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American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It

American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It

3.8 12
by Stephen Hunter, John Bainbridge Jr.

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American Gunfight is the fast-paced, definitive, and breathtakingly suspenseful account of an extraordinary historical event -- the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman in 1950 by two Puerto Rican Nationalists and the bloody shoot-out in the streets of Washington, D.C., that saved the president's life.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen


American Gunfight is the fast-paced, definitive, and breathtakingly suspenseful account of an extraordinary historical event -- the attempted assassination of President Harry Truman in 1950 by two Puerto Rican Nationalists and the bloody shoot-out in the streets of Washington, D.C., that saved the president's life.
Written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stephen Hunter, the widely admired and bestselling novelist and author of such books as Havana, Hot Springs, and Dirty White Boys, and John Bainbridge, Jr., an experienced journalist and lawyer, American Gunfight is at once a groundbreaking work of meticulous historical research and the vivid and dramatically told story of an act of terrorism that almost succeeded. They have pieced together, at last, the story of the conspiracy that nearly doomed the president and how a few good men -- ordinary guys who were willing to risk their lives in the line of duty -- stopped it.
It is a book about courage -- on both sides -- and about what politics and devotion to a cause can lead men to do, and about what actually happens, second by second, when a gunfight explodes.
It begins on November 1, 1950, an unseasonably hot afternoon in the sleepy capital. At 2:00 P.M. in his temporary residence at Blair House, the president of the United States takes a nap. At 2:20 P.M., two men approach Blair House from different directions. Oscar Collazo, a respected metal polisher and family man, and Griselio Torresola, an unemployed salesman, don't look dangerous, not in their new suits and hats, not in their calm, purposeful demeanor, not in their slow, unexcited approach. What the three White House policemen and one Secret Service agent cannot guess is that under each man's coat is a 9mm German automatic pistol and in each head, a dream of assassin's glory.
At point-blank range, Collazo and then Torresola draw and fire and move toward the president of the United States.
Hunter and Bainbridge tell the story of that November day with narrative power and careful attention to detail. They are the first to report on the inner workings of this conspiracy; they examine the forces that led the perpetrators to conceive the plot. The authors also tell the story of the men themselves, from their youth and the worlds in which they grew up to the women they loved and who loved them to the moment the gunfire erupted. Their telling commemorates heroism -- the quiet commitment to duty that in some moments of crisis sees some people through an ordeal, even at the expense of their lives.

Editorial Reviews

Ted Widmer
The definitive history of this attempted murder has now been written by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr. True to their topic, theirs is an unlikely conspiracy: Hunter is a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for this newspaper and Bainbridge a journalist and former legal writer in Baltimore. It's a bit unclear what drew them to each other or to this topic, but they attack it with verve.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, engaged in a sustained gun battle with Secret Service agents at Blair House. Their goal was to assassinate President Harry Truman. It's curious that the two men haven't found a place in popular memory like other presidential assailants. But this attempt deserves attention because it was explicitly political and because it permanently altered Secret Service practices. Hunter, esteemed for his film criticism and macho adventure novels, teams up with former Baltimore Sun journalist Bainbridge for this richly detailed account of the motives and destinies of virtually everyone connected to the skirmish. This is an ambitious attempt to achieve time-lapse history. The actual confrontation took less than a minute; rather than save it up for the end, the authors spread it across much of the book, interspersed with background material on the participants. The book reads like the product of a film lover/action novelist and a journalist rather than a work of history, with the shootout described in stream-of-consciousness, and melodramatic, cliff-hanging chapter endings. To the authors' credit, though, interpretations are presented as such, and their handling of the recorded events is not only convincing but compelling. Agent, Esther Newberg. (Nov.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Novelist/film critic Hunter, along with Baltimore Sun journalist Bainbridge, brings cinematic flair to this investigation of the 1950 attempt by Puerto Rican nationalists to assassinate Truman. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Journalists Hunter and Bainbridge reconstruct an attempt on Harry Truman's life, an event that "was of course gigantic news-for about a week."The principal actors in the November 1950 attempt were two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, devotees of a lawyer-revolutionary named Pedro Albizu Campos. The extent of their connection to Campos was not known until long after the attack, yet the operative principle was simple: If any attempt were made on Campos's life in Puerto Rico, then cells would activate in the U.S. and kill Truman. The witness may not have been entirely reliable, and in all events of the assassination effort, there was a certain amount of dumb luck: Truman was staying across the street from the White House, which was being renovated, a fact that a helpful cab driver had to point out to Collazo and Torresola; Collazo had few qualifications apart from a commitment to the cause; much of the attack was concocted on the spot. Yet Torresola was able to shoot several guards and get within ten yards of Truman before being taken down. It all makes for an intrinsically interesting story, but the authors tend to tell everything they can about any particular point of play, layering on incidental details about the lives of D.C. cops and expounding on the history and geography of Puerto Rico while drifting much too often into breathless Dragnet-speak: "The president is in the window he is thirty feet from Griselio who stands unnoticed at the stairway to Lee House the men on the other side haven't noticed him yet he's shot at three men and downed them all the president is thirty feet away and he has a straight line-of-sight picture to that window and therestands the president of the United States so he is very much in the kill zone."Those with patience for run-on sentences may enjoy this long footnote to history.
From the Publisher
"The definitive history of the attempted murder of Harry S. Truman.... Truman's near-killing is a good subject for many reasons, including its disappearance into the black hole of our amnesia.... Hooked, the reader begins a journey that weaves...across the lives of all protagonists, pulled by fate toward the bloody confrontation."
— Ted Windmer, The Washington Post

