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Lee Harvey Oswald’s Motives

After nearly 40 years the question remains: Why? What kind of rage, pain or pathology could have provoked Lee Harvey Oswald to such a dark deed?

The explanation of Oswald's motive for killing President Kennedy was buried with him. As JFK assassination expert Dr. Martin Kelly has stated, “Oswald’s mental state does not have crisp, sharp-edged concepts, so it is problematic for (anyone) to write a causally structured account easily”. But I believe the mystery about Oswald’s motives can be partly explained by penetrating Oswald's personal life, his ideological beliefs and his increasingly disturbed behaviour in the months leading up to the assassination.

Most crime does not happen in a vacuum. They do not happen by mere chance - something causes them. Sometimes the reasons are social, sometimes psychological, most often both. The real answer as to why President Kennedy was killed centers around how Lee Harvey Oswald grew up as a misfit, having no real control or moral guidance with which to exist in, and poorly equipped to meet, the demands of society. Answers also lie in the way Oswald embraced a radical ideology in order to compensate for his lack of education and to enhance his self-image.

Oswald's State of Mind

I believe there are telling references which are relevant to an understanding of Oswald's frame of mind in an article published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (July 1960). The article was used as a reference point by Truman Capote in his book In Cold Blood as a way of understanding the psychological make-up of the mind of a murderer. Written by Dr. Joseph Satten, in collaboration with three colleagues, Karl Menninger, Irwin Rosen, and Martin Mayman, the article is chilling in it's delineation of a criminally intentioned mind:

“In attempting to assess the criminal responsibility of murderers, the law tries to divide them (as it does all offenders) into two groups, the 'sane' and the 'insane'. The sane murderer is thought of as acting upon rational motives that can be understood, though condemned, and the insane one as being driven by irrational senseless motives. When rational motives are conspicuous (for example, when a man kills for personal gain) or when the irrational motives are accompanied by delusions or hallucinations (for example, a paranoid patient who kills his fantazied persecutor), the situation presents little problem to the psychiatrist. But murderers who seem rational, coherent, and controlled and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizarre apparently senseless quality, pose a difficult problem, if courtroom disagreements and contradictory reports about the same offender are an index. It is our thesis that the psychopathology of such murderers forms at least one specific syndrome which we shall describe. In general, these individuals are pre-disposed to severe lapses in ego-control which makes possible the open expression of primitive violence born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences.”

The authors had examined four men convicted of seemingly unmotivated murders. All had been found sane. The doctors’ description of how the murderers behaved provides a template for Lee Harvey Oswald’s personality (quotations from Satten, et al. in italics):

The most uniform and perhaps the most significant, historical finding was a long standing, sometimes lifelong, history of erratic control over aggressive impulses....during moments of actual violence, they often felt separated or isolated from themselves, as if they were watching someone else.......”:

RUTH PAINE, FRIEND OF MARINA OSWALD: “(At the Dallas Jail)… he seemed utterly apart from the situation he was in.” “.....In all these cases, there was evidence of severe emotional deprivation in early life .......”

ROBERT OSWALD : “The idea even crossed (my) mind that (my) mother might want to put (me) and John up for adoption; anything to be rid of the burden.” “.......This deprivation may have involved prolonged or recurrent absence of one or both parents, a chaotic family life in which the parents were unknown, or an outright rejection of the child by one or both parents with the child being raised by others....”

ROBERT OSWALD: “ We learned very early that we were a burden...she wanted to be free of responsibility.” “.....Most typically the men displayed a tendency not to experience anger or rage in association with violent aggressive action. None reported feelings of rage in connection with the murders, nor did they experience anger in any strong or pronounced way, although each of them was capable of enormous and brutal aggression .........”

LEE OSWALD FOLLOWING HIS ATTEMPTED MURDER OF GENERAL WALKER : “Americans are so spoiled...They chased a car. And here I am sitting here.....What fools...”

DETECTIVE JAMES LEAVELLE: “He (Oswald) was a cool character.”

ANTI-CASTRO ACTIVIST CARLOS BRINGUIER : “He (Oswald) was really cold-blooded...he was not nervous...”

