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The First Amendment protects many forms of peaceful protest. However, once the peace is broken, a protest can become an illegal attack. Such was the attempt by two Puerto Rican Nationalists to assassinate President Harry Truman in 1950.

This attack was not out of the blue. The Nationalist movement had been building in Puerto Rico since 1912, when the first independence movement was formed. Calls for change intensified in the 1930s when the Depression hit the island hard. Pedro Albizu Campos, a Harvard educated orator, began to rally Puerto Ricans to his nationalist cause.

In the late 1940s, after a failed attempt by Nationalists to assassinate the Puerto Rican governor, Campos established a long-term plan to build up weapons and forces over several years. Then, in October 1950, Campos ignited his revolt. It turned out to be premature, and it only lasted three days. As the military descended on the revolutionaries in rural Puerto Rico, two Nationalists in New York took it upon themselves to make a major statement by assassinating President Truman.

On November 1, 1950, Oscar Collazo and Griseleo Torresola walked down Pennsylvania Avenue. They stopped outside Blair House, just down the street from the White House. Harry and Bess Truman were living at Blair House while the White House was undergoing a major renovation. Perhaps it seemed less secure, as the gunmen approached. After a 38-second gunfight between the Nationalists and guards protecting the president, Torresola and a Secret Service officer, Leslie Coffelt, lay dead near the steps of Blair House. Collazo was struck by a bullet but survived the fight and was prosecuted. Truman had yet to step outside when the fight began. He was shaken but safe.

After the violence, Puerto Rico was no closer to becoming an independent nation. The federal government and the American press connected the revolt in Puerto Rico to the attempt on Truman’s life, although Collazo never claimed their act was part of a larger plan. This incident exemplifies how violent protest often fails in its aims. In the United States, a tradition of free speech and public debate has made it hard to convince people by use of force. Especially in an instance such as this, when, in fact, presidential protection was increased as a result, violence seems counterintuitive to the protesters’ goals.

Blair House stands at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue, across the street from the White House. Harry Truman was in residence here during his second term when the assassination attempt took place. Today it is an official state guest house for the president. Note the guard booth, which no longer exists.

Library of Congress

Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Collazo lies wounded at the base of the steps to Blair House after a failed attempt to assassinate President Truman, November 1, 1950.

AP Photo / Harvey Georges

Leslie Coffelt was the Secret Service officer on duty in a guard booth outside Blair House. He was mortally wounded by Griselio Torresola but managed to kill Torresola before succumbing. He is the only Secret Service agent ever to die in defense of the president.

U.S. Secret Service / U.S. Department of Treasury

An unidentified official examines a bullet that had lodged itself in a Blair House wall during the attack.

Copyright Washington Post; reprinted by the permission of the D.C. Public Library

The White House was renovated during Truman's second term. This is a glimpse of the renovation in progress, taken the day of the attack. It was because of these renovations that President Truman was residing in the Blair House.

Truman Library

A letter to President Truman from former President Herbert Hoover, sent the day after the attack. Hoover declares that "assassination is not part of the American way of life."

Truman Library

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