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The Equivocal Assassin?
Did a bitter fight with his wife cement Oswald's plan to murder JFK the next day?
Most of us think that something as momentous as deciding to kill the president of the United States would be a longstanding passion and there would be little, if anything, that might change the mind of a dedicated assassin. Twenty-four-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald had committed himself to political assassination. His target, however, was not Kennedy. He wanted to kill Edwin Walker, a retired general whose rightwing views Oswald viewed as akin to a second coming of Hitler. Oswald had barely missed Walker only seven months before Kennedy’s trip to Dallas.
Oswald and Kennedy were in the same city by chance. Oswald had gone to Mexico City in late September hoping to get a travel visa to Cuba. Castro was leading the pure revolution, thought Oswald, but the Soviet and Cuban missions had turned Lee away. If Oswald had succeeded, he would have been in Havana when JFK visited Texas. Instead, Oswald returned to Dallas in early October, bitter and dejected over another of his failed grand ideas.
Oswald’s Russian wife, Marina, was living with a friend, Ruth Paine, in a Dallas suburb. The Oswalds had a volatile marriage that was often violent. Oswald knew that it would take time to heal the rift with Marina. He usually visited her on weekends but did not go on November 16. It was that weekend when Marina called Oswald’s Dallas rooming house and was startled to discover he was living there under an alias. (The block quote below is an excerpt from my 1993 book, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK)
“When Marina talked with him, she clearly was upset, and angry. She asked him where he had been the previous night, and he told her he was using a different name because of the FBI, but also became angry with her for calling the rooming house. She found his alias “unpleasant and incomprehensible.”
“After all, when will all our foolishness come to an end?” demanded Marina. “All of these comedies. First one thing then another. And now this fictitious name.”
A fight with Marina was the last thing Lee wanted. Their relationship was strained at times since his return from Mexico but better than it had been in New Orleans. It was as though the argument had broken a fragile truce. And now Marina and Ruth knew about his alias. It was only a matter of time until one of them told Hosty [the FBI agent responsible for Oswald’s file], and again he would have to confront the FBI.
Oswald did not call Marina on either Tuesday or Wednesday, the nineteenth and twentieth. The others at the rooming house noticed he sulked and did not use the phone. Oswald was simmering alone and did not want any contact with people, even his family.
“He thinks he’s punishing me,” Marina told Ruth.
That Tuesday, the Dallas Times Herald detailed the exact route of the presidential motorcade. It showed that the motorcade would proceed along Main Street, then turn onto Dealey Plaza, a public square that the Texas School Book Depository bordered. The motorcade would then turn onto Houston Street and make a left along Elm Street before reaching the Stemmons Freeway. The left turn onto Elm Street meant the cars would pass directly in front of the Depository. The city’s only other newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, provided the same exacting details on both November 19 and 20. There was no change in the motorcade route, and there was no doubt about the Elm Street crossing.
Whether Oswald learned of the route on the day first published, the nineteenth, or on the next day, when he followed his routine of reading day-old newspapers in the first-floor lunch room of the Depository, it is hard to overestimate the impact of that discovery. Oswald, who thought his contribution to his revolutionary cause would be the death of Walker, was suddenly faced with the possibility of having a much greater impact on history and the machinery of government. Failed in his attempts to find happiness in Russia or the U.S., rejected by the Cubans, barely able to make a living in America, frustrated in his marriage, and hounded, in his view, by the FBI, he was desperate to break out of his downward spiral. He had endured long enough the humiliations of his fellow Marines, the Russian and Cuban bureaucrats, the employers that fired him, the radio ambush in New Orleans, the refusal of V. T. Lee and other Communist leaders to acknowledge his efforts and letters. Lee Oswald always thought he was smarter and better than other people, and was angered that others failed to recognize the stature he thought he deserved. Now, by chance, he had an opportunity that he knew would only happen once in his lifetime.
On Thursday, November 21, Oswald broke his routine of eating a meager breakfast at the rooming house. Instead, he treated himself to a special breakfast at Dobbs House restaurant. Before 10:00 that morning, he approached Buell Frazier and asked if he could have a ride to Irving that evening as he needed to “get some curtain rods. You know, [to] put in an apartment.” His apartment did not need curtains or curtain rods. Both were already in place. It was likely later that day that he used brown paper and tape at the Depository to fashion a bag over three feet long.
Marina saw Frazier’s car stop near the Paine home that afternoon near 5:00, and Lee stepped out. He had not called in advance as usual to ask permission before coming to Irving. It was also the first time he had ever broken his routine and arrived on a Thursday instead of a Friday.