In 2002, conservative ED BUTLER recalled his on-air debate with Oswald: “He wore a very heavy wool suit in August, a very hot August day in New Orleans. He was parboiling, but he didn't have a bead of sweat on him, and he was very self-contained. I was shocked when I heard he had killed Kennedy. I would not have been shocked if he had tried to kill me. I was concerned about the guy from the minute I met him.” “....Their relationships with others were of a shallow, cold nature, lending a quality of loneliness and isolation to these men ...”

BOYHOOD FRIEND WILLIAM WULF : “We were 16...he seemed to me a boy that was looking for something to belong to. I don't think anybody was looking for him to belong to them.”

"....People were scarcely real to them, in the sense of being warmly or positively...or even angrily...felt about...."

OSWALD’S FRIEND MICHAEL PAINE : “People were like cardboard (to Lee)...” “...The three men under sentence of death had shallow emotions regarding their own fate and that of their victims.....”

LEE OSWALD FOLLOWING THE MURDER OF OFFICER TIPPIT : “Poor dumb cop.” “Guilt, depression, and remorse were strikingly absent...”

MARINA OSWALD : “Lee had no moral sense at all...only egotism, anger at others on account of his failures.” “...The murderous potential can become activated, especially if some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration. The behaviour, or even the mere presence of this figureadds a stress to the unstable balance of forces that results in a sudden extreme discharge of violence...”

Lee Oswald learned of a past boyfriend of Marina's - he bore a startling resemblance to JFK. Psychologically, Oswald had always been a loner and an outsider. He had always been attracted to things that would provide enhanced self-esteem, becoming a Marine, learning Russian, defecting to Russia, inventing a fictitious chapter of a radical political organisation.

But it was the attacks on his psyche in childhood - his father dying, his experiencing only sporadic and detached associations with his mother's boyfriends, his relationship with an angry, unstable and domineering mother - that helped turn Lee's psyche in adulthood into an embittered, angry misfit. Psychologists believe that a child who lives an isolated life, as Oswald did, and who is brought up by a mother who refused to subordinate herself to her children's welfare, often sees the world as an adversary.

A fatherless upbringing and lack of a meaningful male role-model had a crucial effect on the young Oswald moulding and forming a personality which hid some of his darkest impulses. The young Oswald, whose real father died when he was a baby, had only shallow relationships with his mother's many boyfriends whose personalities were often weaker than the domineering and unstable Marguerite’s. He was unable to connect with a father, to learn his emotionality and the unique way of how to compete and to channel aggression effectively. Oswald was denied a nurturing system which was male-driven, in which discipline, morality teaching and emotional sustenance were provided by males for males.

Without moral grounding and direct parental guidance the child is unable to recognise moral prerequisites for living in an adult world. Without the attention only a mother can give, the child is denied the necessary socialization. The angry and embittered Marguerite Oswald was unable to provide that background. This was recognised by Lee's brother Robert when he said that mother and son’s world view were alike in many ways. They both saw themselves as victims, isolated and surrounded by people and government agencies who failed to understand their special place in the scheme of things. As Norman Mailer wrote, “.......it seems certain at the least that every malformation, or just about, of Lee Harvey Oswald's character had it's roots in her.”

Oswald's Violent Tendencies

Within the literature of the JFK assassination there are telling pieces of evidence which point to Oswald's willingness to commit violent acts to further his own ends.

In the mid-1950's Oswald had spoken about shooting an American President. Palmer McBride testified to the Warren Commission that, in 1956, he befriended Oswald and they often discussed politics. McBride said that one central theme in their discussions was the “exploitation of the working class” and on one occasion, after they began discussing President Eisenhower, Oswald made a statement to the effect that he would like to kill the president because he was exploiting the working class. McBride said that the statement was not made in jest.

There is also clear evidence that Oswald, like O.J. Simpson, had a history of wife battering. Oswald's treatment of his wife is documented in the numerous statements made by the Russian emigre community in Dallas and by his wife Marina. According to Ruth Paine, Marina was worried about “Lee's mental state". Marina Oswald testified that her husband was given to fits of unreasonable rage.

