Lee Harvey Oswald

views updated May 23 2018

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) had an unexceptional life until the fateful day of November 22, 1963 when he allegedly assassinated President John F. Kennedy. Two days after the momentous event Oswald was killed by Jack Ruby, before he could be tried. A year later the Warren Commission, headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren, reported that Oswald was the lone assassin of President Kennedy. That assertion is still the center of much controversy as many believe the assassination was a conspiracy.

Lee Harvey Oswald was born on October 18, 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was named Lee after his father, Robert E. Lee Oswald; Harvey was his grand-mother's maiden name. His father was an insurance premium collector who died of a heart attack just two months before Oswald was born. His mother, Marguerite Claverie Oswald, was left as a single mother with two young sons and a third on the way. The family experienced financial difficulties and the children were placed in the New Orleans Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem Orphanage. Oswald lived in the orphanage for over a year, though he visited his mother and other relatives regularly.

In 1944 Oswald's mother married Edwin A. Ekdahl, an electrical engineer. She and the children moved to Fort Worth, Texas. Ekdahl treated the Oswald boys as if they were his own and he was the only father that Lee Harvey Oswald ever knew. In 1945 the two older Oswald boys were sent to a military academy. Ekdahl traveled a lot on business, leaving Lee Harvey Oswald alone with his mother. This relatively stable family life only lasted a few years, since his mother divorced Ekdahl in 1948. For the rest of his childhood, Oswald and his mother moved frequently. By the age of ten Oswald had attended six different schools. He was diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disorder, and did poorly in school.

Because of these problems Oswald often skipped school. In 1952 school officials sent him to the New York City Youth House for truancy. Initial assessments at the Youth House indicated that Oswald was withdrawn, socially maladjusted, not properly cared for at home, and in need of psychiatric care. At the age of 16 Oswald was released from the Youth House and placed on probation. He was ordered to go to the Big Brothers organization for counseling, which he did not do.

Throughout his childhood, Oswald showed signs of aggressive behavior. He often fought at school. Once he threatened his brother and sister-in-law with a knife. At the age of 16 he wanted to quit school and join the Marines, but was still too young. He obtained a false affidavit from his mother stating that he was 17 years old, but it did not pass and Oswald had to wait a year. While he was waiting he studiously read the "Marine Manual" which he got from his brother. He also had a few part-time jobs working as a messenger boy.

Military Career

On October 24, 1956, at the age of 17, Oswald was still in the tenth grade. However, he was finally old enough to join the Marines. He signed up for a three-year tour of duty and was assigned to the Second Training Battalion in San Diego for boot camp and then sent to Camp Pendleton for advanced infantry combat training. He was also trained in radar, aircraft surveillance, and aviation electronics.

Oswald was first assigned to Yokosuka, Japan, near Tokyo, to work as a radar operator. His job was to direct aircraft to their targets by radar and radio communication. He was also responsible for scouting for incoming foreign aircraft. Oswald was considered a loner and did not get along well with his fellow Marines. He also had trouble with military authority and was court-martialed twice. In the first incident Oswald purchased a .22-caliber handgun and wounded himself in the left arm while playing with the gun. He was charged with having an unregistered weapon and demoted from private first class to private, as well as fined $50 and sentenced to 20 days hard labor. The second incident occurred a few months later when he used profanity in an argument with an off-duty technical sergeant. Oswald was drinking at the Bluebird Cafe in Yamato and he accidentally spilled a drink on the sergeant. This led to an altercation during which Oswald insulted the superior officer. For this second infraction he was fined $55 and sentenced to 28 days in military prison. Oswald ended his military career three months early by applying for a hardship discharge to care for his mother.

Defected to Soviet Union

Oswald became interested in Communism when he was in the ninth grade and began reading library books on the subject. While in the military, Oswald openly expressed his views on Communism and taught himself Russian. According to Gerald Posner in Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Oswald told his brother that he believed "Communism was the wave of the future." After finishing his three-year tour of duty, Oswald was expected to spend three more years as an inactive reserve. He was not allowed to travel abroad during this time without a good reason, so he applied to a liberal arts college in Switzerland. He lied on the application and was accepted. This allowed him to apply for a passport. Upon leaving the Marines, Oswald traveled to Europe and eventually ended up in Moscow. Once in Russia, he contacted Richard E. Snyder, the United States consul, to renounce his United States citizenship. He publicly made anti-American statements and applied for Soviet citizenship. The Russian government did not trust Oswald and denied him citizenship. However, he was given an apartment and a job at the Belorussian Radio and Television Factory in Minsk.

