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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Harry Truman

In this blog, I discuss Chapter 4 of my forthcoming book titled Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders. The chapter concerns Harry Truman, who had served as president of the United States for five-and-a-half years when two disgruntled, would-be Puerto Rican assassins tried to kill him on November 1, 1950.

Of all the problems that President Truman confronted in 1950, the question of nationhood for Puerto Rico was not a top priority. Facing a multitude of domestic and international issues, the president was oblivious to the tumultuous Puerto Rican nationalist forces gathering against him, but he was not an unsympathetic autocrat. He had adopted a more favorable attitude toward Puerto Rico than any other president in U.S. history. Truman had named the first native Puerto Rican as governor of the island and he had argued in favor of extending Social Security benefits to citizens there. (The attack was not aimed at Truman the man, but Truman the symbol of American military and political might. It was simply a question of motive meets opportunity.)

While the White House was being renovated, the president and Mrs. Truman were staying temporarily at nearby Blair House, a residence much less fortified than the traditional presidential compound. Recognizing a prime opportunity to remake American history, two determined zealots resolved to storm Blair House and cut down a symbol of American imperialism. Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo were committed ideologues. The former hailed from a family committed to the Puerto Rican independence cause while Collazo had embraced the movement on his own. Meeting up in New York City not long before their attack on Truman, the two men recognized in each other a kindred spirit. They shared an impoverished background and little formal schooling, although Torresola, the younger of the two, was more of a loner and had not enjoyed a stable work history. Each man reveled in his disaffection, and each longed to participate in a dramatic, self-aggrandizing action that would call attention to the cause.

The young men believed that if their beloved island was to ever enjoy autonomy, an audacious event must publicize their cause. The goal was simple even if implementation proved to be difficult; they must call attention to the plight of the oppressed Puerto Rican by whatever means would capture the most attention. The two men recognized that gunmen assaulting the president of the United States would generate publicity unlike anything else they could do. Because so few Americans understood the plight of Puerto Rico and because official U.S. policy was unlikely to change in the near future, they were desperate to highlight the righteousness of their goal. As Collazo later explained, “by coming to Washington and making some kind of demonstration in the capital of this nation, we would be in a better situation to make the American people understand the real situation in Puerto Rico; that Puerto Rico has no government; there is no Government of Puerto Rico.”

On Wednesday, November 1, 1950, the two men visited Blair House to assess the strength of the president’s security detail and consider their options. Despite the advance planning, Collazo and Torresola hesitated to carry out the plan. They briefly discussed engaging in a demonstration on the steps of the Blair House in lieu of firing at the president, but this muted action would not be especially newsworthy. They reiterated their devotion to the cause and their willingness to die on behalf of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, but beyond these vague assurances, the men seemed lost and uncertain of the best method for achieving their objective. They had reached an impasse. After milling about in front of the house for the morning, they went for lunch and returned to their hotel to mull over their options.

After again resolving to carry through with their scheme, the two men rode in a taxicab back to Blair House, arriving a few minutes after 2:00 p.m. It was an unusually warm day for November. Three White House policemen were visibly on duty outside of Blair House, but they appeared inattentive. It seemed to be just another average day in a series of average days. Citizens strolled up and down the sidewalks and cars passed as they always did. As was usually the case, the White House personnel struggled to combat the monotony of guard duty.

Dressed in unobtrusive dark business suits, Collazo and Torresola appeared to be young divinity students out for a stroll. Nothing in their appearance or demeanor invited special attention or undue scrutiny. In accordance with their plan, each man approached Blair House from opposite directions. Collazo was supposed to approach the front door while Torresola assaulted the rear entrance. If their scheme had any chance at succeeding, the attack must be well-coordinated and, initially, they must seem nonthreatening to the White House police force.

Each man arrived at his predesignated location at precisely the correct time. It was 2:19 p.m. Oscar Collazo brazenly walked up behind capital police officer Donald Birdzell, who was standing on the front steps of the Blair House, pointed his Walther P38 semiautomatic nine millimeter pistol at the officer’s back, and pulled the trigger from point blank range. His lack of training and field experience led to the first significant glitch for the assassins. The novice gunman had failed to cock his pistol; consequently, nothing happened. Panicked, Collazo fumbled with the weapon, pounding on it in a frantic effort to take down the officer. Alerted to the commotion, Birdzell turned to face his assailant at exactly the moment the gun discharged, striking the officer in the knee. Birdzell went down hard.

U.S. Secret Service agent Floyd Boring and White House police officer Joseph Davidson stood in the security booth at the east end of Blair House, not far from Birdzell’s position. When they heard the gunfire, the two men sprang into action. In the meantime, Birdzell got to his feet and limped into the street, away from the entrance to Blair House in a conscious effort to draw the would-be assassin's attention away from the house where President Truman was napping upstairs. This inspired act of grace under pressure caused Collazo to hesitate, thereby providing additional time for Boring and Davidson to arrive on the scene. Thus, instead of charging for the front door, Collazo collapsed onto the steps of Blair House under withering gunfire from Birdzell, Boring, and Davidson. (See photo.)

