(COLD WAR: the KENNEDY YEARS – continued)

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The Kennedy Assassination

Lee Harvey Oswald is reported to have had an unhappy childhood. In grade school he was bullied. In high school he felt isolated, tended to be unfriendly toward others his age, and he read a lot, including books on the big subject of that time: Communism. He read the Communist Manifesto and other writings which gave him the impression that Communism was something other than what the public in general thought of it. To an acquaintance he said that Communism was good for the worker. And at his school he told someone that he would shoot Eisenhower if he could because Eisenhower was exploiting the workers.

Oswald's life had been without a father and filled with continual disruptions and family discord. He worshipped his older brother, who had joined the Marine Corps in 1952. In 1956, at the age of seventeen, Oswald joined the Marine Corps – despite the views he had expressed on Communism. It is said that he wanted to get away from home and his mother and to be like his brother.

In boot camp he had training with the heavy World War II M-1 rifle, and he qualified as a "sharpshooter," meaning he could hit a ten-inch target at 200 yards eight out of ten times at a reasonably rapid rate, in some uncomfortable positions – without a scope.

Photos of Lee Harvy Oswald Enlarged photos of Oswald

Click to enlarge and for details.

In the Marine Corps, Oswald was still isolated. He saw himself as different from those around him. He was not happy there, and while stationed in Japan he went out on liberty alone and befriended Japanese Communists. Oswald became insolent with other Marines, including those who had command over him. He did time in the brig – with its tortuous routine of standing at attention for hours. Out of the brig his dislike of duty led to a nervous breakdown. He recovered, and, on the grounds that his mother was ill and in need of support, he left the Marines on a hardship discharge a month before the end of three years of service.

Some conspiracy theorists would write of Oswald having been selected to work for the Central Intelligence Agency. Any enlisted Marine recruited for work for Central Intelligence Agency would have had to demonstrate to the Corps exceptional intelligence, competence and dedication to duty – and most likely would have been someone who had re-enlisted at least once. There were among enlisted Marines a norm and below norm, and anybody who knows a few basic facts about Oswald's tour of duty in the Marine Corps knows that Oswald was somewhere other than above the norm. Oswald's fumbling around with a Russian dictionary would not have been enough to impress higher-ups that he should be selected for CIA duty.

Oswald to the Soviet Union

Rather than take care of his mother, with money he had saved he bought passage on a ship to Europe. In 1959, during a time of goodwill between the Soviet Union and the Eisenhower administration, the Soviet Union was accepting tourists from the United States. By October 16, Oswald was in Moscow with a tourist visa. He announced that he wanted to become a Soviet citizen and was dismayed when the Soviet Union turned him down. Oswald had just turned twenty. Depressed and with no alternative hopes he slashed his wrist. Tourists in the Soviet Union were watched closely, and when Oswald failed to put in an appearance his room was entered. Blood was found everywhere, and he was rushed to a hospital. Asked why he had attempted suicide, he said that he was not leaving the Soviet Union alive.

The Soviet Union did not trust American journalism, and they wanted to avoid misrepresentations arising from the death or mistreatment of an American tourist, so they decided to let him stay. But they kept an eye on him, unsure of his stability or whether he was a CIA agent.

Back in the United States

Oswald did leave the Soviet Union alive. Routine menial work did not appeal to him, and he learned that the Soviet Union was something less than a workers' paradise. In June 1962 he returned to Texas with a wife, Marina. Oswald was also miserable in the United States. Life for the unskilled could be unpleasant. But, like some others who favored social revolution while looking with distaste upon the Soviet Union, Oswald was enthusiastic about Castro's revolution.

Oswald had difficulty holding a job and remaining settled, and he blamed this on FBI visits to his employers and landlords. Oswald was attached to Marina, his only companion and partner, but his frustration led to his occasionally beating her.

Oswald was fascinated with guns. He had a pistol and a Mannllicher-Carcano rifle that he practiced with – not at a range but in open country outside town.

Rightists in Texas were outspoken in their hostility towards Cuba, and Oswald decided to strike against the most outspoken rightist in Texas, a former Army general, Edwin Walker, whom Oswald described as a fascist. For two months Oswald planned his attack on Walker, and on the night of 10 April 1963 he shot into Walker's house. The bullet nicked the side of the window, was deflected and missed Walker. Oswald returned home, and with only a few words he explained to Marina what he had done. She was distressed but kept quiet about it, no doubt ashamed. She decided that Oswald had a mental problem and hoped that somehow he would snap out of it.

Later in April, Marina watched Oswald pack his pistol excitedly and leave the house. She thought he was going to meet Richard Nixon, who was rumored to be coming to Dallas. But Nixon did not arrive and Oswald returned home without incident.

