Lee Harvey Oswald & the Unraveling of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination

Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with the assassination of President Kennedy, but some question whether a solid investigation on Oswald was ever conducted.

Jan 21, 2023By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor

lee harvey oswald unravelling john kennedy asssassination


Former President John F. Kennedy traveled to Texas for a two-day campaign tour in November 1963 in an effort to win over the state for the upcoming presidential election. Political tensions in Texas were high, but President Kennedy was set on visiting in an effort to bring the people together. President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy traveled in a convertible through downtown Dallas when gunfire erupted at the Dealey Plaza. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested shortly after the incident and charged with the murder of President John F. Kennedy. Investigators hurried to gather as much information about the assassination as they could to pin Oswald as the assassin, leaving the public with many questions about Oswald and who was actually responsible for the assassination.


The Early Life of Lee Harvey Oswald

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Headshot of young Lee Harvey Oswald while enlisted in the United States Marine Corps courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, via United States House of Representatives History, Art, & Archives


The suspicious actions and behaviors of Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to John F. Kennedy’s assassination led the Warren Commission to investigate the early years of Oswald’s life. The Warren Commission, formally known as the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, was created by succeeding President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate JFK’s assassination. As a part of their investigation, the Warren Commission considered Oswald’s childhood and his time in the United States Marine Corps to better understand his possible motives for the assassination.


Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, Marguerite Oswald, had married twice before Lee was born. Her first marriage to Edward John Pic in August 1929 was troubled and ended in 1932 due to ongoing disagreements. At the time, Marguerite was three months pregnant with her first son John Edward Pic. Just two years after her separation from Mr. Pic, Marguerite remarried Robert Edward Lee Oswald. Marguerite and Robert had two sons, one being Robert Jr. and the other being Lee, who was born in October 1939. Robert Sr. died just months before Oswald was born, putting financial strains on Marguerite and the Oswald family.


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Lee Harvey Oswald’s wife Marina (left), brother Robert (middle), and mother Marguerite attending Lee’s funeral service by Dallas Times Herald, 1963, via The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries


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Marguerite was forced to work to take care of the family and placed John Pic and Robert Oswald in a boys’ orphanage. Lee was later sent to an orphanage while Marguerite worked until December 1942. She reclaimed Oswald from the orphanage and set off for Dallas with him. She remarried Edwin A. Ekdahl, who Lee was quite fond of. The relationship between Edwin and Marguerite was rocky and ultimately ended in separation after three years in 1948. The lack of stability in Oswald’s early childhood years and its effects would later become more apparent as he grew older.


Due to his mother’s general rigidness and absence, Oswald suffered from emotional isolation and a lack of affection from his mother. Oswald displayed abnormal behaviors by age ten, including refusal to play with other children in his neighborhood and truancy. Oswald was taken into an institution called the Youth House for psychiatric observation in April 1953. Psychiatrists deemed Oswald to be very withdrawn from the world and emotionally disturbed, but he functioned well mentally despite his lack of attendance in school. The Warren Commission revealed in its report that Oswald was diagnosed with “personality pattern disturbance with schizoid features and passive-aggressive tendencies” during his three-week stay at Youth House. Oswald’s mother was encouraged to admit him into an institution that could better care for Oswald, but she denied these resources.


Lee Harvey Oswald’s Political Interests & Time in the Marine Corps

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Lee Harvey Oswald standing between two Dallas, Texas police officers in an identification line-up by Dallas Police Department, via The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


Before Lee Harvey Oswald joined the Marines, he developed a fascination for Communism and the Socialist Party. He read Communist and Socialist literature and later identified as a Marxist and Communist. Oswald was fairly outspoken about his political interests, which became an important part of JFK’s assassination investigation. Oswald had his heart set on joining the Marines when he was 16 years of age. However, he was too young to join and waited until a week before his seventeenth birthday to enlist in October 1956.


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Mugshots of Lee Harvey Oswald after his arrest for disturbing the peace in New Orleans, Louisiana by New Orleans Police Department, 1963, via Jerry Lankford Collection, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


Oswald received a security clearance in his training for radar operation. He was given the position of Aviation Electronics Operator and scored very well in shooting, surpassing the sharpshooting designation requirements. He was downgraded to marksman after he scored below the sharpshooter threshold three years later. Oswald was ranked as private first class, but after being court-martialed twice, he was demoted to private. He spent three years in the Marine Corps before he was hardship discharged and placed in reserves due to claims he made about his mother being ill. Oswald’s interests in Communist and Socialist political principles became more apparent when he defected to the Soviet Union in October 1959. He told Soviet officials that he knew secret information about the Marine Corps, which caused him to be dishonorably discharged.


