Interview: Robert Oswald

He is the older brother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and a former Marine and salesman. Convinced that his brother was solely responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Oswald offers details in this interview about Lee’s formative years and young adult life, and describes how his brother’s love of television shows on intrigue and espionage such as I Led Three Lives, became the “training ground for his imagination.” He says that the “hard physical evidence” from the assassination leads him to one conclusion: “The Warren Commission was correct.” This interview was conducted in 1993 in conjunction with the first broadcast of FRONTLINE’s Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?

In your mind, are there questions about whether Lee shot President Kennedy?

There is no question in my mind that Lee was responsible for the three shots fired, two of the shots hitting the president and killing him. There is no question in my mind that he also shot Officer Tippit. How can you explain one without the other? I think they’re inseparable. I’m talking about the police officer being shot and the president. You look at the factual data, you look at the rifle, you look at the pistol ownership, you look at his note about the Walker shooting. You look at the general opportunity — he was present. He wasn’t present when they took a head count [at the Texas School Book Depository].

You look at all the data there, and it comes up to one conclusion as far as I’m concerned — the Warren Commission was correct.

What do you say to people who are so convinced or are trying to believe in his innocence? I mean, you’re his brother; you would want to believe more than anyone.

I think that’s an understatement. … I would love to be able to say that Lee was not involved in any way whatsoever, or much less to the extent that I believe that he was. This is a struggle that has gone on with me for almost 30 years now. This is mind over heart. The mind tells me one thing, and the heart tells me something else.

But the facts are there. … What do you do with his rifle? What do you do with his pistol? What do you do with his general opportunity? What do you do with his actions? To me, you can’t reach but one conclusion. There’s hard physical evidence there. True, no one saw him actually pull the trigger on the president but … his presence in the building was there. What he did after he left the building is known: bus ride, taxi ride, boardinghouse, pick up the pistol, leave, shoot the police officer. Five or six eyewitnesses there. You can’t set that aside just because he is saying, “I’m a patsy.” I’d love to do that, but you cannot. …

He did not and would not talk to any of the interrogators about anything of substance. Anytime they brought anything up that pertained to the assassination of the president and the shooting of the police officer, he knew nothing about it. He would talk about anything else. He had the presence of mind then to do that.

[To those who say,] “He didn’t own a rifle.” We know he owned a rifle. You’ve got all kinds of documented evidence. They’ve gone to the extreme measures to prove that he owned that rifle. You’ve got the backyard picture. They’ve got the original negative. They’ve got the camera. You’ve got all the physical evidence that ties together.

If it was any other murder case other than the president of the United States, it would have been resolved right then. Consequently, people left it wide open. It’s good that people raise questions and say, “Wait a minute, let’s take a second look at this.” But when you take the second look and the third and the 40th and the 50th, hey, enough’s enough. It’s there; put it to rest.

The big question is why. What’s the best answer you come to for yourself regarding his motive?

To try to understand why Lee did what he did on Nov. 22 is a cumulative effect of all his past plans and efforts and failures. Historically in his life, it was always done by himself. He planned by himself, he executed by himself, he failed by himself. This was a part of his character, that inner self, that we used to say, “Me, myself and I will do something.”

In comparison to yourself, what was Lee missing from his childhood? What would it be?

… What Lee missed from his childhood in comparison to me was the whole family being together all the time. The continuity there, the lack of stability, I think, entered into that to a large degree. But you go back to the death of Dad two months before he was born, that’s a tremendous impact.

Talk about his mother’s importance to him.

Our mother was Lee’s most important person in his life. … That influence was just tremendous on him. But at the same time, he always was trying to get away from her. … She had certain characteristics that were so much like Lee: the time and circumstances always seemed to be against her; the world owed her a living; she wanted to be somebody. I think this was passed on to Lee. …

What kind of job did she do raising Lee?

If we go and get right down to the bottom line, we have to say, really and truly, in all candor, [she did] a lousy job, a lousy job.

Did she let you know and did she let him know that the kids were a burden?

I don’t know at what age Mother verbalized the effect that she felt he was a burden to her. But she certainly conveyed it to John and I at very early ages. We’re talking seven, eight, nine, 10 years old. At what age Lee started gathering this, or sensing it, or hearing it and applying it to him, I don’t know. But certainly by age three, he had the sense, “I need to be someplace else.” Mother would be putting him with a nanny, or a babysitter, or in an orphan home with us, just to get us out of her hair. We were a burden.

The family moved around a lot?

