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American Gunfight: The Plot to Kill Harry Truman--and the Shoot-out that Stopped It Hardcover – October 25, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 80 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, nearly assassinated President Harry Truman. If this historical fact surprises you, you're not alone. American Gunfight, a new account by suspense novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Stephen Hunter and journalist John Bainbridge Jr., examines this largely forgotten episode in meticulous detail, including the conspiracy surrounding it and the misconceptions associated with the would-be assassins. As the book makes clear, it's remarkable that these two men even came close to succeeding, given the disorganized nature of the plot. Intending to attack the president at the White House, they only learned in passing from a cab driver that it was being renovated and that Truman was in fact living at the nearby Blair House. When they made their assault on Blair House, they quickly lost their element of surprise when Collazo's gun misfired, leading to a 38-second shootout in front of the residence that left Torresola and one policeman dead. Meanwhile, Truman witnessed the action from an upstairs window.

At his ensuing trial, Collazo was depicted as a crazed fanatic, but the authors argue that this simplified assessment unnecessarily dismisses a potential political conspiracy involving Puerto Rican nationalist leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who was believed by some to have masterminded the plot in an effort to bring attention to his cause. Hunter and Bainbridge provide in-depth portraits of Collazo and Torresola, as well as the Secret Service agent and three White House policemen who saved Truman's life. The descriptions of the remarkably light presidential security of the era reveal much about 1950s Washington, D.C., a time in which the president would take a daily walk around the neighborhood with just a bodyguard or two in tow. As a result of the attack, the Secret Service would forever change the way it guarded the president. This fast-paced book reads like a detective thriller, shifting quickly between various story lines and characters, including a second-by-second breakdown of the gunfight itself. The potboiler narrative may seem over the top at times, with its conjecture and imagined internal dialogue, but this comprehensive account succeeds in bringing this unlikely plot vividly to life. --Shawn Carkonen

From Publishers Weekly

On November 1, 1950, two Puerto Rican nationalists, Oscar Collazo and Griselio Torresola, engaged in a sustained gun battle with Secret Service agents at Blair House. Their goal was to assassinate President Harry Truman. It's curious that the two men haven't found a place in popular memory like other presidential assailants. But this attempt deserves attention because it was explicitly political and because it permanently altered Secret Service practices. Hunter, esteemed for his film criticism and macho adventure novels, teams up with former Baltimore Sun journalist Bainbridge for this richly detailed account of the motives and destinies of virtually everyone connected to the skirmish. This is an ambitious attempt to achieve time-lapse history. The actual confrontation took less than a minute; rather than save it up for the end, the authors spread it across much of the book, interspersed with background material on the participants. The book reads like the product of a film lover/action novelist and a journalist rather than a work of history, with the shootout described in stream-of-consciousness, and melodramatic, cliff-hanging chapter endings. To the authors' credit, though, interpretations are presented as such, and their handling of the recorded events is not only convincing but compelling.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (October 25, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743260686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743260688
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (80 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #735,453 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had been anxiously looking forward to reading this book since I first saw it on amazon a few months ago. Stephen Hunter is a great author & the perfect person to elucidate the story of the violent attempt on the life of Harry Truman by a pair of desperate Puerto Rican nationalists. This isn't your "usual" assassination attempt with a lone person firing a single gun but a 40-second gun battle pitting a pair of gunmen against the frighteningly casual security arrangements at Blair House where the President was staying. It's an incident that many Americans may have forgotten but it is well worth remembering, if only for the courage of the White House policeman who stopped the more dangerous of the two assassins despite having been mortally wounded himself.

The book starts out very well with little biographies of some of the people involved & a description of the Puerto Rican nationalist movement & some of the events in Puerto Rico that led to the assassination attempt in Washington, DC. Hunter is at his best in this book in describing the people inovlved & in giving enough of a history of the Secret Service, Puerto Rico, etc. without slowing his story down.

Reading this background information, it is easy to get excited about the desription of the gun battle that is coming. Hunter's specialty in his novels is writing about guns & gunfights & the book promises to be both informative & exciting when it gets to the gunfight itself. Unfortunately, when he does get to the gun battle, he falls into a sort of flashback/flash forward style of writing with very brief accounts of the assassination interspersed with more Puerto Rican history & more biographical information.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
An admirable job of reacquainting us with this event. The hero of the piece displays amazing strength and focus. The parallels to the family men who terrorize us today are sobering. But too much background and some poor editing distract the reader (I've never seen so many exclamation points outside of a middle school).
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Format: Hardcover
In a nutshell, this is a compelling story that's essentially ruined by horrible prose. The authors have adopted an almost "Memento"-esque flashback method of telling the backstories of all the personalities featured--no matter how mundane or irrelevant the detail. There's a great deal of repetition of key events and plot points as a result. I could live with this, but what absolutely ruined the book for me was the constant use of past and present tenses interchangeably--often within the same sentence! Additionally, the prose slips from formal to conversational too easily to suit me, though this is far less annoying than the incessant changing of tenses. It made me feel as if I was reading a book that had been hastily cobbled together over a weekend.

The authors introduce one of their interminable flashbacks at one point by saying "this book is about 38.5 seconds of gunfight, however ..." and therein lies the problem. This is undoubtedly a fascinating story, one with which most Americans are probably unfamiliar, and one that definitely deserves to be told. However, it would have read much easier as a 10- or 12-page magazine article; stretching it out into 325 pages really seems unnecessary.
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Format: Hardcover
One of the thinks I particularly enjoy about history is its depth. While most people have at least a general familiarity with history, even students of history can always be surprised by in-depth looks at various periods of history. American Gunfight is a great example of this; while I was aware that two Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Truman in 1950, the details of the incident and the context surrounding it were not covered in any of the other histories of Truman I've read. While that was a logical decision on the part of the authors, as aside from this incident, Puerto Rico was a very small part of Truman's presidency, it left out a fascinating story that illustrates a slice of American history that is often forgotten.

American Gunfight provides a detailed look at the gunfight outside Blair House that left two men dead and three wounded, reviving the memory of American hero Les Coffelt, who almost certainly saved the President's life by killing one of the assassins even as he was bleeding out from three gunshot wounds. But the book goes well beyond the gunfight, branching out to explore the history of the men involved in the battle and the history of Puerto Rican nationalism. The book also takes on some of the common myths regarding the gunfight, in particular the theory that President Truman's life was never in danger.

The book's layout is somewhat distracting. The book jumps from the gunfight to background with each chapter, so the gunfight develops over the course of the entire work rather than being described as a discrete event. While it does serve as a useful means of introducing the characters and events surrounding the gunfight, I found it somewhat annoying.
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