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Recommended Reading  

American Gunfight

The Plot to Kill Har­ry Truman—and the Shoot-out that Stopped It

by Stephen Hunter, J. S. Bain­bridge
2005, Simon & Schus­ter
ISBN 0743260686
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.
Shawn Carko­nen

See also WSJ review by Alon­zo L. Ham­by.

THIS BOOK IS IN PRINT. Avail­able com­mer­cial­ly. Learn more about Stephen Hunter and J. S. Bain­bridge.


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