Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill President Kennedy?

One of the problems facing the Warren Commission was the difficulty of establishing a credible motive for Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin of President Kennedy.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s Motive

Only a small part of the Warren Report dealt with the facts of the JFK assassination. The majority of the 900–page Report was devoted to a biography of Oswald, in an effort to show that he was capable of doing what he was supposed to have done.

Lee Oswald’s Opinion of President Kennedy

Despite this effort, the Commission was unable to find any evidence of a political or ideological motive. All the evidence in fact pointed the other way. Oswald had repeatedly expressed his admiration for President Kennedy both as an individual and as a politician:

  • Michael Paine, who took Oswald to a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union, claimed that Oswald “thought President Kennedy was doing quite a good job in civil rights, which was high praise coming from Lee“ (Warren Commission Hearings and Exhibits, vol.2, p.399).
  • Lillian Murret, Oswald’s aunt, reported Oswald’s opinion of Kennedy: “he said he liked him” (WCHE, vol.8, p.153).
  • Samuel Ballen, who interviewed Oswald for a job, stated that “I just can’t see his having any venom towards President Kennedy. … this is an individual who felt warmly towards President Kennedy” (WCHE, vol.9, p.48).
  • Paul Gregory, a speaker of Russian who knew the Oswald family in Dallas, said that Oswald “expressed admiration of Kennedy. … I never heard him say anything derogatory about Kennedy. He seemed to admire the man … he always expressed what I would interpret as admiration for Kennedy. … I remember in their apartment that we did look at this picture of Kennedy, and Marina said, ‘He looks like a nice young man,’ and Lee said something, yes, he is a good leader, or something, as I remember, [it] was a positive remark about Kennedy” (WCHE, vol.9, p.148).
  • George de Mohrenschildt, who befriended the Oswalds, claimed that Oswald “was an admirer of President Kennedy. … I mentioned to him that … I thought that Kennedy was doing a very good job. … And he also agreed with me: ‘Yes, yes, yes; I think [he] is an excellent President, young, full of energy, full of good ideas’” (WCHE, vol.9, p.255).
  • Francis Martello, a police officer who interviewed Oswald in New Orleans, claimed that “he showed in his manner of speaking that he liked the President.” Martello was asked whether Oswald “demonstrated any animosity or ill feeling toward President Kennedy,” and replied, “No, sir; he did not. At no time during the interview with Oswald did he demonstrate any type of aggressiveness” (WCHE, vol.10, p.60).

The Warren Commission was unable to find anyone who claimed that Oswald disliked President Kennedy.

Oswald’s Official Motive

The Warren Report offered a vague psychological explanation:

Clues to Oswald’s motives can be found in his family history, his education or lack of it, his acts, his writings, and the recollections of those who had close contacts with him throughout his life.…

The Commission could not make any definitive determination of Oswald’s motives. It has endeavored to isolate factors which contributed to his character and which might have influenced his decision to assassinate President Kennedy. These factors were:

  1. His deep–rooted resentment of all authority which was expressed in a hostility toward every society in which he lived;
  2. His inability to enter into meaningful relationships with people, and a continuous pattern of rejecting his environment in favor of new surroundings;
  3. His urge to try to find a place in history and despair at times over failures in his various undertakings;
  4. His capacity for violence as evidenced by his attempt to kill General Walker;
  5. His avowed commitment to Marxism and communism, as he understood the terms and developed his own interpretation of them; this was expressed by his antagonism toward the United States, by his defection to the Soviet Union, by his failure to be reconciled with life in the United States even after his disenchantment with the Soviet Union, and by his efforts, though frustrated, to go to Cuba.

Each of these contributed to his capacity to risk all in cruel and irresponsible actions.

(Warren Report, pp.22–23)

Problems with Oswald’s Official Motives

In its account of Lee Harvey Oswald’s motive for assassinating President Kennedy, the Warren Report listed five factors which “might have influenced his decision.”

A closer look at these five factors shows that most of them are contradicted by the evidence:

Oswald’s Attitude to Authority

1. His deep–rooted resentment of all authority which was expressed in a hostility toward every society in which he lived;

Oswald seems to have had no more than an occasional vague distrust of authority. He had been a relatively obedient member of the Marines for several years. His well–documented behaviour in New Orleans in the summer of 1963, together with other aspects of his interesting career, shows little evidence of anti–authoritarian impulses.

His surviving notes for a speech, which may or may not reflect his genuine opinions, criticise both the Soviet system and western capitalism, but those criticisms are not much different from the opinions of most reasonable people, and do not illustrate any “deep–rooted resentment”.

Oswald the Loner

2. His inability to enter into meaningful relationships with people

Oswald was married with two young children. He clearly did not have an “inability to enter into meaningful relationships with people.”

