Oswald: Myth, Mystery and Meaning
November 19, 2013, 5:28 pm ET
“Lee Harvey Oswald.” Forty years after the shots rang out in Dealey Plaza, do those three names, that collection of disembodied consonants and vowels, mean any more than they did on Nov. 22, 1963? Is the man who inhabited them any less of an enigma? Are we still searching for meaning in the pursed-lipped smirk of a 24-year-old former Marine?
As a Web-exclusive companion to the rebroadcast of our 1993 documentary Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? FRONTLINE asked three major voices on Oswald — Don DeLillo, Edward J. Epstein, and Gerald Posner — to respond to a set of questions. We wanted them to tell us what’s at stake in the effort to understand Oswald; whether the “real” Oswald can ever be separated from the mythic quality of Kennedy’s death; whether the assassination and the efforts to explain it inevitably give way to a sense of the absurd; and whether Oswald himself, and the mystery of his character, leaves us wanting something weightier to balance the historical enormity of what happened in Dallas. The full questions and responses appear below.
In addition, Norman Mailer, though he chose not to participate in the forum, offered an excerpt from his 1995 book Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery. We’re posting two chapters from the book’s final section, “Oswald’s Ghost,” in which Mailer presents his conclusions about Oswald’s character and motivations.
What’s at stake in our effort to understand Lee Harvey Oswald and the assassination of John F. Kennedy?
Gerald Posner is the author of Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK (1993) and eight other books, including award-winning volumes on subjects ranging from Nazi Josef Mengele to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., to the history of Motown records. He lives in Miami and New York with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.
Don DeLillo: What’s at stake is our trust in a coherent reality. That day in Dallas changed the way we think about the world. Powerful events build their own networks of chaos and ambiguity and the assassination of the president has become a landmark in the history of such events. The physical evidence contradicts itself, the eyewitness accounts do not coincide, there are failures of memory, there are conflicting memories. For 40 years, responsible people have disagreed over the number of gunmen, the number of shots, the origin of the shots, the time span between shots, the paths the bullets took, the number of wounds on the president’s body, the size and shape of the wounds, and many other crucial details of the basic investigation.
Then there are the human puzzles, the organizational links — Oswald’s fragile marriage, his dismal state of mind, his attitude toward Kennedy, his relationships with intelligence agencies. There are the Soviet and Cuban themes, the organized crime theme, the double agent theme, and many others, all with their sets of supporting evidence. There are the official documents lost, missing, altered, classified and destroyed. There is the flood of coincidence, large and small. There is the plausible conviction that Oswald was part of a conspiracy, the sensible belief that Oswald acted alone. A culture of distrust and paranoia began to develop, a sense of the secret manipulation of history, and this feeling intensified through the decades, from Dallas to Vietnam to Watergate to the doorstep of Iraq.
What happened during that moment in Dallas, and in the months and years before — in Oswald’s life — that we can determine with certainty? How did such a vivid fragment of reality, caught on film before hundreds of witnesses, with trained security personnel on the scene, become so deeply lost in the maze of documentation, dispute, rumor, paradox, lies, dreams, illusions, ideologies, absurdities, murders, suicides and endlessly suggestive human involvements?
Something happened. Oswald fired three shots from the sixth-floor window. But was there something else — a clear motive, a larger design, a second gunman? The truth is knowable. But probably not, ever, incontrovertible.
Edward J. Epstein: The issue, as far as I am concerned, is understanding how a government goes about establishing a public version of an event, or what I called in Inquest, “political truth.” What is at stake for the government, whether it is the JFK assassination or 9/11, is maintaining, or at least not disturbing, the illusion that the government is in control of knowledge about events that directly affect its ability to govern. And the JFK assassination went directly to the issue of the change of a president.
Gerald Posner: What is at stake is freeing ourselves of the delusion of wishful conspiracy and unfounded beliefs in unnatural and psychic explanations for simple worldly events. The assassination of JFK was a dramatic event with far-reaching consequences, but upon close study of Oswald, the apparently impenetrable block of mysteries suffocating the case melt away and the assassination is revealed as a remarkably straightforward crime by a 24-year-old sociopath determined to make his indelible mark on history.
Lies over Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, and a succession of falsehoods and nefarious plots by those entrusted by us with leadership, have led to a spiraling loss of faith in authority and reinforced the perception that conspiracy is widespread and constant. As the grandfather of modern conspiracies, the JFK assassination sets the groundwork by which many people confuse Oliver Stone’s JFK and television programs such as The X-Files as twisted nonfiction snapshots. By understanding Oswald and the assassination of JFK, and appreciating it for the simplicity it embodies, we bring ourselves and our history back to a level of sanity that has been lost for decades.