While Collazo carried out the attack in front of Blair House, Torresola marched up the west side of Pennsylvania Avenue, approaching a guard booth at the corner of the building. Torresola apparently began speaking in a loud voice, possibly to divert attention away from Collazo’s assault on the front door. Inside the booth, Private Leslie Coffelt turned his head just as his assailant swung inside the small enclosure and fired four shots from a nine millimeter German Luger semiautomatic pistol. Caught completely by surprise, Coffelt did not have time to reach for his gun. Three shots struck him in the chest and abdomen, and a fourth penetrated his policeman’s tunic. Mortally wounded, he slumped in his chair.

White House policeman Joseph Downs, a plainclothes officer who had just paused to talk with Coffelt when the shooting commenced, reached for his weapon as Torresola swung the Luger toward him. Struck in the hip, back, and neck, Downs staggered down the walkway to the basement door, opened the door, and crawled inside before Torresola could follow him. This quick-thinking action denied the gunman immediate entry into Blair House. Safely ensconced inside the residence, Downs screamed for help.

Torresola had heard the intense gunfire in front of the building and knew his partner was in trouble. As he rounded the corner of Blair House, he saw Donald Birdzell aiming his service revolver at Oscar Collazo from the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Torresola fired his Luger and struck Birdzell in the left knee. Now wounded in both knees, the officer collapsed in pain. He squeezed off several more rounds but finally succumbed to the pain and took no further part in the gun battle.

Torresola paused to reload his gun. While he did so, President Truman, awakened from his nap in the second-floor bedroom of Blair House, shuffled over to the window to see what was happening. At the time the president gazed out his window, Torresola stood approximately 30 feet away. If either man saw the other, he did not acknowledge it.

Torresola’s brief delay to reload his gun allowed Officer Coffelt time to stagger out of the guard booth, aim his pistol at the gunman, and squeeze off one final round. The bullet tore into Torresola’s head two inches above his ear on a slight upward angle, killing him instantly. The assailant collapsed on the lawn, his pistol at his knee. (See photo.) Leslie Coffelt died four hours later in the hospital, but in his last act of heroism, he had altered the outcome of the affair. The entire gun battle had lasted less than one minute.

Now fully awake and alert, the president immediately dressed and bounded down the stairs. He arrived in time to see a group of policemen bending over the prostrate Collazo on the front steps of Blair House. If the president was rattled by the incident, he kept it to himself. According to all accounts, he was composed and unruffled. When someone asked if he still intended to keep a speaking engagement at Arlington National Cemetery, Truman acted as though it never crossed his mind to cancel the appearance. “Why, of course,” he said.

Oscar Collazo survived the November 1 gunfight, although his partner did not. Collazo was hit by gunfire multiple times, but he eventually recovered from his injuries. During the subsequent trial, Collazo’s attorney advised his client to plead insanity; however, the defendant ignored this advice. As with many politically motivated terrorists, Collazo sought to use his day in court as a forum for espousing his views. In fact, press coverage of the proceedings ensured that his original goal of publicizing the plight of Puerto Rican nationalism would be realized. Charged with homicide in the death of Officer Coffelt as well as several counts of assault with intent to kill, the defendant faced long, difficult odds of acquittal.

As everyone expected, Collazo was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. Ironically, the intended target of Collazo’s assassination attempt, President Truman, commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Truman’s motivation remains open to interpretation. Perhaps he intended to extend compassion to his would-be assassin by sparing the man from execution or perhaps the savvy president sought to deny Collazo a martyr’s death. In any case, Collazo avoided the executioner. He remained in prison until 1979, when President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence. Collazo returned to Puerto Rico to live out his years as a symbol of the nationalist ethos. Until his death at the age of 80 on February 21, 1994, he remained committed to the cause of Puerto Rican independence. As for Truman, who was not hurt in the assault, he was philosophical about the affair. “A president has to expect these things,” he said.

The two Puerto Rican nationalists reinforce the understanding of Type 1 assassins as rational actors. They do not hear voices urging them to commit their crimes. They are not predominantly sociopaths projecting their own feelings of inadequacy onto their victims. Type 1 attackers seek to advance a political purpose, and they believe that violently striking out at a prominent target is the most effective means of achieving the goal. Sadly, they seek a short cut for establishing political legitimacy. Rather than going through the normal channels of political lobbying by building coalitions and persuading decision-makers of the rightness of their cause, they rely on violence as the ultimate expression of their discontent.

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