The Plot to Kill Harry Truman—and the Shoot-out that Stopped It
by Stephen Hunter, J. S. Bainbridge
2005, Simon & Schuster
384 pages, illustrated.
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, nearly assassinated President Harry Truman. If this historical fact surprises you, you’re not alone. American Gunfight, a new account by suspense novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Stephen Hunter and journalist John Bainbridge Jr., examines this largely forgotten episode in meticulous detail, including the conspiracy surrounding it and the misconceptions associated with the would-be assassins. As the book makes clear, it’s remarkable that these two men even came close to succeeding, given the disorganized nature of the plot. Intending to attack the president at the White House, they only learned in passing from a cab driver that it was being renovated and that Truman was in fact living at the nearby Blair House. When they made their assault on Blair House, they quickly lost their element of surprise when Collazo’s gun misfired, leading to a 38-second shootout in front of the residence that left Torresola and one policeman dead. Meanwhile, Truman witnessed the action from an upstairs window.
At his ensuing trial, Collazo was depicted as a crazed fanatic, but the authors argue that this simplified assessment unnecessarily dismisses a potential political conspiracy involving Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who was believed by some to have masterminded the plot in an effort to bring attention to his cause. Hunter and Bainbridge provide in-depth portraits of Collazo and Torresola, as well as the Secret Service agent and three White House policemen who saved Truman’s life. The descriptions of the remarkably light presidential security of the era reveal much about 1950s Washington, D.C., a time in which the president would take a daily walk around the neighborhood with just a bodyguard or two in tow. As a result of the attack, the Secret Service would forever change the way it guarded the president. This fast-paced book reads like a detective thriller, shifting quickly between various story lines and characters, including a second-by-second breakdown of the gunfight itself. The potboiler narrative may seem over the top at times, with its conjecture and imagined internal dialogue, but this comprehensive account succeeds in bringing this unlikely plot vividly to life.
See also WSJ review  by Alonzo L. Hamby.