Now 40 years after the event, Lee Harvey Oswald has become an almost ghost-like, mythic figure, like some kind of literary character who haunts our collective imagination and yet (for most people) lacks any historical flesh-and-blood reality. The question is: Can the real Oswald ever be separated from the mythic quality of the event itself, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and its incalculable after-effects — political, cultural, psychological? Are we able to answer the basic question, Who was Lee Harvey Oswald?
Don DeLillo: He didn’t think of himself as “Lee Harvey Oswald.” The state and the media, in response to significant criminal acts, will sometimes include the subject’s middle name as a way of imposing an institutional gravity on the matter. This practice, in Oswald’s case, produced an early stereotype, a drifter with three first names and a pale, spare, squinting look — someone superficially familiar. The fact that he was a dead man before the weekend was over created another kind of distance. It is also true that many people did not want to see “the real Oswald” because they were unwilling to grant fully human status to the man accused of murdering the president.
In fact, he may have seemed a little unreal to himself. He used many false names and appears at times less an amateur actor in his own life than a character, someone put together out of doctored photos, tourist cards, mail-order forms, visa applications and altered signatures. He tried to break out of a marginal life by joining the Marines, then defecting to the Soviet Union, then attempting suicide; by reading Karl Marx and ordering guns through the mail; and by trying to kill Major General Edwin A. Walker, a notorious right-wing figure, in April 1963. It may be tempting to think of Oswald as a figure out of modernist literature, an American variation of Beckett’s sad and wailing Krapp, whose last tape (in this case) is secretly fabricated by the KGB or the FBI.
But Oswald was real. He loved his daughters, beat his wife, took out the garbage. He did not move from logical set A to logical set B, as such things are configured in most examinations of his life. He was driven, like many of us, by obscure motivations, large and small inconsistencies. When he fired a shot at General Walker, he was committing a political act, one that would make him a man in history, which is what he’d always wanted. Seven months later, however, his life was coming down around him. He lived in a cheap rooming house, separated from his family, harassed by the FBI, denied a visa to Cuba, working at another dead-end job. Then one day he learned that the president would visit Dallas and that the motorcade, stunningly, would pass the School Book Depository, the building where Oswald worked, at precisely the time when he was most likely to be alone on the sixth floor.
This was not history, but dreams, a set of circumstances carrying an eerie power that must have seemed otherworldly to him. Oswald appeared to admire JFK. He tended to see himself in the president. They had things in common. Lee was always reading two or three books at a time, like Jack. Lee did military service in the Pacific, like Jack. His handwriting was awful and his spelling was terrible, just like Jack’s. At one point his wife and Jack’s wife were both pregnant. Lee had a brother named Robert and so, of course, did Jack.
Oswald would not have walked two blocks to shoot at the president. The president had to come to him, and this is what happened, ruinously, on Nov. 22.
This was an act of naked desperation. Oswald abandoned his claim to history and became the first of those soft white dreamy young men who plan the murder of a famous individual — a president, a presidential candidate, a rock star — as a way of organizing their loneliness and misery, making a network out of it, a web of connections.
Think of Oswald the defector, the pro-Castro activist, the earnest student of world affairs. In the end, there was nothing left of him but a defeated ego, a self isolated from the world and from other people. He fell out of history and politics and became a figure in one of his own bent daydreams.
Edward J. Epstein: Oswald had a great deal of reality. He was anything but a loner or recluse. On the contrary, he was a joiner. He joined the Marines. He joined Russia by defecting and offering U.S. secrets — he was the only Marine in history to do so. He married a Russian woman and had two children. He returned to the U.S., befriended a number of people in the Dallas area, became a political activist on behalf of Castro in New Orleans, kept a diary and gave radio interviews. I interviewed over 120 people who knew him.
Gerald Posner: Unraveling the real Oswald is the key to understanding why JFK was killed. It is absolutely possible to separate Oswald from the mythology that has grown over the years and now virtually obscures the real person. I am often asked what single fact or discovery in my research turned me into a believer that there was only a lone assassin responsible for JFK’s murder. To the surprise of many, there was no single turning point based on the medical evidence, or the ballistics at Dealey Plaza, or some special detail revealed about Jack Ruby. Rather, it was the overall portrait I came to understand of Lee Oswald. Through the Oswald I came to know, I definitively answered the questions of whether he was capable of killing the president (yes) and whether he was the type of person capable of working with others in a plot (no).
