The endless tangle of questions about bullets, trajectories, wounds, time sequences and inconsistent testimony that has surrounded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and has obsessively fascinated, if not entirely blinded, two generations of self-styled assassination investigators, probably never will be satisfactorily resolved. Each new release of documents from the various bureaucracies involved in the nearly half century old investigation may only deepen the apparent contradictions.
Within this morass of facts. however, there is a central actor, Lee Harvey Oswald. His rifle, which fired the fatal bullet into the president, was found in the sniper's nest at the Texas Book Depository. So was his palm print. He had also bought the ammunition. His cartridge cases were found near the body of a murdered policeman on the route of his flight.
In light of such evidence, the issue that ought to have concerned Americans was not Oswald's technical guilt but whether he was involved with others in the assassination. Oswald was not a "loner" in the conventional sense. Ever since he was handed a pamphlet about the Rosenberg prosecution at the age of 15, he was a joiner, seeking affiliations with groups at home and abroad. When he was only 16, he wrote the Socialist Party, "I am a Marxist and have been studying Socialist Principles for well over five years," and he requested information about joining their "Youth League." He subsequently made membership inquiries to such organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party, The Gus Hall-Benjamin Davis Defense Committee, The Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Communist Party, USA-- correspondence that brought him under surveillance by the FBI.
0swald also joined the Marine Corps. And after a two-year stint as a radar operator, Oswald sought still another affiliation: in October 1959 he became the first Marine to defect to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he delivered a letter stating: "I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics." Not only did he publicly renounce his American citizenship, but he told the U.S. consul that he intended to turn over to the Soviet Union military secrets that he had acquired while serving in the Marines, adding that he had data of "special interest" to the Russians. Since he indeed had exposure to military secrets such as the U-2 spy plane, his defection had serious espionage implications. Oswald thus had not only compromised the secret data he had come in contact with in the Marines, but put himself firmly in the hands of another country. He was now completely dependent on Russia for financial support, legal status and protection.
Before disappearing into the Soviet hinterland for a year, Oswald spelled out his operational creed in a long letter to his brother. From Moscow, he wrote presciently of his willingness to commit murder for a political cause: "I want you to understand what I say now, I do not say lightly, or unknowingly, since I've been in the military .... In the event of war I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American Government --", and then ominously added for emphasis, "Any American." His willingness to act as an assassin was now known to anyone who read this letter, which included not only his Russian hosts but American intelligence, since his letter was intercepted by the CIA and microfilmed.
Oswald returned from the Soviet Union in June 1962, joined by his Russian wife Marina, and settled in Dallas. He then acquired the means for killing. He purchased a rifle with telescopic sights and a revolver from a mail-order house under a false name. He also lectured a small circle of friends on the need for violent action rather than mere words. His particular focus was General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme conservative, who had been active in Dallas organizing anti-Castro guerrillas. For example, he suggested to a German geologist, Volkmar Schmidt that General Walker should be treated like a "murderer at large." He did not stop at fierce words. For weeks, he methodically stalked Walker's movements, photographing his residence from several angles. He then had his wife photograph him, dressed entirely in black, with his revolver strapped on a holster on his hip, his sniper's rifle in his right hand, and two newspapers, The Worker and The Militant, in his left hand. He made three copies of the photograph--one of which he inscribed, dated "5--IV-63" and sent to a Dallas acquaintance, George De Mohrenschildt (who had also seen his rifle). He then left with his rifle wrapped in a raincoat, telling his wife he was off to "target practice," but his target, General Walker, was out of town that night. Five nights later, Oswald returned to Walker's house, and fired a shot at him that missed his head by inches, demonstrating to those that saw the photograph that he had the willingness to kill.
After the failed assassination, another friend, Ruth Paine, drove Oswald and his family to New Orleans, where he became the organizer for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, which opposed the efforts of the Kennedy administration to overthrow Castro. Aside from printing leaflets, staging demonstrations, getting arrested and appearing on local radio talk shows in support of Castro that summer, Oswald attempted to befriend leaders of and infiltrate anti-Castro groups that were organizing sabotage raids against Cuba. By this time, he apparently considered himself a sleeper operative, writing in August 1963 to the central committee of the Communist Party USA, and asking, "Whether in your opinion, I can compete with anti-progressive forces above ground, or whether I should always remain in the background, i.e. underground." During this hot summer, while practicing sighting his rifle in his backyard, according to his wife, he told her about his plan to hijack an airliner to Cuba, saying he might earn a position in Castro's government. Then, on September 9th, in a report that appeared on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Castro, who had been the target of a number of assassination attempts by the CIA, warned that if American leaders continued "aiding plans to eliminate Cuban leaders ... they themselves will not be safe."
