Friday, November 19, 2004

The Mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald

The mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald

Look at Lee Harvey Oswald, and you see a loser -- a scrawny young man with a receding hairline, a poor student who joined the Marines and was court-martialed twice, a potential Soviet spy who couldn't shoot straight, operate a shortwave radio, or load a camera, a failed suicide, a failed husband, somebody who knew what the insides of an unemployment office looked like, an accused presidential assassin captured a mere 75 minutes after his crime, a despised murder victim whose pallbearers were the reporters at his funeral.
Look more closely, and you see this -- a man of intelligence who spoke Russian and could hold his own on radio debates, someone who had the nerve to defect to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, a loving father of two young daughters, the nephew-in-law of a Soviet official, a U.S. citizen who professed that the Kennedys were "interesting" people.
And, just as intriguing as his life, was Oswald's death -- a cold execution by a petty hoodlum on live national television as millions watched, only two days after President Kennedy's assassination. The killer, Jack Ruby, claimed he was grief-stricken and wanted to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the agony of a trial. But had Ruby really been ordered to silence Oswald as part of a conspiracy?
The Warren Commission said no. Appointed by President Johnson, it concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy. Any number of conspiracy theorists disagree, however.
What is surprising, though, is how often the figure of Lee Harvey Oswald emerges in many of these conspiracy theories. Some who cast suspicion on the CIA say Oswald was recruited as the hit man. Believers in a KGB link suggest that Oswald may have been trained to be a sort of Manchurian Candidate programmed killer, or that he was set up by the Soviets, or that he was a Soviet spy. Supporters of a mob theory bring up the organized crime connections of members of Oswald's family in New Orleans. For those who ascribe to a Cuban connection, there is the story of the man identifying himself as Oswald who visited the Cuban embassy in Mexico City to obtain a visa. On the flip side of the Cuba question, theorists have Oswald, who tried to infiltrate the anti-Castro movement, as either its patsy or its hit man, an agent of a plan to kill the president who had betrayed Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs.
Perhaps most intriguing is the idea that there was not one Oswald, but two, that long before the shots in Dealey Plaza rang out, a secret organization -- maybe the CIA, maybe the KGB, maybe the FBI -- had recruited a look-alike to live a life parallel to Oswald's. Indeed, on various official records, ranging from Oswald's Marines examinations to his autopsy report, the suspect's height fluctuates from 5 feet 8 inches in 1956, 5 feet 11 inches in 1959 and 5 feet, 9 inches in 1963. Surely Oswald could have grown, but did he shrink?
A simple possibility is that doctors or other officials measured Oswald wrong. But critics also point to photographs taken of Oswald while he lived in Minsk in the Soviet Union. They show a man with a thicker face, thicker hair and a broader chin than the "real" Oswald. In another picture, Oswald stands next to his wife, who was supposed to have been 5 foot, 3 inches tall. Yet Oswald appears to be only a little taller than she. Had the "real" Oswald, the one born in New Orleans and the one who died at 24 in Dallas, been recruited to go underground while another American, a skilled agent of intelligence, was sent to Moscow in his place? After all, despite his status as a defector, Oswald returned to the United States in 1962 with little ado.
In another variation of the two-Oswalds theory, English author Michael Eddowes suggested in The Oswald File that Kennedy had been killed by a Soviet agent posing as Oswald. Yet when the body buried in Oswald's grave was exhumed in 1981, dental comparisons showed that the remains were those of the "historical" Oswald.
Further complicating matters is that, in the days before the assassination, Oswald look-alikes popped up all over the Dallas area. One, who identified himself as Lee Oswald and said he was in the market for a used car, took a vehicle on a lively spin, the speeds of which reached 70 miles per hour. The only trouble was, Lee Harvey Oswald was at home -- and he didn't know how to drive. Some acquaintances even said he was too uncoordinated to do so. After all, this was a man so clumsy he had accidentally shot himself in the arm.
There were also Oswald sightings at a barber's and in a furniture store and in a gun shop. A grocer said he cashed a $189 check -- a bigger one than Oswald was ever known to have had -- made out to "Harvey Oswald." On all these occasions, Oswald was known to have been somewhere else. Yet the witnesses said they were positive it had been him. Was someone setting up Oswald?
Yet might not Oswald have been the lone killer? His behavior after the assassination is certainly curious: Seen 90 seconds after the assassination by a police officer and the building supervisor, Oswald appeared cool and collected. He left the building unhurriedly, by the farthest exit. He first boarded a bus heading back to the Texas School Book Depository, got off, then hailed a cab that he was prepared to yield to an elderly woman. Getting out of the cab a few blocks from his boarding house, he is there only a few minutes; while he is inside, a police car pulls up, honks its horn, then drives away. Forty minutes later, police arrest an angry and defiant Oswald in a theater. Had he gone there to hide, to meet someone, or simply because he wanted to watch War Is Hell, starring Van Heflin?
In his 1993 book Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, Gerald Posner claims that Oswald was indeed Kennedy's assassin -- and one who acted alone. He says that understanding Oswald is the key to understanding what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
Posner portrays an Oswald who is a solitary, cold-blooded master of his emotions, a man "driven by his own twisted and impenetrable furies" who thirsted for attention and a place in history. A Dallas police officer described Oswald as "a man who enjoyed the situation immensely and was enjoying the publicity and everything that was coming his way."
Dallas Detective Jim Leavell recalled: "I never saw him raise his voice, and he seemed to answer questions easily. He had a smile a lot of the time, kind of a smirk, really, sort of like he knew something you didn't."
Posner also related this incident: After his arrest, Oswald was questioned about two plastic ID cards that had been in his billfold, one bearing the name Lee Harvey Oswald, the other Alek Hidell. "Which one are you?" a detective asked. With a smirk, Oswald coolly replied: "You figure it out."
George de Mohrenschildt, a member of the tiny Russian community in Dallas, whom Posner described as Oswald 's only friend, said Oswald wanted people to be interested in him. De Mohrenschildt also called Oswald a "semi-educated hillbilly" whom no government "would be stupid enough to trust with anything important."
During a 1993 visit to Houston, Posner described Oswald to the Chronicle: "This was not a man fixated on Kennedy or who had a personal dislike of Kennedy. He hates the system. He hates the Soviet system, and he hates the American system. . . . Kennedy is strictly a target of opportunity.
"He realizes he has an opportunity to strike out, to throw a (wrench) in the machinery of the system. The Oswald I understand from my work could have been in a sixth-floor window shooting Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow."
In his extensive Oswald's Tale, Norman Mailer doesn't seem sure whether Oswald did indeed kill the president, but he suggests he could have. Surely, he gives the young man who died before 20 million people more credit than others have: Correcting Oswald's writings of the atrocious spelling errors that Mailer says were the result of dyslexia, the writer reveals a man of intelligence. But perhaps never to be resolved is the question of whether more than one kind of intelligence was involved in the mystery of Lee Harvey Oswald.