Too many conspiracy theorists focus on technical questions about the shots that killed the president, or the quality of the medical evidence, or spend time trying to establish that a plot existed somewhere. Forgotten in their studies is Oswald himself. He has often become a cipher, simply a stick figure who is usually cast as a gullible political wannabe who was so dumb that he was easily manipulated into becoming a patsy in a convoluted plot to eliminate JFK. But the real Oswald, the one that can be discerned from his own writings, his friends, his wife, and documents and files about him, is anything but the credulous neophyte, too simple to understand the intricate affairs about him. Rather, he is wily and adept at creating the very dramas that populate the JFK case, from his defection to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, to his pro-Castro advocacy on the sweltering streets of New Orleans only months before the president was killed.
It is critical to understand that Oswald thought of himself as smarter and better than his contemporaries. He was filled with the arrogance that usually only infects teenagers and early twenty-somethings, a self-delusional confidence that the solutions to the world’s problems are simple and that he had the right and only answers. By the spring of 1963 — only months before the assassination — he had crossed a critical threshold and committed himself to political assassination. But Oswald had decided to put himself into the history books — and to make his contribution to his own political cause — not by killing the president, but rather by murdering a retired, right-wing Army general, Edwin Walker. Oswald considered Walker, a gubernatorial candidate in Texas, a great threat. But his failure to kill Walker, when his shot was slightly deflected by a window frame, only added to a long line of failures in his short life.
Having had a miserable childhood, Oswald had joined the Marines, as had his older brother, in the hope of improving his life. It was instead an unmitigated disaster, with some other Marines thinking he might be gay, tossing him into the shower, and calling him “Mrs. Oswald.” Court-martialed twice, he increasingly threw himself into his own unique formulation of Marxism and decided to become a hero by defecting to the U.S.S.R. Instead, the Russians considered him unstable and after an unhappy stint there he returned to the U.S. Unable to hold a job, failed in his attempt to kill Walker, he dedicated himself to helping Castro. And in the oppressive heat of a New Orleans summer he handed out leaflets encouraging people to join his new pro-Castro organization. Over several months he failed to get a single recruit. Again dejected, he went to Mexico City to convince Cuban officials that he should get a visa to go to Cuba and help the revolution. They rejected him. By the time Oswald returned to Dallas — where his estranged wife was waiting for him — in October 1963, he had failed in everything he considered important.
After landing a job — through a friend of his wife’s — at the Texas School Book Depository, he soon learned that the president’s motorcade would pass directly in front of that building on Nov. 22. JFK was a gift handed to Oswald on a silver platter. In one moment he was able to carry out an act that said to every employer who had fired him, to every fellow Marine who had ridiculed him, to the Russians and Cubans who had rejected him, to those who didn’t understand how special and bright he was, that he really was somebody with whom to reckon. In one moment he was the one person they all had to acknowledge was special because he could change their lives, forever, with a single bullet.
The Oswald that I understand could have been on the sixth floor of a building in downtown Moscow shooting at Nikita Khrushchev on Nov. 22, 1963. It was not that JFK was a particular target of hatred, but rather that Oswald — with his own unique political formulation of leftist theories mixed with a dose of anarchism — was given the chance to throw a giant cog into the machinery of government by killing JFK. It was too tempting an opportunity to bypass — although I also believe he had a certain ambivalence about the assassination until the very night before, when his wife, Marina, ultimately rejected his last-second entreaties for a reconciliation.
The person who would be most pleased with the fact that people are still talking about him 40 years after his death would be Lee Oswald himself.
We’re trained to weigh evidence and look for the most rational, most plausible explanations of historical events. Yet for many people, confronted with the web of coincidences and unanswered questions surrounding Oswald and the assassination, the idea that this individual, acting entirely on his own, gunned down President John F. Kennedy and changed the course of history, seems utterly irrational, even absurd. How do you respond to that sense of absurdity, the sense that the trail of evidence seems to lead us down the rabbit hole into an irrational world?
These things are Kafkaesque.
In America it is the individual himself, floating on random streams of disaffection, who tends to set the terms of the absurd.
A man walks into a diner and shoots 11 strangers. What city was that, and who remembers the shooter’s name?
