The Attempted Assassination of Richard Nixon

In 1974, a man tried to kill President Richard Nixon by hijacking an airliner and crashing it into the White House.

Byck’s target

Richard Nixon had always been a controversial and divisive political figure. During the Second World War he had served as a naval officer in the Pacific, but he found his true role during the subsequent Cold War and the McCarthyite era of the Red Scare. Like McCarthy, who saw a Communist lurking behind every tree, Nixon rode the wave of hysteria to political office, becoming a Congressman in 1946 and gravitating towards the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a Congressional body which led the witch-hunt against anything that smelled like disloyalty. This was the era of loyalty oaths, blacklists, wild allegations, and hyperpatriotic grandstanding, and Nixon, as a Congressman and then as a Senator, was at the crest of it.

It earned him the nickname “Tricky Dick”. It also earned him a nomination as Eisenhower’s Vice Presidential running mate in 1952, despite accusations of financial impropriety which Nixon countered in a televised speech. During Eisenhower’s administration Nixon was kept out of the loop for most matters.

In the 1950s, the Cold War between the US and USSR was also raging. To try and ease tensions both countries agreed to a program of “cultural exchanges”. In the summer of 1959, as part of this effort, the Soviet Union held an exhibition in New York City, a sort of mini-world fair that featured Russian cultural displays. In return, the United States held a display of its own in Moscow’s Sokolniki Park, called the American National Exhibition. The Exhibition featured booths sponsored by various American companies like IBM, Disney and Pepsi. One exhibit featured a full-size American suburban house. On July 24, Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev visited the Exhibition, and was met there by Vice President Nixon. As they toured the American model home, the two began trading pointed political barbs at each other, in an exchange that became known as “The Kitchen Debate”.

After narrowly losing the 1960 presidential election to John Kennedy, Nixon returned to his home in California for what he assumed would be an uneventful retirement. Still bitter at what he claimed to be a leftist and liberal Washington press corps, he proclaimed, “You won’t have Richard Nixon to kick around any more”.

By 1968, however, the Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was facing a storm of opposition, even from within his own party. The war in Vietnam had become a quagmire and was provoking huge rallies by anti-war protesters, while domestic affairs were dominated by the civil rights movement. When Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election, Nixon saw his opportunity. In what became known as the “Southern Strategy”, Nixon reached out to the segregationist “Dixiecrats” from the Democratic Party in the South, offering them a place in the Republican Party in exchange for their electoral support, while also appealing to the anti-war faction of Democrats by announcing that he had a “secret plan” to end the war in Vietnam. Nixon won the election by a little less than one million votes.

Once in office, however, it soon became apparent that Nixon’s plan to “end the war” was by expanding it, launching a series of intense bombing campaigns over North Vietnam and sending troops into neighboring countries. He also dragged his feet on the issues of civil rights, and only reluctantly began enforcement actions when federal court orders forced him to. The Nixon administration, like the Johnson administration before it, was now rocked by mass rallies, protests and demonstrations. Declaring his critics to be “Communists”, Nixon drew up a so-called “enemies list” and launched the power of the Federal government to attack them. The FBI carried out an operation called COINTELPRO (“counter-intelligence program”) to target civil rights groups (including Martin Luther King Jr) and anti-war groups with the aim of “disrupting and neutralizing” them. The Nixon era turned out to be one of the most divisive in American history.

One of the many anti-Nixon protesters was a man named Samuel Joseph Byck. Born in 1930, Byck had enlisted in the Army for a few years before getting married, bouncing around between a few jobs, and settling in as a tire salesman. By 1972, however, his life was falling apart. His wife divorced him, and, suffering from bouts of depression, Byck voluntarily checked himself into a mental hospital for a time.

He also drifted into politics. When his attempted tire dealership ran into financial trouble, Byck applied for a Small Business Administration loan, and was turned down. When his letters of appeal went nowhere, he blamed the Nixon administration for his troubles, and became more involved with the anti-Nixon demonstrators who were already a regular presence on the streets of Washington DC. Byck was twice arrested for carrying out one-man “protest marches” in front of the White House without a permit: on Christmas Eve 1973 the police found him standing in front of the White House wearing a Santa Claus suit and holding a sign that read: “All I want for Christmas is my constitutional right to publicly petition my government for a redress of grievances.”

Byck also began making rambling tape recordings outlining all of his gripes against Nixon and mailing them to a random assortment of famous people ranging from Dr Jonas Salk to Leonard Bernstein to Dr Benjamin Spock. The Secret Service opened a file on him, but could not find any specific threats to act upon.