In a little over a year Oswald began to realize that life in the Soviet Union was not living up to his Communist ideals. In February of 1961 he contacted Richard Snyder again and expressed his desire to return to the United States. A month later, Oswald met his future wife, Marina Prusakova, at a trade union dance. Prusakova was a 19-year-old pharmacology student living on her own in Minsk. A month after they met, Oswald proposed and the couple married on April 30, 1961. On February 15, 1962 their daughter, June Lee Oswald, was born. A few months later the young family moved back to the United States.

Returned to the United States

The Oswald family settled in Fort Worth, Texas. Oswald worked sporadically at different jobs, such as a sheet-metal worker and a photoprint trainee. He and his wife were having marital problems and Oswald was becoming very secretive. In March 1963 Oswald used a false identity to purchase an Italian 6.5-caliber Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with a telescopic sight from a mail-order company. A month later, on April 10, Oswald used this rifle to try to shoot retired General Edwin A. Walker of Dallas, Texas. Oswald missed his target and escaped unnoticed. He then moved his family to New Orleans to avoid further investigations into the shooting.

Oswald worked for the Reily Coffee Company in New Orleans and became politically active again. He started the New Orleans branch of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), a pro-Castro organization that argued for free trade and improved diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Oswald tried to establish himself publicly as pro-Cuban. In September 1963 he traveled alone to Mexico City and applied for both Cuban and Soviet citizenships. When both governments refused him, Oswald moved his family back to Dallas, Texas. Upon arriving in Texas, Oswald assumed the name O.H. Lee. An acquaintance helped him get a job at the Texas School Book Depository, earning $1.25 per hour. A few days later, on October 20, 1963, Oswald's second daughter Audrey Marina Rachel Oswald was born.


On November 22, 1963 Oswald wrapped his rifle in paper and took it to work at the Texas School Book Depository. Later that day President John F. Kennedy, Texas Governor John Connally, and their wives were travelling through Dallas in an open motorcade. As they drove through Dealey Plaza, they passed the Texas School Book Depository at 12:30 p.m. At this time shots were fired from the sixth floor window of the building, killing President Kennedy and seriously wounding Governor Connally. Oswald escaped from the building and headed toward his house. Less than an hour later Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit tried to question Oswald near his house; Oswald shot and killed the man. He then fled to the nearby Texas Theatre where he was apprehended by police around two o'clock.

Oswald was charged with the murder of Officer Tippit. On November 23, he was charged with the assassination of President Kennedy. While in custody, Oswald denied his involvement in the assassination during police interrogations. He was never able to explain his behavior or motivation fully because he too was killed the following day. On November 24, while being transferred from the police station to the county jail through a basement parking lot, Oswald was shot and killed by Jack Ruby, a night club owner. Ruby was convicted of first degree murder on February 17, 1964 and sentenced to death. Two years later his conviction was overturned. Before a new trial could begin, Ruby died of cancer on January 3, 1967.

The Aftermath

Since Oswald never had an opportunity to tell his own story, there has been a lot of speculation as to his motive for killing the president. Some believe that he was disgruntled with society in general and President Kennedy was the key representative of that society. Others say that he was upset by his inability to travel to Cuba, which he blamed on the politics of the Kennedy administration. Still others contend that Oswald wanted to make his mark on history and immortalize himself.

All of these arguments assume that Oswald planned and executed the murder by himself. However, this is the subject of much controversy, as some believe Oswald was just a small player in a larger conspiracy to kill the president and alter the American political scene. Proponents of the conspiracy theory argue that the Mafia, political opponents of President Kennedy, or foreign players such as the Soviet Union devised the plan to assassinate the president. They argue that Oswald was just one of several shooters in the event.

These various arguments, as well as detailed reviews of the evidence, are the subject of many books and articles. Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone even made a film on the subject, called JFK, which ignited the discussion once again. As a result of this controversy, Congress passed the John F. Kennedy Assassination Materials Disclosure Act of 1992, which declassified thousands of documents related to the case. In 1999 Russian President Boris Yeltsin also gave the United States some declassified KGB documents on Oswald.

Despite the new information, the circumstances surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, and Oswald's role in the event, are still one of the great mysteries of history. It is clear, however, that the death of John F. Kennedy had a profound impact on the course of American history.


Canal, John A., Silencing the Lone Assassin, Paragon House, 2000.

Davison, Jean, Oswald's Game, W.W. Norton and Company, 1983.

Ford, Gerald and John R. Stiles, Portrait of the Assassin, Simon and Schuster, 1965.

Groden, Robert J., The Search for Lee Harvey Oswald, Penguin Studio Books, 1995.

Mailer, Norman, Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery, Random House, 1995.

Oswald, Robert L., Lee: A Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald by His Brother, Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967.

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


Humanist, March-April 1997, p. 19.

