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On Nov. 22, 1963, we lost not only a popular young president, but we also lost our national innocence. We lost our trust in government. Once lost, it has not returned and never will.
The rifle shots fired at the president’s motorcade changed my own life as I watched TV coverage of my bloodied “friend” Lee Harvey Oswald dragged into the Dallas Police Station. When the Secret Service knocked on my door the morning after the assassination, they came for me as someone identified as a “known associate” of the presumed JFK assassin.
My involvement with Lee and Marina Oswald began in June 1962. I saw them last as they ran to catch the Fort Worth to Dallas bus on Nov. 22, 1962. A year later, my father translated for Marina from Nov. 24 to 28 as the Secret Service probed her knowledge of a conspiracy.
As America came to a standstill, mourning JFK, the Warren Commission began its inquiry into the circumstances of his death. My own testimony before the commission was on March 31, 1964. The commission was wasting no time. If the assassination had been a conspiracy, we needed to know and fast.
Comprised of our most distinguished public servants, the Warren Commission (headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren) concluded after hundreds of thousands of pages of testimony and physical evidence that a disturbed young man (Oswald) killed the president, and he acted alone.
When issued on Sept. 24, 1964, the public overwhelmingly accepted its finding, but more than a half-century later, 60% changed their minds in favor of a conspiracy. Nor has controversy over the commission’s “sole gunman” verdict waned with the passage of time.
At the 60th anniversary, expect a flurry of new evidence, new theories and even new witnesses to supplement the almost 1,500 books already written on the subject. Some 90% of these accounts promote conspiracy theories, most with Oswald as a “patsy” directed by deeper and sinister forces.
Also, do not expect any bombshells from National Archives releases of the remaining 14,000 JFK-related documents. The June and August (2023) releases largely consist of previously redacted material that has little to do with the assassination, but do address CIA operations worldwide.
The Warren report thus left behind an enduring legacy of mistrust in government. At the half-century mark, a remarkable fifth of conspiracy believers blamed “the government” (including the CIA) for JFK’s death. A large number have subsequently come to believe that government has been either involved in assorted other conspiracies – that 9/11 was a government setup, or that we lied about Iraq WMD to justify an invasion.
No matter how far-fetched (space alien bodies, U.N. black helicopters, the CIA importing AIDS into the ghetto), each new theory attracts its followers. Chasing conspiracies is a profitable business, more so than the “Oswald did it alone” narrative.
The Warren report played a losing game from the start against the deeply rooted belief that someone or something is in charge. Some claim that a New World Order or a “deep state” control about everything. History-changing events, like the assassination of a president, cannot be random or coincidence.
According to this logic, the complex set of circumstances that brought Oswald to the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building on Nov. 22, 1963, had to be planned and executed by powerful clandestine forces. “Little men” like Oswald do not make history by themselves, but they could sit unnoticed in the back row.
The conspiracy gate opened almost instantaneously after the assassination. There were more than enough opportunists and potential suspects to go around, including the USSR, Cuba, the Mafia, Dallas right-wingers, the CIA and oil interests. One theory, which may have originated in the Kremlin, has my father, Pete, shifting the blame to Oswald by deliberately mistranslating Marina. I have been credited with some 50 clandestine meetings with the future assassin, I guess, to plot some nefarious deed of which I remain ignorant.
As a regular visitor to the Oswald’s Mercedes Street duplex, I accumulated first-hand observations of this recently married couple, their baby June sleeping in an open suitcase, wife Marina opening the door for me with a black eye, husband Lee resisting his wife learning English or her getting to know other Russians, his anger when challenged on his Marxist beliefs in our house, and his verbally abusing Marina in a frightening temper fit.
I, as an intermediary to the Dallas Russian community, must have earned Lee’s resentment as Russian Samaritans penetrated the isolation Lee imposed on Marina. Later I was unwittingly to write a letter to Marina that exposed the very weaknesses that Lee wanted covered. Although the couple saved just about every letter they received, my offending letter has disappeared.
The JFK mystery will never be solved. Any immediate conspirators are dead or have kept silent into their 90s. If there were indeed a conspiracy, it is remarkable that the silence of conspirators (and their children and grandchildren) remains unbroken over six decades.
Yes, there is an abundance of discrepancies and contradictions to provide fodder for the conspiracists; among them, an alleged shot from the grassy knoll, Oswald’s presumed deficient Marine training in sharpshooting, his meeting with a KGB agent in Mexico City, and a flawed presidential autopsy.
Some sensational and near-comedic explanations have become grist for the conspiracy mill, such as Oswald was not Oswald but had been replaced by a KGB doppelganger. (It cost that conspiracist a considerable amount to pay for the exhumation only to prove himself wrong.)
Despite the intensity of feelings on both sides, we seem to have one consensus: Oswald was the shooter from the sixth-floor window, thus leaving two options. Either Oswald was a patsy in a very complex plot devised by mysterious puppet masters, or the “little man” Oswald alone planned and executed the murder of the world’s most closely guarded man.
When reduced to this binary choice, the conspiracy crowd appear to have the upper hand: Is not a delusional and dyslexic high school dropout, working for the minimum wage, ill qualified to murder a president single-handedly?
My own answer is that we have grossly underestimated Oswald. He was, in fact, a ticking time bomb perfectly capable of planning and executing the JFK murder.
As Norman Mailer wrote in his “Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery,” it is not forensics, autopsies, trajectories or missing bullets but Lee Harvey Oswald himself who holds the key to the assassination. We must look to him to decide whether he had the means, motive, intellect and general wherewithal to carry out the assassination alone.