By 1974, Byck’s aim became more focused: he decided that he would kill Nixon and, dubbing it his “Operation Pandora’s Box”, he began making elaborate plans and carefully recorded them on reel after reel of tape. (He thought he would be lauded for his action, and wanted to record it all for history.)

Byck may have been inspired in his plan by an odd incident which happened on the night of February 17, 1974. At Fort Meade MD, US Army Private Robert Preston, despondent over a breakup with his girlfriend and having just washed out of flight school, drove onto the airfield, started up a fully-fueled UH-1 Huey helicopter, and took off. At first, he later testified at his court martial, he had no destination in mind, but just wanted to fly one last time before he was dropped from the aviation program.

Once in the air, Preston decided to tour Washington DC, just 20 miles away. While frantic officials on the ground tracked his flight, the Secret Service conferred on whether it was advisable to try to shoot down a helicopter over the crowded city streets. Preston, meanwhile, hovered over the Washington Monument for a few minutes, then on to the White House before flying back to Maryland.

By now, two Washington DC Police Department helicopters were pursuing the stolen Huey. Preston decided that his best chance was to surrender to President Nixon himself and ask for leniency. So he turned and flew back to the White House, landing on the South Lawn and, when the Secret Service opened fire on him, taking off again and landing about 100 yards away. Only lightly wounded, he was tackled by Secret Service as he ran towards the White House.

Preston hadn’t intended any harm to Nixon, but Byck did, and now he saw what looked like a good way to do it. Despite the raging Cold War, there were effectively no air defenses around the White House, and Byck concluded that he could hijack an airliner and crash it into the building, killing everyone inside.

Since he was already being watched by the Secret Service, Byck knew that he could not purchase a gun without drawing attention, so he stole a pistol and some ammo from a friend, and rigged up a crude gasoline bomb from two plastic jugs in a briefcase. He recorded another batch of tapes which he mailed out, in which he freely declared his intentions and motives. “Allow me to introduce myself,” one of them began. “My name is Sam Byck. I intend to gain entrance to the cockpit of a commercial airplane … I will try to get the plane aloft and fly it toward the target area, which will be Washington, D.C. I will shoot the pilot and then in the last few minutes try to steer the plane into the target, which is the White House.” He also mailed a letter to the Miami News, which read, “It has become evident to me that this government that I love, dearly, will not respond to the needs of the majority of the American citizens. The majority of the people in government, so called ‘Public Servants’, are financed by special interest groups and if they are servants, they are servants to these groups. Now is the time! Independent-minded citizens must take back the government before their government takes complete control of them all. I, for one, will not live in a controlled society and I would rather die as a free-man than live like a sheep. Power to the People, Sam Byck.”

At 7:15am on February 22, Byck arrived at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Armed with the pistol and homemade bomb, he made his way towards the closest airplane, which was a DC-9 ready to depart for Atlanta. As Byck rushed through the terminal, however, he encountered airport police officer George Ramsburg and shot him dead. The shots attracted the attention of county policeman Charles Troyer who ran to the scene, picked up the dead officer’s .357 Magnum pistol, and ran off after Byck.

Byck had already made his way onto the plane and into the cockpit, where he ordered the pilots to take off immediately. When co-pilot Fred Jones told him that they could not take off until the wheel chocks had been removed, Byck shot and killed him, then turned and shot pilot Reese Loftin as well. Loftin, though wounded, managed to start up the DC-9’s engines. Byck then, by some accounts, grabbed one of the passengers, pulled her into the cockpit and told her to “fly the plane”, and ordered one of the flight attendants to close the cockpit door.

By this time the plane had been surrounded by law enforcement, who unsuccessfully tried to shoot out the aircraft’s tires. Within minutes, Officer Troyer led a small group of police into the rear door of the airplane and went up to the cockpit door. Glimpsing Byck through the small window, they opened fire. The .38 police bullets could not penetrate the door, but the .357 used by Troyer did, and Byck was hit by two bullets. He fell to the floor, and the policemen rushed into the cockpit.

By some accounts, Byck had shot himself in the head with his pistol as the police rushed in and died instantly. By other accounts, he was still alive long enough to murmur “Help me” before dying.

Byck was buried in a cemetery in the small town of Glenolden PA.

Today, the Baltimore-Washington International Airport is known as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport and remains one of the three major hubs serving Washington DC. There are no historical markers or displays commemorating Byck’s assassination attempt.

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