"Extensively researched and mellifluously told...American Gunfight is a splendid read."
— Carl Schoettler, Baltimore Sun

"Hunter and Bainbridge's handling of the recorded events is not only convincing but compelling."
Publishers Weekly

"A day worth remembering. American Gunfight is well worth reading."
The Washington Post

"A fast-paced thriller."
— Alonzo Hamby, The Wall Street Journal

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Simon & Schuster
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On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican Nationalists named Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola pulled German automatic pistols and attempted to storm Blair House, at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., where the president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, was at that moment -- 2:20 P.M. on an abnormally hot Wednesday -- taking a nap in his underwear. They were opposed by a Secret Service security detail led by Special Agent Floyd M. Boring, consisting of Special Agents Vincent P. Mroz and Stewart G. Stout, Jr., and White House police officers Leslie W. Coffelt, Joseph O. Davidson, Joseph H. Downs, and Donald T. Birdzell. In the brief exchange -- under forty seconds -- between twenty-nine and thirty-one shots were fired in an area about ninety feet by twenty feet, though the exchange broke into two actions at either end of the property, where the ranges were much shorter. When it was over one man was dead, another was dying, and two more were seriously injured.

The story was of course gigantic news -- for about a week. What's remarkable about it is not how big a story it was but how quickly it went away. Today, few Americans even remember it, or if they do, they have it mixed up with a later event. In 1954, four Puerto Rican Nationalists pulled guns and shot up Congress. Soon enough the two stories melded in the U.S. folk imagination under the rubric of stereotype: hot-tempered Latin revolutionaries, undisciplined, crazy even, pursuing a dream that made no sense at all, Puerto Rican independence.

Even those few North Americans who could distinguish between the two events couldn't prevent the actual thing itself from eroding, losing its detail and meaning and settling sooner rather than later into a kind of comforting folk narrative. For Americans, it always encompassed the following points:

The grievances Oscar and Griselio were expressing were fundamentally absurd: Puerto Rico had been given the gift of United States culture and political traditions and was rapidly becoming Americanized, as it should be. What was wrong with these two that they didn't understand how benevolently they had been treated?

Americans believed they were a little crazy. The evidence is clear: the assault was thrown together on the run by these two men of no consequence and no meaningful cause. One of them didn't even have a gun, so the other had to go out the day before and buy him one. They were upset by newspaper reports of what was going on in Puerto Rico, where an equally silly group of men were attempting a coup, like they do down there all the time, something equally stupid and futile.

In Washington, the two gunmen further expressed their deep state of mental disorganization by acting in strange ways.

On the morning of the attempt, for example, they went sightseeing. It turned out they thought Truman lived in the White House, and a cabdriver told them the president had moved across the street while the White House was being remodeled. Then, back in the hotel room, one had to teach the other how to work the gun.

One of them even went up to the hotel clerk on the day of the attempt as he was leaving and inquired about an extended checkout time.

And that was the smart one!

