Calculus for Conquest

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Calculus for Conquest

by Madison — Science for the People

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 5, No. 2,  March 1973, p. 34 – 39


For the past several months the Madison Collective of Science for the People has been directly involved in the struggle against the Army Mathematics Research Center (AMRC) located on the University of Wisconsin Campus. We are not the first to oppose this military funded and directed institution. Since 1967 it has been the focus of many anti-war activities. For most readers, the AMRC evokes a memory of the August, 1970 bombing and the death of one physics postdoctoral student. The history of the AMRC and the struggles waged against it are relevant to Science for the People, for at issue here is the manner in which we are to deal with a blatant misuse of scientific talents and information. In this report we would like to raise this issue and describe the actions which we have taken against AMRC.

We in Science for the People came to oppose AMRC by a rather indirect route. None of us had been involved in the early investigative work that uncovered its true purposes, and though we had for years participated in campus protests, we tended to remain outside the circle of involvement. lnstead, we concentrated on reaching other scientists who, like us, were dissatisfied over the misuses of their research-the Indochina War more than any other single event bringing us together. In seeking alternative modes of research, we embarked upon the Science for Vietnam Project, the nationwide cooperative effort to supply scientific information to North Vietnamese scientists based on their own requests. Equally important, the program aims at reorganizing scientists into collectives that can sense the needs of people and act on them. While the year we spent on this activity was most productive, especially in the development of a working collective, our overall success was limited. We had not expanded in membership, we had not engaged the interest or enthusiasm of many other scientists, and we had not come to deal with our basic political purposes. It was at this juncture in our development, early last summer, that we learned of a forthcoming symposium 34 on Population Dynamics arranged and funded by the Army Mathematics Research Center. We saw this as a clear example of how the military, through the AMRC, begins to penetrate the basic science and subvert them toward military needs. In order to understand this perception, one must have a clear picture of the history of AMRC and what its functions are.


The AMRC is a research institute composed of a director, nine permanent staff members, 37 visiting researchers, and eight computer programmers and secretaries. Although it is located on the University of Wisconsin campus, it is not an academic department. Rather, it derives academic legitimacy from its nine staff members, who have joint professorial appointments in other departments such as mathematics, statistics, computer science and industrial engineering. The researchers include graduate students, junior UW faculty employed part-time, and visiting scientists from other universities and military installations. The director, J. Barkley Rosser, is appointed subject to the approval of the Army Mathematics Steering Committee, for whom he works. Rosser, whom we shall meet again in this story, achieved mathematical eminence through his direction of theoretical ballistics at Allegheny Ballistics Lab, direction of the Focus Project of the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA), and assistance in the founding of IDA Centers at Cornell and Princeton.

The 1.3 million dollars the Army spends annually on the AMRC represents about 43% of the total Army mathematics funding in universities across the country. For this sum the AMRC is, in their own words, under a written contract to “conduct mathematics research which has relevance to problems that exist or are inherent to military problems, which has emphasis upon long-range investigation, and which is directed toward the discovery of techniques that may have application to the Army’s needs.” As well, the AMRC is to “cooperate with Army activities in their recruitment of scientific personnel.”

The location of AMRC on a major university campus is no accident. The military needs basic mathematics for ballistics, for computerization (pattern recognition for computer bombing, weather modification programs), for airlift routing, personnel deployment schedules, and so forth. However, the Army lacks a staff of mathematicians capable of keeping pace with these and future needs. While industry does carry out some basic research, most is performed at universities where numerous disciplines and facilities are concentrated and where highly skilled, relatively low-paid investigators are available. The AMRC is one way the Army gets the job done.

The staff members of the AMRC all have security clearances and accomplish their tasks by either working on campus or by traveling to military installations. In addition, the AMRC offers Research Residencies which allow Army scientists extended periods at the AMRC working in areas of interest to the home military installation. Trips by the AMRC staff to such places as Waterveit Arsenal, Picatinny Arsenal, Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Fort Detrick and Edgewood Arsenal are commonplace.