Domestic violence did not have the high profile in the 1960's as it does today. In the 1995 criminal trial and the 1997 civil trial, evidence of O.J. Simpson's wife-battering was indeed relevant in supporting the prosecution's case for Simpson's guilt. Similarly, Oswald's treatment of his wife is pertinent to an understanding of his propensity for violence. At one stage Oswald tried to strangle his wife. There were incidents when Oswald hit Marina and she ended up with bruises on her body. At one time during the final year of their lives together some members of the emigre community rescued Marina but she returned to her husband after a two week separation.

Mahlon Tobias recalled a time when a neighbour of the Oswalds complained to him about the couple's violent arguments. The neighbour reported, “I think he's really hurt her this time....I think that man over there is going to kill that girl.” Michael Paine was shocked that Lee treated his wife like a vassel and he believed Marina was a person who acted as though she were in “bondage and servitude”.

These kinds of abusive behaviours are all about control of the victim. A variety of seemingly unconnected events are part of that strategy to maintain that control - methods like telling her who she can be friends with, how much she can spend, what kind of clothes she can wear, belittling her, demeaning her. All of these things accomplish the end objective - control. The ultimate act of control is violence - the classic pattern which reflected Oswald’s behaviour.

Oswald's Personal Motives

Lee Harvey Oswald lived most of his adult life hiding behind a mask of normality. His mask was convincing to many people he came in contact with except those who knew him well. What lay beneath the surface was Oswald's fatally crippled personality. He had a defensive and surly character that no-one could penetrate, not even his wife Marina.

Oswald was a bitter and angry young man. As a youth his mother had little or no control over him and, indeed, conspired with him in his rebellion. He was determined to get what he wanted. Prison files are full of case histories like his. He learned very early in life to hate the world, learned early that he had to sink or swim on his own resources. He also learned that he had to develop his life unsustained by a mother who could never give true maternal warmth.

Lee Oswald's lifelong isolation left him without the resources for the kind of role-modelling and parental guidance most of us take for granted. People who are close to others turn to them in moments of stress and doubt to interpret the meaning of an event or a social interaction. As an adult, Lee Oswald was unable to accomplish this with the only person who was truly close to him - his wife Marina. He was too domineering and insistent she follow his commands. He could not ask her if his thoughts and actions were consistent with the world around him, seeking out meaning, exchanging ideas. To Lee, Marina had to follow and admire.

To those who knew him well Oswald was secretive, aggressive and arrogant - to a degree almost paranoid. His brother Robert said Lee liked to create drama and mystery around himself. As a child Lee became fascinated with television programmes about espionage and subversive activities.

Lee Harvey Oswald believed he was an important man and his wife often ridiculed him for this unfounded belief. To a disturbed man like Oswald, his wife's scornful attitude likely acted as a catalyst, fueling Oswald’s anger and resentment. The evening prior to the assassination he tried to make-up to his wife after a series of bitter disagreements about their lives together. She rejected his advances. It must have been a terrible blow to his ego.

Oswald not only saw himself as an unappreciated revolutionary but a person who was superior to his contemporaries. This is borne out by the many people who crossed Oswald's path, especially in the years after his return from the Soviet Union. Even as a child Oswald expressed fantasies about omnipotence and power to a child psychologist.

Although psychologists have long believed that low self-esteem causes aggression and other pathologies the concept of unfounded high self-esteem has not really been considered until recent years. Narcissistic people have an inflated view of their own importance and don’t believe they have to play by the same rules as anyone else. It is brought about when children get too little or too much emotional support. As Dr Martin Kelly has pointed out, “(Oswald) was both ignored and doted on by his mother.”

Such a narcissistic person has not had enough praise to give him self-confidence or has had too much so he thinks he is something other than what he really is. This type of person has a narcissistic mode of functioning. All their relationships are tied up with images – Do I live up to the image of myself which I wish to keep up? Or do I need to cheat? Oswald’s inflated self-esteem indicates weak normal ego functioning, a weak state generated in due course by his psychologically impoverished upbringing.

High self-esteem that is unjustified and unstable, as in Oswald's case, has led in many instances to violence. Like Oswald, many narcissists are supersensitive to criticism or slights, because deep down they suspect their feelings of superiority are bogus. Because his grandiosity was challenged ( Marina laughed at his notion that he would eventually become a statesmanlike leader) he reacted violently. Oswald’s inflated self-esteem had a powerful effect on his aggression. When the real world failed to recognise his alleged superior gifts he exploded. “At least his imagination,” Marina said, “his fantasy, which was quite unfounded, as to the fact that he was an outstanding man. (I) always tried to point out to him that he was a man like any others who were around us. But he simply could not understand that....”.

