The Career of Lee Harvey Oswald
Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?
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It became clear after Oswald’s arrest and murder that he was not just an order–filler at a book warehouse. The more information that came to light, the more unusual his career appeared to be:
- He was a former Marine who had defected to the Soviet Union.
- He was involved in both pro– and anti–Castro activity in New Orleans.
- He had a strong interest in purchasing weapons by mail order.
Lee Oswald’s Defection to the Soviet Union
Oswald was one of a series of former US military types who defected to the Soviet Union between 1958 and 1960.1
He was armed with a very good knowledge of Russian, which he had almost certainly been taught at a specialist military language school, the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.2
Official Approval of Oswald’s Return
Oswald’s return to the USA in 1962 appeared to be actively condoned by the US authorities. Despite having promised to hand over state secrets to the Soviet regime:
- Oswald was not prosecuted.
- The State Department had assisted his return, by lending him the fare for the trans–Atlantic ocean crossing.3
- Oswald and his Russian wife settled in the Dallas area, where they were befriended by George de Mohrenschildt, a petroleum geologist with connections to US intelligence. They mixed socially with the strongly anti–Soviet Russian émigré community in Dallas.4
- Oswald applied for a new passport in June 1963, stating on the application form that he was planning to travel to the Soviet Union. The passport was granted the next day.5
The Cuban Exiles in New Orleans
Lee Oswald moved to New Orleans in April 1963, ostensibly to find work. He made contact with several Cuban anti–Castro activists, including Carlos Bringuier, who was in charge of public relations for two organisations: the Cuban Revolutionary Council and the Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil.6 Oswald surprised Bringuier by offering to assist with a paramilitary training camp operated partly by the DRE. Bringuier declined the offer; he assumed that Oswald was an infiltrator working for either the pro–Castro movement or a US agency such as the FBI.7
Oswald, the Public Pro–Castro Activist
Bringuier’s suspicions seemed to be justified when he encountered Oswald a few days later, handing out ‘Hands Off Cuba!’ leaflets on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro–Castro organisation specifically targetted by the DRE. The two men got into an argument, the police were called, and Oswald spent the night in jail.
Oswald’s release from jail was covered by the local news media. Two more publicity stunts helped to identify him further with the pro–Castro cause:
- He hired assistants for a brief session of handing out FPCC leaflets. The session was covered on television.8
- After being interviewed on a local radio station, Oswald was invited to take part in a radio debate on the Cuban question, in which he claimed that he was a Marxist and a member of the FPCC.9
There were two main consequences of Oswald’s activity:
- When applying for a Cuban visa in Mexico City a few weeks later, he made use of the pro–Castro credentials he had acquired in New Orleans.
- After the assassination of President Kennedy, the identification of Oswald with the Cuban regime led to the closure of the FPCC.10
Oswald, the Secret Anti–Castro Activist
Oswald’s pro–Castro activity was not, however, what it seemed. Despite his left–wing media persona, Oswald had no known left–wing associates. The New Orleans branch of the FPCC consisted only of Oswald and one A.J. Hidell, which was presumed to be an alias for Oswald himself.11
Some of Oswald’s FPCC leaflets were stamped with an address, 544 Camp Street, which had no connection to the organisation. On the contrary, the building was associated with strongly anti–Castro interests:
- in 1962 it had been used as a base by the Cuban Revolutionary Council,
- and in 1963 it housed the offices of a private detective agency run by W. Guy Banister, a former FBI agent who was working at arms’ length for the FBI and other federal agencies on a number of projects, including anti–Castro activity.12
Oswald was a frequent visitor to Banister’s office at 544 Camp Street. He was seen in public on several occasions with Banister, who himself was very much opposed to the FPCC and the Castro regime, and who was strongly in favour of racial segregation. Banister was present with Oswald at Louisiana State University on two occasions when Oswald argued against racial integration.13
Interest in Purchasing Guns by Mail Order
Oswald was very interested in purchasing weapons by mail order, both during the summer of 1963 in New Orleans and at the beginning of the year while living in Dallas. In addition to the rifle found on the sixth floor and the revolver found on Oswald when he was arrested, Dallas police discovered among his possessions several complete advertisements for weapons and at least five mail order coupons.
