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Sam Byck and the Assassination of Richard Nixon

“Those whom the gods wish to destroy first make mad.  Am I mad? I doubt it.”—Samuel J. Byck, January 14, 1974


Of the 45 presidents of the United States, 19 of them have had assassination attempts made on them.  Only four of these assassination attempts have been successful, and all four were accomplished with guns.  Other ways to kill presidents have included a hand grenade, thrown at President George W. Bush in the Republic of Georgia in 2005; an attempt by Argentine anarchists to blow up a train carrying President-Elect Hoover in Argentina in 1928; a letter-bomb sent to President Truman in 1948; and poisons like anthrax mailed to Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.  Most every other assassination attempt was made with a gun.

But there was one assassination attempt that was different, that was a more elaborate plot.  This was the plot to kill President Richard Nixon on February 22, 1974.  It involved a gun, but the gun was not intended to be fired at the president.  With luck, the assassin hoped he wouldn’t have had to use the gun at all.

The assassin’s name was Samuel J. Byck, and he was not a lucky man.  At age 44, life was not going well for him.  He had had several jobs and lost them, and failed at starting his own business.  He lapsed into depression.  His wife left him, taking their four children, which only made Byck feel worse.  He applied to the Small Business Administration for a loan to start another business in 1972 and was turned down.  It started to become clear whose fault this was.

Clear to Byck, at least.  Byck saw this as President Nixon’s fault, whom he started to blame for the situation he was in.  Byck began to believe Nixon was part of a plot to suppress the poor, which was a group he was starting to see himself belonging to.  Byck first came up on the radar of the Secret Service in 1972, when he sent a rambling tape recorded message to the White House, which contained threats to the president.  The Secret Service investigated Byck and determined that he was not a threat.
Byck protesting Nixon in 1972.

Nixon wasn’t the only person Byck sent tapes to.  Other people who received Byck tapes included Dr. Jonas Salk, Leonard Bernstein, and Senator Abraham Ribicoff (D-CT).  These three men were prominent public figures at the time.  Salk was and remains known for having invented the polio vaccine and giving it to the public with no interest in turning a profit; Bernstein was a prominent composer and was outspoken on political issues of the day; Ribicoff was a popular senator who had been twice offered the running mate slot on the 1972 Democratic presidential ticket, which he refused both times.  None of these men replied to Byck, though it was only Nixon whose tape contained threats.

On Christmas Eve, 1973, Byck headed to Washington to make a public protest.  Dressed in a Santa suit, he marched in front of the White House carrying a sign that read, “All I Want For Christmas is my constitutional rights to peaceably petition my government for redress of grievances.”  It was a peaceable protest, so just like with the tapes he sent to Nixon, no charges were filed against him.

Things started to get serious after that.  Byck came up with something he referred to as “Operation Pandora’s Box”.  Operation Pandora’s Box was inspired by a US Army private named Robert Preston who had stolen a helicopter from his base and illegally landed it on the White House lawn.  Preston did this to demonstrate to his superiors back at his base how unfair it was that he’d been passed over for entry in a helicopter pilot training course.  Preston was wounded superficially by Secret Service agents who had fired over 300 rounds at him.  One of the agents said he was afraid Preston had planned to crash the helicopter into the White House.  That was never Preston’s plan, but it gave Byck an idea.

Preston’s February 1974 landing of a stolen helicopter on the White House lawn

Byck finalized Operation Pandora’s Box and recorded another tape where he explained it all.  He mailed this new tape to syndicated newspaper columnist Jack Anderson.  It was simple enough.  Byck was going to hijack a plane, shoot the pilot, and crash it into the White House himself.  That was Operation Pandora’s Box.

Operation Pandora’s Box started on February 22, 1974.  Byck had prepared himself by getting a gun.  Due to his previous threats on the president’s life, he had trouble buying a gun, so he went and stole a revolver from a friend.  He assembled a bomb using two one-gallon jugs of gasoline and something to set them off with.  All during the preparation, Byck kept making tape recordings.  He expected that after it was all over, he would be seen as a hero.

On the morning of February 22, Byck approached a security checkpoint at the Baltimore/Washington International Airport and shot the guard on duty.  He forced his way onto a Delta flight and pointed his gun at the pilots, instructing them to take off.  The pilots told him they couldn’t do it, because the wheel blocks were still on, and the plane couldn’t move unless they were removed.  Byck shot them both.  (One of them would survive the ordeal; the other died soon after he was shot.)  Suddenly without a pilot, Byck grabbed a passenger and gave her an order: “Fly the plane.”  The passenger had no idea how to fly the plane, which put Byck in a spot.  He ordered a flight attendant to close the door to the plane.  He had to think about how he was going to get the plane off the ground.

The county police were gathered on the tarmac, working out their own plans to stop Operation Pandora’s Box.  The police fired at the plane’s tires, but the bullets from their service weapons weren’t strong enough to penetrate them.  One policeman had a .357 Magnum, which had been taken from the security guard Byck had murdered earlier, which was much more powerful.  He fired it at the window of the plane on the door while the police stormed the plane.  The bullets pierced the window and wounded Byck himself.  Before the police could get into the plane, Byck took the gun he stole and committed suicide.  Next to him was his gasoline bomb, which he had not tried to set off.

With Byck dead, the incident was over.  The Delta flight to Atlanta had been disturbed, but President Nixon’s schedule was not, even though he had been in the White House that day.  A review by the Federal Aviation Administration determined that if security had been a little more lax, and if Byck had had a little more self-control, “his suicidal rampage might have begun while the airliner was aloft.”

The Delta DC-9 that Byck tried to hijack.

Byck’s assassination attempt failed, and the public largely forgot about it.  He is remembered in Stephen Sondheim’s and John Weidman’s 1991 play Assassins, a musical review about the assassins, successful or not, who tried to kill American presidents.  The play depicts Byck in a Santa suit, a nod to his 1973 protest in front of the White House.  Security professionals also remembered the incident.  A 2000 report by the Federal Aviation Administration urged that airliners should be thought of as potential threats to any building anywhere.  This warning was referenced in 2004, when the 9/11 Commission Report was released.  At that point, there was a lot more interest in the subject of hijacked planes being flown into buildings.

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