Harry Truman was President,
Puerto Rico had recently been granted Commonwealth status and the White House, more that 150 years old, was–literally–falling apart.
Truman and his family had moved across the street to the Blair House where security was weak. According to Flagel¹, “All that stood between the President was a latched screen door and a few armed guards.”
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“For Truman, personal security was an afterthought.
“His base concerns were global in nature–tension between East and West in Europe, possible entry of Communistic China into the Korean conflict, a growing Red Scare at home, and a recent and bloody nationalist uprising in Puerto Rico.
“On an unusually warm November afternoon, as Truman prepared for a memorial service at Arlington, two well-dressed men approached the Blair House. They were Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, members of the Puerto Rico Independence Movement, who had decided to murder Truman. In their way were three guards posted outside the residence: policeman Donald Birdzell and Joseph Downs and Pvt. Leslie Coffelt.
“The two assailants brandished semiautomatic pistols and began firing. First to fall was Coffelt, taking several shots to the chest and abdomen. Birdzell took a bullet to the leg and another to the upper body. Three slugs slammed into Downs who was guarding the main door.
“Truman rushed to his second-story window in time to see his men disable Collazo with a shot to the chest, while Coffelt, though mortally wounded, killed Torresola with a shot to the head.
“It was over in seconds. Unfazed, Truman commented, ‘A president has to expect those things.’ He kept his appointment at Arlington and seemed indifferent to the shootings, until he heard that Coffelt had died, leaving behind a wife and stepdaughter….”
“A days later, speaking to a crowd in his hometown of Independence, a visibly emotional Truman confided, ‘You can’t understand how a man feels when somebody else dies for him.'”²
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Addendum: Collazo was scheduled to be executed in July 1952, but Truman commuted his sentence to life. Twenty-seven years later, Collazo walked out of prison, pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. Later he was decorated by Cuban president Fidel Castro.³
Later Collazo declared he had nothing personally against Truman because, ironically, he supported Puerto Rican independence. He was a symbol of the rejection of the nationalist party. The blocked assassination attempt of Truman was followed by an uprising in Puerto Rico that left 32 dead.
(These details are confirmed by several other sources.)
¹ Thomas R. Flagel, The History Buff’s Guide to the Presidents (Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007, pp. 180-181).
² See above note. Paragraph structure slightly modified. Colored added.
³ P. 181.