Within hours of President John F Kennedy’s assassination, most Americans were familiar with the name Lee Harvey Oswald. Certain images of him — posing with a rifle, recoiling from Jack Ruby’s gun — have been ingrained in memory. Yet he remains an enigma.
Q: Did Oswald kill Kennedy? Did he act alone?
A: The Warren Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to investigate the assassination, concluded, in 1964, that Oswald acted alone, firing three shots from a window in his Dallas workplace, the Texas School Book Depository. Many Americans have questioned this conclusion. In 1978, the House Select Committee on Assassinations ended its own inquiry by finding that Kennedy “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.
Q: What was Oswald’s childhood like?
A: Unstable. By the time he turned 17 and joined the Marines, he’d lived at more than 20 different addresses and attended a dozen schools. He was born in New Orleans on Oct 18, 1939, two months after his father died of a heart attack, spent time in an orphanage, as a three-year-old, and moved with his family to Dallas in 1944. He and his mother moved, in 1952, to New York City, where he had run-ins with truant officers and underwent psychiatric observation. Two years later, they moved back to New Orleans.
Q: How did he fare in the Marines?
A: Erratically. In early phases of his service, at US bases, he got good performance evaluations and qualified as a sharpshooter, after marksmanship training. But he was court-martialled twice while stationed in Japan, first after wounding himself with an unauthorised pistol and, later, after a bar fight. He tried to teach himself Russian, and — at the height of the Cold War — would speak favourably of Marxism and the Soviet Union.
Q: Did he try to defect to Russia?
A: Yes. He obtained an early discharge from the Marines, and, in 1959, he travelled to Finland and boarded a train to Moscow. Soon after arrival, he told his guide he wanted to defect. Russian authorities initially rebuffed him (he slit his wrist in response), but eventually allowed him to stay and sent him to the city of Minsk, to work at an electronics factory. In March, 1961, Oswald met Marina Prusakova, a 19-year-old pharmacology student. They married within six weeks and had a child in February, 1962. That May, weary with life in Russia, Oswald and his wife applied at the American Embassy, in Moscow, for documents enabling her to emigrate to the US. They settled in Dallas that autumn.
Q: Wasn’t Oswald linked to another assassination plot?
A: On Apr 10, 1963, a gunman shot through a window of the Dallas home of Major General Edwin Walker, a fervent anti-communist and segregationist, who resigned from the Army after being reprimanded for giving troops right-wing propaganda. Walker, working at a desk, was slightly injured by fragments. The Warren Commission later concluded Oswald was the gunman.
Passport, rifle, bullets and other items belonging to assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, displayed by the National Archives in Washington.
Q: What’s the Cuban connection in Oswald’s life?
A: In late April, 1963, just days after the attack on Walker, Oswald went to New Orleans and spent the summer there. He printed and distributed leaflets in support of Cuba’s Communist leader, Fidel Castro, and got into a street fight with anti-Castro demonstrators. Yet the leaflets bore an address of a local anti-Castro operation, connected to a former FBI agent. That September, Oswald took a bus to Mexico City and visited the Cuban and Soviet embassies, in an unsuccessful effort to get clearance to travel to Russia via Cuba.
Q: How was Oswald arrested on Nov 22?
A: The Warren Commission said Oswald left the book depository moments after shots were fired from the sixth floor, returned by bus and cab to his rooming house, then ventured out again — soon encountering a Dallas police officer, who stopped him based on descriptions of the assassination suspect. According to the commission, Oswald fatally shot patrolman, JD Tippit, with a handgun, then fled into a nearby movie theatre, where he was soon arrested.
Q: Who was Jack Ruby?
A: Ruby was a Dallas nightclub owner, well-acquainted with many police officers. As Oswald was being transferred from police headquarters to the county jail, on Nov 24, Ruby shot him in the chest, from close range. Oswald was rushed, unconscious, to Parkland Memorial Hospital — where doctors had tried to save Kennedy’s life two days earlier — and died there at 1:07pm. Ruby was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. He appealed and was granted a new trial, but died of lung cancer before a trial date was set. Ruby said he was angered by Kennedy’s assassination and wanted to spare Jacqueline Kennedy the ordeal of a trial for Oswald. Sceptics, noting that Ruby had some connections with underworld figures, have suggested his shooting of Oswald was part of a broader conspiracy.
Q: Did the Warren Commission specify a motive for Oswald killing Kennedy?
A: No. Oswald “was moved by an overriding hostility to his environment,” the report said. “He does not appear to have been able to establish meaningful relationships with other people. He was perpetually discontented with the world around him. Long before the assassination, he expressed his hatred for American society and acted in protest against it.”