In many ways Oswald’s actions in killing Kennedy was a rebellious act - undoubtedly the result of his feelings toward authority and a society that had relegated him to a menial position in life. His need to protest festered as he strove to gain recognition. So much of what he did was egocentric, ego-satisfying. The political and humanitarian ideals he espoused wasn’t done in order to help others but to draw attention to himself; to satisfy his narcissistic tendencies. Oswald desperately wanted to become famous and successful. His brothers and his wife have testified to the many occasions when they sensed a bitter disappointment in Oswald when he failed to draw attention to himself.

Oswald's Political Motives

Oswald’s upbringing bears directly on his actions as a young man. Poor parenting from a single unstable mother and a fatherless upbringing affected Oswald greatly, warping his sense of right and wrong and creating an individual who was continually frustrated in his relationships with others. In response to these frustrations Oswald transferred his emotional attachments to his inadequate and poorly thought out political philosophy.

Oswald turned to radical politics for the purpose of ego- building. According to Dr Martin Kelly, “The political philosophy to which he gravitated became the ongoing material of Oswald’s ego function, serving as a substitute for normal feelings and judgments, and maintained by persistant fantasies.”

Marina believed that learning Russian gave Oswald a reputation for being intelligent, making up for the fact that he had a reading disability which gave him feelings of inadequacy. He got from his politics something he couldn't get from individuals. It shows the poverty of Oswald's emotional relationship with people which is a psychopathic trait.

Oswald's belief in the socialist ideal has been confirmed by numerous sources who knew him. As an 18 year old Oswald espoused his political principles to Palmer McBride and William Wulf Jr. McBride told the FBI, “During the period I knew Oswald he resided with his mother in the Senator Hotel or a rooming house next door...I went with him to his room on one occasion, and he showed me copies of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto. Oswald stated he had received these books from the public library, and he seemed quite proud to have them.”

Aline Mosby, a reporter, interviewed Oswald in Moscow after his defection and this interview gives a clue to the way Oswald acted out his political dramas. Oswald told her he became interested in communist ideology when “an old lady handed me a pamphlet about saving the Rosenburgs...”.

The pamphlet led Oswald to change the direction of his life for it was from this period he became enamoured with left-wing politics. The memory of the Rosenburg case, I believe, lasted until his incarceration in the Dallas police jail. Oswald had made repeated requests the weekend of the assassination for John Abt to defend him. Abt was a left-wing New York lawyer who had defended communists and a newspaper story about Abt had appeared on the same page as the President's visit to Dallas. In attempting to contact Abt Oswald was revealing something about himself - he was already preparing for his appearance on the political stage, emulating the Rosenburgs by becoming a cause celebre.

Oswald had a desperate desire to act in a political way to further the cause of his commitment to communism and to the Cuban Revolution and in so doing elevate himself as an important revolutionary. He needed a cause to belong to; to inflate his self-image and sustain it. Oswald said that nothing kept him in the United States and he would lose nothing by returning to the Soviet Union. His real destination, of course, was Cuba. Cuba was a country which embodied the political principles to which he had been committed since he was an adolescent.

To Oswald Cuba was the last gambit - his last chance to fulfill his political fantasies. As Marina testified to the Warren Commission, "I only know that his basic desire was to get to Cuba by any means and all the rest of it was window dressing for that purpose." He hatched a plan to hi-jack a plane to Cuba and wanted Marina to help. When she refused he abandoned his plans.

Marina has testified to Oswald’s view of Castro as a hero and said Lee had wanted to call their second child Fidel if it had been a boy. Michael Paine told BBC Timewatch researchers that Lee, “…wanted to be an active guerrilla in the effort to bring about the new world order.” Nelson Delgado, Oswald’s friend in the Marine Corps said that Oswald’s hero was William Morgan, a former sergeant in the U.S. Army who became a major in Castro’s army. In August 1959 Morgan received considerable press coverage when he lured some anti-Castro rebels into a trap by pretending to be a counter-revolutionary. This may explain Oswald’s counter-revolutionary activities in New Orleans when he visited anti-Castroite Carlos Bringuier. Oswald wanted to emulate Morgan.

