The aching anxiety that followed Stewart Macaulay for years became sorrowfully real as he switched on a short-wave radio just before dinner at his rented home in Santiago, Chile. A newsreader for the BBC was describing how, hours before, a van packed with fertilizer and fuel oil had blown up, ripping through UW-Madison’s Sterling Hall and killing 33-year-old physics researcher, husband, and father of three, Robert Fassnacht.
Three of the four bombers who called themselves the New Year’s Gang — Karl Armstrong, Dwight Armstrong, and David Fine — were captured, tried, and sentenced. A fourth, Leo Burt, vanished.
The devastation, triggered on August 24, 1970, at 3:42 a.m., was felt with seismic force throughout Madison. Debris from the blast, which targeted the Army Math Research Center, was found on the top of an eight-story building three blocks away.
Macaulay had watched for years as demonstrators clashed with police and National Guard troops, demanding an end to the war in Vietnam.
For many, including Macaulay — a UW Law professor then on sabbatical in Chile — there was a fear that the confrontations would eventually turn deadly.
“I was sick, and so was my wife,” Macaulay says. “We could not believe it. Someone had died.”
The blast put a grim exclamation point on years of antiwar protests that tore at the University of Wisconsin campus and so often gushed with rock-throwing fervor into Madison’s streets.
UW Law School was front and center as many of the demonstrations played out on Bascom Hill during a time of protest and principle. And its people were knee-deep in the story line.
Starting with teach-ins around 1965, antiwar sentiment ballooned as American involvement in Southeast Asia widened and the death toll mounted. By 1967, demonstrations protesting the draft and Vietnam policies were frequent, and the UW gained a reputation for its student radicalism. A milepost in the anti-war years came in October 1967, when students staged a sit-in to protest on-campus recruitment by the Dow Chemical Company, maker of napalm.
The student protest turned violent as helmeted police swinging nightsticks and firing tear gas attempted to clear the Commerce Building (now Ingraham Hall). Eighteen police officers and students were taken to hospitals during the course of the riot.
After that, demonstrations and clashes with police became part of a new normal. Blue metal caps from tear-gas canisters often littered Bascom Hill. Macaulay recalled that one demonstration to plead for nonviolence was canceled because the grass was covered with so much tear-gas residue that just walking stirred up the eye and lung irritant.
The era generated no shortage of indelible experiences that still color the lives of those who lived through those times. Here, alumni share their perspectives from the era.
Al Whitaker ’73 was a veteran. The son of a Tuskegee Airman, Whitaker spent a year of his nearly seven-year air force stint in Thailand repairing US aircraft. There was never a question that he would serve in the military — it was in his bones.
The day he returned to Madison in 1969, the former Badger football player’s luggage containing his civilian clothes was waylaid. So, dressed in his uniform, Whitaker, along with his brother, walked into the Memorial Union.
“Students were snickering and there were some statements that I was a baby killer,” Whitaker says. “My commitment to the military was total. It was a shock to learn that other people felt quite the opposite.”
At the time, he believed in the domino effect and the importance of fighting Communism and had difficulty understanding the opposition. In the years since, his outlook has shifted.
“Many of the airmen I served with didn’t make it back,” says Whitaker. “You realize what a waste war is. I came to believe that I was misled.” Today, he believes that those who peacefully demonstrated against the war were “valiant.”
“I think about the kids who took the tear gas and the beatings, and I think that I was wrong. I think they were right to oppose the war.”
Mike Nowakowski ’74 was a different kind of veteran: if there was a demonstration on campus, chances are, he’d be there.
“I marched down State Street so often, I have a hard time remembering them all,” says Nowakowski. His activism began as an undergraduate. During the Dow riot, he was in the Commerce Building, locking arms with others, chanting, singing, and waiting to be arrested. Instead, police stormed the building and started beating protesters and dragging them out. A billy-club blow broke Nowakowski’s ribs. He wasn’t arrested, but he wound up in the emergency room.
In May 1970, he was arrested while protesting near Bascom Hall. A sheriff’s deputy pulled Nawakowski out of a picket line and hauled him to jail. A judge imposed a $500 cash bail.
“That was more money than I had ever seen at one time,” says Nowakowski, who spent three days in jail while his legal services attorney fought the bail amount. Nowakowski’s wife and 14-month-old son went to see him at court appearances, and the Quakers, who were active in the peace movement, stepped up to pay his bail.
The disorderly conduct charge was ultimately dropped and the Quakers got their money back, but the episode made a lasting impression on Nowakowski, who later served as a Dane County Circuit Court judge.
“I was very sensitive to what it meant to be in jail,” he says. “If I had someone who was in jail, we were not going to wait until tomorrow to deal with it.”
In his third year of law school, Nowakowski and his friend Gridley Hall hatched a plan to use the traditional cane toss on the football field at the Badger Homecoming game to make another statement. As law students raced down the field to throw their canes over the goal post, they hung back a bit, unfurled a large banner and walked slowly down the field and tossed their canes. The banner bore the words “Impeach Nixon.”
Michael Zaleski ’66 was the prosecutor who helped put Karl Armstrong, the first of the Sterling Hall bombers to be captured, in prison. “I was opposed to the war, and I could understand the protests, to a point,” Zaleski says. “But this wasn’t about having your voice heard. This was anarchy. They were trying to tear down our whole structure of government, without any ideas for replacing it.”
Armstrong pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and arson and was given a sentencing hearing that lasted three weeks. Armstrong’s lawyers — including high-profile lawyer William Kunstler — attempted to put the war on trial with a parade of witnesses. Zaleski kept bringing the conversation back to the dead researcher. As he finished questioning Armstrong, Zaleski asked if Armstrong had sent a sympathy card to the people of North Vietnam when Ho Chi Minh died. Armstrong said that he had.
