Blogs > Cliopatria > Tom Kelly: Review of American Gun Fight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr. (Simon & Schuster)

Apr 7, 2006 9:42 pm

Tom Kelly: Review of American Gun Fight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out That Stopped It By Stephen Hunter and John Bainbridge Jr. (Simon & Schuster)

[Tom Kelly covered the Truman assassination attempt for the Washington Daily News.]

ACCORDING TO THE FLYLEAF, "Everything in this book is true according to transcript, interview, secondary source or official document. Interpretations, deductions and opinions, which should be clear from context, are our own."

Never mind the transcript, interview, secondary source or official document; let's get to the interpretations, deductions, and opinions. Stephen Hunter, a Washington Post movie critic, has written a book about the attempted assassination of Harry Truman, and shares the blame with John Bainbridge Jr., who is described as a Journalist Lawyer, coupling two professions despised by millions.

American Gun Fight purports to be the up-to-now suppressed account of what really happened on that November day in 1950 when two Puerto Rican heroes (according to the authors) made the fatal attempt to free their island home from the tentacles of the Octopus to the North.

The authors offer a list of the myths they believe the gullible public was tricked into believing by the FBI and the Secret Service: The assassination attempt was thrown together on the run; the assassins were upset by newspaper reports of what was going on in Puerto Rico, where an equally silly group of men were attempting a coup; they thought that Truman lived in the White House until a cab driver told them that he was temporarily living in Blair House across the street. Harry Truman was never in any mortal danger, and, due to the machinations of the government, the public regarded the attempt as a joke, a farce, an opera bouffe. Hunter and Bainbridge then try to blow it all down in one big breath. They say, of the items listed: "Every single one of them is wrong."

Actually, every single one of them is right. The assassins were Griselio Torresola, who was killed, and Oscar Collazo, who killed a policeman but survived. Meanwhile, their leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, was sitting out an uprising in Puerto Rico. There were five uprisers and all five were shot, four fatally. The authors seem persuaded that the attempt to kill Truman was perfectly understandable and, indeed, noble. They try hard to make Griselio and Oscar heroes, and El Pedro a superhero. (He had run for president of Puerto Rico and received 5,000 votes out of the hundreds of thousands cast.) They seem to believe that, with a little bit of luck, El Pedro would have been the Father of a Brave New Country.

The oddest thing about this odd book is the argument the authors are having with themselves. On Page 41 they mock the idea that the assassins were so out of touch with reality that they thought that Truman was in the White House until the cabby told them he was across the street. On Page 87 they report, matter-of-fact, that Grisella and Oscar did think Truman was in the White House and, when the cabby told them otherwise, they were so surprised that they felt "slapped in the face."

They assure us that Oscar, Griselio, and El Pedro were able planners. Consider the planning. They had intended to gun down Harry Truman in the White House. How would they have gone about it? Would they have shot the guards in the guardhouse, run up the long curving path to the front door, shot the guards there, and then run around the huge building, shooting guards and innocent bystanders, until they found out where the president was?

Why shoot Truman, that gentle, dedicated man? Oscar, the one who survived, says it was nothing personal; the grim fact that Truman would have been dead was beside the point. These noble savages weren't after him, they were after "the president of the United States." What lover of crackpot nationalists could object to that?

Why did they want to kill the president? The authors aren't quite sure, but they offer us choices. Maybe it was the Spaniards, who "had left a legacy of violence" in Puerto Rico. Maybe it was the Americans, who arrived there after the Spanish in 1898, "advancing behind piety and bayonets," and who had changed "their language, their customs and even the spelling of the name of the island itself."

Or maybe it was simply the inspired idea of their leader, "fiery Pedro Albizu Campos." Fiery Pedro, a Harvard Law School graduate, was "a fighter against imperialism, a plotter of revolution, a man of almost saintly composure and assuredness [who] dazzled them all with his courage, his strength, his absolutism, his wit, his powerful oratory and his way of seeing through things to the absolute core." He was, they say, "smart. He was very smart." At Harvard he failed to maintain the C average required, but two professors recommended him for the law school anyway. One said Albizu was "a gentlemanly Puerto Rican, not brilliant intellectually but of good habits and appearance." The other said he was "unusually courteous and gentlemanly . . . and his work, if not brilliant, has been thorough and absolutely satisfactory."

El Pedro's courage wasn't always dazzling. In the brief, abortive revolt that preceded the assassination attempt in New York by a few days, he stayed home while five of his followers were being riddled with bullets. After a three-day siege, he and a young man named Rivera Walker surrendered. Walker went out, carrying a white napkin on a pole, while the Maximum Leader waited inside.

This book is without substantial new facts, but loaded with suppositions, deductions, and opinions. The main players are long dead, but Hunter and Bainbridge seem able to move back in time and into the heads and hearts of the assassins, as well as bystanders, innocent or not, at home and abroad, and hear with their ears, see with their eyes, and read the thoughts that ran around in their brains.

Why did they write this loopy book? Perhaps, like many dedicated members of the modern media, they believe it is part of their job to present America as an exploiter of mankind and greedy gobbler of other peoples' goods. Why is the country that fought a civil war to abolish slavery, rescued Puerto Rico from "gold hungry" Spain, helped defeat Hitler, saved the Philippines from Spain, and brought Saddam Hussein, the butcher of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen, to judge and jury, the villain? Maybe Hunter has seen one Oliver Stone film too many. Perhaps Bainbridge feels, as lawyers often do, that the truth isn't important as long as you can persuade a jury. Why did Simon and Schuster publish this book? Maybe the publisher had a couple of idle presses, a lot of paper, and a desire to keep busy.

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