Suspicious Foreign Activities Put Lee Harvey Oswald Under Surveillance


Lee Harvey Oswald wasn’t a stranger to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The FBI opened a security file on Oswald when he traveled to the Soviet Union and stated he knew information about the Marine Corps due to his specialty training. Although it was determined that Oswald didn’t know any pertinent information that could harm the US, he was still put under surveillance due to his association with the Soviet Union.


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Lee Harvey Oswald in his backyard posing with a rifle that law enforcement believed to be the weapon he used to assassinate President Kennedy by Marina Oswald, 1963, via Lyndal L. Shaneyfelt Collection, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


While he was in the Soviet Union, Oswald attempted to renounce his US citizenship and applied for citizenship in the Soviet Union in October 1961. Although his citizenship application was denied, he was eventually allowed to stay as an alien resident. His life in the Soviet Union may not have been exactly what he expected because he grew tired of living there. Before leaving, he met his wife, Marina Oswald, whom he proposed to just six weeks after their courtship. The US embassy in Moscow approved Marina’s application to immigrate to the US on May 24, 1962. Oswald and Marina left the Soviet Union and traveled to the Dallas, Texas area near Lee’s mother and brother.


Almost a year later, they moved to New Orleans, where Oswald became involved with a pro-Castro group known as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). He attempted to establish a chapter of the FPCC in New Orleans and wrote a letter to their headquarters in May 1963. Their response advised against opening a chapter in New Orleans due to the little support of their group in that area, but Oswald decided to open an unofficial chapter anyway. He bought application forms and membership cards and prepared leaflets with the heading “Hands Off Cuba,” which he distributed downtown. His involvement with FPCC was contradicting because he also attempted to establish relations with Carlos Bringuier, a militant of an anti-Castro organization.


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“Hands Off Cuba!” leaflet that Lee Harvey Oswald distributed in downtown New Orleans for his uncertified Fair Play for Cuba Committee chapter courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archives, 1963, via The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries


Bringuier witnessed Oswald handing out pro-Castro leaflets, which led to an argument between the two, and Oswald was arrested for disturbing the peace. When questioned, Oswald requested to speak with the FBI. He told them about his FPCC chapter, which he claimed was led by a person named A. J. Hidell, and it had 35 members. It was later revealed by investigators that Lee’s chapter was never chartered by the FPCC organization, he was the only member of the chapter, and A. J. Hidell didn’t exist.


Another suspicious move that attracted attention to Oswald was his trip to Mexico City in September 1963. His trip was an attempt to travel to Cuba, but the application process to approve him for a transit visa took a few weeks. Oswald traveled back to the US after failing to secure a visa. Oswald’s interest in Cuba may have been an attempt to find a place that supported his ideal principles of Communism.


Several aspects of Oswald’s visit to Mexico City were considered by the Warren Commission when investigating JFK’s assassination. One theory was that Oswald may have been preparing an escape plan to the Soviet Union after he assassinated President Kennedy. However, this theory doesn’t fully connect with Oswald’s seemingly sporadic actions in the two weeks leading up to President Kennedy’s death.


The Assassination of John F. Kennedy

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Presidential limousine with President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy turning onto Main Street in downtown Dallas motorcade by Darryl Heikes, 1963, via Dallas Times Herald Collection, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


President John F. Kennedy traveled to Texas as a part of his campaign in preparation for the 1964 presidential election. He had already traveled to several other states within one week. During his two-day trip, Kennedy was scheduled to visit San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin. President Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline traveled to Dallas Love Field on Air Force One to begin the motorcade toward downtown Dallas. The final destination was the Trade Mart in Dallas to deliver a speech.


President Kennedy and Jacqueline greeted a crowd of people when they arrived at Love Field a little after 11:30 a.m. on November 22, 1963. They spent about 15 minutes greeting the crowd before they stepped into the presidential limousine to begin the motorcade. They arrived in downtown Dallas at around 12:20 p.m. and happily waved to people who crowded the sidewalks. Just 10 minutes later, three gunshots were fired at the presidential limousine, striking President Kennedy and Texas Governor Connally. Some people looked around to see where the shots came from, and a few witnesses testified that they saw a man in the sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository nearby.


