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

by Stephen Hunter, John Bainbridge




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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743260688
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 10/25/2005
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Hunter has written over twenty 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.

Read an Excerpt

American Gunfight

The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out that Stopped It
By Stephen Hunter

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2005 Stephen Hunter
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0743260686


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.


Excerpted from American Gunfight by Stephen Hunter Copyright © 2005 by Stephen Hunter.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Authors' Note     1
Introduction     3
A Drive Around Washington     5
Griselio Agonistes     12
Revolution     18
The Odd Couple     36
Mr. Gonzales and Mr. De Silva Go to Washington     40
Early Morning     50
Baby Starches the Shirts     54
Toad     62
The New Guy     74
The Buick Guy     83
The Guns     86
The Ceremony     100
Indian Summer     104
The Big Walk     109
Oscar     113
"It Did Not Go Off"     128
Pappy     133
The Next Ten Seconds     138
Resurrection Man     141
So Loud, So Fast     152
Upstairs at Blair     156
Downstairs at Blair     161
Borinquen     167
Oscar Alone     181
The End's Run     184
Good Hands     186
The Colossus Rhoads     194
Oscar Goes Down     200
The Second Assault     203
Pimienta     206
Point-Blank     223
The Man Who Loved Guns     228
The Dark Visitors     236
Mortal Danger     240
The Neighbor     243
American Gunfight     244
The Good Samaritan     252
The Policemen's Wives     258
The Scene     260
Inside the Soccer Shoe     267
Who Shot Oscar?     273
The Roundup     278
Taps     286
Oscar on Trial     289
Deep Conspiracy     298
Cressie Does Her Duty     308
Oscar Speaks     310
- R - I -     317
Epilogue: Destinies     323
Source Notes     327
Bibliography     339
Acknowledgments     349
Index     355

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American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Those who have critizised this book are usually missing one point: this is not a work of history in the traditional sense, it is an example of New Journalism. Those who don't know this movement would do well to research on it now. It is a mixture of journalism with the tools formerly reserved for literary works, especially fiction. Two examples of the genre are In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote and The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe. I have not met Mr. Hunter, but having met Mr. Bainbridge and talked with him at length about this work, I know firsthand the troubles he went thru in trying to represent fairly the viewpoints of the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement. He is as honest and fair a researcher as he is a writer and a person.
hippypaul on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In [The Face of Battle] John Keegan remarked that many people who write about war are very uncomfortable with the details of violence. The same is true of most accounts of political violence. [Stephen Hunter] understands firearms and the people who use them for good and for evil very well. This background of knowledge allows him to bring new insights into a well explored event in American history.There are many published misconceptions about the attempted assassination of President Truman. It was presented at the time and in some later works as an almost laughable attempt. The authors of this work show that this was a near run event. We came very close to losing another leader on November first of 1950.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Booksforever More than 1 year ago
Like most people, I'd heard about the assassination attempt on Harry Truman. Also like most people, most of what I'd heard was wrong. This book brings to light many facts about this event that were mostly unknown or unpublished in past versions of the story. It is extremely well researched and very well written. But, to me, the author almost wants the reader to agree with the motives of and justify the actions of the two assassins because of their upbringing and strong nationalism. In some ways, this could be compared to saying the Nazis were justified in some of their actions because of their strong nationalism. In light of today's terrorism & omnipresent violence, no single person or group can ever be justified in using violence to make a point. Even if violence is an everyday thing in some cultures, it's never the right thing to do. It may be true that actions speak louder than words, but I don't think any civilized person would agree that unmanaged violence is ever a good way to correct problems. In this book, I understand the author wishes to be unbiased, and he is. He remains mostly neutral in telling the story, but I still came away feeling as though I should feel sorry for the "bad guys". In truth, I did feel somewhat sorry for them, but not because they failed. I feel sorry that they wasted their lives in a tragic way.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I first picked up this book I was excited to find what appeared to be a well written report on a part of American history that has been essentially ignored. However, it did not take me very long to decide that the authors should go back to writing novels and such. Most historical facts contained in this book are literally BURIED underneath hyperbole, cliches and rhetoric. The tedious minutia like, '... the P-38 magazine emptied 1/13th at a time...' Detracted even more from what appeared to be a feeble attempt at scholarly research. I regret that I bought this book and encourage anyone with an interest in the attempted assassination of Harry Truman to check this book out of the library and not waste their money on it.