It seemed like we were never in a location [more than] six or seven months, maybe a year at the most. There was always a constant move. This was unsettling. We were away from Lee during the three years of military school, only seeing him during the summer vacations or holiday-type things. It was always separation, separation, separation. …

Tell me about his interest in the television show I Led Three Lives and what that says about him and his imagination.

Lee’s fantasy life, to me, became apparent in the 1948, 1949, 1950 period. Living in Fort Worth, TV was making its debut. We had an old black-and-white. He seemed to really get involved with it and hang onto it after the programs were over. John and I would be off doing other things. I Led Three Lives — he became really engrossed in that particular TV show, and he was still watching it when I left to go in the Marine Corps in 1952.

What did he like about it?

I think he just liked the atmosphere that you could do anything that you wanted to do, that you could imagine you could do. … The fact that he could put on a facade and pretend to be somebody he wasn’t — to me, it gets down to what happened later on. That was a training ground [for] his imagination.

His mother had the same type of imagination. She could really become somebody from New York real easy when she’s in Texas, putting on the air[s], whatever you call it.

But Lee had that same personality type. He could be somebody from New York that knew a lot of things, somebody that could get around … be somebody else. He could project this type of image, and he did; he tried to.

How did he handle New York?

I think the way Lee learned New York was just apply himself to it. He played an awful lot of hooky up there. What did he do? Well, he went to do the things he always liked to do — got to the movies if he had the money, go to the library and read if he didn’t have it. Or he just walked the streets, ride the subways. I’m sure for a certain minimal fee, you could ride the subways all day, and he would do it just to get around. This type of thing would interest him, whether he went to an art museum or a library or a movie theater or just walked around and saw sights.

He started becoming more and more independent and out on his own because Mother was working all the time, no brothers around, no father figure around, no adult that he was acquainted with that he could rely on to and talk to.

He was on his own in libraries. That’s where he started doing a lot of reading and everything. He always enjoyed books, but then he started exploring other areas. Nobody was telling him whether this was good, bad or indifferent, or what the consequences of what his actions were. He was using his own imagination.

As I learned later on, he’s becoming very belligerent to Mother. She has no control over him.

If you had to take a guess about when he got his political beliefs, how he was introduced to Marxism, what would you guess?

New York City. If somebody passed out a leaflet on the street that contained a political statement for Marxism or communism or what have you, and if Lee had not run across that before, I could envision him looking at it, keeping it and saying, “Well, I wonder what this is all about.” This might have been the first leaflet that he ever got from anybody on the street. I don’t know. But he would look at it. Maybe the next time he went to the library, he would follow up on it, and say “Well, let’s really see what this is about.” That to me is very plausible for him to do.

What would have been the appeal to him about something like Marxism?

The appeal to Lee of something like that Marxism, communism, socialism, would be something unique, something different — not [an] everyday occurrence.

You had said that he had very much been on his own in New York. Then he joins the Marines, and then he has a lot of people barking at him, a lot of discipline. How would he have reacted to that?

He would tolerate anything for a little bit. But he became disgusted with it and started rebelling against it, because he wanted to go back to a more independent attitude. … Lee would rebel against the discipline of the Marine Corps when he had the opportunity to, when the leeway was there. … He pressed the lieutenants, he pressed the platoon leaders.

You see him for a few days when he gets out [of the Marines]. Tell me about that, and what his attitude is and the kinds of things you talked about.

When Lee is discharged, early discharge in September 1959, he returns to Fort Worth for about three days. … We spent some time together. He was relaxed, but at about the second day, he starts talking about where he’s going.

He’s thinking about going to Cuba. He wants to “do like Hemingway.” He wants to get some experience and write about it. … His plans, as we well know now, were already made to go to Russia, rather than to Cuba. … But then, Oct. 31, we hear that he’s in Russia. That’s the shocker. That’s almost unbelievable. This was 1959. The Cold War was going on. He was just out of the Marine Corps. It just didn’t fit. I know he wanted to travel. … But my goodness, this is completely out of the ballpark.

You don’t think that there was any possibility that he was on some mission when he went to Russia?

Definitely not. This was something all his own. This was his grand experience at the time. I anticipated, and I said to the family, “He’ll be back within a year.” Well, it took him a little bit longer than that, but he started trying after a year to come back.

When you learned he had defected, did you have any explanation?

I wasn’t real sure what the explanation was. … I was just completely in the dark. Apparently he’d been planning this for a long time. … The planning that Lee did probably at least extended all the way back to the time he was in Japan … because of the clothes he purchased at the time

If it didn’t work for Russia, he was going to stay in Europe anyway. He’d actually applied for Albert Schweitzer’s school in Switzerland, and been accepted for that summertime or fall semester. So, to me, that was his back-up plan if everything else failed. Those are the indications that say he took some thought, some planning over a long period of time. …

From Russia, he had written you, saying that he was worried about charges being brought against him when he came back. What was his concern?