One of these coupons, for a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle from Klein’s Sporting Goods of Chicago, was matched to a specific copy of the June 1963 issue of American Rifleman which contained his thumb print.14 This copy of the magazine was discovered by the FBI and the Secret Service on the day after the assassination, in a garage in New Orleans. In June 1963 Oswald had been working in a building next door to the garage. The proprietor of the garage claimed that Oswald had often spoken to him about guns, and in particular about how to obtain them by mail order.15
There seems to be no legitimate reason why Oswald should have wanted to order guns while in New Orleans. Several months earlier, a Mannlicher–Carcano rifle very similar to that found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository had been ordered and received by ‘A. Hidell’ from Klein’s Sporting Goods of Chicago, using a coupon in the February 1963 issue of American Rifleman. Likewise, ‘A.J. Hidell’ had bought Oswald’s revolver by mail order in January 1963.16
How to Obtain a Gun in Texas in 1963
When the mysterious Mr Hidell had ordered the revolver and the rifle, Oswald was living in Dallas, Texas. The easiest way to obtain a weapon in Texas in 1963, and the only sensible way for an aspiring assassin, was to visit a shop and buy one over the counter. No identification was needed, and no incriminating paper trail would exist. Identification was only required, and an incriminating paper trail created, when purchasing a weapon from a different state, by mail order.
Official Investigations into the Sale of Guns by Mail Order
In 1962 and 1963, the growing trade in mail–order weapons was being investigated by two official bodies:
- the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms unit of the Internal Revenue Service,
- and by a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee, headed by Senator Thomas Dodd.17
Among the organisations under investigation were:
- The American Nazi Party, whose officials’ names and addresses featured in Oswald’s address book.18
- Cuban exile organisations, including three with whom Oswald had attempted to make contact in New Orleans and Dallas.
- Klein’s Sporting Goods, of Chicago, from whom ‘A. Hidell’ had purchased a 36–inch–long Mannlicher–Carcano rifle by mail order. That rifle was the same model as the 40–inch–long rifle discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
- Seaport Traders, of Los Angeles, from whom ‘A.J. Hidell’ had purchased a revolver by mail order. That revolver was found on Oswald when he was arrested on 22 November 1963.
Oswald’s Employers and the Assassination
There is no categorical proof that Lee Oswald was working for one or another agency of the US government,19 either directly or through a proxy, but the circumstantial evidence is overwhelming.
It is unclear whether Oswald himself, using the Hidell alias, purchased the 40–inch–long rifle discovered in the Texas School Book Depository. A more important issue is also unclear: how much of Oswald’s activity in New Orleans, Mexico City and Dallas was directed by others specifically in order to incriminate him, and how much of it was genuine undercover work that was seized on at some stage in the planning of the assassination. Several aspects of the Mexico City episode, for example, can be interpreted as an attempt by the counter–intelligence branch of the CIA to expose Soviet moles within the US security system. Oswald need not have been, and probably was not, a straightforward employee of one agency.
- Some of this group of military defectors appear to have been compromised by the Soviets; others appear to have been working for US intelligence. See John Newman, Oswald and the CIA, Carroll and Graf, 1995, pp.169–73, 182–90. For an example of a US undercover agent in the Soviet Union, see NARA RIF no. 104–10066–10201, p.6
- The Warren Commission appears to have heard, from sources not yet publicly identified, that Oswald had received instruction from the Defense Language Institute: “We are trying to run that down to find out what he studied at the Monterey School of the Army in the way of languages” (Warren Commission Executive Session, 27 January 1964, p.192). He had spent about three months at a marine base not far from Monterey: Warren Commission Document 113. According to the portion of his Marine Corps record that has been made public (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.19, pp.656ff), Oswald had been tested in the Russian language while in the marines, which implies that he had been taught Russian while in the marines. Needless to say, foreign language tuition and testing were not normally part of Marine Corps life. Oswald had no significant knowledge of any other foreign language.
- The loan from the State Department: Warren Report, p.770.
- George de Mohrenschildt’s connections to the world of intelligence were originally denied, but have since become better known. For his background, see HSCA Report, appendix vol.12, pp.53ff.
- Details of Oswald’s passport application are summarised in this FBI report: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.22, p.12 (Commission Exhibit 1062). Even members of the Warren Commission expressed surprise that a former defector could obtain a passport so easily: Warren Commission Executive Session, 22 January 1964, pp.8ff. An FBI memo makes Oswald’s status clear: “With Oswald’s background we should have had a stop on his passport, particularly since we did not definitely know whether or not he had any intelligence assignments at that time.” (HSCA Report, appendix vol.3, p.541). Any intelligence assignments that justified the granting of a passport must, of course, have been on behalf of US intelligence.
- For Oswald’s links to anti–Castro Cubans in New Orleans, see Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, University of California Press, 1993, pp.80ff. The HSCA’s assertion (HSCA Report, appendix vol.10, p.62) that Bringuier was unconnected to the CRC is false; see Scott, op. cit., p.327 n.21.