Oswald’s “Desire to Get his Name in History”

3. His urge to try to find a place in history and despair at times over failures in his various undertakings;

This seems to be the motive that the Warren Commissioners themselves found the most persuasive. After the final meeting of the Commission, one of its members, Senator Richard Russell, was asked by President Johnson about Oswald’s motive. Russell replied that “he was a general misanthropic fellow … he had a desire to get his name in history and all” (see Richard Russell and the Warren Report).

There is no evidence to support such a notion. Oswald himself never expressed a “desire to get his name in history and all”. Nor did he ever boast of killing Kennedy. On the contrary, over the two days between his arrest and his murder by Jack Ruby, Oswald consistently denied any involvement in the assassination, famously claiming that “I’m just a patsy” (WCHE, vol.20, p.366; for more examples of Oswald’s repeated proclamations of innocence, see Sylvia Meagher, Accessories After the Fact: the Warren Commission, the Authorities, and the Report, Vintage, 1992, pp.246–9).

Oswald’s Capacity for Violence

4. His capacity for violence as evidenced by his attempt to kill General Walker;

Oswald was almost certainly not one of the two men who attempted to shoot General Edwin Walker in April 1963. General Walker himself pointed out that the bullet which had almost killed him was not the same type as the bullets fired in the JFK assassination, and thus cannot have been fired from the only rifle which could be attributed to Oswald.

Oswald’s Subversive Ideology

5. His avowed commitment to Marxism and communism

An “avowed commitment to Marxism and communism” is hardly compatible with what is known about Lee Harvey Oswald’s career, which suggests very strongly that he was employed in various capacities by one or more US intelligence agencies. The Warren Commission was aware of the widely held belief among journalists in Texas that Oswald was a paid informer for the FBI.

The Warren Commission and Oswald’s Motives

The Warren Commission went out of its way to conclude that Oswald’s motives were purely psychological, and that even though he had an “avowed commitment to Marxism and communism,” the alleged assassin was not part of a communist conspiracy. Indeed, the Commission was set up precisely to defuse rumours of a communist conspiracy.

The Communist Conspiracy Theory

Very soon after the assassination, the public became aware of two incriminating facts:

  • the man arrested for the murder of the president had been a defector to the Soviet Union,
  • a few weeks before the assassination, Oswald had apparently visited the Soviet and Cuban diplomatic compounds in Mexico City, where he had attempted to obtain a visa to enter Cuba.

When combined with the early evidence of shots from more than one location, this information generated two conspiracy theories:

  • the assassination was the work of the Soviet or Cuban regimes;
  • or their political enemies had falsely implicated those regimes.

Official Response to the Conspiracy Theories

These theories threatened to increase the public’s distrust of political institutions. Two days after the assassination, an incident occurred that allowed Washington insiders to repair the damage. Oswald’s murder by Jack Ruby ensured that none of the evidence in the case would be subject to critical examination at a trial.

Nicholas Katzenbach, the acting Attorney General, wrote a memo on the evening of 24 November, before any proper investigation of the crime had taken place:

The public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large ….

Speculation about Oswald’s motivation ought to be cut off, and we should have some basis for rebutting thought that this was a Communist conspiracy or (as the Iron Curtain press is saying) a right–wing conspiracy to blame it on the Communists. …

We need something to head off public speculation.

(Katzenbach: Memo to Moyers [FBI HQ JFK Assassination File, 62–109060–18])

J. Edgar Hoover agreed, and noted the preferred course of action:

The thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr Katzenbach, is having something issued so that we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin. Mr Katzenbach thinks that the President might appoint a Presidential Commission of three outstanding citizens to make a determination.

(House Select Committee on Assassinations Report, appendix vol.3, p.472)

A few days later, the Warren Commission was appointed. Even though the assassination had not yet been investigated, the Commission’s conclusions were already in place: Oswald was guilty, and he had killed Kennedy alone and with no ideological motive.

Oswald’s Involvement in the JFK Assassination

The absence of a credible motive suggests that the question, ‘Why did Lee Harvey Oswald kill President Kennedy?’, is the wrong one to ask.

A look at the evidence makes it clear that Oswald cannot have had any motive for killing JFK, because he almost certainly played no active role in the assassination.

Although Oswald was linked to the bullet shells and the rifle discovered on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository (see the Basic Facts of the JFK Assassination),

It has been clear for several decades that the JFK assassination was not the work of a lone nut. The obvious failure of the single–bullet theory shows that more than one gunman killed President Kennedy. It is almost certain that Lee Harvey Oswald was not one of those gunmen, and that he cannot have had any motive for killing JFK.