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.The Eternal American Battle - Humans V Money

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

DESPERATE MEN

I doubt if anyone took much notice of the two young men who boarded the 3:30 train for Washington, D.C. on Tuesday, October 31, 1950. The older of the two, 36 year old Oscar Collazo, wore a blue chalk striped suit with a “somber tie”. The younger man, 25 year old Griselio Torresola, carried a new $6 suitcase and wore glasses. After the four hour trip they blended smoothly into the crowd rushing through the cavernous Union Station. But these two men walking together were not merely members of the crowd on their individual ways home. They were political assassins. This pair had come to Washington to murder the American President, Harry Truman. And their greatest ally in their endeavor would turn out to be a British Admiral who had been dead for a hundred years.On the evening of August 24, 1814 one hundred British troops marched up Massachusetts Avenue. They were the scouts out front of the British army that had just defeated a hodgepodge American force at Blandersburg, Maryland. Behind them Capital Hill was already ablaze. They burst into the abandoned White House, feasted on the dinner laid out for James Madison’s cabinet by Dolly Madison, and proceeded to loot the silverware and plate. And then, under the personal urging of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, they piled the furniture in the center of each room and set it afire, in revenge for the burning a year earlier of the Canadian village that would become Toronto. For his act of arson Admiral Cockburn would be rewarded with the order of the Bath.After the debacle there was talk of moving the nation’s capital someplace safe, like Cincinnati, Ohio. But cooler heads prevailed and James Hoban, the original architect, was hired to supervise the rebuilding on the original location. To save time and money he kept many of the original supporting beams. But still it proved a career’s employment. James Monroe was the first President to reoccupy the structure, but the work was done so parsimoniously that the South Portico was not completed until 1824 and the North Portico not until 1830. Indoor plumbing was first installed in 1833, and a boiler for central heat in 1840. Eight years later James Polk replaced candles with gas lighting. Electricity was installed in 1892, but President Benjamin Harrison was so afraid of being electrocuted he rarely touch the switches.
All these additions of plumbing and wiring had turned the White Houses’ supporting beams into Swiss cheese. By Harry Truman’s January 1949 inaugural it was clear to the Missouri homeowner that something drastic had to be done. Floors were swaying. Plaster was sinking – as much as 18 inches in the East Room. The President’s bath tube was even sinking. His daughter’s piano had one leg poking through a hole in the floor. At Truman’s insistence engineers were brought in and quickly declared the building was still standing, “purely from habit.” The President and his family immediately moved across the street to a townhouse originally owned by the patriarch of the Missouri political dynasty, Montgomery Blair.
By October of 1950 the Presidential mansion was just an empty shell, 165 feet long by 85 feet wide, and 80 feet high. Inside the wooden beams were being replaced with steel, a deeper basement was dug that reached far beyond the old walls, and a complete electronic climate controlled plant was to be installed. But for all the additions and allowances for the future, for the time being, something important had been lost. Where a wrought iron fence and a couple of hundred yards of grass had once buffered the President from would be attackers, in the Blair House he was screened only short flight of steps and a single locked door.It was dark as the two assassins strolled casually through Union Station Park and up Massachusetts Avenue. It was an Indian summer night, warm and mild. The Dow Jones Industrial Average hovered close to 230. There were 33,000 new cases of polio that year. There had just been an attempt to murder the governor of Puerto Rico, Muñoz Marín, and shooting was still going on around the mountain village of Jayuya by members of the Nationalists Party. Forty percent of American families were worth at least $5,000. General Motors was reporting record profits of $646 million. That year Isaac Asimov had published his science fiction classic “I, Robot”, and L. Ron Hubbard his fantasy “Dianetics”. Last month, September, the comic strip “Beetle Bailey” first appeared in newspapers, and this month it was joined by “Peanuts”. There were over 100 television stations nationwide broadcasting 130 hours of programming each week. The Negro baseball leagues had just folded, and the New York Yankees have just won another World Series sweep. And, you might not notice it on the streets of Washington, but there was a killing war going on in Korea.
A block up Massachusetts Avenue Collazo and Torresola came to the Hotel Harris. They registered separately under false names. Each requested a semi-private room and luckily they were put in adjoining rooms, 434 and 436, and were each charged $3.50 for a one night stay.On the morning of October 30, 1950 there had been armed uprisings by the Nationalists Party in several Puerto Rican towns, but the only one that succeeded was in the mountain village of Jayuya. There the police station was surrounded, one officer killed, three wounded and the garrison taken prisoner. But with the failure of the assassination attempt against Governor Marín, and the refusal of the general public to support the rebels, the United States reacted strongly. Martial law was declared. The Puerto Rican nation guard began to move troops to surround Juyuya, and their aircraft began to bomb the rebel strong hold. In the late edition of the evening newspapers available in Washington it was clear that the Nationalists revolt was doomed to be an utter failure.After dinner the two assassins planned their next day’s attack using a map of the White House in the Yellow Pages. It would not be until the morning that they would learn the White House was empty, that Harry Truman was almost within their reach, and that because of a confluence of national passions, some almost two hundred years old, and some less than one day old - the next day would see blood flow.

By two forty-five the next afternoon, November 1st 1950, White House Police officer Coffet would be dead. But before he died, with dogged determination, Coffet would stop Griselio Torresola from reaching the front door of the Blair House, with a single pistol shot to his head. Oscar Collazo would be gravely wounded, as would two other White House security officers. And the dreams for Puerto Rican independence would still be alive, not because of but despite this foolish appeal to violence.

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