HOW THE PRESIDENT IS GUARDED

by

Albert H. Morehead

April 1949

A few months ago I sat down to plan the assassination of Harry S. Truman, president of the United States.

Why? That’s my secret. I may let you in on it later; not now.

But don’t think this is fiction you’re reading. This is a straight factual article. I applied myself, diligently and professionally, to planning the assassination of our president.

Why should it surprise you, anyway? There are always people who want to do away with some national leader. The actual number swells in proportion to publicity. Hundreds of thousands wanted to kill Napoleon, a century and a half ago; literally millions, in our own time, dreamed of exterminating Adolf Hitler. Even if the prospective victim is altruistic and generally loved, give him enough power and somebody, somewhere, will want to kill him.

Many and complex are the motives that may impel a would-be assassin. Some think, in their crazed minds, that they have a sacred mission. Some, more dispassionate, mistakenly calculate that the elimination of one man will further an end they desperately desire: a war, a peace, a different political philosophy. Some maniacs will literally give their lives to occupy the spotlight in a great event, however tragic.

Don’t even think it strange that I reveal my plot. Potential assassins usually do. Once, interviewing people picked at random on street corners, a radio announcer asked a man in Buffalo. “What would you do if you had only twenty-four hours to live?” The startling reply, heard by a network audience just before the show was cut off the air, was, “I’d fly to Washington and kill Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Down in Washington the U. S. Secret Service, charged by Congress with the task of guarding the president and his family, coolly added this name to a long list of those who had publicly stated personal enmity for President Roosevelt. Such a list is always in existence. They have one today, though not nearly so long a one, for President Truman.

The typical assassin is a young — under forty — man. (Women don’t assassinate national leaders; they fall in love with them.) He is unemployed, or if he has a job he hates it. He is quite willing to trade his life for his victim’s.

That last is the assassin’s greatest advantage. Nothing, when you come to think of it, is much easier than homicide — if you don’t mind being caught.

Just think how easy it would be to kill you. Anyone could knock on your door, or walk up to you in the street, pull out a gun, and blast. Anyone could conk you on the head, poison your food in a restaurant, or drop a hand grenade at your feet. It doesn’t worry you, for two reasons: First, why should anyone want to kill you? And second, you trust the law and the fear of punishment to deter anyone who might. But assassins don’t fear the punishment, and some maniacs, remember, actually want to be caught so that all the world will know who did it.

I wrote out a list of my assets and my liabilities. First, the assets: I was not known to the Secret Service; from their card file of president-haters my name was missing. I was not (I believed) insane; no demoniac chortles punctuated my deliberate planning. I had ample time and, within reason, ample money for travel, research, equipment.

My liability was a single one. The President of the United States is one of the most carefully guarded men in the world.

In the turmoil that followed the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 — our third presidential victim in a single generation — Congress gave the Secret Service had occupied itself chiefly with counterfeiters, bootleggers, and smugglers, so this was a strange order; but an order it was, and by the heavens they were going to carry it out. Today the “White House detail” comprises dozens of trained men, working on a full-time basis, heirs to years of experience and study, and armed with the power of national law.

The president himself, of all men most subject to that law, cannot take a walk, get a haircut, eat a steak, or read a letter, if the Secret Service for reasons of safety says No. Ed Starling, late chief of the White House detail, told the now famous story of how he lolled against a tree while President Hoover and Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald, nearby, attempted to have a private conversation.

“We may be overheard,” Mr. MacDonald objected.

“We shall be overheard,” Mr. Hoover agreed.

“Tell him to go away,” Mr. MacDonald suggested.

“He won’t go,” said Mr. Hoover gloomily.

President Hoover was ungrateful in his gloom. Secret Service scrutiny may chafe but it is effective. No harm has come to any president since it took over. If I could break through, I would be the first.

The means available to me were precisely three: Infernal machines; poison; firearms. The other myriad murder techniques known to mystery-story writers require direct personal contact. That close to the president one can’t get.

The bomb or infernal machine is traditionally the assassin’s first thought. It can be a long-range device, timed to go off when the killer is miles away. It attracts those assassins — and there are some — who want to kill without being caught.

