On Nov. 1, 1950, two gunmen attempted to assassinate President Harry Truman at the guest residence of the White House in Washington, DC. Two Puerto Rican nationalists tried to storm the Blair House and gun down the sitting president. The men never got past the security gates, but two men died in the shootout.
The assassination attempt came just as the Cold War (and McCarthyism) was beginning to ramp up, and it had international implications, which is just what the assassins aimed for.
Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo were Puerto Ricans who had been living in New York for a few years prior to the assassination attempt, and had, due to any number of circumstances, been drawn in to the Puerto Rican nationalist movement, which was stronger in 1950s than it is today. Armed uprisings began in 1950 after the island’s most popular nationalist party, the boringly-named Nationalist Party, called for a violent uprising against the colonial policy of the United States. (The call for an armed rebellion came after repeated electoral defeats at the hands of the Popular Democratic Party, which wanted to renegotiate Puerto Rico’s status within the American imperium.)
Torresola and Collazo didn’t have much of a plan. They took a train from NYC to D.C. and approached Blair House, planning to shoot their way to Truman. Torresola walked up to the guest house and shot guard Leslie Coffelt four times at point-blank range, and Collazo started a gun fight with several guards. Torresola tried to find Collazo, leaving Coffelt for dead, but Coffelt somehow managed to get off a shot and it hit Torresola in the head, immediately killing him. Collazo was shot several times but managed to survive. It was the heaviest and longest gun fight in Secret Service history.
Truman, who was said to be napping on the second floor, awoke and went to the window to see what the commotion was about. He wasn’t hit, or even shot at, but Secret Service agents nevertheless pulled him from the window and smothered him with bodies until the gunfire stopped.
Collazo got a swift trial and was sentenced to death. However, President Truman commuted the sentence to life in prison instead. Both the President and the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, urged the slain guard’s wife to visit Puerto Rico, where she was received warmly and the assassins’ actions widely and publicly condemned in her presence.
The assassination also ruined the Nationalist Party, and Puerto Rico’s Popular Democratic Party was successful in its endeavor to renegotiate the terms of its standing with the United States. Truman nevertheless allowed the people of Puerto Rico to hold a plebiscite on independence in 1952, and it was soundly defeated in favor of continued Free Association status.
The forgiving nature of President Truman probably boils down to the fact that the assassins didn’t get anywhere near him and that Truman was focused on fighting Communism, and the Puerto Rican nationalist movement had very little, if any, support from Communists. Truman also had to put the assassination in a geopolitical context. If the United States had executed an anti-imperialist, even a violent one, it would have damaged its message of freedom abroad to the recently-decolonized world in Asia and Africa.
President Jimmy Carter released Collazo, along with three other Puerto Rican nationalists, from prison in 1979, and Collazo lived in Puerto Rico until his death in 1994. Carter released the prisoners around the same time that the Castro regime released four Americans from Cuban prisons. All four Puerto Rican nationalists were serving time for violent attacks on members of the federal government. Collazo, of course, tried to kill Truman, and the three others had been part of an attack on members of the House of Representatives in 1954. (The Castro regime was infamous for giving out awards to Puerto Rican nationalists who violently attacked members of the U.S. government.)
The Puerto Rican people were largely angry about the release. They argued, through their non-voting member in the House and via the press, that the prisoners were not in prison for their political beliefs, but because of their criminal conduct. The released prisoners were unrepentant, with one saying that his gun was responsible for all of the injuries sustained by Congressmen, and another vowing to do whatever was necessary to secure Puerto Rican independence. The freed prisoners got a much different reception within the continental U.S., with speaking tours and cheering crowds of hundreds greeting them wherever they went.