An incident from Oswald's time in the Marine Corps testifies to Oswald's revolutionary fanaticism. Fellow Marine, Kerry Thornley, testified to the Warren Commission about an incident, “which grew out of a combination of Oswald's known Marxist sympathies and George Orwell's book 1984”. After Thornley finished reading the book they took part in a parade.As Oswald and Thornley were waiting for the parade to begin they talked briefly about Orwell’s book even though Oswald “seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.” Oswald remarked on the stupidity of the parade and on how angry it made him, to which Thornley replied, “Well, come the revolution you will change all that.” Thornley said, “At which time he looked at me like a betrayed Caesar and screamed, screamed definitely, 'Not you, too, Thornley.' And I remember his voice cracked as he said this. He was definitely disturbed at what I had said and I didn't really think I had said that much....I never said anything to him again and he never said anything to me again.”

Oswald's political ideals remained with him up to the moment of his death and there is convincing evidence to support this. It was inevitable that someone as politically motivated as Oswald would eventually reveal his political self that tragic weekend. A man like Oswald needed a stage to show the world he was a true revolutionary. But he did not do this by confessing. Instead he showed his commitment to his ideals by a clenched fist salute, a symbol of left-wing radicalism, as he was paraded around the Dallas police station. There are at least two published photos of Oswald giving this gesture. The most famous photograph showing Oswald’s clenched-fist salute was first identified by Jean Davison in her excellent book about Oswald’s motives, Oswald's Game (1983). The photo was taken by an AP photographer.

The second photo has been overlooked by most researchers and appeared in the UPI/American Heritage book Four Days (1964). The caption for the UPI photo reads, “...Oswald shakes his fist at reporters inside police headquarters...”, an unlikely description of Oswald's actions. Most JFK conspiracy advocates have assumed that Oswald was merely showing the photographers his manacled hands. But there is a definite clenched-fist salute portrayed on both occasions. He repeated this gesture as he lay dying in the ambulance. According to Dallas policeman Billy Combest, he made a “definite clenched fist”. Some conspiracists have dismissed this vital piece of evidence claiming that a clenched-fist salute did not come into vogue until the late 1960’s. However, communists and left-wing militant groups have used the salute since the 1930’s - in the political elections in Germany in 1930 and in Spain during that period.

Oswald was influenced in his beliefs and his desire to act them out by a number of politically motivated people and political literature during the last year of his life.

The periodicals that Oswald subscribed to may have influenced his actions. As the Warren Report pointed out, “The October 7th., 1963, issue of the Militant reported Castro as saying Cuba could not accept a situation where at the same time the United States was trying to ease world tensions it also was increasing its efforts to tighten the noose around Cuba.” Castro’s opposition to President Kennedy’s attempt to deal with Cuba was also reported in the October 1, 1963, issue of the Worker, to which Oswald also subscribed. Oswald spoke to Michael Paine about the left-wing paper saying, “You could tell what they wanted you to do ..... by reading between the lines, reading the thing and doing a little reading between the lines.”

In the month before the assassination Oswald may have entered into his revolutionary fantasies whilst watching television. A Secret Service interview with Marina was first recognised by Jean Davison as a telling indication of Oswald's state of mind. Marina told agents that on Friday, October 18th. Oswald had watched two movies on television and he had been “greatly excited”. The first movie was Suddenly, in which Frank Sinatra played an ex-soldier who planned to shoot an American president. Sinatra’s character was to shoot the president with a high-powered rifle from the window of a house overlooking a railway station. The second movie, We Were Strangers, was based on the overthrow of Cuba’s Machado regime in 1933.John Garfield had played an American who had gone to Cuba to help a group of rebels assassinate the Cuba leader. Oswald’s reactions to these movies made a strong impression on his wife, according to the Secret Service report.

Given Oswald’s orientation to violence as evidenced by his willingness to take right-wing activist General Walker’s life in April 1963, his treatment of his wife and his belief in revolutionary violence, the movies are vital to an understanding of Oswald’s frame of mind. As the movie plots suggested, Oswald could see a way in which he could strike out against a government he detested and support a government he admired.

