It has been nearly six decades since President John F. Kennedy was cut down on the streets of Dallas by rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a "nut" and a "loser" by some accounts, but also a Marxist, defector to the Soviet Union, and admirer of Fidel Castro. The event shocked the nation and disrupted complacent assumptions about the stability of the American order. The assassin, whatever his motives might have been, delivered a blow to the American psyche with effects that lingered for years afterwards.
The evidence condemning Oswald was overwhelming and summarized in detail in the Warren Commission report on the assassination. That evidence would have convicted him in a trial if he had not been assassinated himself by Jack Ruby. The commission found that Oswald fired the shots that killed President Kennedy and that he acted without assistance from anyone. The commission speculated that Oswald shot the president mostly for personal reasons: He wanted to prove that he was "somebody" and to make a name for himself in the history books.
Americans never accepted the verdict that Oswald shot the president or that he acted alone. Opinion polls suggest that more than two-thirds of Americans still believe Oswald was not the assassin or that a conspiracy of some kind was behind the assassination. Many of the books published over the years have argued for one or another conspiracy theory, with the CIA, FBI, organized crime, or right-wing businessmen cast as villains. The Kennedy assassination still provokes heated disagreement about who really killed the president and how the event should be understood.
Who was Oswald? Was he capable of carrying out such an act? If so, what were his motives? Was he part of a conspiracy to murder the president?
Paul R. Gregory provides answers to these questions in The Oswalds, a personal memoir of his relationship with Lee and Marina Oswald during the summer of 1962 when the couple had few American friends or acquaintances. At that time, Gregory was an undergraduate at the University of Oklahoma studying economics and Russian, and Oswald had only recently arrived back in the United States with his Russian wife after his earlier defection to the Soviet Union. Gregory later went on to become a prominent scholar on Soviet affairs and is currently a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Gregory met the Oswalds through his father, a member of the tight-knit Russian community in the Dallas area, whom Oswald approached as someone who might certify that he was fluent in Russian so that he might find work as a translator. Oswald never found this kind of work in Dallas but instead had to accept unskilled positions that paid little and did not measure up to the kinds of positions he felt he deserved.
The younger Gregory visited the Oswalds twice per week through that summer in their small apartment while taking Russian instruction from Marina and helping the couple adjust to their new surroundings. He took them on shopping errands (Oswald did not have access to a car) and drove the couple on sightseeing trips through the area. He was aware of Oswald’s Marxist leanings but saw no signs at the time that he might act on those beliefs.
Gregory, along with his father, introduced the Oswalds to the Russian community in Dallas, a generally professional, conservative, and anti-communist group (not Oswald’s kind of crowd). The Russian Americans responded warmly to Marina but took a disliking to Oswald, who refused to answer questions about why he defected to the Soviet Union and why he had returned to the United States. In the months that followed, they looked for opportunities to help Marina but preferred to avoid dealing with Lee.
Marina and Lee had starkly different personalities and temperaments, so much so that Gregory wondered how they could have been married in the first place. Marina was vulnerable but curious to learn about America. Lee was insolent as well as arrogant and suspicious of anyone who did not share his Marxist politics. He kept Marina a prisoner in their run-down apartment, rebuffing efforts by others to help her and refusing to allow her to find friends or learn English. Gregory reports that Lee beat Marina on a regular basis—she had the bruises to prove it. At the same time, she ridiculed him for his sexual performance and intellectual and revolutionary pretensions. They fought regularly and separated at various times during their short stay in the Dallas area.
On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Gregory was watching television with friends on the campus of the University of Oklahoma when a news flash reported that President Kennedy had been shot while visiting Dallas. A short time later, he was shocked to see on screen the man who had been arrested for firing the shots at Kennedy and killing a policeman in another section of the city. Though it had been a full year since he had seen Oswald, he recognized him immediately. "I know that man," he said. That was true: He knew him as well as anyone in America at that time.
Gregory was questioned the next day by the Secret Service as a known associate of Oswald, as was his father, who also served briefly as a Russian translator for Marina during questioning by the FBI and Secret Service. When asked if Oswald could have committed these crimes, Gregory answered, "yes." Oswald, as he was aware, was cold and calculating and perfectly capable of shooting the president or anyone else for that matter. When asked if Oswald might have been part of a conspiracy, he answered "no," because Oswald (he felt) could never work closely with or take direction from anyone. If he committed the crimes, he very likely acted on his own.
This remains Gregory’s firm conclusion and a central theme of his book: Oswald shot President Kennedy and did so on his own. He concludes, in addition, that Oswald’s motives in the assassination were mostly personal and unrelated to his ideological convictions. He shot the president because he (Oswald) was a failure and at odds with everyone, including his associates, employers, and his wife—not because he was a communist.