“Send one to Mrs. Fassnacht?” he asked pointedly. Karl Armstrong received a 23-year sentence and served seven years. Zaleski still wonders about the whereabouts of Leo Burt. “Every state has its own state flower or state bird,” he says. “Leo Burt is our state ghost.”
One summer day in 1969, Law School applicant Paul Soglin ’72 was summoned to Associate Dean G.W. Foster’s office for a little chat. Soglin was a history graduate student and the face of the antiwar movement in Madison. In October 1963, he helped organize the first major campus demonstration against the US presence in Vietnam. He was a fixture and leader at protests throughout the 1960s, was clubbed by police at the 1967 Dow riot, and was arrested twice at the Mifflin Street block party. Foster says he was concerned about whether Soglin — who by this time was also on the city council — would apply himself to his studies.
“Most people get a letter. I get called in,” Soglin says. “Basically, what he said was: Against the
better judgment of some of us, we’re admitting you. It’s going to be a real test as to whether or not you want to apply yourself.” Soglin recalls that Foster added with a smile, “There are a few
of us who are afraid that, even if you do graduate, you’re going to end up like Democratic US Senator Gaylord Nelson.”
Soglin’s work with the antiwar movement continued. About a year later, on August 24, 1970, he was shaken awake just before 4 a.m. by a loud blast and rumble that ultimately unraveled his nonviolent protest movement. He called fire department dispatchers, got an address for the blast, jumped in his car, and drove to the scene. Soglin parked near fire trucks on the
south side of University Avenue, near Charter Street. He assessed the scene: the Sterling Hall rubble, pieces of the Ford van in the street.
“There were no photographers, no camera crews there at the time. I thought that no good is going to come of me being here. The last thing I need is to be photographed as one of the very first people on the scene,” says Soglin, who returned home.
In the coming days and months, Soglin’s resentment against the bombers — whom he didn’t know— grew. Their actions took a researcher’s life, “sucked the life out of the movement,” and ran counter to the peaceful resistance and activism that Soglin championed.
“They, in effect, made a decision for all of the rest of us,” says Soglin. “I was going to be one of the people who was going to become a poster child for it, especially as long as they were on the run.”
Soglin is Madison’s mayor, a post he has been elected to nine times, most recently in April 2015.
David Keene ’71 was used to swimming upstream. He led a group of conservative students called Young Americans for Freedom – first at the campus level and then nationally — during his Law School days. The son of Illinois labor activists who retired to Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, Keene poured his efforts into political activism and opposing the antiwar crowd. He helped organize debates and rallies as the riots and disorder played out.
“I thought that it was crazy. A lot of these people were on self-appointed missions that made them dangerous,” says Keene, whose group was clearly outnumbered on campus.
In 1968, Madison was the first city to consider a referendum calling for immediate withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam. Keene managed the campaign against the referendum.
In what may have been the biggest splash of the campaign, Keene worked behind the scenes
to get a friendly part-time radio reporter to go to a Madison rally, hand Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy the wording of the referendum, and ask if he’d support it. McCarthy, who opposed Johnson’s Vietnam policies, said he wouldn’t vote for it as written. The referendum failed on primary day.
“We got that on the air, and we won because of that,” Keene says. “McCarthy had substantive and procedural problems with the war. Referendum organizers were on the side of the North, and he wasn’t.” Keene is the opinion page editor for the Washington Times, a former chair of the American Conservative Union, and past president of the National Rifle Association.
Dave Schultz ’72 was drafted in 1968 after his first year at UW Law School, and he served as a stockade guard in Alaska. He returned, finished in 1972, and later joined the faculty.
At the time, the draft was not only hotly debated, but it was almost a science for young men to try to find ways to skirt it. Some 20 years later, Schultz was lecturing to a criminal procedure class about a draft-dodger case and noticed a sea of blank faces. Times had changed. The outrage that consumed a generation was long gone.
“It struck me how different it was,” Schultz says. “They had no concept that the government could take you, send you to basic training, and then put you on a boat, then put you in a tank in the jungle. After that class, I quit with the draft cases. It was too far out of their experience.”
DIANA CAMOSY ’13 ADVOCATES FOR VIETNAM VETERANS AND THEIR FAMILIES
The last American choppers left Saigon in April 1975 as the unpopular Southeast Asian war came to a bitter and costly end.
Forty years later, Diana Camosy is a dogged advocate for Vietnam War veterans and their families who are still fighting for fairness and the government benefits they deserve. Camosy, who is an attorney at the Washington, DC–based National Veterans Legal Services Program, advocates for veterans whose health was affected by Agent Orange, a chemical herbicide used in Vietnamese jungles.
“It’s a wonderful feeling to help people and make a huge difference in their lives,” says Camosy. “Sometimes we’re able to get benefits they were entitled to that amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Talking to surviving spouses, they’re immensely grateful.”
The program ensures that the Veteran’s Administration (VA)complies with the terms of a 1991 consent decree in a class action suit involving those affected by Agent Orange. The decree requires that, as scientific evidence ties new ailments to the herbicide, the federal government will identify those with past claims and pay them retroactive benefits. For example, in 2010, the VA added ischemic heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, and chronic B-cell leukemias to the list of ailments. All told, the VA has paid more than $4.5 billion in retroactive disability
and death benefits.
“All we’re trying to do is make sure that their cases are being handled correctly, and if we notice an error, we complain on their behalf to the VA,” says Camosy, who spends much of her day communicating with veterans and their families.
By Dennis Chaptman