“He said he was lonely because he hadn’t come the preceding weekend, and he wanted to make his peace with me,” recalled Marina. She refused his kisses, and turned her back on him when he spoke.
“He tried very hard to please me,” Marina recalled. “He spent quite a bit of time putting away diapers and played with the children on the street. He was upset over the fact that I would not answer him. He tried to start a conversation with me several times, but I would not answer. And he said that he didn’t want me to be angry with him because this upsets him.”
He seemed different than she had seen him before, and he told her he “was tired of living all alone,” and pleaded, “Why won’t you come with me?” “Alka,” Marina responded. “I think it’s better if I stay here.” “He repeated this not once but several times,” Marina remembered, “but I refused. And he said that once again I was preferring my friends to him, and that I didn’t need him.” He tried to induce her by saying he had saved money and would buy her a washing machine. Marina told him thank you, but “it would be better if he bought something for himself—that I would manage.”
One final time, while on the front lawn, he begged her to join him in Dallas. “I’ll get us an apartment and we’ll all live peacefully at home.” She again refused. “I was like a stubborn little mule,” she recalled. “I was maintaining my inaccessibility, trying to show Lee I wasn’t easy to persuade.”
Ruth, who had been grocery shopping, had pulled up in her car by 5:30. “He was on the front lawn. I was surprised to see him,” she recalled. Marina apologized to Ruth that Lee had appeared without any warning, but Ruth said not to worry, that it was his way of making up for their quarrel. “As I entered the house and Lee had just come in, I said to him, ‘Our President is coming to town.’ And he said, ‘Ah, yes,’ and walked into the kitchen …”
During the rest of the evening the atmosphere in the house was cordial. Ruth did not notice there was any special tension between Marina and Lee. Marina remembered that after her last refusal to join him in Dallas, Lee mostly stopped talking. During dinner, Marina asked him about the President’s visit, assuming that talking about politics, his favorite subject, might improve the atmosphere. “And he did not make any comment about it at all,” she recalled. “It was quite unusual that he did not want to talk about President Kennedy being in Dallas.… That was quite peculiar … [and] I asked him … if he know which route President Kennedy will take … and he said he doesn’t know anything about it.”
After a quiet dinner, he watched television on his own. At 9:00, he looked into the kitchen, where Marina was washing the dishes.
She thought he looked sad.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. It was almost two hours before his usual time. “I probably won’t be out this weekend.”
“It’s too often. I was here today.”
That same evening, after Lee had gone to bed, Ruth went into the garage to paint some children’s blocks. The light was on. “It was unusual for it to be on,” she recalled. “I realized I felt Lee … had gone out to the garage, perhaps worked out there or gotten something.”
“I went to sleep about 11:30,” Marina remembered. “But it seemed to me that he was not really asleep. But I didn’t talk to him.”
In the middle of the night, she remembered resting her foot against his leg, and he shoved it away with a ferocity that surprised her. “My, he’s in a mean mood,” she thought. Marina thinks his tension finally gave way to sleep, but not until nearly 5:00 A.M.
The following morning when the alarm sounded, it was Marina, half-asleep, who urged him to get up. Usually, Marina prepared breakfast for him, but that morning she remained in bed. When he was ready to leave, he came to the bedroom door. “He told me to take as much money as I needed and to buy everything, and said goodbye, and that is all,” recalled Marina. He walked out the door without kissing her, something he always did before leaving. When Marina fully awoke, she went to the kitchen, but he was gone and the coffeepot was cold. Returning to the bedroom, she was startled to see that he had left $170 on top of their bureau. It was a remarkable sum for the Oswalds, and she knew it must be almost all their savings. She did not notice something else that would have alarmed her. On the bureau, in a hand-painted demitasse cup that had belonged to her grandmother, Lee had placed his wedding ring. He had never before taken it off.
Was Oswald sincere when he asked Marina to move back with him? If she had said yes would he have abandoned his plan to kill Kennedy the next day?
The Warren Commission assembled a panel of three psychiatrists, Drs. Dale Cameron, Howard Rome, and David Rothstein, to study Oswald. On July 9, 1964, the Warren Commission had a seven-hour closed executive session with those psychiatrists. The doctors told the Commissioners that if Marina had treated Oswald with kindness that night, he possibly could have changed his mind about the assassination. As Dr. Cameron said, “I think what Marina had a chance to do unconsciously that night was to veto his plan without ever knowing of its existence, but she didn’t. She really stamped it down hard.”