Washington

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced the attack on Cambodia in a televised address to the nation. (Photo: Jack E.Kightlinger/NARA)

Nixon’s Weirdest Day

On April 20, 1970 President Nixon addressed the nation outlining his plan for the withdrawal of 150,000 troops from Vietnam. Ten days later however, the anti-war movement was stunned by his announcement of a major new escalation in the fighting — the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Campuses across the country exploded in dissent, culminating in the killing of four students at Kent State University by National Guard troops on May 4.

In the tense days following Kent State, impromptu rallies erupted all over the Washington region, and a major demonstration was planned for May 9 on the National Mall. Law enforcement entities went on hair trigger alert, mobilizing all available resources including the entire D.C. police force and 5,000 locally-stationed troops.

It was in this combustible atmosphere that an idea germinated in Richard Nixon’s muddled mind in the wee hours of May 9, 1970. It would prove to be one of the most bizarre incidents of his presidency, and that’s saying a lot.

D.C. vs. The Flying Saucers... On Screen and in Real Life

Imagine what Hollywood filmmakers would've come up with if they had gotten their hands on Project Blue Book reports like this one back in the 1950s. (Photo source: Project Blue Book)

From the late 1940s until 1969, the U.S. Air Force kept a record of all of its investigations into supposed alien activity in a report called Project Blue Book. Until a few days ago, the project archive had been accessible only by visiting the National Archives in downtown D.C. But, now the records are online! So, you can see the reports on the many UFO sightings that occurred in the Washington area over the years... like this one... and this one... and a host of others.

Of course, UFO's have long been a source of fascination to Americans and images of alien invaders in the nation's capital have captured our imagination for decades. In honor of the new Project Blue Book release, we take a look at the 1956 Columbia film, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers, which had a special connection to Washington -- not only in the plot of the movie itself, but in the real-life inspiration behind some of the scenes of terror.

How Union Station was Saved in the 1980s

Union Station in 1963, prior to a botched 1970s repurposing that nearly destroyed the building. Credit: National Archives

 

When Union Station opened in 1907, the white granite Beaux-Arts train terminal designed by architect Daniel H. Burnham set a new standard for District's monumental architecture, setting the stage for landmarks such as the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Federal Triangle, the Supreme Court Building and the National Gallery of Art. The $25 million project was inspired by classical Roman architecture--the Baths of Diocletian and Caraculla and the triumphal Arch of Rome--and incorporated flourishes such as Ionic columns, chiseled inscriptions. Niches that held carved figures representing fire, electricity, agriculture and mechanics. Inside, the main hall, with its dramatic barrel vault and ornate plaster ceiling. It all created a feeling of grandeur that reflected the economic power and prestige of the rail companies--the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Baltmore and Ohio Railroad--which had erected it.

But by the mid-1960s, the railroads' fortunes had faded, and they were eager to unload Union Station, and there was talk of demolishing it.

Would-be Presidential Assassin John Hinckley, Jr., in a mugshot taken after his arrest. (Photo credit: FBI)

March 1981: The Tourist From Hell

As the sun rose over Washington, DC, on the morning of March 30, 1981, in room 312 of the Park Central Hotel on 705 18th Street NW, a guest lay in bed, anxious and wired after a mostly sleepless night. He had arrived the night before on a Greyhound bus, and like many other tourists who visit Washington from afar, he had a big day ahead. But unlike most of them, he didn't plan to see the Lincoln Memorial or the Capitol dome, or to peruse the exhibits at the Smithsonian Institution's various museums. No, this visitor had something different in mind. His name was John Warnock Hinckley, Jr., and he was going to try to kill the President of the United States.

Flying Saucers Over DC?

In the 1950s, Washington seems to have been a popular destination for UFOs, both actual ones and cinematic. Two popular science fiction movies, 1951'sThe Day the Earth Stood Still and 1956's Earth Vs the Flying Saucersdepicted alien spacecraft arriving in the nation's capital, to the consternation of both residents and the government. But those close encounters may have seemed a bit more plausible, given that the Washington area also was the scene of one of the most celebrated real-life UFO incidents ever--one that still intrigues those who ponder the possiblity of extraterrestrial visits to Earth.

Before DC United, We Had the Ill-Starred Washington Diplomats

Today, soccer finally is a big enough deal in Washington that DC council is considering a proposed $119 million deal to acquire land at Buzzard Point for a new stadium for DC United, the district's team in Major League Soccer. The franchise has been playing since 1996 at antiquated RFK Stadium, which will turn 43 years old in the fall. But RFK always will have a storied place in local soccer history. In addition to serving as one of the host sites for the 1994 FIFA World Cup, it also was the home of a string of teams from the 1960s through the 1980s  —  forgotten names such as the Whips, the Darts, the Washington Diplomats, and Team America — who unsuccessfully tried to establish the sport here.

Of those ill-fated franchises, the most long-lived was the original Washington Diplomats, who played in the now-defunct North American Soccer League from 1974 to 1980.

Washington's Dead Letter Office

In Herman Melville's classic 1853 short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener," the narrator offers a curious explanation for the self-destructive melancholy of the main character.

The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington, from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men?

The "Dead Letter Office at Washington" might sound like a clever literary invention, but as it turns out, there actually once was such an institution, which existed to process mail that was either mis-addressed or undeliverable for a variety of other reasons. According to the official history of the U.S. Postal Service, the Continental Congress actually authorized appointment of an inspector of dead letters back in 1777, and there was a central office in the District at least as far back as 1830, according to an article by Wesleyan University historian Courtney Fullilove, who found a box of records in the National Archives that still contained four undelivered letters from 1889.

When Elvis Played Washington

Elvis Presley made headlines when he showed up at the White House unannounced and offered his services to President Nixon to fight the war on drugs in 1970. It was an odd event, which led to an even odder photo. But the Elvis-Nixon meeting was memorable for another reason: It was one of only four appearances that Elvis ever made in the Washington, DC area.

Elvis' first visit to Washington was on March 23, 1956--the same day, by coincidence, that his first full-length album, Elvis Presley, was released. Col. Tom Parker, who was in the process of taking over as the 21-year-old singer's manager, had close ties to Washington-based country disc jockey, manager and promoter Connie B. Gay, who booked Elvis to headline a floating concert on the S.S. Mount Vernon, a small ship that sailed the Potomac.

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