On This Day

Oscar Collazo, Oscar Collazo dead, Truman assassin
Associated Press
Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Collazo lies wounded at steps to Blair House, President Truman's temporary residence in Washington, D.C., after a failed attempt to assassinate Truman.

On This Day: Puerto Rican Nationalists Attempt to Assassinate Truman

November 01, 2011 06:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Nov. 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, tried to assassinate President Truman in hopes of bringing their country closer to independence.

Assassination Attempt Fails

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Puerto Rico had been in a state of contention with the U.S. for almost half a century. Unhappy with their status as citizens of a commonwealth, Puerto Rican nationalists demanded independence and resorted to violent measures to attain it.

In October 1950, Bronx, N.Y., residents Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, members of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party, decided to assassinate President Harry Truman to draw attention to their cause.

Shortly after 2:00 p.m on Nov. 1 the two men approached from opposite directions to the Blair-Lee House, where President Truman was living while the White House underwent renovation. They planned to shoot their way inside to the president, but never made it past the front door.

Secret Service agents intercepted Collazo and Torresola’s bullets, keeping Truman safe from harm. However, when the gunfire subsided, both Torresola and White House guard Leslie Coffelt lay dead at the steps of Blair-Lee House.

Tucked inside Torresola’s jacket, officials found a letter from Nationalist Party leader Pedro Albizu Campos. He had urged Torresola to “assume the leadership of the movement in the United States” and to do so “without hesitation of any kind.”

Collazo spent the next 29 years in prison, and the attempt to assassinate Truman brought Puerto Rico no closer to autonomy.

Background: Movements in Puerto Rico

When the Spanish-American War drew to a close in 1898, Puerto Rico was annexed to the United States. It was given the right to elect its own governor but could not participate in presidential elections.

From the start, the political climate of the island was one of unrest. Puerto Rico’s Republican Party wanted statehood, but the Union Party favored greater autonomy. The Nationalist Party gained power in the 1920s and worked for immediate independence. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party was focused on the laboring classes of Puerto Rico, advocating for autonomy rather than independence.

Leading up to the assassination attempt of 1950, violence was building in Puerto Rico. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard-educated orator, rallied the island’s nationalists and advocated violence as the most effective means of achieving independence.

According to Time magazine, “After President Roosevelt's visit in 1934, he [Campos] shrieked: ‘Cowards, you should have received Roosevelt with bullets but you greeted him with flowers.’”

Nationalists did not back down after the assassination attempt failed. Continued attacks in San Juan and Washington left a total of 32 people dead. In 1954, nationalists opened fire on the House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen.

Later Developments: FALN

For the latter half of the 20th century, the Armed Forces of National Liberation (FALN) fought for complete independence. The group was responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks between 1974 and 1983, and in the 1980s, members were sentenced to “extensive prison terms.”

In 1999, President Clinton was criticized for offering clemency to members of FALN, which the FBI recognizes as a terrorist organization, under the condition that they renounce all acts of violence.

Key Player: Oscar Collazo

Collazo, the gunman who had survived the shoot-out at Blair House, was sentenced to death but his verdict was changed to life in prison just one week before his scheduled execution. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence and Collazo was released. He returned to Puerto Rico a national hero and continued to fight for Puerto Rico’s independence.
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