American Gunfight

The Bush Administration`s

strategy of throwing our weight around abroad while not
bothering to secure the borders at home threatens to
lead to some nasty blowback in the future.

In the past, a similar combination of policies—the
conquest of Puerto Rico in 1898 combined with the
opening of our borders to

Puerto Rican immigrants
in 1917—eventually brought
about two of the most spectacular terrorist attacks in
American history:

  • The November 1,
    1950 assault by two immigrant gunmen hell-bent on
    assassinating President Harry Truman in the name of
    Puerto Rican independence. They might well have
    succeeded if not for one of the great acts of
    individual heroism of the last century.

  • The

    March 1, 1954 attack
    on the House of
    Representatives in which four Puerto Rican
    nationalists fired 30 pistol shots from the
    visitor`s gallery, wounding five members of

Both events have been largely forgotten, but the former
is vividly brought back to life in the thrilling new
nonfiction book

American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman—and the
Shoot-out that Stopped It
by Stephen Hunter and
John Bainbridge Jr.

As a

film critic
, I`m not quick to hand out compliments
to my competitors. But I would be hard-pressed to argue

Stephen Hunter
, who in 2003 became the first movie
reviewer to win a

Pulitzer Prize
since Roger Ebert in 1975, isn`t the
best in the business.

Gunplay is one of the prime elements in American movies.
Yet Hunter is unique among critics in knowing an

enormous amount about firearms.
We`ve all seen
thousands of shoot-outs on screen. But American
meticulous recreation of the battle that
raged between the terrorists and seven

Secret Service
guards for 36 to 40 seconds in front

Blair House
(Truman`s temporary residence while the
White House was being renovated) finally lets us
understand what really happens when brave men fight to
the death.

It`s not like in the movies. Hunter and Bainbridge

"Physiologically, the
fighters have entered a zone that cannot be duplicated
by man. It has to be real for you to get there: you feel
nothing, you

see only a little bit
of what`s ahead of you, you
hear nothing.

"Auditory exclusion"
it`s called: your hearing
closes down. Meanwhile your fingers inflate like
sausages and your IQ drops stunningly."

Yet, not one of the nine men that day even flinched.

The authors take care to dispel the

comforting myths
with which the two worst Puerto
Rican terrorist attacks have become encrusted:

"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

Since November 22, 1963, we`ve become accustomed to
assassins who are

obvious defectives
, little men who want to kill a
big man so they too can

go down in history.

But Hunter and Bainbridge show, though, that the two
gunmen of 1950,



Oscar Collazo
, were selfless and resourceful
revolutionary cadres fighting for a cause much larger
than their own egos.

The U.S. had gone to

war with Spain in 1898
over its

brutal attempts
to put down the rebellion in its
Cuban colony. Winning a crushing victory, America nobly
gave Cuba its long-sought independence. But we held on
to the smaller island of

Puerto Rico
to allow the

U.S. Navy
to guard the eastern approaches to what
would become the Panama Canal.

In 1917, Congress voted to give all Puerto Ricans U.S.
citizenship, in effect erasing the borders. Over the
decades, according to Harvard economist

George Borjas
, about one-fourth of all Puerto Ricans
moved to the United States. The influx only slowed after

many federal welfare benefits
were extended to the

In 1912, an American official had arranged a scholarship
for the illegitimate mulatto son of a wealthy merchant
and a poor woman of unstable mental health,

Pedro Albizu Campos
to attend college in America.
The brilliant young man earned both a bachelor`s degree
and a law degree from Harvard.

The conventional wisdom assumes that exposure to America
at its most welcoming and wealthiest turns

foreign students
into lifelong friends of our
country. Instead, as

so often happens
, the homesick and resentful Albizu
became our enemy. (This

common psychological process
is explored in detail
in John Updike`s remarkable novel

The Coup

After his years studying in the cradle of American
independence, the charismatic

returned home to his beautiful island to
speak out for Puerto Rican independence. He quickly
became leader of the Nationalist Party. Why should this
lovely land be ruled by foreigners speaking a harsh
tongue when it could be ruled by an eloquent
Spanish-speaker with, say, to pick a random example, two


When Albizu, "El Maestro" to his followers,
failed to win election, he turned to militarism. After
16 of his Blackshirts were

in Ponce in 1937, Albizu was sentenced to
ten years in the Atlanta federal prison.