It was, as Gregory points out, a low-cost assassination, and one easy for someone like Oswald to pull off. He spent $20 to acquire his rifle. He did not have to travel or plot to find President Kennedy—the presidential motorcade passed by the building where he worked. The whole episode was an ugly coincidence that gave Oswald an opportunity to thrust himself into history. Give Oswald his due: We are still talking about him six decades later.
Gregory is somewhat tardy in reporting his verdict on the event—but perhaps better late than never. His book is a valuable addition to the assassination literature because it sheds light on Oswald’s character and the tensions in his marriage from the standpoint of someone who knew the couple reasonably well. Much of the rest of the book takes the reader through facts and events familiar to those who have studied the assassination.
Gregory’s overall assessment of the event is hardly novel: He agrees with the main outlines of the Warren Commission report and with Priscilla McMillan’s conclusions about Oswald in her authoritative biography, Marina and Lee (1977), written with Marina’s cooperation. McMillan similarly concluded that Oswald shot President Kennedy for personal, not ideological, reasons.
This latter point is an aspect of The Oswalds that is still open to debate. Oswald might have been a "jerk" or a "nut," but he was also a communist and a dedicated one at that. That combination may have made him a more lethal threat to American leaders than the run-of-the mill outsider or the arm-chair Marxist. He looked for opportunities to act on his beliefs.
Gregory recounts in his book many of the facts that might point to ideological motives in the assassination. Oswald, after all, defected to the Soviet Union in 1959, denouncing America and capitalism in the process, and promising the Soviets that he would turn over secret military information that he acquired during his stint in the Marines. He returned in 1962 disillusioned with the Soviet system but now intrigued with third-world revolutionaries like Castro, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.
Oswald stepped up his political activities toward the end of 1962, perhaps in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. From that time forward, he invested disproportionate energies in political intrigues.
In early 1963, Oswald ordered a rifle by mail for the purpose of assassinating Gen. Edwin Walker, the head of the John Birch Society in Dallas, then in the news for opposing desegregation in the schools and demanding an American invasion of Cuba to overthrow Castro. In April, Oswald fired at Walker from behind his home as the retired general sat in his dining room. The shot narrowly missed its target. The FBI and Dallas police did not connect the episode to Oswald until after the Kennedy assassination. Yet Marina was well aware of her husband’s attempt on Gen. Walker’s life.
Oswald then fled to New Orleans fearful that the Dallas police might track him down for the attempt on Gen. Walker. There he launched a chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a front organization with no other members, and arranged clashes with anti-Castro Cubans in order to gain attention from the press.
In late September of 1963, he boarded a bus in New Orleans for Mexico City, where he visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies seeking to acquire a visa to travel to Cuba, with designs to meet and give assistance to Castro. He brought along press clippings of his activities in New Orleans to demonstrate his revolutionary bona fides. Those visas could not be delivered immediately, forcing Oswald to return to Dallas empty handed. (The Cuban visa later came through.)
The CIA reported those embassy visits back to the FBI, whose agents in Dallas had been loosely monitoring Oswald’s activities. The agents then launched a more earnest search for Oswald, but could not track him down because he was living under an alias and apart from his wife. The FBI was still looking for him when President Kennedy arrived in Dallas six weeks later.
The FBI and CIA badly bungled the Oswald case. The CIA failed to debrief Oswald when he re-defected back to the United States in 1962, despite his threats to turn over military secrets to the Soviets. The CIA was also aware in the fall of 1963 that Castro had given an interview with the Associated Press in which he threatened the lives of American leaders in retaliation for the Kennedy administration’s efforts to eliminate him. Yet the agency did nothing in response to encourage the Secret Service to bolster security for the president. The FBI, for its part, failed to track down Oswald prior to Kennedy’s visit or to enlist the assistance of state and local police in the search. The bureau focused instead on right-wing threats against the president.
The two agencies did not play a role in the assassination but failed to take elementary precautions to prevent it. Those failures, along with some tragic coincidences, converged to give Oswald a once in a lifetime opportunity to fire at President Kennedy.
Was the Kennedy assassination an isolated act committed by a single gunman with no broader meaning or an event in the Cold War committed by a Marxist to weaken the United States, advance the left-wing cause here and abroad, and protect the Castro regime from attempts by the Kennedy administration to overthrow it? That is still an open question and is left unresolved by this otherwise illuminating memoir.
The Oswalds: An Untold Account of Marina and Lee
by Paul R. Gregory
Diversion Books, 286 pp., $28.99
James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (Encounter Books).