Protest in Madison

With the militant university protests during the past several years, it was inevitable that the AMRC would become a hot issue. Large protests on the UW campus first took place in October of 1967 against Dow recruiters over Dow’s manufacture of napalm. For awhile the AMRC was ignored because concrete information about its functions was scarce. This picture was altered when university people like David Siff and James Rowen uncovered, through public documents, the exact role of the AMRC. The AMRC was now exposed, and by 1969 the cry “TO AMRC” was heard at the mass rallies. In the fall of 1969, the Wisconsin Student Association held public hearings on the AMRC until Director J. Barkely Rosser cancelled further participation of his staff. Rosser also refused to divulge the AMRC’s 1967 annual report, but after strong criticism was voiced he did release it, with certain sections linking the AMRC to Project Michigan and the electronic battlefield censored.1 By the spring of 1970, University in-house criticism of AMRC was silenced—the University fired its most active anti-war critics and thus effectively reduced the few antagonistic faculty to sheep.

But the anti-war movement continued to grow as leftist groups in Madison organized a United Front. Action continued into 1970 with large mass rallies, demonstrations against GE recruiters, and more frequently, militant incidents of trashing and firebombing. The University ignored repeated demands that ROTC and AMRC be removed from campus and with the invasion of Cambodia the protest was intensified even further.

A watershed occurred at 3:00 a.m. on August 24, 1970. The AMRC installation in the physics building was bombed and a physics researcher was killed. The effects were devastating. Large overt protests dissipated. Action March 1973 against AMRC came to a halt. The University capitalized on the bombing by accusing the entire anti-war movement of encouraging such acts; it labeled the bombers as madmen, and completely absolved itself of any responsibility. One of the four men accused of the bombing, Karl Armstrong, now awaits the outcome of appeals on extradition hearings in Toronto, Canada.2

The Low Profile

The response of the AMRC to the years of scrutiny and criticism afford a glimpse of the basic nature of this institution. The AMRC has always strived for a low profile, anonymous cohabitation with its university handmaidens. It has avoided mention of any military connection. In fact, the AMRC’s contract with the University states that “press releases, presentations at scientific meetings, and papers should not disclose financial details, possible military application, or the overall Army program in the particular field involved.” The annual reports are laboriously sanitized and censored, as was the 1967 report in the manner described above. Trips to military installations are omitted, and it is only through travel vouchers that the true story comes out. Some of the papers are rewritten to conceal their real purpose. Director Rosser’s paper on “The Probability of Survival of a Subterranean Target under Intensive Attack” had figures which were so close to the actual military situation under study that it had to be rewritten with new computations “suitable to the survival of ant hills at which rocks are being thrown.” Following the bombing in August, 1970, the “Army” was dropped from its title and the “Mathematics Research Center” was moved to the top floor of the Wisconsin Alumni Research F oundation building overlooking scenic Lake Mendota.3 In 1971, the (A)MRC sought “neutral” funding from the National Science Foundation under the assumption that it would continue to do the same work as before. NSF turned down the application for lack of funds.

Until the bombing, most of the left groups fought to “get AMRC off campus” where its access to university equipment and personnel would be hampered. In this way, it was hoped that the Army would be hurt. The weak point in the approach was that many faculty and students supported the demand in order to purify their university, not really to hinder the Army. At the core of such support was the belief that the basic research done on the campus was “neutral”, that is, it developed in the absence of any political context and without any effect on the direction of political trends in the future. Such a belief in the neutrality of science is still very common and we met it head-on in our demonstrations against the (A)MRC symposia.

Our Demonstrations

Twice yearly the (A)MRC sponsors symposia which, in the words of its Director, are of “much value” to the military. The aim of the (A)MRC symposia is not to deal with urgent military questions, but rather to assess the current status of knowledge in particular fields and to make contact with the talented scientists. There are no generals in uniform, no pep-talks, no arm-twisting to consult on military matters; in fact, signs of military interest are distinctly absent. The invitations are issued with the revised title “Mathematics Research Center” inconspicuously placed below and to one side of the large bold letters:


The old soft sell. Who are the promising scientists? Who shows an inclination to think along lines useful to the military? “Say, I wonder if you would help me for a moment with a problem I have been having with a project at Redstone?” Or “That sounds like interesting research. You know, the Army is interested in a variation on that model. I think they are awarding funds for such work.”