Ladies Home Journal, May 1993, p. 156.

Texas Monthly, November 1998, p. 135; November 1998, p. 146; March 1995, p. 104.

U.S. News and World Report, July 24, 2000.


"The Kennedy Assassination," http://mcadams.po0soc.mu.edu/home.html (January 6, 2001).

"Lee Harvey Oswald Photo Gallery," http://www.parascope.com/nexus/oswaldo/oswaldgallerymain.html (January 6, 2001).

"Lee Harvey Oswald Research Page," http://www.madbbs.com/~tracy/lho/index.html (January 6, 2001).

"The John F. Kennedy Assassination Homepage," http://www.informatik.uni-rostock.de/kennedy/body.html (January 6, 2001). □

Oswald, Lee Harvey

views updated Jun 27 2018

OSWALD, Lee Harvey

(b. 18 October 1939 in New Orleans, Louisiana; d. 24 November 1963 in Dallas, Texas), American Marxist and presumed assassin of President John F. Kennedy.

Oswald was born in the Old French Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. His father, Robert E. Lee Oswald, was an insurance collector who died in August 1939, just before Oswald's birth. Oswald spent much of his childhood moving from one residence to another with his mother, Marguerite (Claverie) Oswald, a nurse. At age three he joined his brother and half-brother at the Evangelical Lutheran Bethlehem Orphan's Asylum, where the older boys had been living for one year. In 1945 Marguerite, after remarrying, reclaimed them. She was divorced in 1948 and thereafter moved frequently. Oswald never graduated from high school but was of slightly higher than average intelligence; his diary and other writings suggest that he suffered from dyslexia.

Oswald enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1956, at age seventeen, and spent a three-year tour of duty involved in radar operations for the U-2 spy plane. A vocal critic of capitalism, he spent his free time studying the Russian language and vowed to emigrate to Russia upon his discharge. In 1959 he secured entry to Russia through Finland by posing as a student, arriving on 15 October 1959 on a six day visa. He was detained in Moscow when he announced his desire to renounce his U.S. citizenship and become a Soviet citizen. The American correspondent Priscilla J. McMillan later suggested that he was a "pitiful, slightly unbalanced boy" who was allowed to remain in Russia if only to disprove the international criticism of Soviet intolerance of outsiders. His request for citizenship was denied, however, and he was assigned the status of a stateless person.

Oswald settled in Minsk, Byelorussia, where he worked in a radio-television factory. On 30 April 1961 he married Marina Nikolaevna Prusakova. Their first daughter was born in Minsk in February 1962. Oswald tired quickly of the drab, proletariat lifestyle. In May 1962 he and his family boarded a train to Moscow. There they booked passage on the Dutch liner Maasdam, set to leave Rotterdam on 4 June for America. Their trip, including rail passage to the Netherlands, was funded with $435.71 loaned to them by the American Embassy.

The Oswalds arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, on 13 June. Two days later they flew to Fort Worth, Texas, where Oswald found employment at the Leslie Welding Company. In August he rented a furnished duplex at 2703 Mercedes Street and set out to foster friendships among other Russian émigrés, in part for the sake of Prusakova, who spoke no English. Oswald, who had become secretive and erratic, then walked off his job without notice in early October 1962. He moved to Dallas and worked as an apprentice cameraman at Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall Graphic Arts, living at the Young Men's Christian Association and visiting his family in Fort Worth on weekends. Early in November he rented an apartment at 604 Elsbeth Street and sent for Prusakova and their daughter. After learning of his wife's pregnancy, he moved in March to a larger apartment, at nearby 214 West Neely Street.

Oswald repaid his State Department loan on 25 January 1963. Two days later, under the alias of A. J. Hidell, he ordered a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver from Seaport Traders, Incorporated. On 12 March, using the same alias, he ordered a high-powered rifle and scope from Klein's Sporting Goods in Chicago, Illinois. In receipt of his purchases, Oswald posed on 31 March for two photos; these so-called backyard photographs taken by Prusakova depict Oswald dressed in black and bearing his newly purchased firearms. He holds two left-wing publications: the Militant and the Worker. Six days later he was fired from his job.

On the evening of 10 April he took his rifle and rode by bus to the Dallas home of Edwin Walker, a retired U.S. Army Major General and a prominent leader of the right-wing John Birch Society. There Oswald made an attempt on Walker's life, but the bullet missed its mark. Two weeks later Oswald left by bus for New Orleans, where he secured a job with a coffee distributor for $1.50 an hour. He rented an apartment and sent for his family on 9 May but sent them back to Dallas within weeks, because he wanted to go to Cuba to join forces with the Communist regime of Fidel Castro. Oswald attempted to enter Cuba through Mexico at the end of September but was denied entry. He returned to Dallas, where he rented a room at 1026 North Beckley Street under the alias of O. H. Lee. He secured employment at the Texas School Book Depository, and on 20 October, Prusakova gave birth to a second daughter in Dallas.