The implication of this warning was not lost on Oswald. Telling his wife that they might never meet again, he left New Orleans two weeks later, headed for the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. To convince the Cubans of his bona fides-- and seriousness--he had prepared a dossier on himself, which included a 10 page resume, outlining his revolutionary activities, newspaper clippings about his defection to the Soviet Union, documents he had stolen from a printing company engaged in classified map reproduction for the US Army, his correspondence with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee executives, and, as if to demonstrate his lethal capability , the photographs linking him to the Walker shooting.
Oswald applied for a visa at the Cuban Embassy on the morning of September 27, 1963. He said that he wanted to stop in Havana en route to the Soviet Union. On the application, the consular office who interviewed him noted: "The applicant states that he is a member of the American Communist Party and Secretary in New Orleans of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee." Despite such recommendations, Oswald was told that he needed a Soviet visa before the Cuban visa could be issued. He argued over this requisite with the Cuban counsel, Eusebio Azque, in front of witnesses, and reportedly made wild claims about services he might perform for the Cuban cause. During the next five days, he traveled back and forth between the Soviet and Cuban embassies attempting to straighten out the difficulty. When he telephoned from the Cuban embassy to arrange an appointment at the Soviet Embassy with an officer called Valery Vladimirovich Kostikov, he set off alarm bells at the CIA, which had been surreptitiously monitoring the phone line. Kostikov was a KGB officer who had been under close surveillance in Mexico by the FBI. By the time the CIA had identified Oswald, and notified the FBI, he had left Mexico.
When he returned to Dallas, Oswald assumed a different identity--"O.H.Lee"--and, separating himself from his family, he moved to a rooming house. He also forbade his wife from divulging his whereabouts.
On October 18th, Oswald's visa was approved by the Cuban Foreign Ministry despite the fact that he had not officially received a Soviet visa, as required. Apparently unaware of this development, he wrote another letter to the Soviet Embassy, referring to his meeting with Kostikov in Mexico, and adding cryptically: "Had I been able to reach the Soviet Embassy in Havana as planned, the embassy there would have had time to complete our business." When FBI counterintelligence intercepted this letter in Washington. it urgently requested its field agent in Dallas to question him.
The FBI agent, James Hosty, unable to locate Oswald, warned his wife she could be sent back to Russia. When his wife told him about the FBI warning he threatened to bomb its Dallas office. By this time, Oswald had a menial $1.50 hour job at the Texas Book Depository, which overlooked the convergence of the three main streets into central Dallas.
On November 22nd, at 12:30 pm, as the President's car passed the book depository, a burst of rifle fire fatally wounded him. Less than two hours later, a Dallas policeman had been shot and killed, and, near the shooting, Oswald was arrested with the murder weapon in his hand. He was charged with killing the policeman and, shortly afterwards, assassinating the President. Then, on November 24th, Oswald was shot to death in Dallas police headquarters by night club owner Jack Ruby.
The Warren Commission concluded--rightly I now believe--that Oswald fired all the shots that killed the President. But conspiracies do not necessarily require multiple rifleman to accomplish their purpose. And what the Warren Commission could not absolutely rule out, as two of its members pointed out to me, was the possibility that Oswald had acted at the behest of others. After all, he had advertised his willingness to undertake a high-profile assassination by circulating photographs connecting himself to the shooting of General Walker. Any party who was monitoring his activities in Dallas, New Orleans or Mexico City could have discerned from them that he was a potential assassin awaiting a mission. With his mind set on such violent actions as hijacking a plane, blowing up the FBI office, or killing "any American," not much would be required to prod him to violence. He had sought liaisons in dangerous quarters and someone could have provided him with an inducement. But with Oswald forever silenced by Ruby, and intelligence services capable of expunging embarrassing data about their contacts with a Presidential assassins from their files, it is doubtful that we will ever know who, if anyone, influenced Oswald to act on November 22, 1963.