The dumb one was an unemployed salesman, a ladies' man, an abject failure in life. Nothing at all is known about this fellow, but why should it be, since he is so predictable: like so many disgruntled would-be assassins, this was his chance to count in a world that had denied his existence. They had no plan and no understanding of tactics.

In the actual fight itself, the Secret Service and the White House policemen essentially brushed them aside.

The two never came close to getting into Blair House. And even if they had, it would have made no difference, as an agent with a tommy gun was waiting just inside the door.

Harry Truman was never in any mortal danger.

In the end, many Americans concluded, it was more a joke, a farce, an opera buffa, than anything else.

There is only one trouble with assigning these meanings to the 38.5 desperate, violent seconds of November 1, 1950.

Every single one of them is wrong.

Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge, Jr.

Meet the Author

Stephen Hunter has written eighteen novels. The retired chief film critic for The Washington Post, where he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, he has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work, American Gunfight. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
John Bainbridge, Jr., is a freelance journalist. A former reporter for The Baltimore Sun and legal affairs editor for The Daily Record (Baltimore), he is also a lawyer and former Maryland assistant attorney general. He lives near Butler, Maryland.

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American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
skiracer4life More than 1 year ago
American Gunfight is an amazing story of a part of history slipped from the minds of Americans. The story features the attempted assassination on President Harry Truman November 1, 1950. Two Puerto Rican Nationalists stalk the president in his temporary home across the street from the White House while it was being remodeled when even days before it the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico is discovered to be planning an attack on American outposts in Puerto Rico. Two desperate yet practical men try to strike a blow at the heart of what they see as a great oppressor, led by the words of Albizo Campos they lay Blair House under siege fro a grueling 38.5 seconds of testosterone and precision shooting. American Gunfight analyzes not only the event itself, but events leading up to it and the people involved, their lives, intentions, and reasons. The overall story does seem a bit cynical but an open mind must be kept, and the authors do a wonderful job of showing both sides of the story and including history that has determined American policies of the era. The novelist style of Hunter and the technical knowledge of he and Bainbridge make this a wonderful, easy to understand story that doesn't stray from facts and still builds towards an exciting shootout between two Puerto Ricans and the United States Secret Service. The story is broken up however, it goes chapter to chapter through different people's lives, and it can break up the climax of the action; the reader also needs to understand a bit about munitions, it enhances the story to have prior knowledge to German WWII arms and to the world of competitive shooting in the 1950's. If you like the style of this tale I suggest the novels written by Stephen Hunter in the Bob Lee Swagger Series, which includes Point Of Impact- the movie Shooter was based off this, and Earl Swagger Series. If you are squeamish or faint-of-heart none of these books are for you, not even American Gunfight. This is a read for the person, who likes history, a bit of action, and a bit of science /tactical knowledge; because not only does it talk about the event, but the tactics of the 1950 attack of Puerto Rican nationalists on American bases and the strategy behind both attacks. Overall it is the story of "good" conquering "evil", if you are American, if you are Puerto Rican it is a story of the powerful governments imperialism of a small nation that only wanted freedom.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is in the details. I was in my teens when this happened and while I recall the assault on congress around that time, I do not recall any published reports on this event. The historical perspective and details are absolutely amazing. The writer had access to a lot of background and I can understand the actions of all involved. Frustration is a key motivator in most revolutionary activities. This was well explained by the writers. I admit... I am a fan of Mr. Hunter. and his stories.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not finished yet. Great read so far. It's a Hunter, they don't get to much better.
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anuyorican More than 1 year ago
This book is so well documented it cannot be undisputed. The author has presented many facts not known by many ( not including serious students of Puerto Ricans History ). Do you know how long this battle lasted? The author will tell you AND he will prove it. Do you know the players involved? How they planned this deed? Whose idea was it to commit this crime? Why would anyone in there right mind commit such a crime? How many participated in this crime? Who did not and why not? How does this event relate to present day Puerto Rico? Why is this book necessary now? It was written in 2007. The event took place 58 years ago. Who cares about these facts now. Don't let this book pass you by and ask Geraldo Rivera if he knows anything about these events? If he does, you should know too. This event relates to the Civil Rights era of the 1960's. The Yound Lords knew about these events. If you were around at that time, this book you must read. Enjoy.