A couple of teenagers wander through their school building shooting teachers and students. How many times did this happen, and where exactly, and who were the kids with the guns?
Oswald changed history not only through his involvement in the death of the president, but also in prefiguring such moments of the American absurd. He was not media-poisoned, as many of the others have been, and his crime was not steeped in the supermarket cult of modern folklore and dread. But think of the outrages and atrocities that flowed from the psychic disorientation of the 1960s — the assassinations, the cult murders, the mass suicides. It was surely the assassination of President Kennedy that began to give us a sense of something coming undone. This was vintage American violence, lonely and rootless, but it shaded into something older and previously distant, a condition of estrangement and helplessness, an undependable reality. We felt the shock of unmeaning.
Edward J. Epstein: What I find more absurd is the conceit that we know the answer. There is a wealth of evidence that shows Oswald killed JFK — I devoted an entire appendix to it in Legend. But just because there is a single shooter does not mean there is not a conspiracy that manipulated him.
I agree it is possible that Oswald could have acted on his own, but it is also possible that Oswald could have been influenced by others. He had sought support on other actions he took. Just two months before the JFK assassination, he asked Cuban and Russian officials to back him in getting a visa to go to Cuba to continue his anti-American activities (and in October the Cuban foreign ministry authorized its embassy to issue him a visa). He also sought help in organizing pro-Castro actions in New Orleans. So I do not see how the possibility can be precluded that he sought to help Castro in the JFK assassination.
Gerald Posner: The evidence only leads us down a rabbit hole if we tend to look at it in its entirety and are overwhelmed by the accumulation of strange events and unusual characters. Instead, researchers need to approach each area of the case as separate but ultimately related investigations. For instance, science and technology can today answer many of the technical questions about the ballistics and medical evidence that the FBI was unable to address for the Warren Commission 40 years ago. By carefully examining the latest evidence, it is possible to reach definite and credible answers about how the assassination was carried out (only one gunman at Dealey Plaza, behind the president, firing from the same general area where Oswald was last seen by his co-workers only half an hour before the murder). The next question is whether the shooter was Oswald, and if yes, was he doing it for himself or on behalf of others. That takes the researcher into a study of Oswald, and eventually an equivalent study of Jack Ruby.
Many people are overwhelmed by the seemingly unanswerable questions revolving around the JFK assassination. There is also much false information that has been repeated so many times over the years that it has become widely accepted as true and further complicates understanding what really happened. But the case is not that difficult. There are answers — based on reliable evidence — to each and every issue that at first glance seems so impenetrable.
I personally found Oswald, and the JFK assassination, to be a much simpler case to unravel than the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which the assassin, James Earl Ray, is much more of an enigma than Oswald, and a case in which there are probably unanswerable questions that Ray took to the grave with him. In the JFK case, there are not the same puzzling questions, despite the fact that most people not well versed in it tend to think of it as a remarkably convoluted case.
Near the end of Case Closed, Gerald Posner quotes historian William Manchester, who tries to sum up the yearning of conspiracy theorists for a larger meaning: “[I]f you put the murdered President of the United States on one side of a scale and that wretched waif Oswald on the other side, it doesn’t balance. You want to add something weightier to Oswald.” And yet, what could be weightier than the mystery of a human psyche? Does the effort to understand Oswald lead you to agree with Manchester — to want something weightier — or do you find Oswald weighty enough?
Don DeLillo: If Oswald were truly such a weightless individual, the Warren Report would not have to number 26 back-breaking volumes. He was a man who managed in a brief lifetime to compile an extraordinary personal history, dense with incident and shifting context. He joined the U.S. Marines, quoted Marx to his barracks mates, served at a sensitive U-2 base in Japan and would eventually develop connections of various kinds, some documented, others only conjectured, with people of provocative political shadings — from Tokyo to Moscow to Minsk and from there to New Orleans, Mexico City and Dallas.
There are the men who knew Oswald. Then there is the man who killed him. More connections, further implications, particularly with regard to organized crime figures.
It is true that some theorists have searched for the conspiracy that explains everything as a way out of the mist that has drifted through the decades. But who were the conspirators? If there was a plot, it was small, crude and largely improvised — not the master plan that would allegedly balance the loss of the president. Our state in the world, the fact that we are human, is the only element the equation needs in order to be balanced. We’re able to think into the stars, imagine alternative lives for ourselves, and there are times when we feel equal, some of us, to the vast social reality around us.
What else would make a man decide he might run for president?
