On May 19, 1972 — the 82nd birthday of Ho Chi Minh, communist leader of North Vietnam – shortly before midnight, a woman known only as Anna entered the women’s bathroom on the fourth floor of the Air Force wing in the Pentagon, the massive US military headquarters just outside Washington, DC. Shortly after, at 12:59 am, an explosion ripped through the restroom, tearing walls and floors, bursting pipes, sending water cascading down to a computer room below, destroying data-laden tapes.
Six minutes later, a call came into the newsroom at the New York Times. The voice on the phone said that the Weathermen, a radical organization violently opposed to America’s “war” against the counterculture – and US involvement in Vietnam — claimed responsibility for the blast. It was the first bombing in the Pentagon since its completion in 1942. The action, the voice said, was “in retaliation for the US bombing raid in Hanoi,” the major city in North Vietnam.
Since 1969, the Weathermen had terrorized America with a string of bombings stretching from coast to coast, beginning with the 1969 bombing in Chicago of a statue dedicated to police casualties in the 1886 Haymarket affair, a deadly confrontation between labor supporters and the Chicago police. The blast broke almost 100 windows and blew pieces of the statue onto the nearby Kennedy Expressway. Later, shots were fired at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, police station – again, an act claimed by the Weathermen. Then, in Chicago, several police cruisers parked in a precinct parking lot were bombed, in retaliation, the underground group said, of the fatal police shooting of Illinois Black Panther Party leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. Next year, in 1970, the bombings turned deadly; an explosion at the San Francisco Police Department Park Station killed one officer and injured several others, including one seriously.
Buildings in Washington, DC, New York City, Long Island, Orlando, Florida, and Rochester, New York – mostly police and military facilities – were rocked by explosions, all claimed to part of the Weathermen’s systematic acts of domestic terrorism. Then, in 1971, a bomb was exploded on the ground floor of the US Capitol building in DC, in protest, the Weathermen said, of the US invasion of Laos. Although the damage was minor, President Richard Nixon denounced the bombing as “a shocking act of violence that will outrage all Americans.”
The 1972 bombing of the Pentagon was a strike at the heart of the US military and, by extension, the US war effort in Vietnam. Weathermen leader Bill Ayers recalled the incident in his 2001 book, Fugitive Days:
“Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon. The sky was blue. The birds were singing. And the bastards were finally going to get what was coming to them.”
Although the bomb planted in the Pentagon was “itsy-bitsy” according to Ayers — weighing only two pounds – it caused an estimated $75,000 in damage. No one was hurt in the blast, but, writes Ayers, “quite by accident, water plunged below and knocked out their computers for a time, disrupting the air war [in Vietnam] and sending me into deepening shades of delight.'”
Noted Wall Street Journal journalist John Tabin, “In those four little words, ‘disrupting the air war,’ there was the dark prospect of American soldiers in jeopardy.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation had been following the Weathermen through a covert operation known as CONTELPRO, a controversial program employing underground – and often illegal – tactics to discredit, disrupt and destroy dissident political groups in America, smearing individuals and groups using forged documents, planting false reports in the media, using physical and psychological harassment, wrongful imprisonment and acts of violence – including, some claimed, assassination attempts. The FBI’s stated motivation at the time was that the program’s questionable tactics were necessary for “protecting national security, preventing violence and maintaining the existing social and political order.”
In 1973, allegations came to light about illegal FBI operations targeting the Weathermen. Consequently, federal cases against the group built on FBI-gathered information became tenuous at best. In 1979, government attorneys requested that all weapons- and bomb-related charges against the Weathermen be dropped
Ayers, the self-confessed mastermind behind the Pentagon bombing, would go on to become a professor in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, holding the titles of Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar.