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
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 Initial assessments at the Youth House indicated that Oswald was withdrawn, socially maladjusted, not properly cared for at home, and in need of psychiatric care.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.
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.
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).