President Resting: Awakened by Shots

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"President Resting: Awakened by Shots"

Puerto Rican nationalists attempt to assassinate President Truman

Newspaper article

By: Anthony Leviero

Date: November 2, 1950

Source: "President resting: Awakened by Shots, He Sees Battle in Which Three are Wounded", as published in the New York Times.

About the Author: Anthony Leviero, a reporter for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1952.


In order to protest American control over Puerto Rico, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola attempted to assassinate United States President Harry S. Truman (1884–1972) on November 1, 1950, at Blair House in Washington, D.C. Both men belonged to the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. They thought the assassination would call attention to Puerto Rico and advance the cause of Puerto Rican independence. Torresola and a Blair House guard died in the attack. Collazo, sentenced to death, had his sentence commuted to life by Truman. He left prison in 1979.

Puerto Rico is a 3,435-square-mile (8897 square-kilometer) island about 1,000 miles from the mainland of the United States. Long a colony of Spain, Puerto Rico became an American possession following the victory of the United States in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Congress made the island the first unincorporated territory in U.S. history. As a consequence, it was not eligible for American statehood, yet it remained part of the United States.

In the years after the American takeover, Puerto Rico experienced landlessness, chronic unemployment, and steady population growth. Puerto Rican politicians repeatedly declared, occasionally through the use of political violence and murder, that the island's problems could be solved by independence from the United States. In the 1940s, the U.S. Congress permitted Puerto Rico to elect its own governor, Luis Muñoz Marín of the Popular Democratic Party. Muñoz assumed that the economic transformation of the Puerto Rican economy would result in political independence.

Puerto Rican nationalists did not want to wait. On the morning of November 1, 1950, Torresola and Collazo had just arrived from New York City. Part of the massive post-World War II Puerto Rican migration to New York City, Torresola and Collazo belonged to the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. Torresola, a skilled gunman, taught Collazo how to load and handle a gun. They familiarized themselves with the area near Blair House, across the street from the White House, where they would stage the assault. (During the 1948–1952 renovation of the White House, the Truman family stayed in the Blair House.) In the ensuing gun battle, Collazo and Torresola traded gunfire with White House policemen and secret service agents. They wounded three White House policemen, but never reached the interior of the house. One of the wounded policemen, Leslie Coffelt, hit Torresola in the side of the head, killing him instantly. Coffelt died later that day at the hospital. Two other policemen, Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs, were each hit more than once, but recovered from their wounds.

Collazo was sentenced to death for the attempt on President Truman's life. One week before his scheduled execution in 1952, Truman changed the sentence to life imprisonment. President Carter commuted Collazo's sentence in September 1979, and he was freed from prison. He died in Puerto Rico on February 20, 1994, at the age of 80.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

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The attempt on Truman's life did not change American attitudes toward Puerto Rico. Treated as a footnote to both the Truman presidency and the modern history of Puerto Rico, the attack failed to achieve any of its goals. Puerto Rico remained a possession of the United States into the twenty-first century, with the U.S. Congress continuing to establish major policy for the Puerto Ricans.

In the years following 1950, the nationalist movement waxed and waned, both in Puerto Rico and among Puerto Rican migrants to North America. Many men and women of Puerto Rican heritage wanted independence, but such a move did not seem practical because of economic changes. As Puerto Rico industrialized, it discovered that being an American possession had considerable economic value.

Since agricultural businesses could not provide the money needed to better living standards, Governor Muñoz had argued for industrialization. He instituted Operation Bootstrap to industrialize Puerto Rico. Unlike competing Latin American and Caribbean countries that also offered inexpensive work forces, Puerto Rico could boast of the stability of its government. It was essentially the United States, but Spanish-speaking and with lower labor costs. Major American corporations established branches in Puerto Rico because of its American links. As a result, Puerto Ricans began to enjoy increasing living standards.

The Puerto Rican economic boom began to fade in the 1970s. Even with massive migration to the United States mixing with industrial achievement, Puerto Rico failed to provide sufficient income or jobs to sustain continued heavy population growth. As the economy weakened, nationalism began to rise and new Puerto Rican terrorist movements developed.



McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Maldonado, A. W. Teodoro Moscoso and Puerto Rico's Operation Bootstrap. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.

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President Resting: Awakened by Shots

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President Resting: Awakened by Shots