by Alonzo L. Hamby
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr.
(Simon & Schuster, 368 pages, $26.95)
Forty-two years later, Americans remain transfixed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event that has spawned a cottage industry of articles, books, movies and film documentaries. Killers who rob a nation of a popular president leave names remembered in infamy. Their success generates a thousand explanations.
Failure, on the other hand, is an orphan. In “American Gunfight,” Stephen Hunter, a novelist and film critic, and John Bainbridge Jr., an attorney and legal journalist, examine the nearly forgotten attempt of two Puerto Rican National Party adherents, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, to kill President Harry Truman in November 1950.
Truman was temporarily living in Blair House at the time. Torresola and Collazo, guns blazing, attempted to storm the residence but never made it inside. The episode occurred two days after the National Party had attempted to assassinate Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Munoz Marin and seize control of Puerto Rico. In some way, Torresola and Collazo imagined, Truman’s death would further the cause of Puerto Rican independence.
Aside from learning of this rarely remembered event, readers can enjoy “American Gunfight” simply as a fast-paced thriller, with minor characters playing important parts. Truman’s protectors come across as ordinary Americans who lived predictable and honorable lives, earned a living for their families, showed up for work every day and went about their quotidian duties with a dedicated professionalism. Most memorable is Leslie Coffelt, the White House policeman who took three sucker-punch bullets at point-blank range from Torresola, then somehow managed to stave off death long enough to kill his assailant with one perfectly aimed shot. We learn about him, his comrades, their wives and their families.
In small but telling ways, Messrs. Hunter and Bainbridge alter the generally held understanding of the event. They demonstrate that Torresola, although 10 years younger than Collazo, was the leader of the mission, almost certainly acting under orders from Don Pedro Albizu Campos, the charismatic head of the National Party. But the authors also give us assertions of less than solid provenance. One central to their narrative, grounding the book’s sequence of events, is that the gunfight lasted 38.5 seconds — or certainly somewhere between 36 and 40 seconds. No stopwatches were in use that day, and such precision is simply impossible to verify. They also claim that Torresola saw Truman at the window of his second-floor Blair House bedroom and might have killed him had Torresola not been reloading just before Coffelt rose from the near-dead to put a bullet into his brain. It is an interesting theory, but only that.
The authors persuasively depict a complacent, unimaginative Secret Service, equipping its police and agents with revolvers instead of automatic pistols, training them to shoot one-handed at stationary bull’s-eye targets, failing to bulletproof Blair House windows, locking up Tommy guns and shotguns that would be needed only in situations that demanded instant access. The Puerto Ricans, armed with automatic pistols and steel-jacketed bullets, were stopped primarily by Collazo’s inexperienced fumbling with his Walther P.38. Their original plan was for a five-man team. Had the three dropouts joined in the assault, Vice President Alben Barkley might have been sworn in as president that day.
The authors are less successful at explaining the fanaticism of the assailants. Torresola, a macho hothead whose entire family was devoted to the National movement, left his pregnant wife and relatively comfortable life for an underground assignment in New York. Collazo, a skilled worker with a steady job, a family man esteemed by friends and colleagues, embarked on a suicide mission. Writing of Collazo’s childhood in the mountainous coffee country, Messrs. Hunter and Bainbridge tell us: “Coffee culture is a natural breeding ground for rebels.” In the end, they can only usefully, if insufficiently, cite the philosopher Eric Hoffer on the character of the True Believer. They might equally have referenced Hannah Arendt on the banality of evil.
The National Party was a fascist organization with little popular support, led by a would-be Mussolini, supported by a black-shirted militia. In “American Gunfight,” its operatives are given human identities; by contrast, Gov. Munoz Marin, a widely esteemed liberal whose programs improved the lives of Puerto Ricans, is given little substance. His policemen come across in the book as mere thugs, cardboard figures.
In this respect, Messrs. Hunter and Bainbridge inadvertently document the difficulty that liberal societies have in coming to grips with totalitarian terrorism. They are far from alone. Collazo, taken alive, was found guilty of murder and sentenced to be executed. Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, apparently in an effort to appease Latin American anti-Yankee sentiment. He returned to Puerto Rico, a hero to the Nationalists. President Jimmy Carter, perhaps thinking him a misguided idealist, pardoned Collazo in 1979.
Gov. Munoz Marin’s government, never able to develop the evidence needed for a death sentence against Albizu Campos, the head of the Nationalist Party, jailed him for lesser crimes, then pardoned him. The party’s violent agitation continued: In 1954, four Puerto Rican nationalists shot up the U.S. House of Representatives. Albizu Campos was imprisoned again for a few years, then released for reasons of health before his death in 1965.
Messrs. Hunter and Bainbridge tell us that Albizu Campos “is today celebrated by many in Puerto Rico and his legend continues to grow.” They describe his present-day party as “more of a rallying organization than a political force.” One takes what comfort one can from this characterization.
Mr. Hamby’s latest book is “For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.”
(See related letter: “Letters to the Editor: Taking Aim at Truman” — WSJ Nov. 28, 2005)