This year’s June and September symposia were entitled “Population Dynamics” and “Mathematical Programming”. The Population Dynamics symposium dealt with demography, the description and quantitation of trends and determining factors in the behavior of populations. The Mathematical Programming symposium considered topics on large scale linear programming, network theory, and game theory. About 100 to 150 people attended each of these meetings, traveling from university, industrial, governmental and military centers.

We in Science for the People decided to oppose these symposia. The Army was counting on the ignorance and passivity of the participants to help them remain anonymous. We had to make the (A)MRC act as an institution with set aims and methods. We had to make the (A)MRC the focus rather than us or our tactics. In order to offset the Army’s design, we had to inform the participants at the conferences of the Army’s purpose and encourage them to take some form of action. Prior to the conferences we dashed off letters to the invited speakers; during the conferences we picketed outside the meeting hall, distributed leaflets stating the reasons for our protest, held counter-conferences to discuss what we felt to be the critical issues, and spoke with anyone who would listen.

The University Administration and the (A)MRC responded to our protests in ways we had seen before. At first, the (A)MRC denied that any military purpose lay behind the Symposia. The day before the June conference was scheduled to begin, J. Barkely Rosser told local radio station WTSO that he was surprised to hear of the forthcoming protests, for, in his words, the Symposium was not funded by the Army but by the National Science Foundation. However, at the opening session two days later, Rosser changed his stand. He admitted that the conference did indeed have Army backing and that the subject matter had been endorsed by the Army in the spring of 1971. Fearful of large-scale protests, the University called out scores of riot-equipped police to handle the 200 peaceful demonstrators that peacefully assembled to greet participants as they arrived at the site of the Symposium. Frightened of having any political issues introduced into the Symposium program, the (A)MRC refused to allow UW students into the conference hall. They were permitted to watch the proceedings on closed circuit television. The reason for this action was an alleged “tip” that disruptions were intended. However, the head of the University Protection and Security, Ralph Hanson, later admitted that he knew of no such tip.

The Seminar Participants Respond

At first the participants were confused by our presence. This was supposed to have been just another “neutral” symposium. What did these long-haired people want with their posters: SMASH ARMY MATH …? … SCIENCE FOR THE PEOPLE, NOT THE ARMY …? … YOUR EQUATIONS ARE KILLING ASIANS …? Many of the participants had not been aware of the Army’s backing at the time they agreed to come. Once aware of the Army’s interest and sponsorship they retreated into a series of rationalizations.

There was the scientist who denied his work had any military applications either now or in the distant future. “I know my work has no military application; I am just ripping off the Army so that I can do my research.” Even the Symposium Co-chairman, T.C. Hu, a specialist on network theory, laughed at our assertion that his work had military usefulness. He stopped laughing when a rapid librarial search uncovered seven recent Air Force Project Rand studies on sophisticated network interdiction models for “optimal” bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

We also encountered the scientist who dissociates himself from the consequences of his work. “But surely anyone can use this research, not just the Army!” George Dantzig, one of the early developers of linear programming knows his work is useful for the military, yet as he indicated in talks with us, he does not want to concern himself with that aspect of his research. This dissociation came out in other forms. Some insisted that they represented no one but themselves. “As a citizen I feel we should respond to social needs, but as a scientist, I know my main task is to perform my work.” Still another variation was a feeling of helplessness. “The Army will just get someone else to do this work. I am just a cog in the wheel. If I voicej my objections, I would be fired.” When we had exhausted all the possible arguments for why these scientists should oppose military penetration of their work, they invariably responded with, “You are speaking to the wrong people. The military is controlled by the congress, and if you want to get something done, you must take your protest to that agency.” It is interesting to note that the demographers, who tended to believe their work had no military applications, would be willing to take a moral position, whereas the mathematicians, who knew their work had military importance, refused to view their work in any moralistic way.