It`s easy for gringos to condescend toward the
apparently lost cause of Puerto Rican nationalism. But
both America and Puerto Rico might well be better off
if America had

let Puerto Rico go in 1898

The Spanish-speaking island is to this day hardly part
of the American nation culturally. For example, Puerto
Rico sends a separate team to the Olympics. (In Athens in
2004, the Puerto Rican basketball team won a

heroic 92-73 victory
over the superstar-laden
America team.)

Most likely Puerto Ricans enjoy better government under
America`s fairly benevolent thumb than it would if they
ruled themselves. But that`s a rather humiliating
admission for a proud people to make.

And a strong case can be made that easy access to
America and its welfare morally debilitated Puerto
Ricans – who developed severe

and drug problems in the U.S.

Finally, the constant movement

back and forth
of "Nuyoricans," with many

yanking their children out of school
to spend
winters on the island and summers on the mainland, means
that they take less responsibility for any single

While Albizu was in jail, the U.S. government began its
expensive policy of buying Puerto Rican acquiescence
with tax breaks to corporations that do business there.
In the book

Pay to the Order of Puerto Rico: The Cost of Dependence
economist Arthur Laffer and Alexander Odishelidze
estimate that this now costs American taxpayers $22
billion annually.

After winning release, Albizu planned a coup in Puerto
Rico for November 4, 1950. The assassination of
President Truman was evidently scheduled for the next
day to make the world take note of Puerto Rico

The Puerto Rican cops, however, got wind of what was
coming a week earlier. With their intentions exposed,
Nationalist militants began an uncoordinated, premature
uprising, highlighted by a bloody but futile assault by
five commandos on the mansion of Gov. Luis Muñoz Marín
on Oct. 30.

Policemen loyal to the Governor then laid siege to
Albizu in his San Juan headquarters. In New York City,
the numerous Puerto Rican Nationalists were distraught
that their "Maximum Leader" was surrounded.

Hunter and Bainbridge explain why some Puerto Rican
immigrants in 1950 were murderously ill-disposed toward
their American hosts who were so kind as to give them
"the jobs Americans won`t do:"

"The New York, New
York that`s a hell of a town, where the

Bronx was up and the Battery down
, eluded
[the immigrants], except via the bitter low rungs of the service
economy… Jobs that somehow seem always to involve the
glutinous secretions of life that human beings of a
certain economic stature would prefer not to look upon
or to acknowledge anymore… Let the Puerto Ricans deal
with the reality of your biology. That`s their place in
the universe."

In their great song "America"
from West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim and
Leonard Bernstein

famously expressed
Puerto Rican immigrants`
two-sided views. The

and their


Life can be bright in America
Boys: If you can fight in America
Girls: Life is all right in America
Boys: If you`re all white in America

Thus, it`s not surprising that the

2000 Puerto Rican Day
Parade in

New York
was dedicated to Albizu, the man who
ordered the murder of Harry Truman.

Two immigrant Nationalist operatives, Torresola and
Collazo, apparently decided to move the assassination up
five days and headed for Washington. This acceleration
of the schedule probably kept it from succeeding—some
say the original called for five gunmen, which should
have been more than enough. Further, the pair only

one pistol each.
Having to pause to reload their
German automatics under fire proved fatal.

Still, the strategy they improvised a few hours before
their assault nearly worked:

"This plan was quite
elegant… The whole point of the plan was to overcome the
defenses with a stunning blast of firepower, disorient
and dis-coordinate the response, then hunt the President
down in Blair."

From opposite directions, they simultaneously approached
the policemen on the sidewalk in front of the
Presidential residence and shot them point blank, with

putting three slugs in White House

Leslie Coffelt
, mortally wounding him. Torresola, an
expert shot, then wounded two more guards, while his
less skilled compatriot

blasted away at the Secret Service agents at
the other end of the sidewalk, who remained unaware of
Torresalo`s existence. Meanwhile, the agent inside Blair
House struggled to unlock the cabinet holding a Tommy

Awoken from his nap by gunfire, President Truman walked
to his second floor window and stood looking out at the
gunfight in stunned amazement, only 30 feet from
where Torresola was reloading his


In this crisis, Coffelt, the only American in position
to stop Torresola, stood up despite the three

9-mm rounds
in him, staggered to within 20 feet of
the terrorist, and, in "what has to be considered the
most important shot ever taken by an American police
fired one perfectly aimed bullet into his
head, killing Torresola instantly.

Coffelt then sat down and died.

Coming again – to an Empire near you?

[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and

movie critic

The American Conservative
His website
features his daily