President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to kill President Harry S. Truman in an effort to gain independence for their homeland, leading to the deaths of one security agent and one would-be assassin.

Summary of Event

On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists Nationalism;Puerto Rico Anticolonial movements;Puerto Rico attempted to assassinate President Harry S. Truman at Blair House, a residence located across the street from the White House usually reserved for visiting heads of state. Truman resided at Blair House while the White House underwent a massive renovation between 1948 and 1952. Unprotected by the usual level of White House security, Truman seemed vulnerable to the would-be assassins. Assassinations and attempts;Harry S. Truman[Truman] [kw]President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt (Nov. 1, 1950) [kw]Assassination Attempt, President Truman Escapes (Nov. 1, 1950) [kw]Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt, President (Nov. 1, 1950) Assassinations and attempts;Harry S. Truman[Truman] [g]North America;Nov. 1, 1950: President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt[03300] [g]United States;Nov. 1, 1950: President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt[03300] [c]Terrorism;Nov. 1, 1950: President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt[03300] [c]Independence movements;Nov. 1, 1950: President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt[03300] [c]Government and politics;Nov. 1, 1950: President Truman Escapes Assassination Attempt[03300] Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;and Puerto Rico[Puerto Rico] Truman, Harry S. [p]Truman, Harry S.;assassination attempt Torresola, Griselio Collazo, Oscar

The assassins, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, were members of the New York City-based Puerto Rican Nationalist Party Puerto Rican Nationalist Party (PRNP), an organization dedicated to gaining independence for Puerto Rico. They had arrived in Washington, D.C., from New York the day before the planned assassination, and they prepared for the attack at the Harris Hotel, a short distance from the White House. Within a few days, Puerto Ricans were scheduled to vote on the future status of their homeland as either a territory or a commonwealth, and the two would-be killers hoped their actions would derail the impending vote and provide an opportunity for Puerto Rico to declare independence.

The planned assassination was not the only violence leading up the Puerto Rican vote. As part of the Juyuya Uprising Juyuya Uprising (1950) , proindependence activists had conducted terrorist acts in Puerto Rico in the weeks leading up to the vote and planned a general uprising centered around the town of Juyuya. The uprising, led by Pedro Albizú Campos Albizú Campos, Pedro , failed when Puerto Rican authorities arrested its leaders in October, 1950. The federal government later claimed that the assassination attempt on President Truman was part of a broader conspiracy, but they could produce no evidence other than PRNP literature found in Torresola’s home.

The assassins were an odd pair. Torresola, only twenty-five years old, was an active member of the PRNP. He claimed at various times to work as a bodyguard for Pedro Albizú Campos in Puerto Rico, but more often he seemed to be unemployed and living on welfare in the Bronx. Collazo, thirty-six years old at the time of the attack, was also a member of the PRNP. Unlike the younger Torresola, Collazo was a respectable family man, supporting his wife and three children by working as a metal polisher. Neither man was part of the Juyuya Uprising, but the failure of the uprising convinced both of them that the murder of President Truman was necessary to gain international attention for their cause.

Torresola and Collazo’s plan was as amateurish as the men themselves. The assassins, armed with handguns, planned to shoot their way past the security guards outside the building, enter through the front door of Blair House, and quickly search through the house until they could locate and kill President Truman. It was an ill-prepared plan, and nothing went as expected. While Torresola knew how to use a gun, Collazo had not fired a gun in years and was unfamiliar with the Walther pistol provided for him. The assassins had information about neither the layout of Blair House nor how many security officers were stationed in the building. Unusually warm weather meant that more Secret Service and White House police personnel were on duty outside the house than usual, posted at the main steps into the house and at a security desk just inside the front door.

Leaving the Harris Hotel at mid-morning, the two assassins split up and approached Blair House from opposite sides. Approaching from the east, Collazo aimed his weapon at White House police private Donald Birdzell Birdzell, Donald from behind and pulled the trigger, but the gun failed to go off. Collazo fumbled with the unfamiliar weapon and it accidentally discharged, wounding Birdzell in both legs and causing the police officer to retreat across Pennsylvania Avenue. With Birdzell out of the way, Collazo began climbing the steps toward the front entrance to the house, exchanging gunfire with Private Joseph Davison Davison, Joseph and Secret Service agent Floyd Boring Boring, Floyd . The Puerto Rican fired eight additional shots, but all missed their targets.

Slightly wounded in the head in the exchange, Collazo slumped to the steps. In the meantime, Torresola approached the house from the west. Torresola fired upon police privates Joseph Downs Downs, Joseph and Leslie Coffelt Coffelt, Leslie , hitting both men, and he exchanged shots with Private Birdzell across Pennsylvania Avenue. Coffelt, despite a mortal wound to the chest, managed to get a clear shot and fired a bullet into Torresola’s head, killing him instantly. Coffelt remains the only presidential security agent to die while protecting the president.

A final burst of gunfire hit Collazo in the chest. He fell on the Blair House steps without reaching the front door. As it turned out, he was lucky he did not make it inside the house. At the front desk, Secret Service agent Stuart Stout Stout, Stuart had retrieved his Thompson submachine gun and was ready to kill any attackers that made it to the front door. In less than three minutes, the assassins and the presidential security detachment had fired twenty-seven shots, leaving four men wounded and two men dead.

Collazo survived his chest wound (the bullet ricocheted off his sternum) to face three criminal counts: the murder of Leslie Coffelt, intent to kill the president, and assault with intent to kill Donald Birdzell. Refusing to plead for mercy, Collazo used the trial to promote the Puerto Rican independence movement. Convicted on all counts, Collazo received a death sentence for his part in the assassination plot, and the judge scheduled his execution for August 1, 1952. Only a week before his execution, however, Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. Truman justified his action on the grounds that Collazo had not fired the bullet that killed Coffelt. Imprisoned for twenty-seven years, Collazo became a free man when President Jimmy Carter pardoned him in 1979. He returned to Puerto Rico, welcomed as a hero of Puerto Rican nationalism. Oscar Collazo died in Puerto Rico of a stroke in 1994.

Significance

Oddly, the attempted assassination of Harry S. Truman turned out to be a political boon for the president. With his popularity waning in 1950, Truman’s brush with death gained him the sympathy of the American voters, causing a temporary upswing in his popularity. The assassination attempt did not help Puerto Rico. Americans viewed the Puerto Rican independence movement with suspicion, and efforts to gain independence for the island suffered from an inevitable public backlash. Fearful of similar assassination attempts, future presidents relied upon increasingly dense security measures to protect their lives. In doing so, presidents became increasingly separated from their constituency. Assassinations and attempts;Harry S. Truman[Truman]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. The best academic biography of Truman, this book concentrates upon Truman’s political life. The discussion of his near assassination focuses on its boost to his political standing among American voters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunter, Stephen, and John Bainbridge, Jr. American Gunfight: The Plot To Kill Harry Truman—and the Shoot-Out That Stopped It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. The only book written exclusively on the assassination attempt. Provides a great amount of detail about the Puerto Rican independence movement, the assassination attempt itself, and the subsequent events after November, 1950.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. A Pulitzer Prize-winning book that examines Truman from a personality viewpoint rather than a purely political one. McCullough provides an excellent account of the shoot-out at Blair House.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raskin, Jonah. Oscar Collazo: Portrait of a Puerto Rican Patriot. New York: Committee to Free the Puerto Rican Nationalist Prisoners, 1978. An unabashedly biased biography of Oscar Collazo, portraying him as a hero who sacrificed for his nation instead of a bumbling would-be assassin.

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