But it didn’t attract me, too much. Just as the bomb is the first thought of assassins, it is the first thought of the president’s guard and the precautions against it are many.

You can’t mail one in; they X-ray the president’s mail. You can’t toss one from a crowd; special Secret Service men are assigned to keep their eyes in the air, catch anything that comes sailing through, and toss it back. (This happens constantly, usually innocent missiles like bouquets, gifts, or petitions, and never has one reached its mark.) You can’t carry one into the White House, and what if you could? They exploded a bomb in the same room with Hitler and couldn’t kill him. Forget it.

This is the atomic age, but I hardly even thought of the atomic bomb. In the first place I couldn’t figure out any way to get one (could you?). If, miraculously, I had an atomic bomb it would be least useful of all devices. Wherever Mr. Truman is to be, they go over every inch of the environs with a Geiger counter. That’s the contraption that detects radioactive material and gives warning by clicking furiously.

Poison? Bacteria? Not a chance. Everything edible sent to the president is tested in Department of Agriculture laboratories. When the president takes his dinner at a banquet, a special chef is installed; a Secret Service man poses as the waiter; other Secret Service men clear and guard a direct path from the kitchen to the president’s place at the table.

That narrowed the choice, for the time being, to firearms, and brought me to the assassin’s favorite method. A man with a gun!

There is something peculiarly satisfying about this method. When the assassin takes aim, pulls the trigger, recoils from the explosion, he feels himself the sole and personal instrument of death, almost as though he had struck his victim down with a cutlass.

Not only that, but in our time this method has been the most effective, almost the only effective one. With a pistol the mad actor John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln, the vengeful Charles Guiteau killed President Garfield, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz killed President McKinley — meeting the president’s outstretched hand with a weapon concealed under a fake bandage.

All these preceded the mission of the Secret Service, of course; but it was a pistol that almost got Franklin D. Roosevelt at Miami in 1933, and instead killed Mayor Anton Cermak of Chicago, who was sitting beside him. Nevertheless this very incident was enough to give me pause.

The quick-draw and long-shot business is largely a myth. It’s all right for horse operas, but in real life it doesn’t go. Any firearm that is small enough to conceal easily, and light enough to draw quickly, lacks the range and lacks the accuracy. You have to get pretty close to your victim; and this, of course, the Secret Service knows and takes pains to prevent.

No one, not even a Congressman or a friendly diplomat, is permitted to approach the president with his hand in his pocket. Try it and a Secret Service man will unostentatiously step in front of you — and stay there till your hand comes out. It had better come out empty.

There are, of course, special harnesses that hang the gun up your sleeve. And the president often receives committees and delegations whose individual members are not too carefully screened. It occurred to me that I could readily become a member of such a delegation — in a pinch I might even form a brand-new pressure group of my own — and get in that way. When my turn came to shake hands a spring would slip the pistol into my hand and I could fire before a Secret Service man would have time to stop me. How about that?

Then I heard about the fluoroscope machine. The Secret Service has one that can be concealed where everyone entering the White House must pass it. It gives an X-ray picture to a Secret Service man standing behind the screen; it shows up your watch, your small change, your suspender buttons, and incidentally any weapon you happen to be carrying, whether up your sleeve or elsewhere.

They don’t always use their fluoroscope machine, but there’s no telling when they might. That was enough to discourage me. I didn’t want the excruciating problem of how to shoot a president from a jail cell. An assassin may not seek the perfect crime in the sense of escaping punishment, but he does want his plan to be foolproof. Remember, he is giving up his own life. He will have one chance, and one chance only.

So you can’t kill a president in his office or home. There are other places; President Truman doesn’t stay put. He makes speeches to large audiences. He attends church, lays wreaths, tosses the first ball at the opening game. He goes home to Independence, Kansas, and suns himself at Key West, Florida.

Independence and Key West I quickly dismissed. They are too small. A lurking stranger would be noticed by police and reported to the Secret Service. As a scientific assassin, I could not adequately prepare under police surveillance; I needed the obscurity of a big city.

