|Previous: Sollozzo Intrigue|
|Next: Roth Conspiracy|
|The Five Families War|
|Date: 1946-1948 (1st phase), 1955 (2nd phase)|
|Place: New York City|
|Outcome: Stalemate, later Corleone victory|
- "All I want...is a truce."
- ―Sollozzo to Michael, minutes before Sollozzo and McCluskey are killed.[src]
The war began after the murder of Virgil Sollozzo and police officer Mark McCluskey by Michael Corleone. Sollozzo had previously made two attempts on the life of Vito Corleone, both unsuccessful. However, it left the family hungry for revenge and lead to the successful murder attempt by Michael. After the murder of Sollozzo and McCluskey, the New York Police Department sent out the word that there would be no more gambling, prostitution and deals of any kind until the murderer of Captain McCluskey was caught. Massive raids began all over the city and all unlawful business activities came to a standstill. An emissary from the other families asked the Corleone family if they were prepared to give up the murderer, but they were told that the affair did not concern them.
The war between the Corleone family and the other families combined against them proved to be expensive for both sides. It was complicated by the police pressure put on everybody to solve the murder of Captain McCluskey.
As soon as the war started, the Tattaglia, Barzini, Stracci and Cuneo families went straight to the mattresses, hiding out in various venues. Immediately, the Corleone family began to experience difficulties, not only because they were outnumbered, but because their assets were out in the open (shylocks and bookmakers). In contrast, the other families' assets were hidden in the docks and behind numerous fronts. A bomb exploded in the Corleone family mall in Long Beach, thrown from a car that pulled up to the chain. Two button men of the Corleone family were also killed, as they peaceably ate their dinner in a small Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village.
The Corleone group depended on gambling for most of its income, and was hit especially hard in its numbers and policy branch of operations. The runners who picked up the action were swept into police nets and usually given a medium beating before being booked. Even some of the banks were located and raided, with heavy financial loss. The bankers complained to the caporegimes, who brought their complaints to the family council table. But there was nothing to be done. The bankers were told to go out of business. Local Negro free-lancers were allowed to take over the operation in Harlem, the richest territory, and they operated in such scattered fashion that the police found it hard to pin them down.
A few weeks after McCluskey's death, newspapers began running stories involving him with Sollozzo. They published proof that McCluskey had received large sums of money in cash, shortly before his death. (These stories were based on information supplied by Tom Hagen.) The Police Department refused to confirm or deny these stories, but they were taking effect. The police force got the word that McCluskey had been on the take from Sollozzo for several years. When it became known that McCluskey had been killed while in the company of a notorious heroin pusher and that he was suspected of involvement in an attempt on the life of Don Corleone, the police desire for vengeance faded and some semblance of social order was restored.
The rival families struck in an unexpected direction. Two powerful officials in the garment unions were killed, officials who were members of the Corleone family. Then the Corleone family shylocks were barred from the waterfront piers as were the Corleone family bookmakers. The longshoremen's union locals had gone over to the rival families. Corleone bookmakers all over the city were threatened to persuade them to change their allegiance. The biggest numbers banker in Harlem, an old friend and ally of the Corleone family, was brutally murdered. There was no longer any option and acting Don Sonny Corleone told his caporegimes to go to the mattresses.
The Corleone family set up two apartments in the city for their button men. Peter Clemenza staffed one apartment and Salvatore Tessio the other. All family bookmakers were given bodyguard teams. The policy bankers in Harlem, however, had gone over to the enemy and at the moment nothing could be done about that. All this cost the Corleone family a great deal of money and very little was coming in.
Sonny had planned the execution of the heads of the rival families in one grand tactical maneuver. To that purpose he put into effect an elaborate system of surveillance of these leaders. But soon after, the enemy chiefs promptly disappeared underground and were seen no more in public. The rival families and the Corleone empire were in stalemate.