It is also feasible that Oswald may have had direct knowledge about CIA plots to assassinate Castro. On September 9th. 1963 the New Orleans Times Picayune published a story about Castro's warning that assassination plots against Cuban leaders would be met with retaliation. It is possible that Oswald’s revolutionary heroic actions in killing Kennedy were a response to these plots against Castro. Although the American people as a whole did not learn of CIA plots to murder Castro until the 1970's it would have been easy for newspaper readers in New Orleans to read between the lines because it was common knowledge that anti-Castro exiles were engaged in efforts to topple the Castro regime.

Oswald’s first reply to a police officer when he was arrested inside the Texas Theatre was, “I haven't anything to be ashamed of.” He did not say, “I didn't shoot anyone”. He was likely giving himself time to think of an answer to the inevitable questions he would be asked when interrogated. His answer, “I haven't anything to be ashamed of ” is a natural response for a true believer in revolutionary action. He may have committed murder – but within the fantasies of his own mind Oswald’s crime was an act of war which put him outside the norms of lawful behaviour and moral culpability.

In his revolutionary state of mind, Oswald needed only a catalyst to spur him on. And it came in the form of an aristocratic member of the Dallas emigre community, George de Mohrenschildt. DeMohrenschildt had an important influence on Oswald in the year before the assassination. He befriended the Oswalds and the older man became Lee's mentor. Unlike the other members of the Russian community De Mohrenschildt had a soft spot for Oswald and sympathised with his left-wing views. In reality, DeMohrenschildt thought Oswald was a pathetic individual who pretentiously believed himself to be an intellectual and a revolutionary.

It is possible that De Mohrenschildt's statements had influenced Oswald in his decision to assassinate Walker. Oswald’s mentor referred to General Walker as the “Hitler of tomorrow” and Oswald, according to Marina, often repeated unoriginal things which she believed may have come from DeMohrenschildt. One of Oswald’s oft-repeated sayings was that if Hitler had been assassinated it would have benefitted the world. It is therefore possible that the anti-fascist DeMohrenschildt unintentionally provoked Oswald to kill General Walker. Oswald may have wanted to impress his surrogate father.

According to Samuel Ballen who was De Mohrenschildt's close friend, “(In De Mohrenschildt's conversations with Lee) his unconventional, shocking, humourous and irreverant ideas would have been coming out of George all the time.” Ballen stated that he thought De Mohrenschildt could have influenced Oswald to kill General Walker.

The contempt Lee Harvey Oswald showed for authority and to those who disagreed with his vision of the world, the simple ideological answers he embraced in the face of complex issues he spoke of, generally are expressions of self-aggrandisement and a narcissistic tendency. When he began to see himself as "the commander", the learned revolutionary who was given only menial jobs, the gifted politician who headed an imaginary chapter of the Fair Play For Cuba Committee, the “the hunter of the right wing fascists” - the grandiose side was revealing itself. If Lee Oswald had not assassinated President Kennedy he would inevitably have committed a different kind of violent political act.

Oswald’s struggle was to get what he wanted - to be recognised as an important political figure. He achieved a modicum of recognition when he appeared on television and radio in New Orleans in the summer of 1963, when his Fair Play for Cuba activities were noticed. However, his esteem was damaged when television presenter Bill Stuckey ambushed Oswald with statements about his defection to Russia which took away Oswald's status as an objective spokesman for Castro's communist regime.

Oswald hated the American way of life. Years earlier he had come to detest his beloved Russia. And now his entry to his brave new world, Cuba, was barred. Failure seemed to follow him everywhere. He had nowhere to turn except inwards to his embittered and disillusioned self.

Now and then, in the final year of his life, Oswald would show his normal side, seeking work and interacting with others. But he knew he would always return to his life of despair, psychological isolation and unfulfilled political fantasies.

Lee Harvey Oswald’s failure as a man, a husband, a worker, a Marine and a son, began shortly after his birth. And Oswald's embrace of communism, his strong belief in Castro and the Cuban revolution and a desire to be recognised as an important person provoked him to kill President Kennedy.