Editor’s Note: November is indelibly associated with the assassination of President Kennedy, and the fall is normally the period when major new books and articles are timed to appear. Because May marked what would have been John F. Kennedy’s 90th birthday, however, several notable new books appeared last month, including Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History, David Talbot’s Brothers, Burton Hersh’s Bobby and J. Edgar, and James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. (Reclaiming History has already been reviewed for The Wall Street Journal and this website, and Brothers will be reviewed here in July.
Despite the unanticipated burst of attention, one aspect of November 22nd remains glossed over: the motivation that drove Lee Harvey Oswald to commit political murder. Washington Decoded is pleased to publish a new essay by the journalist and author who knew Oswald best, and wrote one of the lamentably few reliable books about the assassin of President Kennedy.
After decades of speculation about a grassy knoll, the Zapruder film, and an acoustical tape, the man behind it all is too often overlooked. Lee Oswald was not a cardboard figure but a human being, and although he had barely turned twenty-four at the time he killed President Kennedy, he had a motive.
Oswald was a believing Marxist, and his motive was to strike the deadliest blow he could imagine at capitalism in the United States. Oswald had been headed that way most of his sentient life. He had, by his account, become seriously interested in politics at fifteen or sixteen, when someone on a street corner in the Bronx handed him a leaflet about Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who had been executed two years earlier as spies for the Soviet Union. At eighteen, huddled in his Marine Corps barracks in Japan, he studied Russian from a Berlitz phrase book. And at nineteen, he wangled a hardship discharge from the Marines and made the arduous journey by steamship and train to the USSR.
Arriving there as a tourist, he immediately proclaimed to Russian authorities and officials of the U.S. embassy in Moscow that he intended to relinquish his U.S. citizenship and become a citizen of the USSR. It was at that moment in his life, November, 1959, that I happened to meet and talk with him.
I was a reporter for the North American Newspaper Alliance in search of a human interest story and he had just marked his twentieth birthday. I had no way of knowing that this boy dressed in a dark gray suit, white shirt, and dark red tie—he looked like an American college student—had, two weeks earlier, slashed his wrists in his hotel bathtub in a gesture of desperation after being informed by Soviet officials that he could not remain in the Soviet Union. Throughout our conversation, which took place over several hours in my room at the Metropole Hotel, I asked Oswald why he was defecting to the USSR, while he tried to engage me in a discussion of Marxist economics.
When I asked what would become of him if he returned to the United States, he replied that his lot would be that of “workers everywhere.” He would be ground down by capitalism as his mother, a practical nurse, had been. He spoke bitterly of racial discrimination in the United States, but did not disclose that as a schoolboy he had taken action against it by riding in the black section of the segregated buses of New Orleans.
While I realized that Oswald was angry at the country he was hoping to leave behind, I also sensed that his desire to live in the Soviet Union had something theoretical about it. He had traveled thousands of miles to get there, but had ventured no more than two blocks on his own and preferred to sit by himself in his hotel room rather than go sight-seeing in Moscow. So far as I could see, his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union was based on neither knowledge of, or curiosity about, everyday life there.
The Russians refused Oswald’s plea for citizenship but allowed him to remain in their country. He, whether from anger at the way he claimed to have been treated by U.S. consul Richard E. Snyder, or from desire to leave himself an “out,” refused to return to the American embassy to reclaim the passport he had left behind.
In early 1960, a couple of months after I met him, Oswald was sent to the provincial city of Minsk and given a job at the Minsk Radio Plant. There he distinguished himself as a below-average worker, but embarked on an eight-month romance with a woman named Ella German of which he seemed to be proud. But Ella jilted him, and Oswald, to spite her, married nineteen-year-old pharmacist Marina Prusakova. Her friends and his co-workers quickly taught him the daily realities of Soviet life.
His disenchantment with the poverty, lack of amusement, and ubiquitous spying can be found in what he called his “Historic Diary” and in “The Collective,” an essay he started to write in the USSR. After less than two years in Minsk, Oswald opened a correspondence with the once-hated U.S. consul, Richard E. Snyder, in Moscow, seeking to return to the United States. Snyder’s superiors in Washington determined that, having left his passport at the embassy that angry autumn of 1959, Oswald had retained his citizenship.
In June, 1962, he was allowed to return to America, bringing Marina and their three month-old daughter, June. That summer and fall, and throughout the following winter, he held a series of menial, disheartening jobs, first repairing houses in Fort Worth, then as apprentice at a printing plant in Dallas. Oswald’s criticisms of the society around him returned with a vengeance, and his reading of two left-wing publications, The Worker, mouthpiece of the U.S. Communist Party, and The Militant, newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party, helped focus his discontent. Oswald said of The Militant that “you can see what they want you to do by reading between the lines.”