In the spring and summer of 1947, Santino Corleone mounted senseless raids on enemy auxiliaries. Tattaglia family pimps were shot to death in Harlem, dock goons were massacred. Union officials, who owed allegiance to the Five Families, were warned to stay neutral, and when the Corleone bookmakers and shylocks were still barred from the docks, Sonny Corleone sent Clemenza and his regime to wreak havoc upon the long shore. The situation degenerated into a deadly guerrilla war that both sides found themselves losing a great deal of revenue and lives to no purpose. The Corleone family was finally forced to close down some of its most profitable bookmaking stations, including the small book given to son-in-law Carlo Rizzi for his living.
In the late summer of 1948, Sonny Corleone was lured into a trap and was killed at the Jones Beach Causeway by Barzini family hitmen. The hit was engineered by Emilio Barzini after Carlo, angered at the loss of his income and at the fact that Sonny had beaten him, helped set it up. Shortly afterward, Barzini got word that Michael was hiding in his father's hometown of Corleone, Sicily. He bought off one of Michael's bodyguards there, Fabrizio, who planted a bomb in Michael's car. Instead, the bomb killed Michael's first wife, Apollonia.
- "This war stops now."
- ―Don Vito Corleone after he hears about Sonny's death.[src]
Sonny's death sent shock waves through the underworld. When it became known that Vito Corleone had risen from his sick bed to retake command of his family, the heads of the rival families made frantic efforts to prepare a defense against the bloody retaliatory war that was thought to follow. But to their surprise the recovering Don Vito called a hasty peace at a sitdown, and the war was seen to be over.
One year after the peace summit, Michael was brought back to the United States and installed as his father's heir apparent. Immediately, he and Vito began making plans to eliminate the other New York Dons. They decided to pursue a "rope-a-dope" strategy, deliberately allowing Barzini to chip away at the Corleone interests, hoping he would be lulled into a false sense of security. This plan was kept secret from all except two rising stars in the family, whom Michael had selected as future capos – Rocco Lampone and Al Neri.
During this time, Michael learned that Carlo had helped set up Sonny to be killed. On his father's advice to "keep your friends close and your enemies closer", " Michael made Carlo think he was going to be named the new underboss once the family moved its interests to Nevada, in a ploy to make him vulnerable.
Vito went into semi-retirement in 1954 and made Michael operating head of the family. By this time, Clemenza and Tessio were feeling the pinch, and begged Michael for clearance to strike back. Michael refused, leading Clemenza and Tessio to doubt whether Michael was strong enough to keep the family going.
Vito died a year later, and Michael formally succeeded as Don. In hopes of holding on to what he still had, Tessio made a deal with Barzini, in which he agreed to set up a peace summit on Tessio's turf in Brooklyn, at which Michael was to be assassinated. However, a few months before his death, Vito warned Michael that Barzini might try such a move, and whoever approached Michael with a deal would be the traitor.
A few weeks after Vito's death, Michael struck fast and hard. Barzini, Greene, Tattaglia, Stracci and Cuneo were killed in rapid succession by Corleone button men while Michael stood at the baptism ceremony for his nephew, Carlo's son. Fabrizio, who had been hiding out in Buffalo, was blown up by a car bomb planted by the Corleones. On their way to the peace summit, Tessio was surrounded by several of his own button men and was taken to his death after an unsuccessful attempt to get Hagen to intercede. Neri took over his old crew. An hour later Michael confronted Carlo and told him that he was being banished from the family for his treachery of seven years earlier. Carlo, thinking his life was going to be spared, confessed that Barzini had approached him. As he was riding in a car to go to the airport, however, he was garroted to death by Clemenza.
Over the next few weeks, Neri, Clemenza and Lampone's regimes brutally swept down on those who had muscled in on the Corleone interests. Barzini bookmakers were put out of business and two of the highest-ranking Barzini enforcers were shot to death in an Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street. A notorious fixer of trotting races was also killed as he returned home from a winning night at the track. Two of the biggest shylocks on the waterfront disappeared, to be found months later in the New Jersey swamps. Many of Barzini and Tattaglia's capos crossed over to the Corleones.
While this savage blow established Michael's reputation, it took another year before he firmly reestablished the Corleone family as the most powerful Mafia family in the nation.