My answer to all is yes.
My own contribution to the mix rests upon my knowing Lee and Marina as well as any of the few “friends” they accumulated over their one and half years in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. I first met them upon their return to Fort Worth in June 1962. I was frequently in their home receiving Russian tutoring from Marina. I organized the dinner that introduced the couple to the “Dallas Russians.”
My last meeting with them was at our house on Thanksgiving Day 1962. One year later, I sat in a car headed to an interrogation as a “known associate” of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mine was not the Gregory family’s only personal connection to the tragedy. My father, Pete, translated for Marina throughout the first five days after the assassination as the Secret Service tried to rule out a conspiracy. It was he who told Marina that Lee was dead.
These qualifications give me the standing to opine on whether Oswald had the means, intellect and motive to shoot JFK, and he did so alone.
Oswald was indeed a perfect “low tech assassin.” His assassination equipment consisted of a $19.95 mail order rifle and a pistol. His transportation to and from the assassination site – a bummed ride and a city bus. He began work at the future assassination site a month and a half before, by chance, at a building that no one then knew would fall on the motorcade route.
Nor was Oswald a stranger to assassinations. After weeks of plotting, he narrowly missed the right-wing leader, Gen. Edwin Walker, with a shot from the assassination weapon, as Walker worked in his study. For the Walker operation, no one doubts that Oswald acted alone. The attempt on Walker confirms Oswald’s “soul of a killer,” to borrow from Mailer.
Our gross underestimation of Oswald explains our reluctance to accept the “little man” explanation of the JFK assassination. The Oswald I knew was persistent, scheming and manipulative. He was a convincing liar, a careful planner who forced the hand of the USSR Politburo with a staged suicide. He persuaded the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to return his passport, he wheedled financial help from his despised mother when convenient for him.
He returned to Texas with wife Marina on money borrowed from the U.S. embassy. He deliberately polished his pro-Castro credentials with his Free Cuba lobbying in New Orleans, paid for remarkably from his own pocket. Despite being unable to spell and punctuate, he carried on a correspondence with leaders of the American Communist Party and with Cuban sympathizers.
As to means and motive, Oswald had been taught since childhood by a deranged mother that he was special. He was destined for greatness, were it not for the powerful forces aligned against him. Although an avowed communist, he resisted being identified as “working class.” He had a grudge, and he was going to show the world that he belonged in history books. Wife Marina’s publicly belittling her husband’s weird ideas and his bedroom performance made matters worse.
As to means, Oswald’s work life consisted of $1.25 jobs, living at the YMCA as Marina camped out with Russian female friends. He had money for a bus ticket to Mexico City and for the assassination rifle. He had an ideological reason for killing Walker, but JFK simply fell in his lap via the string of events that conspiracists cannot believe were random and coincidental.
On Nov. 23, 1963, early morning, as I was being driven to the Oklahoma City Secret Service office, I did not hesitate to accept the fact that Oswald had killed the president. I stated that Lee would be the last person to either join or lead a conspiracy. Lee was definitely not a joiner. Nor was he an organizer. His New Orleans pro-Cuba efforts brought in one recruit: namely, A.J. Hidell, his alias. (Oswald was not lacking in imagination and chutzpah.)
Oswald’s trip to Mexico City from Sept. 26 to Oct. 2, captures the immense divide between the conspiracists and the lone gunman crowd. According to the former, Oswald traveled (via bus) to get his assassination marching orders from the Soviet or Cuban embassies in Mexico City. A CIA wiretap caught him calling a Soviet embassy official, later identified as KGB. He met a Mexican national working in the Cuban embassy, who introduced him to several friends at a party. According to various conspiracy theories, Oswald left Mexico City with his assassination orders from one or more of these sources.
Mexico City is crucial for most conspiracy theories. It was there, supposedly, that his Cuban and USSR puppet masters unleashed their assassin. But the Oswald I knew went to Mexico City not for marching orders but to pave the way for a new life in Cuba. Surely Fidel would welcome his faithful servant.
The nomadic Oswald had already concluded that Texas was not for him. Time to move on, but for that he needed both a USSR and a Cuban (transit) visa. To avoid a half-year wait, he went to the nearest city that hosted both embassies – Mexico City. He went to bluff his way through (his USSR visa was in the mail, he would claim.) There he was rebuffed by both embassies and frustrated to the point of a verbal battle with the Cuban embassy.
Upon his return to Dallas, Oswald took the job at the Texas Book Depository on Oct. 15 (FBI officials got orders only about a month later to prepare for a presidential visit). On Nov. 12, Oswald visited the Dallas FBI threatening to blow up the building if they did not stop harassing Marina. Such a “loose cannon” move certainly was odd for someone with secret orders to kill the president. The Secret Service could not forgive the FBI for not neutralizing someone as suspicious as Oswald.
Lee Harvey Oswald returned to Dallas from Mexico frustrated and depressed. His blueprint for a new life had been frustrated. No pampered life in Cuba, but another $1.25 job, a marriage falling apart, and an FBI breathing down his neck.
In typical form, the persistent Oswald bounced back. He ordered Marina to update her USSR visa application. They would still go to live in Cuba. He even briefly contemplated hijacking a plane to Havana.
And then he learns that the president was coming to town. He already had his assassination kit ready. At work, he learns that the motorcade will pass by his building. His path to immortality is set.
If he had reservations, it would be that Marina so admired JFK and Jackie. His killing the president would devastate her, but immortality’s siren song drowned out any qualms.