8 Things You May Not Know About Lee Harvey Oswald
For more than 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 the documentary Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?, FRONTLINE returned to Dealey Plaza in Dallas to examine the evidence of Oswald’s role in the assassination. Originally produced for the 30th anniversary of the assassination, the film drew upon hundreds of witnesses to shed new light on Oswald’s mysterious life story.
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:
If you complained about, “Oh, we’ve got to go on a march this morning” or “We’ve got to do this this morning,” scrub barracks or whatever we had to do, if you were complaining about it, he would — he would say that that was the capitalist form of government making us do these things. Karl Marx and his form of government would alleviate that.
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:
Oswald had an entire book of operations for his Walker action, including photographs of Walker’s house, photographs of an area that he intended to stash the rifle, maps that he had drawn very carefully, statements of political purpose.
In the end, he wanted this to be an important historical feat, and this was to be the documentation left behind. He viewed General Walker as an up-and-coming Adolf Hitler, and that he would be the hero who stopped him on his rise to power.
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:
Lee wanted to go to Cuba to help teach the Cuban army how to shoot. He decided the way to go was to skyjack an airplane. He told Marina that he would sit in the front row of the airplane cabin. She would sit in the back row with June. At a certain point, he would put a gun in the back of the pilot of the aircraft. She would stand up and keep the entire passenger contingent at bay with a pistol, and would speak to them. She would speak to the crowd and tell them to be quiet. Marina laughed at him, and said, “Well, but I don’t speak English. How am I going to explain to them?” Eventually she laughed him out of the skyjacking plan, and she begged him to find a legal way to get to Cuba. Then he thought of going through Mexico.
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.
Stream Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? in its entirety below.