Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Assassination Attempt on President Truman

Puerto Rico is NOT a place you normally think about when you want to discuss violent uprisings, massacres, and plots to assassinate the president of the United States, but the Puerto Rico of the late 1940s and early 1950s was a much different place than it is today.

In 1898, under the authorization of the Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish American War, the United States took possession of the territory of Puerto Rico. Many American officials were pleased with the new territory that could serve as a defense point, naval port and coaling station. It also didn’t hurt that the island was covered with sugar plantations.

Unfortunately, several natural disasters hit the island in the years that followed making life very hard for many of the people. The Jones Act of 1917 gave Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship which meant they could be drafted for service during World War I, yet they could not vote in presidential elections and did not have representation in Congress. Discrimination during World War I was rampant, and for many of the poorest Puerto Ricans the gulf between rich and poor was constantly growing wider. In the years that followed the Great Depression hit the island very hard. It is easy to see why many Puerto Ricans blamed the United States for their troubles.

Events like the Ponce Massacre occurred in 1937 where many Puerto Ricans were protesting wanting change…change of any kind. Soldiers answering to the governor appointed by the United States opened fire on armed and unarmed folks….killing 19 and wounding over 200. Tensions mounted when it was discovered some of the wounded were shot in the back as they were moving away from the soldiers.

President Truman appointed the first Puerto Rican born governor in 1946, but in 1948 Ley de la Mordaza or the Gag Law was passed making it illegal to display the Puerto Rican flag or sing patriotic songs.

Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard graduate and one of the Puerto Rican soldiers who had experienced racism during World War I was the leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. He called for independence using violence, if necessary. Many Puerto Ricans thought his views were a bit extreme, but they shared his feelings toward the United States.

At the end of October, 1950, several uprisings occurred for three days across Puerto Rico including the town of Jayuya. Marshall law was eventually declared after the United States used infantry, artillery and bombers against the protesters in Jayuya.

Two supporters of Campos wanting independence, Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, felt if they could get the attention of the American people they might gain sympathy and support for the independence movement in Puerto Rico. Amazingly, they felt if they killed President Truman they could get the much needed attention.

Torresola, a skilled gunman, and Collazo had met up in New York City. Later, after they had hatched their assassination plot Torresola taught Collazo how to use a gun. Blair House, located across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House was the location for their plot to kill President Truman.

The Truman family had taken up residence at Blair House while the White House was undergoing extensive renovations from 1948-1952. The main part of the mansion was found to be structurally unsound… unsound the floors literally swayed to and fro. One resource states a leg of Margaret Truman’s piano broke through the floor in what is today the Private dining room, and the plaster in a corner of the East Room was sagging as much as 18 inches.

Torresola and Collazo’s plot involved approaching Blair House from opposite directions, overpowering any police or guards they came in contact with and then shooting their way into the house.

Thankfully, the whole attempt was fumbled from the very start. Collazo failed to cock his gun and nothing happened when he tried to shoot a guard. After frantically attempting to get the gun to fire Collazo shot the officer in the knee. Other officers opened fire on Collazo and struck him in the head and arm.

Torresola, on the other hand, approached a guard at the information booth outside the front door of Blair House and fired four shots at close range killing White House policeman, Leslie Coffelt. Another White House policeman, Joseph Downs was also shot by Torresola, but managed to get inside the house and close the door blocking the assassin’s way inside. Luckily before he died, Leslie Coffelt managed to fire the shot that eventually caused Torresola’s death.

President Truman had been taking a nap on the second floor of Blair House and awoke to gunfire. It is reported in many sources he actually looked out the upstairs window in time to see Torresola reloading his gun before Coffelt shot him.

President Truman didn’t miss a beat in his schedule because of the assassination attempt. One hour after Torresola and Collazo attempted to kill him, President Truman was on his way to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath laying ceremony as the video below advises.

In the days following the assassination attempt Collazo was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life by President Truman. Truman also asked Coffelt’s widow to visit Puerto Rico and receive the condolences of the people there.

Puerto Rico experienced rapid industrialization during the 1950s mainly due to Operation Bootstrap which funneled millions of American dollars into the Puerto Rican economy moving it rapidly from mainly an agricultural economy to a very industrialized island.

In 1979, during the Carter administration Collazo was pardoned, and he returned to Puerto Rico.

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