Parades, auditoriums, baseball parks — much better. When tens of thousands of strangers assemble, the Secret Service can’t possibly screen them all, can’t possibly watch them all. And there is the president, up on the podium or exposed in a private box, a perfect target…

I gave that up, too. The Secret Service can’t watch them all, true, but it does do this!

Around the president are placed ten or a dozen men whose cardinal principle is, “Never look at the president; he isn’t going to attack himself. Watch everybody else.” The sharp eyes of these men ceaselessly scan the front rows. Planted here and there in the crowd are dozens of other Secret Service men and cooperating local detectives.

If you are in the front row they will see you and get you sure before you can draw, aim and fire. If you are in a back row you will make your shot, most likely; but you’ll miss. Firing over the heads of people; getting your shot off in a split second before any neighbor can notice you (for any intentional or chance movement that touches your arm will deflect your aim); required to hit a vital spot at long range, you would be bucking long odds, too long.

Here it is well to state, once and for all, a basic difficulty under which I labored. I am merely a normally intelligent, capable American. I am not Superman; I can’t fly through the air or make myself invisible; I can’t disguise myself as General Eisenhower or Eleanor Roosevelt. I am not Tarzan or Houdini or Roy Rogers. My strength is average, my target practice cuts no great shakes in shooting galleries, and I am no criminal mastermind with a corps of devoted cutthroats to do my bidding.

I had, in fact, no accomplice and no confidant. Assassins don’t. They blab, they hint darkly, but they don’t confide. The mad ones are too suspicious, the relatively sane ones too discreet.

Reluctantly I abandoned the thought of using a pistol, but I wasn’t through with firearms. Not quite yet.

As any newspaper reader knows, President Truman has not been living in the White House since shortly after the 1948 election. While that venerable structure undergoes repair, the presidential family occupies Blair House, a mansion diagonally across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House grounds. But the executive offices remain in the White House; and, at the time I was doing my planning, it was Mr. Truman’s custom to cross the avenue, to and from work, twice or more a day.

Curious sightseers assembled to watch him cross. I thought it would be safe to join them. I stood and waited.

A murmur rippled through the group; here came the president on his 500-foot trek. Special stoplights halted traffic. Beside Mr. Truman marched a Secret Service man, an old-timer, calm and confident, his eyes moving here and there among the spectators lining the way, the strollers along the avenue, the occupants of automobiles behind the red lights. Bringing up the rear were two more Secret Service men, one of them apparently a tenderfoot in training, nervous and trigger-happy; the other an experienced man like the first.

The Secret Service had prepared itself carefully for this much-publicized daily appearance of the president. Every neighboring house had been investigated and was kept under scrutiny. Constant guards in front of, behind and on top of Blair House watched the parking lot and garages in the rear and the traffic that passed by. Most near-by buildings are government offices, anyway; a sharpshooter with a high-powered rifle couldn’t post himself anywhere near. But the Secret Service still looked worried.

Not so Mr. Truman. He smiled and waved; he even paused while cameras came out and pictures were taken. And that give me an idea.

I had already considered and abandoned the plan, ancient and hackneyed, of a firing mechanism hidden in a camera. It is so hackneyed that the Secret Service routing includes careful examination of all cameras that come within range of their presidential charge. Only long-accredited and thoroughly trusted White House photographers escape this examination. I knew I could not become one of those. For one thing, I am not a skilled photographer. I wouldn’t have time to become one and then wangle a presidential assignment from a newspaper. Assassins, remember, are impulsive and impatient.

There are, however, two items of photographic equipment that the Secret Service seemed to pay less attention to. One, the flash bulbs. Two, the thin little cameras that sightseers generally carry.

Carefully I designed a mechanism, small enough to conceal in either a flash bulb or a housing scarcely more than an inch thick. Either the frosted glass of the bulb or the shutter behind the lens would conceal it. Rigidly aimed to drive a bullet wherever the camera was focused, it ought to work. And for the time being, at least, even an unknown could walk up to the president and take his picture…

“The time being” didn’t last long. Whether the Secret Service was worried about cameras or about some other hazard, it soon put a stop to the daily crossings. Mr. Truman began to make the trip from home to office in one of the presidential automobiles.