Oswald and the Cobh connection
By Ray Ryan
WHAT was Lee Harvey Oswald doing in Cork 17 months before he was alleged to have assassinated President John F Kennedy?
The answer is an intriguing footnote to one of the most historic events of the 20th century. Oswald, a former United States Marine, had defected to Russia in 1959.
But on the morning of Jun 6, 1962, a gloriously sunny Wednesday, the then 23-year-old was on board the cruise ship SS Maasdam, which dropped anchor as scheduled in Cork Harbour.
The Holland America Line ship was a regular visitor to Cobh as it moved back and forth across the Atlantic during what was still a busy time for passenger liner traffic.
Oswald, who had become fed up with life in Russia, was on his way back to Texas with his Russian wife, Marina and their infant daughter, June Lee, having secured a loan from the US Government.
They had travelled by train from Moscow to Rotherdam, where they boarded the Maasdam. It sailed on June 4 and called at Le Harve and Southampton before arriving off Roche’s Point two days later. There was nothing to show the occupants of Cabin 473 were anything but a family travelling to the US, except little was seen of Marina and her daughter, who spent most of the time in their room.
Oswald also kept to himself but was observed writing on the ship’s stationary what was deemed the political rant of a disillusioned loner.
It was a busy day in Cobh — the Maasdam was one of three liners in the harbour.
One was the United States Lines vessel America from New York. It landed 300 passengers, 2,558 sacks of mails and one ton of cargo.
The other was the Cunard liner Mauretania travelling in the opposite direction. It embarked 152 passengers and two and a half tons of cargo.
Lee Harvey Oswald and his family stayed on board the Maasdam as it embarked 25 passengers, a car and 1,000 bags of mail.
On the same day, President Kennedy named millionaire businessman Matt McCloskey as Ambassador to Ireland and horse trainer Vincent O’Brien won his first Epsom Derby with Larkspur.
As the Maasdam resumed her voyage, the green headlands of the Irish coast and the towering landmark of St Colman’s Cathedral in Cobh soon disappeared from the view of those on board. Lee Harvey Oswald and his family disembarked in a rain storm when the liner arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey on Jun 13, stayed overnight in New York and then travelled on to Dallas and a date with history.
Dallas, a hot bed of right wing politics and anti-Kennedy sentiment, would suffer greatly from the assassination of the president and subsequent killing of Oswald. It had to endure the shame of being known as the city where Kennedy was killed by gunfire, which echoed around the world for a half century.
And while Dealey Plaza, site of the assassination, was declared a national historic landmark in 1993, the pain of what happened clearly lingered. At least that’s the impression I got on a sunny October day in 2006 while standing on the footpath at the bottom of the Grassy Knoll, just a few feet away from where the President was killed.
Traffic sped along Elm Street where a white cross marked the spot on the road where Kennedy was hit.
The area, looking smaller and more compact than it appeared on television, was more or less the same as it had been on Nov 22, 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald is alleged to have pulled the trigger of history.
A bronze plaque on the ground merely stated Dealey Plaza had been designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior.
It noted the site was of national significance in commemorating the country’s history. Yet, there was no reference to President Kennedy or his assassination, which was surprising.
“Is Dallas still in denial”, I asked a tour guide, who merely shrugged her shoulders, and muttered most people in the US believed there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s killing.
The nearby Sixth Floor Museum, in what was the Texas School Depository, where Oswald worked, was opened in 1989 and has been visited by six million people.
A wall plaque referred to the building gaining national notoriety in 1963 when Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly shot and killed President John F Kennedy as his presidential motorcade passed the site.
Use of the word allegedly has been questioned over the years, but it is accurate because Oswald was never charged with Kennedy’s murder and therefore never convicted of it in a court of law.
The passage of time has helped to ease the pain suffered by the city, where a John F Kennedy Memorial Plaza was dedicated in 1970.
This year for the first time Kennedy will be commemorated with a special designed ceremony in Dealey Plaza on Nov 22 — the 50th anniversary of his death. The definitive analysis of the man, when it is made, might still not be too removed from the view expressed in the Cork Examiner leading article, written with a cool detachment in the midst of upheaval just a few hours after his assassination.
It said Kennedy wrought profound changes to international affairs in the tragically short time allotted to him.
“His epitaph must be that he reduced tensions almost to the point that it was possible for the first time in a generation to envisage universal peace.
“Other men have contributed to the establishment of that possibility but it was Kennedy who led and inspired and, by his unswerving courage, persuaded the enemies of his way of life, to acknowledge that war was not the necessary final arbiter.
“Other men have changed the course of history, for better or worse, but none was faced with the terrible challenge of the nuclear age.
“Kennedy’s triumph was that he fought and overcame that challenge and won for the world the respite it now enjoys.”
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