8 Things You May Not Know About Lee Harvey Oswald
Follow @jbrezlowNovember 19, 2013, 1:33 pm ET
Tonight, FRONTLINE presents a reprise of Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, our definitive television biography of the man who killed President Kennedy 50 years ago this week. Click here to find out when the film will air on your local PBS station.
For 50 years, Lee Harvey Oswald has remained the enigmatic figure at the center of the Kennedy assassination. Was he a lone gunman? A conspirator? A patsy?
In Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, airing tonight, FRONTLINE returns to Dealey Plaza in Dallas to examine the evidence of his role in the assassination. Originally produced for the 30th anniversary of the assassination, the film draws upon hundreds of witnesses to shed new light on Oswald’s mysterious life story.
Ahead of tonight’s encore presentation, here are eight things about Oswald you might not have known:
1. He served in the Marines — where his nickname was “Osvaldovich”
Oswald took an early interest in socialism after picking up a leaflet about the coming execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who had been convicted of spying for Russia. “I was looking for a key to my environment, and then I discovered socialist literature,” Oswald wrote in his diary. “I had to dig for my books in the back of dusty shelves of libraries.”
Despite his socialist leanings, Oswald enlisted in the Marines and in 1957 was stationed in Atsugi, Japan. While there, he earned the nickname “Osvaldovich.” As his fellow Marine, Owen Dejanovich, explained to FRONTLINE:
2. Oswald attempted suicide in Russia
In 1959, Oswald travelled to Moscow in hopes of becoming a Soviet citizen. “I want citizenship because I am a communist and a worker,” he wrote in his request for citizenship. “I have lived in a decadent capitalist society where the workers are slaves.”
When his request was denied, Oswald became despondent. “I am shocked!! My dreams!”, he wrote in his what he called his “historic” diary. “My fondes [sic] dreams are shattered … I decide to end it. Soak rist [sic] in cold water to numb the pain. Than slash my left wrist.”
Oswald was found unconscious in his bathtub shortly after he finished his diary entry and then rushed to a local hospital. Days later, Russian officials changed course and allowed him to stay in the country.
3. He once improvised the role of a killer
In 1960, Oswald moved to Minsk and became friends with a group of college students interested in learning English. One of the students, Ernst Titovets, made tape recordings of Oswald in order to study his southern accent. He had Oswald read passages from Shakespeare and Hemingway, as well as improvise mock dialogues.
In one recording, Titovets interviewed Oswald, who was playing the part of a serial killer. In the exchange — which Titovets played for FRONTLINE in the below excerpt from Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? – Oswald is asked about his most recent killing.
4. His alias was “Alek J. Hidell”
By 1962, Oswald was back in the United States and working in a photo lab in downtown Dallas. Using the lab’s photo equipment, he began to forge a new identity, including a Selective Service card, in the name of “Alek J. Hidell.”
Oswald went on to open a post office box, where he would have mail sent under both his birth name as well as his alias. Among the publications he received were The Worker, the newspaper of the American Communist Party, as well as The Militant, the paper of the Socialist Workers Party.
Following the Kennedy assassination, the FBI would trace the purchase of a rifle found inside the Texas School Book Depository to an A. Hidell. However, when asked by the Dallas Police whether he had ever used the name, Oswald said no.
According to author Priscilla McMillen, Oswald’s wife Marina once asked him if he chose the name “Hidell” because of its resemblance to “Fidel” (as in Castro). Oswald “was embarrassed to be caught out, and he told her to shut up,” McMillen told FRONTLINE.
5. He was linked to an assassination attempt before JFK
Seven months before the Kennedy assassination, Oswald allegedly fired into the home of an ultra-right wing Army general named Edwin Walker. The bullet, which missed Walker, was linked to Oswald’s ammunition after the Kennedy assassination.
Gerald Posner, the author of Case Closed recounted what’s known about Oswald’s actions:
6. His feelings about JFK were mixed
According to an account published in The New York Times by Paul Gregory, a friend of Oswald’s, Lee and Marina kept a copy of Time magazine featuring John F. Kennedy as its Man of the Year prominently displayed in their home.
“Lee liked Kennedy,” according to Priscilla McMillan, a friend of Oswald’s wife and the author of Marina & Lee. “He liked him in civil rights. He disliked him for the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. … But insofar as he spoke about Kennedy, it was to praise him.”
Investigative journalist Gerald Posner also told FRONTLINE that he did not believe Oswald held any hatred for Kennedy. “What he did hate was the system and what Kennedy stood for,” said Posner. “He despised America. He despised capitalism. When he eventually had the opportunity to strike against Kennedy, it was that symbol of the system that he was going after.”
7. He once considered hijacking a plane to Cuba
According to McMillan, Oswald wanted to help train Castro’s army in Cuba, but because he could not secure a visa, he was forced to devise an alternative plan. As McMillan told FRONTLINE:
8. Oswald told Dallas police that “Nobody’s going to shoot at me”
The day he was killed by Jack Ruby, Oswald dismissed the idea that his life might be in danger. That’s according to James Leavelle, a former member of the Dallas police force who helped escort Oswald from his cell the morning of the shooting.
“I put the handcuffs on him,” Leavelle told FRONTLINE, “and in the process of doing that, I more in jest kind of said, ‘Lee, if anybody shoots at you, I hope they’re as good a shot as you are,’ meaning, of course, that they’d hit him and not me. And he kind of laughed and he said, ‘Oh, you’re being melodramatic,’ or something to that effect. ‘Nobody’s going to shoot at me.’”
Minutes later, Oswald was dead.
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