970, two unrelated explosions tore through quiet nights on different sides of the globe. Neither took place in a war zone. Each was carried out by people supposedly dedicated to non-violence, but each group felt that nothing less than an explosion could achieve its goals. One explosion did what its detonators hoped. One did not. Both are largely forgotten.

The first explosion took place in Iceland. Government officials had embarked on a development project for the northern Þingeyjarsýsla region that involved building a dam across the Laxá River. Local residents were dismayed. They stood to lose their land, livelihood, and countryside beneath the dam’s reservoir. The environment was also at stake. The Laxá was one of Iceland’s best fishing streams, and its name literally means “Salmon River.” A dam would have blocked the salmon migration and irrevocably changed the river’s ecology. Quickly, farmers and fishermen united in a legal battle to block the dam. Their efforts were fruitless. Construction continued, and it seemed that only one option remained.

Late on the night of August 7, 1970, over two-hundred local residents gathered at the river. They dug holes in the dam’s foundations, filled them with dynamite, and, ensuring that no people or animals were in sight, blew the dam to pieces. The following day, everyone in the community called the police to claim responsibility for the incident. Hearings were held, sixty-five people were convicted, but their fines were overturned by Iceland’s Supreme Court. One conspirator was ultimately elected to parliament. The dam was never rebuilt.

The second explosion occurred in the United States. Students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had been protesting the United States’ war in Vietnam for several years. Protests had started nonviolently, but police had responded brutally at some demonstrations, beating students. By the end of the decade, the FBI had even infiltrated student organizations. Many protests centered on the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC), which occupied three floors of Sterling Hall on the UW-Madison campus. Students suspected AMRC of conducting research to further the Vietnam War, and many wanted it closed. The University of Wisconsin, however, had no intention of banishing the federally funded research and the respected mathematicians it brought to Madison. To a few war protesters, it seemed that only one option remained.

Before dawn on August 24, 1970, four anti-war activists detonated a homemade one ton bomb in a van parked outside Sterling Hall. They set off the explosion at 3:42 AM, hoping that the building would be empty, but it was not. A post-doctorate physics researcher with no connection to AMRC was killed, four others were injured, and over $2.1 million worth of property damage was done, mostly to the UW physics department on Sterling Hall’s lower floors. Upstairs, the Army Mathematics Research Center escaped with little damage. The four perpetrators fled, three were eventually caught and sentenced to short prison terms, the fourth was never apprehended. The Vietnam War continued for five more years.

So it happened that two nonviolent activist groups turned to explosive tactics in August 1970. The Laxá River campaign succeeded in its agenda. The Sterling Hall bombing did not. It is tragic that even in two established democracies like Iceland and the United States, underprivileged groups sometimes see no means but violence to make themselves heard. It is even worse in recent democracies—just look at this month’s headlines about explosions in Baghdad. Spreading democracy to Iraq at the point of a gun is no way to get people in there to settle their differences peacefully. Indeed, using violence to advance any nonviolent agenda always leads to terrible risks. As the Sterling Hall bombing made clear, even violence that purpotrators consider well-intended is prone to unintended consequences. Moreover, the unpredictability of violence can render it useless at achieving intended results. The Sterling Hall bombers should have known they couldn’t end a war by blowing something up. Wars end with treaties, not explosions.

The Sterling Hall bombing failed in its aims for several reasons. Most visibly, the bombers killed someone, transforming themselves instantly from peace activists into murderers. Their act tainted the entire anti-war campaign as a movement of hypocritical radicals, diminishing the work of the overwhelmingly peaceful majority of protesters. Opinion turned against the peace movement rather than against the war. Given the non-violent ideology of the bombers, however, I think that the human casualties at Sterling Hall should be seen as a part of the failure rather than the failure’s cause.

A more fundamental distinction between the two explosions of August 1970 is the choice of targets. Logistically, rural Iceland is better suited for a large explosion than urban America, given the high risk of unintended collateral damage and innocent casualties in the latter setting. The young conspirators responsible for the Sterling Hall bombing simply weren’t up to the extensive planning required to carry out their attack safely in such a congested area—if such a fanciful thing was even possible. As a result, they killed an innocent man and destroyed harmless property.

Another important difference is that while the target of the Iceland bombing was practical, the target of the Wisconsin bombing was symbolic. The protesters in Iceland opposed the Laxá River dam. Their solution was to destroy it. The Wisconsin protesters objected to the Vietnam War, and although the Army Mathematics Research Center was a visible symbol of that war on the UW campus, it was only a symbol. Even if the Sterling Hall bombing had destroyed AMRC, it could not have destroyed the Vietnam War. The Sterling Hall bombers failed, in part, because they pursued the emotional high of destroying the Vietnam War’s symbols rather than working constructively to end the war itself. It is more effective to address an actual problem than it is to destroy signs of the problem.

Finally, there was a crucial difference in the way each bombing was carried out. In Iceland, the campaign to destroy the Laxá River dam involved the whole community. More than two hundred citizens took part in setting up the explosion, and together they could ensure that no bystanders would be hurt and that the target would be properly destroyed. The following day, the entire community claimed responsibility for the explosion, demonstrating their collective resolve to the government and people throughout Iceland, and ensuring that their goals were met.

The plot to destroy AMRC at UW-Madison was nearly opposite. Only four people took part. These conspirators worked in secret, abandoning community consensus in an effort to exceed rather than contribute to the ongoing movement against the Vietnam War. Since only a few people were involved, it was more difficult to ensure that the target would be destroyed, and it was more difficult to prevent innocent people from being harmed. In the end, AMRC survived and an innocent man died. Finally, the conspirators fled, behaving like criminals rather than courageously standing up for their actions. By working alone, the Sterling Hall bombers hindered, rather than furthered, their community’s cause.

In the aftermath of the successful Laxá River campaign, one participant told a reporter, “We ought to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, since we actually used Nobel’s invention to re-establish peace between man and nature.” The Laxá River plot is a rare case where dynamite succeeded in advancing a peaceful cause. Ultimately, though, the Laxá River protesters succeeded because of the way they conducted themselves rather than because of their use of explosive tactics. They faced a problem head on and eliminated it, rather than entrenching themselves against the problem’s signs and symptoms. More importantly, they worked as a community. There is no dam across the Laxá today because the community there was able to pull together and build a strong consensus when faced with a challenge. If any lesson still resonates from the two explosions of August 1970, surely that is it.

Further Reading


4 Responses to "Explosive Nonviolence: Two Bombings in 1970":

  1. By lessons, are you considering how the United States handles protesters? Or how protesters should handle themselves to find a solution to what they protest?

    1. I’m thinking lessons for protesters/activists, in that, first, violence is a risky business, and in general, it is best to involve the community in approaching an issue directly, rather than going off on one’s own to try and make some big/powerful symbolic statement.

  2. The FBI was following the gang around before the bombing. They had at least two informants close to the group. They let the bombing go ahead so as to discredit the anti-war movement. As for Burt, some speculate he too was working for the feds, and this accounts for his successful disappearing act.

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