- Warren Commission Hearings, vol.10, p.35. For US intelligence activity in relation to both pro– and anti–Castro Cubans, see the Schweiker–Hart Report, pp.10ff. One member of the FBI’s New Orleans office later claimed to have seen documentary evidence that Oswald had been an informant for that office: see NARA RIF no. 180–10076–10413. Although both the FBI as an agency and its senior officers as individuals were sympathetic to the anti–Castro movement, the Bureau also had to respond to pressure to limit the public’s access to weapons.
- The leafletting took no longer than 15 minutes (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.10, p.66), which suggests that the television station had been alerted in advance.
- A transcript of the interview: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.21, pp.621ff. A transcript of the debate: ibid., pp.633ff. Recordings survive of the interview and the debate: http://www.maryferrell.org/wiki/index.php/Audio_-_Other. At one point in the debate, Oswald states that “I worked in Russia. I was under the protection of the, that is to say, I was not under the protection of the American government” (this portion begins at about 15 minutes 45 seconds into the 23–minute programme; Oswald’s umming and ahhing has been omitted from this transcript). The official transcript incorrectly reads: “I worked in Russia. I was not under the protection of …” (Warren Commission Hearings, vol.21, p.639).
- Within hours of the assassination, the DRE released to the news media a recording of Oswald’s radio debate. The FPCC was a long–standing target of the FBI and CIA; see the Schweiker–Hart Report, p.65, which quotes an FBI memo that “CIA is also giving some thought to planting deceptive information which might embarrass the [Fair Play for Cuba] Committee”. The DRE received $51,000 per month from the CIA, through a propaganda operation directed by George Joannides. In his later role as the liaison officer between the CIA and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, Joannides ensured that the HSCA remained unaware of the agency’s financial and operational links to the DRE. For more about the publication of Oswald’s radio debate, and the relationship between the DRE and the CIA, see Jefferson Morley, ‘What Jane Roman Said, part 6’, at history–matters.com.
- Whether or not it actually was an alias, the name ‘Hidell’ functioned as an alias for Oswald. Both Oswald and Hidell were linked to the post office box to which the sixth–floor rifle was sent: Warren Report, pp.119f. Oswald himself ensured that official records associated his name with Hidell and with sympathy for the Castro regime. After the scuffle with Bringuier, Oswald refused to pay a small fine, and spent the night in jail. He requested, and was granted, an interview with an FBI agent, in which he linked Hidell’s name with the FPCC. This information was duly relayed to the 112th Army Military Intelligence Group and the Office of Naval Intelligence, whose files surfaced immediately after the assassination. For details, see Peter Dale Scott, op. cit., pp.258–60.
- For Banister’s agency as a proxy or subcontractor for federal investigators, see HSCA Report, appendix vol.10, p.130, and Peter Dale Scott, op. cit., pp.86ff.
- For Oswald’s association with Banister and his anti–Castro activity, see John Newman, op. cit., pp.308ff, and Michael L. Kurtz, ‘Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans: a Reappraisal,’ Louisiana History, vol.21 no.1 (Winter 1980), pp.7–22 (available online in PDF format at JSTOR: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4231952), which also discusses Oswald’s pro–segregationist activity. Among those who saw Oswald and Banister together was William Gaudet, a CIA asset who was peripherally involved in Oswald’s Mexico City adventure; see HSCA Report, pp.218f and Newman, op. cit., pp.346f.
- For Hidell’s purchases, see the Warren Report, p.723. For Oswald’s thumb print, see Henry Hurt, Reasonable Doubt: An Investigation into the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, Henry Holt, 1985, p.298.
- Oswald was working at the William B. Reily Coffee Company, next door to Adrian Alba’s garage: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.10, pp.220ff.
- For the history of the weapons associated with Oswald, see Warren Report, pp.118ff. The rifle ordered by ‘A. Hidell’ was a 36–inch–long version of the 40–inch–long model found on the sixth floor. Apart from the revolver he was carrying when arrested, no weapons, ammunition or related equipment were found among Oswald’s possessions.
- For the Dodd Committee’s activities, which included the use of undercover investigators who purchased guns, see Henry Hurt, op. cit., pp.300ff.
- Oswald’s address book: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.16, pp.37ff (Commission Exhibit 18)
- Rumours quickly circulated that Oswald had been employed by the FBI or the CIA, or both, a matter raised in a memo by J. Lee Rankin early in the Warren Commission’s life.