On 8 November sources confirmed that President John F. Kennedy would visit Dallas; a motorcade route was released on 19 November, showing that the presidential limousine would pass in front of the depository at 411 Elm Street. For the next three days, history lay in wait for the actions of Oswald, a theretofore inconsequential twenty-four-year-old man with no political power, privilege, or means. On 22 November 1963, the morning of the assassination, Oswald went to work at the book depository after spending the night away from his apartment. In his hands he carried a long package wrapped in brown paper, which he told friends contained curtain rods for his apartment. Investigators believe that Oswald's package contained his rifle, because no curtain rods were ever found in the depository or in Oswald's apartment.

After the assassination, police uncovered a sniper's nest on the sixth floor of the book depository building. Further investigation uncovered Oswald's Mannlicher-Carcano rifle tucked between piles of books, also on the sixth floor. An eyewitness to the assassination, a person who later identified Oswald in a police lineup, placed Oswald in the sniper's nest on the sixth floor of the book depository during the time when the shots were fired. Oswald, according to the witness, stood at the window with a rifle and fired at least two shots at the motorcade during the moments when Kennedy was hit. After the shooting Oswald was seen riding a city bus. He returned on foot to North Beckley Street, entered his residence, and emerged within minutes on the streets of Dallas in the midst of a high-profile dragnet. When confronted by Officer J. D. Tippit, Oswald shot the policeman repeatedly at pointblank range in front of multiple witnesses. Oswald then forced his way into a movie theater, where police arrested him.

On the morning of 24 November, after two days of interrogation by Dallas police, Oswald was en route to a federal facility when he was confronted and shot by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner who had been outraged over the Kennedy assassination. Oswald died at Parkland Hospital at 1:07 p.m., forty-eight hours and seven minutes after Kennedy was pronounced dead at the same facility. Oswald's funeral on 25 November posed a stark contrast to the elaborate state funeral of the dead president, held that same day. Because no cemetery in Dallas would accept Oswald's body, it was interred under heavy guard at Rose Hill Cemetery in Fort Worth. The Reverend Louis Saunders officiated at the hurried graveside ceremony, and volunteers from the press corps served as pallbearers.

Oswald was twenty-four years old in 1963 when he allegedly shot Kennedy, after which the details of Oswald's adult life were scrutinized by both the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in an effort to discern Oswald's motive. Investigators have scoured the evidence, including Oswald's employment history, his residences, and his associates. His diary has been examined, and casual conversations reconstructed. But the full truth about the Kennedy assassination lies buried with Oswald, leaving his story to remain one of the unsolved mysteries of the twentieth century.

While in Russia he kept a diary; in it he expressed disillusionment not with Communism but instead with the bungling of the Soviet bureaucracy, which he compared to the government of the United States. According to McMillan, Oswald is an interesting character, because he experienced both the American and Soviet ways of life, and yet, despite being in Russia and thus isolated from American antiwar activists, his ideas were, McMillan writes, similar to the ideas of "a generation of American activists in the later 1960s.… Oswald was … a lonely American anti-hero a few years ahead of his time."

Many conspiracy theories have proliferated. Among them is a supposed Soviet-Cuban connection based on a rumored CIA coup against Castro. Another theory is that a domestic crime cartel ordered the assassination of Kennedy and hired Oswald as a decoy assassin to protect the identity of the real shooter or shooters. This organized crime connection relies heavily on the belief that Oswald's killer, Jack Ruby, was a member of the cartel and was ordered to permanently silence Oswald by killing him. Ruby, who was convicted of Oswald's murder, died of cancer four years later, while awaiting appeal.

Writing about Oswald has been less about his life than about the crime of which he was accused. The journalist Priscilla Johnson McMillan tells an eloquent story of Oswald from the privileged vantage point of Marina Prusakova in Marina and Lee (1977). Edward Jay Epstein, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald (1978), presents a theory based on the Cuban connection but remains noncommittal. Gerald Posner, Case Closed (1993), supports the results of the Warren Commission, which concluded that Oswald acted alone, and Ronald Lewis, Flashback (1993), alludes to the author's own foreknowledge of a Castro-based assassination conspiracy and exonerates Oswald from complicity in the plot.

Gloria Cooksey

Oswald, Lee Harvey

views updated May 17 2018

Oswald, Lee Harvey (1939–63) Alleged assassin of US President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963, in Dallas. Before he could stand trial he was murdered while in police custody by Jack Ruby. See also Warren Commission