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The crazy attempted assassination.

November 3, 2008, 12:01 am

[Lori Clune returns for another guest post. Thanks, Lori, for freaking me out.]

On this day in 1950, the Washington Daily News ran a story describing “the crazy attempted assassination” of President Harry S. Truman. On November 1st – while the president took a nap in his underwear on an unseasonably warm autumn afternoon – two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to assassinate Truman in hopes of sparking a Puerto Rican independence movement. Only a locked screen door and security guards stood between Truman and the assassins. Both men, Griselo Torresola and Oscar Collazo, were shot before they could get inside the house. Torresola, suffering a head wound, died instantly. Collazo, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, was saved when Truman commuted his sentence to life. President Carter ordered Collazo’s early release in 1979, and he died in Puerto Rico in 1994. He did not live to see a significant Puerto Rican independence movement.

The shooting, as detailed by John Bainbridge, Jr. and Stephen Hunter in American Gunfight, lasted nearly a minute with gunfire exchanged between the assailants and White House policemen and Secret Service agents. Three guards were wounded and a fourth was killed. None of the first family were harmed.

The gunfight actually didn’t take place at the White House. From 1948 to 1952, the White House underwent a $5.4 million renovation. Not known for living opulently, Truman saw his daughter’s piano leg break through the floor and into the room below before he agreed to replace the rotting wood with a steel skeleton structure. So, Harry, Bess, and Margaret moved across the street to Blair House for the duration. As a result of the assassination attempt, Truman was no longer allowed to walk from Blair House to the White House, causing him to state, “It’s hell to be President.”

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth. Just prior to the assassination attempt a three-day revolt – the Jayuya Uprising – had erupted in Puerto Rico and failed. The nationalists wanted to remove U.S. control; what they got was martial law. The ghost of Torresola rose on March 1, 1954, when four Puerto Rican nationalists entered the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives and shot into a crowd of congressmen. President Eisenhower wrote very nice sorry-you-got-shot-in-the-Capitol letters to each of the five wounded congressman. He also commuted the attackers’ death sentences to life. But Puerto Rico remained a commonwealth.

Throughout the Eisenhower years the country debated the merits of adding another star to the flag. Should we make Puerto Rico a state? How about Alaska? Hawaii? By 1959, a consensus emerged, though Eisenhower remained opposed to Alaskan statehood until the very end, vowing to veto statehood for “that outpost.” What if? Puerto Rico and Hawaii as the 49th and 50th states?

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