We also encountered the sexist who upon seeing women in our group demanded to know, “Why aren’t you girls working in your labs or doing something to improve yourselves?”

There were humorous responses as well. Steven Robinson, one of the assistant directors of the (A)MRC was forever brandishing his 35mm camera at us, while Louis Rail, the other assistant director, darted frantically about screaming, “Don’t you think we need a strong defense?” Rail’s finest moment carne on the night of the June welcoming party. He turned crimson red at the sight of photographers snapping pictures of his wife as she attacked one of our picket signs. Cold warriors became furious and hurled insults. They felt proud to attend an Army conference, and so, they said, should anyone who cherishes freedom.

Some honestly tried to deal with the issues we were raising. Prior to the first conference we published the fact that Norman Ryder, an eminent mathematical demographer and former UW professor, had informed us of his refusal to attend because he knew about AMRC. Stuart Dreyfus, an invited speaker from Berkeley, denounced Army sponsorship in his opening remarks and stated that he would refuse all similar invitations in the future. At the September sessions Joe Engels, a former Navy researcher now at the University of Illinois, granted an interview to the city press in which he expressed misgivings about military complicity and disillusionment over the meager social benefits of military research. These responses were pretty good; they signify some hope for the further radicalization and politicization of the scientific community.

Nevertheless, most participants had that lean and hungry look and were eager to gather credits in their march along an unmarred career. They probably understood what their acceptance of Army sponsorship signified; but these were ambitious men and their own security and professional positions were most important. There was no time or energy for political diversion. The effect our demonstrations had on this mentality is not clear to us.

Our Mistakes

Our most serious shortcoming was the lack of a clear and assertive political position. We had developed a sharp analysis of how the military penetrates basic science, but we did not adequately expose the real politics behind scientific programs organized along capitalist lines to support imperialist power. Perhaps we were unaccustomed to dealing with the raw politics, or perhaps this meant a degree of seriousness which we were not quite ready to adopt. As a result, we seldom surpassed a simply moralizing position vis a vis the inverted priorities within science. Our manner tended to be mild and rational — we carne across as reasonable scientists with opinions differing from the mainstream but worthy of consideration. We could easily be placed in a liberal packet as another point of view. The ramifications of this in practice were unfortunate. For example, at the September conference a mass rally had been planned, with our cooperation, by another campus group. But when it occurred we became uneasy. Here were screaming, angry militants marching up to the convention, flags and banners unfurled, waging excellent guerilla theater; we paced quietly back and forth in front of the hall. In spite of our timidness, we did see that our alliance was political and with those out on the street, rather than intellectual and with scientists at an Army conference. But another distinction had already been made both by the participants and the press: the rational, level-headed scientists and the crazies on the march. In this separation we encountered the special problem of potential self-isolation which we all face. An American scientific education has taught us to feel different and apart from others, usually due to some form of “expertise”. Although we have always fought against such elitism, the seeds of this same attitude were ironically within our own actions and hesitations at the demonstration. This is a guarantee of powerlessness; to overcome it we must gain a solidarity and mutual understanding with non-scientific political groups and not just share and dissipate our alienation with other scientists.

We made a similar error when some participants approached us with the question: “We agree with what you say, but what can we do in our own home towns?” We responded anemically that they should expose, a la Ellsberg, the misuses of science, or else organize in groups. But there already is a group, Science for the People, with the beginnings of a politic and a force. Our response showed that we did not yet perceive ourselves to be integral to that national movement.