Oswald was detached, frequently foolish, sometimes cruel and persistently self-deluding. At times, an unredeemable little rat. But he found a way to link himself with a man who was shaping history. This is what guns are for, to bring balance to the world.
Edward J. Epstein: The real question is: Weighty enough to do what? Oswald may have been deeply flawed, unstable, and suffered delusions of grandeur, but such flaws did not rule him out as a potential assassin. He proved his capabilities in April 1963 by surveilling General Edwin Walker, finding a concealed sniper’s position, firing a shot that missed him by only inches, and escaping (with photos to prove his participation). His lack of balance and “weightiness” might have made it easier to influence him.
Gerald Posner: I am not cursed with a desire to find a larger meaning in Kennedy’s death. In my view, history is often changed violently by one person. Political assassination is part of the planet’s social history. JFK was a charismatic young president with much potential for the future, and I understand that many people don’t want to accept the fact that life could be so random and uncontrollable that a 24-year-old sociopath armed with a cheap rifle could destroy all that positive promise. But that is exactly how things often happen. Sept. 11 is a vivid reminder of how random, unpredictable, and uncontrollable political violence can be. Just because someone like JFK seems to have a more charmed life, he certainly isn’t exempt from that type of violence. Maybe my ready acceptance of political violence and assassination as a part of our history and culture set the basis from which I was willing to always consider that Oswald might have acted alone.
Mr. Epstein and Mr. Posner wrote the following replies to the preceding answers:
Edward J. Epstein: I agree with Posner that “Too many conspiracy theorists focus on technical questions about the shots that killed the president, or the quality of the medical evidence, or spend time trying to establish that a plot existed somewhere to kill JFK.” The endless tangle of questions about bullets, trajectories, wounds, time sequences, and inconsistent testimony surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy has obsessively fascinated, if not entirely blinded, a generation of assassination buffs to the neglect of Oswald himself.
Oswald was looking for a conspiracy to join ever since (or perhaps before) he defected to the Soviet Union. Indeed, ever since he was handed a pamphlet about the Rosenberg prosecution at the age of 15, he had sought out affiliations with political organizations, front groups and foreign nations that opposed the policies of the U.S. When he was 16, he wrote to the Socialist Party, “I am a Marxist and have been studying Socialist Principles for well over five years,” and he requested information about joining their Youth League. He also attempted to persuade a friend to join the youth auxiliary of the Communist Party. He subsequently made membership inquiries to such organizations as the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Labor Party, The Gus Hall-Benjamin Davis Defense Committee, the Daily Worker, The Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Communist Party USA — correspondence that brought him under surveillance by the FBI.
While still in the early stages of his flirtation with political causes, Oswald joined the Marine Corps. In October 1959, after a two-year stint as a radar operator, Oswald became the first Marine to defect to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he delivered a letter stating, “I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.” Not only did he publicly renounce his American citizenship but he told the U.S. consul that he intended to turn over to the Soviet Union military secrets that he had acquired while serving in the Marines, adding that he had data of “special interest” to the Russians. Since he indeed had exposure to military secrets such as the U-2 spy plane and radar identification system, and since he may have collected data while on active duty, his defection had serious espionage implications. Oswald had through this act put himself in the hands of his hosts. He was now completely dependent on the Soviets for financial support, legal status and protection.
Before disappearing into the Soviet hinterland for a year, Oswald spelled out his operational creed in a long letter to his brother. From Moscow, he wrote presciently of his willingness to commit murder for a political cause: “I want you to understand what I say now, I do not say lightly, or unknowingly, since I’ve been in the military. … In the event of war I would kill any American who put a uniform on in defense of the American Government” — and then ominously added for emphasis, “Any American.”
When Oswald returned from the Soviet Union in June 1962, joined by a Russian wife, he moved to Dallas, and lectured his more liberal acquaintances on the need for violent action rather than mere words. General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme conservative who had been active in Dallas organizing anti-Castro guerrillas, became, in the spring of 1963, a particular focus of Oswald’s attention. He repeatedly suggested to a German geologist, Volkmar Schmidt, and other friends, that General Walker should be treated like a “murderer at large.” In this context, he stalked Walker’s movements, photographing his residence from several angles; had his wife photograph him, dressed entirely in black, with his revolver strapped on a holster on his hip, his sniper’s rifle in his right hand, and two newspapers — The Worker and The Militant — in his left hand; and made three copies of the photograph, one of which he inscribed, dated “5–IV–63″ and sent to a Dallas acquaintance, George de Mohrenschildt. Oswald then went to Walker’s house and fired a shot at him that missed his head by inches, demonstrating that he had the capacity as well as the willingness to kill “any American.”