There are four presidential cars, all armored. Two are limousines, two are convertible sedans. The steel is armor plate, the glass is bulletproof, bombproof fabric; a bomb dropped from a thirty-story building won’t puncture it. The tops and the windows go up, at an instant’s notice, by push-button control. In his automobile the president is safe against anything short of a dive-bomber…[1]

I once took some flying lessons. At first, floating around in the great blue yonder, I was sure I couldn’t even hit the flying field on my way down; but when I tried, I was amazed at my accuracy. I found myself landing in the very spot I had picked from hundreds of feet above.

Among my acquaintanceship is a man who traded heavily in government surplus, after World War I and again after World War II. I went to see him.

“They’re selling off some obsolete dive-bombers,” I began.

He nodded. “Seven thousand bucks,” he replied. “And cash; the banks won’t finance them.”

“Think nothing of it,” said I. “I’m talking bigger than that. I want mine with matching bombs.”

Not a flicker of surprise crossed his impassive countenance. “Eleven thousand,” he responded without a break in the rhythm. “You pay cash in advance here and pick it up in Haiti — if it arrives. It’s your risk.”

“Thanks for the information,” I said cordially, and left. I knew I couldn’t smuggle a plane back in. I’d have to rig up my own American plane. First, I thought, I’d better find out what my chances would be then. I went to see an Air Force man, an old friend I’d known long before the Air Force did.

“Suppose,” I said to him, “just suppose, I want to dive-bomb a moving automobile. There’s no ground protection and no opposition in the air. Could I be sure of killing somebody in the car?”

“We-ell,” he mused, “a skilled combat pilot might have a ten percent chance. I say he might; I still doubt it. What are you doing, writing about how they killed Rommel?”

I disregarded that question and let him go on talking.

“You know what I mean by a skilled combat pilot?” he continued. “A student, when he gets his wings, has trained a year — that’s equivalent to eight years for a civilian pilot. Then he has eight months’ combat practice — another five years, that would be, for a civilian. And then, if he gets a few years’ actual battle experience, I might call him skilled.

“The only thing that might work,” he concluded, “is kamikaze. Load up your plane and aim for the automobile. You’ll probably kill anybody hanging around there. Along with yourself, of course. Don’t take my word for it, thought. I’ve never actually tried.”

I thanked him and dismissed the whole matter from my mind. My reasons were psychological but conclusive. In a kamikaze attempt, I would have to die before I knew whether or not I’d gotten my man. No assassin could bear that.

Nevertheless, I’d have to catch the president, if at all, when he ventured out, away from home and office. When does this happen?

Occasionally the president rides from office to airport, to meet some arriving notable. The Secret Service never lets it be known in advance that he is going, but one might figure out from the newspapers that he would probably go. The route is secret, of course, and is constantly varied. The president enters his car through a covered passageway from inside the White House. And on such a trip his armored car is sure to be closed and invulnerable.

The only time the president rides in an open car — and you can predict the time and the place — is when he makes a trip to some big city and travels through the streets to be seen and cheered. I studied the routine of a presidential trip.

Well in advance of his trip, one or two Secret Service men visit the city. They reserve an entire floor at the chosen hotel. They check the fire hazard and persuade the fire chief to make the necessary changes. They enlist the cooperation of the police chief and borrow reinforcements — often hundreds of men, to be posted at the airport or railroad station, in and around the hotel, and along the streets the president will traverse.

The advance men select a safe route for the presidential procession, but don’t announce it; this will be a secret until the day before the president arrives. They check on all hazards along the way, including, incidentally, windows in which a gunman might sit and wait.

The list of all the president’s known enemies in that vicinity arrives with the advance men. Aided by Secret Service men from the nearest field office, they ascertain the whereabouts of everyone. Any who might attempt mischief is watched until the president has been to town and has safely departed.

The big Secret Service squad moves in one day before the president. The entrances to the reserved hotel floor are blocked off and will be guarded from that time on. This floor is then searched, tested for bacteria or chemicals, and examined with a Geiger counter. A special elevator is set aside, a trusted operator put on it, and the mechanism that activates it put under guard.

Every hotel employee and every hotel guest is investigated, it doesn’t matter if there are a thousand and more. Names and addresses are wired to Secret Service field offices and prompt replies return the information that the guest is legitimate or doubtful. Any doubtful guest is visited, and if necessary is watched.