A People’s Mathematics

In our demonstrations at the June symposium we came to realize that negatively arousing latent frustrations and angers would not be enough. We needed a positive program that would suggest ways to reconstruct the corrupt social context of science. By the second conference our collective had been studying together an article by Andre Gorz and his book, Strategy for Labor. We decided to see what it would mean to apply his ideas to our struggle against AMRC. According to him, to seek “non-reformist reform” means demanding a reform which is required by human needs, but which cannot be met without a change in present institutional structures. It shows why capitalism is not capable of meeting these particular and basic needs. In applying this to our own situation, we dropped the moralistic, ivory tower demand for “AMRC off campus” and called instead for its political re-functioning to solve human rather than military problems. AMRC should become PMRC—a People’s Math Research Center—a center which demystifies mathematics so that the people can use it to meet their needs. A PMRC would be run by its workers, together with the people of our area, and all research and financial records would be open so that the public could judge its work. We should now demand, for example, the construction of mathematical models to help devise an adequate urban transportation system, or of models which serve to measure and control the impact of the tourism industry on Wisconsin’s ecology.4

Although we raised the demand for a PMRC in September, it did not come across with force. We spent most of our energy refuting those researchers who wanted to deny the military importance of their own scientific fields, and thus there was little opportunity to pursue the concept of a People’s Math. We are now engaged in developing these ideas to a more mature point.

In Conclusion

At the conclusion of the two conferences we were left exhilarated. We had upset the AMRC and the Army, perhaps even hurt them. Our collective action had shown that an alternative to passivity and indifference exists for scientists. From it we had gained a renewed sense of strength. New channels opened up as other radicals who had supported us in our action sought us afterward for information and help in their struggle, with Karl Armstrong, against the university-government war machine. And finally, we will remember the gentle faces of our friends from the Chicago Collective of Science for Vietnam who traveled to Madison to be with us on the picket lines.

The growth which we have undergone will ultimately be measured by our future actions. We have spoken in this article of the need for a coherent political philosophy without having detailed what this should entail. Our own thoughts on this, as a group, are not as yet well formed, and we must engage in further work and study. A better political framework is needed not only for our own collective, but for all Science for the People collectives. Science for the People makes no sense as simply a moralistic movement to reach other frustrated researchers; it must reach out into the broader social movements and there find its political significance. We hope that others will respond to this need, and we invite criticism and suggestions on what we have done.

In struggle and friendship,
Madison—Science for the People


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  1. Under Project Michigan the University of Michigan developed the sophisticated infrared aerial photography techniques which reportedly aided Bolivian troops trained by American special forces to track down Che Guevara. The Army called on AMRC to assist the project at some point between June, 1966, and Guevara’s death in October of 1969. The title, “Assistance to Project Michigan,” appears in the table of contents of the report, but the entire eight page section covering specific assistance and advice is censored. By a Board of Regents mandate even top university officials can be denied access to such AMRC material.
  2. The University has played down the political significance since then, because extradition from Canada is possible only if the suspect (Armstrong) is accused of a non-political act. Hence the university now refers to the bombing as an act of ‘criminal malcontent.’
  3. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) is a tax-free foundation founded in 1925 as an unofficial arm of the University by some alumni who were interested in exploiting several patents which the late professor Harry Steenbock had secured in the process of Vitamin D irradiation. Since then it has expanded into fertilizers, anti-coagulants (the rat poison Warferin), cheese manufacture, and ownership of the Wisconsin Dells, a resort area northwest of Madison. WARF’s trustees invest profits in Smith Barney and Co., a major New York financial house. Their assets were listed at $50 million in 1961, but have been unavailable since then because non-stock foundations are not required to show financial figures of this sort. WARF donations to the University have been almost entirely in the natural sciences—92%.

    Who controls WARF? This is not easily answered, but four of its trustees hold directorships in the First Wisconsin Bankholders Corp., the state’s largest banking system. Another trustee, H.I. Romnes, is Chairman of A.T. & T. Romnes is also a director of Cities Service, U.S. Steel, Colgate Palmolive, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, and Mutual Life Insurance Co. of New York. General Mills has also been represented on the WARF directorship. Past Air Force Comptroller, General E.W. Rawlings, is now president of General Mills.

  4. Tourism is Wisconsin’s second largest industry and is considered the key to the ‘development’ of the northern part of the state. As footnote no. 3 mentions, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation already has its hands on the most developed (i.e. commercialized) tourist region — Wisconsin Dells. (You pay to get in. It’s closed in the winter.)