Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?
He didn’t think of himself as “Lee Harvey Oswald.” The state and the media, in response to significant criminal acts, will sometimes include the subject’s middle name as a way of imposing an institutional gravity on the matter. This practice, in Oswald’s case, produced an early stereotype, a drifter with three first names and a pale, spare, squinting look — someone superficially familiar. The fact that he was a dead man before the weekend was over created another kind of distance. It is also true that many people did not want to see “the real Oswald” because they were unwilling to grant fully human status to the man accused of murdering the president.
In fact, he may have seemed a little unreal to himself. He used many false names and appears at times less an amateur actor in his own life than a character, someone put together out of doctored photos, tourist cards, mail-order forms, visa applications and altered signatures. He tried to break out of a marginal life by joining the Marines, then defecting to the Soviet Union, then attempting suicide; by reading Karl Marx and ordering guns through the mail; and by trying to kill Major General Edwin A. Walker, a notorious right-wing figure, in April 1963. It may be tempting to think of Oswald as a figure out of modernist literature, an American variation of Beckett’s sad and wailing Krapp, whose last tape (in this case) is secretly fabricated by the KGB or the FBI.
But Oswald was real. He loved his daughters, beat his wife, took out the garbage. He did not move from logical set A to logical set B, as such things are configured in most examinations of his life. He was driven, like many of us, by obscure motivations, large and small inconsistencies. When he fired a shot at General Walker, he was committing a political act, one that would make him a man in history, which is what he’d always wanted. Seven months later, however, his life was coming down around him. He lived in a cheap rooming house, separated from his family, harassed by the FBI, denied a visa to Cuba, working at another dead-end job. Then one day he learned that the president would visit Dallas and that the motorcade, stunningly, would pass the School Book Depository, the building where Oswald worked, at precisely the time when he was most likely to be alone on the sixth floor.
This was not history, but dreams, a set of circumstances carrying an eerie power that must have seemed otherworldly to him. Oswald appeared to admire JFK. He tended to see himself in the president. They had things in common. Lee was always reading two or three books at a time, like Jack. Lee did military service in the Pacific, like Jack. His handwriting was awful and his spelling was terrible, just like Jack’s. At one point his wife and Jack’s wife were both pregnant. Lee had a brother named Robert and so, of course, did Jack.
Oswald would not have walked two blocks to shoot at the president. The president had to come to him, and this is what happened, ruinously, on Nov. 22.
This was an act of naked desperation. Oswald abandoned his claim to history and became the first of those soft white dreamy young men who plan the murder of a famous individual — a president, a presidential candidate, a rock star — as a way of organizing their loneliness and misery, making a network out of it, a web of connections.
Think of Oswald the defector, the pro-Castro activist, the earnest student of world affairs. In the end, there was nothing left of him but a defeated ego, a self isolated from the world and from other people. He fell out of history and politics and became a figure in one of his own bent daydreams.
Oswald was looking for a conspiracy to join ever since (or perhaps before) he defected to the Soviet Union. Indeed, ever since he was handed a pamphlet about the Rosenberg prosecution at the age of 15, he had sought out affiliations with political organizations, front groups and foreign nations that opposed the policies of the U.S.
The issue is whether or not he found the conspiracy he sought. Or, since he advertised his willingness so widely, it found him.
The evidence only leads us down a rabbit hole…
Despite our differences, I believe that after four decades, many of us who have researched the case are closer than ever to sharing a common understanding of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
Don DeLillo says, “The truth is knowable. But probably not, ever, incontrovertible.” And there are admittedly many rumors, false stories, and faded memories strewn along the path for any investigator of the assassination. Yet I believe that there is an incontrovertible truth that is based on credible evidence. I would modify DeLillo’s conclusion only to the extent of saying that while the truth is knowable, it is not, ever, something on which most people will agree.
As for Edward J. Epstein, while he seems convinced that Oswald was JFK’s assassin, he is not persuaded that he acted alone. “Just because there is a single shooter does not mean there is not a conspiracy that manipulated him,” says Epstein.
DeLillo, in his short answer about Oswald, does a better job of capturing the real person than is done by most conspiracy theorists who fail to recognize the very human traits and qualities that eventually compelled him to shoot JFK. DeLillo understands Oswald’s remarkable personal history, and as such realizes that the key to unraveling any answers about Kennedy’s death has to start and end with Oswald.
“Frontline” Forum: Oswald – Myth, Mystery, and Meaning