Detectives saunter the surrounding sidewalks and mingle with guests in the lobby.

When the president rides through the streets in his open car, specially-assigned men watch the windows along the way. Others watch the crowds, the rooftops, and (as I noted before) even the adjacent atmosphere.

I was about to give up, but I had one other idea. It brought me back to Washington and back to the bomb.

Years ago I had a radio with what they called a “magic” control. You carried around a little black box, no larger than a lady’s purse and attached by no wires to anything. By jiggling the dial on this little box you could tune your radio to the station you wanted, though the radio might be fifty or seventy-five feet away.

The Federal Communications Commission stopped the sale of these radios. That little black box was actually a miniature broadcasting station, and broadcasting without a license is illegal. It may not have hurt anything, but rules are rules.

But I still had my little black box.

I figured this way: When the president starts off in his automobile, whether for the airport, for church, or for anywhere else, there are a limited number of ways he can go. However they vary the route, he will sooner or later pass through some selected street. Along that street there will be a manhole or other opening his car must pass over. If a sufficient explosive charge could be planted there, and detonated at the exact instant of his crossing it, maybe —

I picked my street. I picked a manhole. I measured a manhole cover — twenty-eight inches diameter.

Far away, in a quiet district where the streets are usually deserted, I spotted another twenty-eight-inch manhole cover and marked it for my own, when the time came.

I went to the library and studied explosives. Dynamite would be easy to get, but dynamite I couldn’t handle. It is not stable enough. If I jiggled that fifty-pound manhole cover, setting it in place, my assassination could turn into an unplanned suicide. Any innocent car rumbling over my bomb might detonate it — if it were dynamite. But TNT — that is a stable explosive, nearly immune to such risks. It doesn’t quite match the power of dynamite, but you can handle it.

Having done my reading, I called on a chemical firm. “I’m experimenting with a new plastic compound,” I told them. “Can I get samples of nitrocellulose, and toluol, and sulphuric acid?” I could, easily, and without arousing suspicion. These materials are not uncommonly used in the manufacture of plastics. They also make TNT.

I found it easy to steal the manhole cover I wanted. One need merely stop his car beside the spot at a quiet hour, open the trunk of the car, and lift it in. Close the trunk and drive away.

Equally simple was to attach the homemade bomb to the bottom of the manhole cover, its detonator tuned to the radio control of the little black box.

And finally, when a presidential sally is predictable on the following day, I could drive to the chosen spot near the White House, in that period before the break of dawn when detection is most unlikely. Open the trunk again, switch the prepared manhole cover for the harmless one, load the latter in the car and drive away. Small chance that just that morning workmen would open that particular manhole.

Later in the morning, when the president might be ready to leave, I would be loitering nearby. I would wait until the presidential car was directly over the spot. Then a touch on the dial of my little black box —

Why, I might even get away with it! By the time the police arrived, I might be far away, merely an interested newspaper reader.

I was so confident that my plan would work, I became impatient to know how long I might have to wait. I called on a mathematician friend and drew him a skeleton map showing the routes and the streets. I  drew a cross at the president’s starting point, and another at my manhole cover.

“What are the odds,” I asked, “that a person leaving this point and proceeding at random will  pass this point?”

He took out his slide rule, his tablet and his pencil. Soon the tablet was covered over with little figures. Eventually he looked up and gave me the verdict.

“Your chance,” he reported, “is one in nine hundred and ninety-six.”

So then I gave up for good and wrote a letter. It went like this:

TO THE EDITOR OF COSMOPOLITAN

DEAR SIR:

You told me to find out how President Truman is guarded, and how well he is guarded, and then write an article about it.

I have studied the matter and my considered opinion is this: President Truman is guarded very well indeed. From the standpoint of an ambitious assassin, far too well.

Nevertheless I have written the article about it, and here it is.

                Yours sincerely, etc.

And there, incidentally, you have your answer to the question “Why did I want to assassinate President Truman? Why, bless you, I never did really want to. I voted for him!


[1] Prophetic in the light of the September 11 attacks [ed. Note].