The presidential limousine sped to the Parkland Memorial Hospital, arriving just six minutes after the shots were fired. President John F. Kennedy was pronounced dead at 1:00 p.m. (Central Time) on November 22, 1963. He suffered one gunshot wound to the neck and a second to his head, which caused his death. Governor Connally was seriously wounded, but the bullet that hit him wasn’t fatal. The third bullet that was fired didn’t hit anyone.


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Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby as he’s escorted from the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters by The LIFE Magazine Collection, 1963, via the International Center of Photography


Police arrested Lee Harvey Oswald within two hours of the assassination after he was seen sneaking into the Texas Theatre, located near his Oak Cliff apartment, without purchasing a ticket. He was held for President Kennedy’s assassination and the murder of Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit, who he ran into shortly after leaving the Texas School Book Depository. Oswald was charged with the murder of Officer Tippit later in the evening. In the early hours of November 23, Oswald was charged with the assassination of President Kennedy. The FBI discovered a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle and sniper’s perch on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald had been when Kennedy was assassinated. The FBI traced the ownership of the rifle back to Oswald.


Many questions that investigators had for Oswald pertaining to the assassination would be left unanswered. Oswald was scheduled to be transferred to another prison on November 24, 1963. As Oswald was escorted through the basement of the Dallas Police Headquarters, nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald from close range. Ruby was immediately apprehended. The incident was broadcast on national television by NBC, where millions sitting at home witnessed the assassin of President Kennedy murdered. Ruby claimed that his reasoning for shooting Oswald was to prevent Jacqueline Kennedy from reliving her husband’s murder when Oswald went on trial. This reasoning would later be accepted after investigators determined that Ruby and Oswald were not involved in a conspiracy together.


Questions Surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald & JFK’s Assassination

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Press showing with Lee Harvey Oswald after being charged with the murder of Officer Tippit and assassination of President Kennedy, 1963, via the Dallas Times Herald Collection, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


Investigators and police officials were quick to label Lee Harvey Oswald as the only figure involved in President Kennedy’s assassination. Although the Warren Commission did a deep investigation of Oswald, the assassination, and Jack Ruby, much of the information was kept secret. Large chunks of evidence were also not released to officials out of respect for the privacy of the Kennedy family. The Warren Commission had limited access to certain details that could’ve been useful in their investigation, forcing officials to work with what little evidence and witness testimony they had. The case of Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Kennedy’s assassination also left some lingering questions about why Oswald wasn’t looked at more closely for his suspicious involvement with the Soviet Union and Cuba.


Oswald’s motives for the assassination were also not very clear. However, FBI Special Agent James P. Hosty received a note from Oswald about two weeks prior to the assassination. Hosty had been investigating Oswald and showed up at the residence where Marina was staying with a woman named Ruth Paine in Irving, Texas. Accounts of what the note said are different between Hosty and the receptionist who accepted the note from Oswald the day he dropped it off at the FBI’s Dallas Field Office. The receptionist claimed that it contained threatening language, while Hosty couldn’t recall. The main point of the note was Oswald demanding the FBI stop bothering his wife. Hosty kept the note, but it was destroyed after Kennedy was assassinated.


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Lee Harvey Oswald (center) in handcuffs surrounded by investigators and the press at the Dallas Police Headquarters after his arrest by The Dallas Morning News, 1963, via the Bill Winfrey Collection, The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza


Despite the note, investigators were unable to find any evidence of a direct motive with Oswald. Investigators determined that Oswald may have decided to kill President Kennedy on or before November 21 because he asked a coworker to drive him to Irving to pick up curtain rods. He usually traveled to Irving on the weekends to visit Marina and his children because he lived in Dallas. The “curtain rods” were put into a long bag that could fit his rifle, which investigators later determined was the bag that carried the gun. This last-minute trip suggests that Oswald hadn’t been plotting to kill Kennedy for very long, and it also created questions about how presidential security should be handled.


Many conspiracy theories developed due to the underwhelming investigation of Oswald by federal officials immediately after the assassination. Foreign and domestic conspiracies were ruled out, including any involvement with Cuba or the Soviet Union. Jack Ruby was also investigated to ensure he wasn’t involved in a conspiracy with Oswald. Based on the investigation conducted, it was decided that Oswald acted alone. However, his short life in handcuffs after the assassination leaves a lot of unanswered questions that made it easier for law enforcement to find him solely responsible.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.