On this day in 1971, an unidentified person calls the Capitol switchboard in the wee hours of the morning. “This building will blow up in 30 minutes,” the caller said. “You will get many calls like this, but this is real. Evacuate the building. This is in protest of the Nixon involvement in Laos.”
About half an hour later, a bomb exploded in the Capitol building. It had been placed behind a false wall in a restroom. About $300,000 worth of damage was done (including damage to some valuable art), but no one was injured.
Two anonymous callers soon phoned in to ask about the impact of the explosion. The bomb still had not been reported to the media nearly an hour later! One caller was from Chicago and one caller was from Washington State.
The Weather Underground claimed responsibility, releasing a statement that said: “We have attacked the Capitol because it is, along with the White House and the Pentagon, the worldwide symbol of the government which is now attacking Indochina.”
Unfortunately, the 1971 bombing wasn’t the only breach of security at the Capitol.
Today is also the anniversary of another incident in 1954. On March 1 of that year, Puerto Rican nationalists in the House visitors’ gallery opened fire, wounding five Congressmen.
And there have been other attacks. A would-be assassin attempted to shoot President Andrew Jackson after an 1835 funeral in the Capitol building. In 1915, a bomb was planted by a man who was protesting U.S. arms sales during World War I. And, finally, in November 1983, another bomb went off about 30 feet from the Senate chamber. That bomb was placed by self-described Communists. It went off late at night and the damage was minimal.
Security has obviously increased at the Capitol building through the years, but perhaps the best statement on this topic came from President Richard Nixon.
Immediately after the March 1971 bombing, he said:
“We must not allow this kind of an incident to close these great public buildings to the people. . . . [T]he greater risk is to close these buildings, to be too afraid of this. That is what violent people want. They want to frighten public officials and the American people into the place where we will not have the open buildings, the open society that we do have. They would like to keep the President in Washington rather than come out in the country. Well, it won’t work.”
Peter Collier & David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties (2005)
Philip Warden, Capitol Bomber Search Continues (Chicago Tribune; March 2, 1971)
Philip Warden, Capitol Bomb Made of Dynamite: Expert (Chicago Tribune; March 3, 1971)
Richard Nixon, Reply to Reporters’ Questions About the Bombing in the United States Capitol (March 1, 1971)
Ron Jacobs, The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (1997)