After the failed assassination, Oswald went to New Orleans, where he became the organizer for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Aside from printing leaflets, staging demonstrations, getting arrested and appearing on local radio talk shows in support of Castro that summer, Oswald attempted to personally infiltrate an anti-Castro group that was organizing sabotage raids against Cuba. He explained to friends that he could figure out his “anti-imperialist” policy by “reading between the lines” of The Militant and other such publications. In August, he wrote the central committee of the Communist Party USA asking, “Whether in your opinion, I can compete with anti-progressive forces above ground, or whether I should always remain in the background, i.e. underground.” During this hot summer, while Oswald spent evenings practicing sighting his rifle in his backyard, The Militant raged on about the Kennedy administration’s “terrorist bandit” attacks on Cuba. And as the semi-secret war against Castro escalated, Oswald expressed increasing interest in reaching Cuba.
Oswald told his wife he planned to hijack an airliner to Havana, suggesting, as the summer progressed, that he might even earn a position in Castro’s government. On Sept. 9, in a report that appeared on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Castro himself warned that if American leaders continued “aiding plans to eliminate Cuban leaders … they themselves will not be safe.”
Soon afterwards, telling his wife that they might never meet again, he went to the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City. To convince the Cubans of his bona fides — and seriousness — he had prepared a dossier on himself, which included a 10-page resume, outlining his revolutionary activities, newspaper clippings about his defection to the Soviet Union, propaganda material he had printed, documents he had stolen from a printing company engaged in classified map reproduction for the U.S Army, his correspondence with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee executives, and photographs linking him to the Walker shooting. During the next five days, he traveled back and forth between the Soviet and Cuban embassies attempting to get the necessary visas.
When Oswald returned to Dallas that October, he assumed the identity “O.H. Lee” and, separating himself from his family, he moved to a rooming house. He then got a job at the Texas School Book Depository, which overlooked the convergence of the three main streets into central Dallas.
On Oct. 18, Oswald’s visa was approved by the Cuban Foreign Ministry (despite the fact that he had not received a Soviet visa, as required.) Three weeks later, he wrote another letter to the Soviet Embassy, saying: “Had I been able to reach the Soviet Embassy in Havana as planned, the embassy there would have had time to complete our business.”
The issue is whether or not he found the conspiracy he sought. Or, since he advertised his willingness so widely, it found him.
Gerald Posner: Despite our differences, I believe that after four decades, many of us who have researched the case are closer than ever to sharing a common understanding of what happened on Nov. 22, 1963.
Don DeLillo says, “The truth is knowable. But probably not, ever, incontrovertible.” And there are admittedly many rumors, false stories, and faded memories strewn along the path for any investigator of the assassination. Yet I believe that there is an incontrovertible truth that is based on credible evidence. I would modify DeLillo’s conclusion only to the extent of saying that while the truth is knowable, it is not, ever, something on which most people will agree.
As for Edward J. Epstein, while he seems convinced that Oswald was JFK’s assassin, he is not persuaded that he acted alone. “Just because there is a single shooter does not mean there is not a conspiracy that manipulated him,” says Epstein. That was a fair statement in the mid-1960s, in the years immediately following the assassination, because there was then a very real possibility that Oswald might have conspired with others to have killed the president. But now, 40 years after that fateful day in Dallas, there must be some shred of real evidence — not just conjecture and speculation — to keep that statement valid. Is there an iota of evidence that anyone contacted Oswald to bring him into a plot to murder the president once JFK had set his trip to Texas? No. The conspirators needed a time and place for the assassination, but Oswald, in Dallas, does not have associations that prompt lingering questions or doubts. Even Epstein only refers to possible influences in Oswald’s life before he settled in Dallas in early October 1963. Absent new evidence about how someone either influenced Oswald to kill the president, or conspired with him, I believe that after 40 years, historians must start drawing the reasonable conclusion that there is no evidence of conspiracy because there is no conspiracy.
DeLillo, in his short answer about Oswald, does a better job of capturing the real person than is done by most conspiracy theorists who fail to recognize the very human traits and qualities that eventually compelled him to shoot JFK. DeLillo understands Oswald’s remarkable personal history, and as such realizes that the key to unraveling any answers about Kennedy’s death has to start and end with Oswald.
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