Well, his concern was, was there anything that I was aware of that [there] were going to be charges placed against him from anybody? This would have to be at the federal level. I wrote him back that, to my knowledge, nothing he has done warrants any charges, because they did not let him accomplish anything over there, i.e., the U.S. Embassy did not accept his citizenship rejection. They didn’t finalize that. He was, in fact, an American citizen all the time, and still had the rights of the American citizen.

But he had said he was going to give the Russians any information he had, and it seemed like he did.

As far as Lee giving any information to the Russians while he was over there, even though he said he would if they had asked, apparently they weren’t interested in it. Now apparently, for whatever reasons or however they checked it out, they found out whatever he knew wasn’t necessarily anything they’d be interested in.

With regard to his return home from Russia in June 1962 with his family — what did he tell you about reporters meeting him, and what do you think it really meant?

He indicated that, if reporters were asking about when he’s coming back, to say nothing He wanted not to be bothered by the reporters. But … he had prepared answers and statements, anticipating reporters either at the ship or some place down the line on the return. I think he was surprised when he stepped off the plane in Dallas Field — he asked me, “What, no reporters?” I said, “Yes. I’ve managed to keep it quiet.” That was it. But I think he was disappointed. He was ready.

Did he talk about the Russian system and the American system and comparing the two?

When Lee got back from Russia, the way he talked about the Russian system, he didn’t talk about it politically, in the sense that he was wrapped up in communism or Marxism. He was making fun of how inept they were, and he was making fun of them all the time. …

He wasn’t political. He really wasn’t. I say that in all honesty, because he tried to become what he needed to be to achieve his immediate objectives; i.e., he needed to be a Marxist and accept the Russians [to] get the experience in Russia. When he returned to the United States, he didn’t want to be a Russian. He wanted to be an American, to be accepted by the American society, and so wherever he was … he wanted to be accepted. He wasn’t political. He was what’s convenient to be.

So you’re saying, in a sense, he is the ultimate pragmatist?

I think it says that he is very pragmatic, and he’s going to go with the punches. He’s going to fit in to where he needs to fit in to accomplish what he needs to accomplish … what is very essential to get by with, to be somebody. That’s what it comes down to — he wanted to be unique, by whatever it took…

When Lee came back, how did he react to visits from the FBI when they came and saw him here?

After Lee’s return, approximately two weeks, in the latter part of June 1962, he gets a call from one of the FBI agents — I believe that was Mr. Fain — in wanting to have a meeting with him. He told me about it, and I told him I’d go with him. He said no, that wasn’t necessary, he could take care of it. …

He went the following day, had the meeting. When I returned home from work that evening, I asked him about it, and he said, “Well, everything went all right. They even asked me if I’d ever been an agent of the federal government or the CIA.” I said, “What did you tell them?” He says, “Well, don’t you know?” and he just laughed. I mean, they had asked the wrong man. There’s another seed that’s planted in him that stayed there forever.

What do you mean? What did he have in the back of his mind?

If they didn’t know who worked for them, he could always say he worked for them; he was in control of the FBI then. They didn’t know for sure if he was an agent or not. He was toying with them. He toyed with people like that. He toyed with the interrogators down at the Dallas police station, all that weekend [after the assassination]. It was a game to him. He knew something they didn’t know, and he would keep it to himself. He was in control. …

When Lee came back to Fort Worth, what kind of spirits was he in, and what kind of hopes did he have for his new life here?

I think three major things [were] on his mind at that particular time. One was he wanted to get his manuscript … typed up and written. … He gave it to me either the first or second night to read. I struggled through about 10 or 15 pages of it. … He wanted to get his manuscript published if anybody was interested. He had an interesting experience and he had a Russian wife. People ought to take note of this, that he should be interesting. That’s the way I read him at the time.

The other thing was he wanted to get settled with the job. The third thing was he wanted to look into his dishonorable discharge from the Marine Corps, because he felt like that was unwarranted … because, i.e., he was released with honorable conditions. We talked about this at a great length during that first week. I said, “If you told me everything you’ve done, it seems to me you have a case that you could perhaps get a reversal on that, that you did not do anything that they anticipated you done.” … I said, “If that never came about, if you didn’t really betray the country and you only attempted to do it — and they didn’t let you do it anyway — legally, then it seems to me you have a basis.” I said, “We can look into it. But the Marine Corps has got set procedures and so forth to follow. We’ll look into it.”

