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The Poor Man's Air Force

A History of the Car Bomb (Part 1)

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 3:00 AM EDT

Buda's Wagon (1920)

"You have shown no pity to us! We will do likewise. We will dynamite you!

-- Anarchist warning (1919)

On a warm September day in 1920, a few months after the arrest of his comrades Sacco and Vanzetti, a vengeful Italian anarchist named Mario Buda parked his horse-drawn wagon near the corner of Wall and Broad Streets, directly across from J. P. Morgan Company. He nonchalantly climbed down and disappeared, unnoticed, into the lunchtime crowd. A few blocks away, a startled postal worker found strange leaflets warning: "Free the Political Prisoners or it will be Sure Death for All of You!" They were signed: "American Anarchist Fighters." The bells of nearby Trinity Church began to toll at noon. When they stopped, the wagon -- packed with dynamite and iron slugs -- exploded in a fireball of shrapnel.

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"The horse and wagon were blown to bits," writes Paul Avrich, the celebrated historian of American anarchism who uncovered the true story. "Glass showered down from office windows, and awnings twelve stories above the street burst into flames. People fled in terror as a great cloud of dust enveloped the area. In Morgan's offices, Thomas Joyce of the securities department fell dead on his desk amid a rubble of plaster and walls. Outside scores of bodies littered the streets."

Buda was undoubtedly disappointed when he learned that J.P. Morgan himself was not among the 40 dead and more than 200 wounded -- the great robber baron was away in Scotland at his hunting lodge. Nonetheless, a poor immigrant with some stolen dynamite, a pile of scrap metal, and an old horse had managed to bring unprecedented terror to the inner sanctum of American capitalism.

His Wall Street bomb was the culmination of a half-century of anarchist fantasies about avenging angels made of dynamite; but it was also an invention, like Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, far ahead of the imagination of its time. Only after the barbarism of strategic bombing had become commonplace, and when air forces routinely pursued insurgents into the labyrinths of poor cities, would the truly radical potential of Buda's "infernal machine" be fully realized.

Buda's wagon was, in essence, the prototype car bomb: the first use of an inconspicuous vehicle, anonymous in almost any urban setting, to transport large quantities of high explosive into precise range of a high-value target. It was not replicated, as far as I have been able to determine, until January 12, 1947 when the Stern Gang drove a truckload of explosives into a British police station in Haifa, Palestine, killing 4 and injuring 140. The Stern Gang (a pro-fascist splinter group led by Avraham Stern that broke away from the right-wing Zionist paramilitary Irgun) would soon use truck and car bombs to kill Palestinians as well: a creative atrocity immediately reciprocated by British deserters fighting on the side of Palestinian nationalists.

Vehicle bombs thereafter were used sporadically -- producing notable massacres in Saigon (1952), Algiers (1962), and Palermo (1963) -- but the gates of hell were only truly opened in 1972, when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) accidentally, so the legend goes, improvised the first ammonium nitrate-fuel oil (ANFO) car bomb. These new-generation bombs, requiring only ordinary industrial ingredients and synthetic fertilizer, were cheap to fabricate and astonishingly powerful: they elevated urban terrorism from the artisanal to the industrial level, and made possible sustained blitzes against entire city centers as well as the complete destruction of ferro-concrete skyscrapers and residential blocks.

The car bomb, in other words, suddenly became a semi-strategic weapon that, under certain circumstances, was comparable to airpower in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize the populations of entire cities. Indeed, the suicide truck bombs that devastated the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 prevailed -- at least in a geopolitical sense -- over the combined firepower of the fighter-bombers and battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet and forced the Reagan administration to retreat from Lebanon.

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