Oswald was an avid reader of newspapers, especially of political news. He had learned of the "Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Oswald and Marina moved to New Orleans, and there he became a member of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee – self-appointed. He handed out leaflets calling for hands off Cuba, and he argued with passers-by. He decided to defect to Cuba and hatched a plan to hijack a plane with Marina, who was pregnant. She refused, and Oswald decided to travel by bus to Mexico City, using money from an unemployment check. He planned to send for Marina after he had established himself in Cuba.

In Mexico City the Cubans refused him a visa. He returned to Dallas, cursing bureaucrats. His wife was living with a friend and keeping some of Oswald's belongings, and Oswald found a room in a district on the outskirts of the city. He found a minimum wage job at a school book depository building. While on the job he learned that President Kennedy – who had been vilifying Castro's Cuba – was coming to Dallas and would be driving by his place of work.

Oswald took his rifle, with scope, to work, disguising it as a package of curtain rods. Alone, on the sixth floor of the building, he built a wall of boxes around a window with a view of the roadway over which Kennedy would be traveling. The boxes shielded him from view of anyone who might happen onto the sixth floor. Kennedy's motorcade arrived, with Kennedy's limousine having its top off for the sake of visibility for the crowds. Directly below Oswald on the fifth floor, one of his co-workers heard three distinct shots and the clicking of a bolt action rifle between each shot.

Oswald was the only employee missing in a lineup of employees a few minutes or so after Kennedy had been shot. Oswald had fled to his rooming house, where he grabbed his pistol and a jacket and left, with the kind of manner that attracts suspicion. Police showed up at the house, and Marina showed the police where she thought Oswald's rifle was, wrapped up in a roll. There was no rifle in the roll, and Marina went ashen. Oswald, meanwhile, shot and killed a suspicious policeman and was captured in a movie theater. Later, at the Dallas police station, in front of newsmen, Oswald professed his innocence.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro was surprised and alarmed by the assassination. Fearing the unknown he put Cuba on full alert. Two days later, an emotional owner of a Dallas girly club, Jack Ruby, tried to make himself a hero by killing Oswald. Many had been moved patriotically by Kennedy's death, including Ruby. He wanted revenge, and he wanted to prove that Jews had guts.

Post-assassination photo of Jacqueline Kennedy

Two days after the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy still stunned and suffering grief, drawing on strength.

It was a time when the US Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, was investigating organized crime and was making extensive tapes of unsuspecting gangsters, including the conversations of Sam Giancana, the operations head of the old Capone organization in Chicago. Also under investigation was Jimmy Hoffa, head of the Teamsters Union. No evidence emerged of interest in or knowledge about any plans to assassinate Kennedy among those whose conversations were taped – only remarks after the assassination, including expressions of delight, none of which indicated any involvement.

A week after the assassination, only 29 percent in a Gallup poll believed that Oswald had acted alone in killing Kennedy. The government's official investigation, called the Warren Commission, was viewed with distrust because its conclusions had been made in secret. As of September 2001, many still believed that Oswald was either innocent or part of a conspiracy. In the manner of lawyers fighting a difficult case, a number of writers have marshaled what they see as evidence of a conspiracy, relying on skepticism where it suits them, citing gaps of information here and there and making associations with confidence where it suits conspiracy theory. Their point is usually that government agents (the FBI, CIA and/or military) managed to work together to cover up a conspiracy to kill Kennedy in order to hide their deeds.

In November 2013, PBS television broadcast a detailed forensic analysis of the bullets fired at Kennedy. It described why one bullet was able to strike Kennedy through the throat and then make the kind of wounds that John Connally suffered in the seat in front of Kennedy. It described why some mistakenly believed this one shot was two shots, and it showed the damage to the recovered bullet was consistent with its explanation. Detailed evidence, including fracture lines in Kennedy's skull, indicated that the third shot was not fired from the grassy knoll, and it explained why Kennedy's body jerked backward. Those supporting the idea that the assassination was a conspiracy and the work of more than one person, Oswald, were left without solid evidence to present to the public in support of their arguments.


Politics of Illusion, The Bay of Pigs Invasion Re-examined, edited by Blight and Kornbluh, 1998

Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth, by Frederick Kempe, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011

Khrushchev Remembers, by Nikita Khrushchev, 1970

Map of the wall that surrounded West Berlin:

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, by Michael Dobbs, 2008

High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Max Frankel, 2004

Silencing the Lone Assassin: the Murders of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, by John A. Canal, Paragon House, 2000

Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, by Gerald Posner, Random House, 1993

The Icarus Syndrome, by Peter Beinart, 2010

High Treason: the Assassination of JFK and the Case for Conspiracy, by Harrison Edward Livingston and Robert J. Gordon, 1998

Who Shot JFK: A Guide to the Major Conspiracy Theories, by Bob Callahan, 2000.

Jack: A Life Like No Other, by Geoffrey Perret, 2001

Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.