It didn’t seem like a big deal. He just wanted to see what he could do about getting it done. The main thing was getting a job and a manuscript.

He had high hopes. Then what happened?

Lee had high hopes when he first got back as to what he was going to do. … [He wanted to] get established and start the American life, live the American dream. But things were tight at that time. He finally got a job that wasn’t exactly what he really wanted, but it was a start. So he’s very upbeat up on it. Marina was upbeat on it. Here was a start. As far as material goods … the car … taking her to a grocery store the first time … you can’t believe how excited she was. …

As things progressed down the line … the job didn’t work out. … He’d made some contacts within the Russian community in Fort Worth and in Dallas. One individual gave him a letter saying he could speak and write Russian at a particular level that he thought was real good. It maybe opened up some doors for him. He started teaching this man’s son how to write and talk Russian. …

Tell me about his growing problems with Marina. What was going on there?

His comment was she is “too much like Maw.” That was our affectionate name for Mother. He didn’t elaborate on that. She had been overbearing or whatever. I don’t know how you want to express it, but that’s the way he characterized her at the time. Lee and Marina were having difficulties, just by being together — I guess by being put in new circumstances and everything. You could tell by the tone of the language, not that we could understand the Russian language, but the tone and the facial expressions … that they were having an argument. …

So then what happens, and how does he get to Dallas?

About October 1962 … things were not going along too good. He’s already tried living with Mother for about a week to 10 days, and that went the way it usually goes. He moves into his own apartment and everything. The job’s not doing that good. They’re not progressing at the speed I think he wants to progress. …

He’s getting a better opportunity, he thinks, in Dallas, because it’s a bigger job market over there than what Fort Worth was at the time. So consequently, he calls me up and he tells me that they’re moving to Dallas. … Marina had gone over there to live with somebody until he got established over there. So he thought he’d get a post office box that would be a permanent-type thing.

You’ve talked about Lee’s character — trying to do something, getting frustrated, doing something dramatic. Can you sort of talk about that character trait?

Lee’s trying. All these ups and downs he’s having, he keeps trying to get up and make it at some level, but he’s not succeeding. He’s failing at almost every level. He’s failing in his marriage and in his attempts to do whatever he wants to do. He’s on a downhill run. Once again, it’s just a continual cycle, and it starts downhill. On Nov. 22, [1963] it went way downhill. …

I think I’ve come to an understanding of Lee that I have now that I didn’t, of course … I mean, I watched the deterioration of a human being. You look at that last year — his work, and his family, trying to go to Cuba, trying to go back to Russia. His wife is trying to have a second child born in Russia. She is wanting to go back to Russia. Everything is deteriorating. It was a terrible thing to look at. …

After the assassination … you see Lee in the police station, in the jail. Can you describe that for me?

Saturday, Nov. 23, 1963. After getting some help with the Secret Service as far as getting a pass up to see Lee, I was allowed to visit with him approximately eight to 10 minutes. … When he first approached the divided cubicles and I picked up the telephone on my side, he picked up his. The first thing he says is — and he points to it — “It’s tapped.” … I tell him it may or may not be. I didn’t know — but I think that was his posture all along, with the interrogators. … They wasn’t going to convince him to say something. He was assuming everything was being recorded, and, unfortunately, it wasn’t.

What did he say, and what were you trying to get out of him?

Initially, when we started talking, I was concerned about his bruises on his face … that he had received at his capture at the Texas theater. … He says he got that at the theater, and they hadn’t been mistreating him since then. We talked about family matters. …

Finally, I guess, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to ask him very serious questions. I asked him, I said, “Lee, what in the Sam Hill is going on?” He said, “I don’t know what they’re talking about.” I said, “Lee, they’ve got you charged with the death of the president, shooting a police officer. They’ve got your rifle. They’ve got your pistol. And you don’t know what the Sam Hill is going on?”

I became kind of intense at that point, looking into his eyes. He never did answer. But he finally said, “Brother, you won’t find anything there.”

Why was he asking for this lawyer, John Abt, up in New York? This is a lawyer well known for being involved in left-wing causes.

I asked him about this lawyer in New York … and I told him I would get him one down here, meaning in Texas. He said no, he wanted that one up there. I didn’t press it any further. He was seeming to be pretty adamant about it. …

Can you summarize what the atmosphere was like there that Saturday, and what you made of it?

The Dallas Police Department … was utter chaos. It was wall-to-wall reporters, police officers, FBI, Secret Service. … The result of the whole mismanagement was Lee’s death. Somehow, somebody never realized what the Sam Hill was going on. … It just floors me, it floored me then. I couldn’t believe it.

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