Updated: Aug 21
JFK's CIA enemies?
(From left to right: James Jesus Angleton, George Joannides, David Atlee Phillips, Richard Helms, Win Scott, and--most obviously--Maxwell Smart.)
"I'm Just a Patsy!"
(Paranoid Planet podcast, Season 2, Episode 7.6)
Marguerite Oswald with journalists in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, TX.
Watch an interview with Mrs. Oswald:
That was an excerpt from a TV interview of Marguerite Oswald, Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother, taped on December 4, 1963, less than 2 weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination and the murder of Lee Oswald himself by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby. Mrs. Oswald was convinced that her youngest son was not guilty of killing the President. In fact, she had staunchly proclaimed since 1959—when Lee defected to the Soviet Union—that he was not a Marxist but a secret agent for the United States government, a claim that has since convinced many conspiracy-minded authors that Oswald was some kind of pasty. This includes the lawyer Mark Lane, who unsuccessfully petitioned the Warren Commission to let him sit in on their hearings as Lee Harvey Oswald’s legal representative, and who went on to promote the idea that Lee Oswald was set up by the CIA—the real culprits in the assassination.
Marguerite Oswald with lawyer/conspiracy researcher/hearse chaser Mark Lane
What conspiracy books and films rarely discuss, however, is the fact that Lee Oswald’s two older brothers, John Pic and Robert Oswald, both thought that their mother was delusional and an inveterate narcissist, opportunist, and self-pitying attention-seeker. Unlike their mother, John and Robert both had little doubt, based on what they knew of their brother’s past, abilities, and personality, that Lee had in fact murdered President Kennedy and Officer J.D. Tippitt, and had previously tried to murder General Edwin Walker, and had probably done so alone. They also told the Warren Commission that Lee’s emotional problems were caused largely by their mother, who had been neglectful, emotionally manipulative, and overbearing for much of their youth, and by her divorce from her third husband, Edwin Ekdahl, the closest thing Lee Oswald ever had to a loving father. It was because of Marguerite’s grating personality that all three boys left home as soon as they could to enlist in the military.
Robert Oswald, Lee Oswald, and John Pic
But were growing up without a father, with few friends, with absent brothers, with a dysfunctional mother, an undiagnosed learning disability (and a possible personality disorder) enough reasons for Oswald to shoot at President Kennedy?
For nearly six decades, many have struggled to explain Lee Oswald’s behaviour and statements during the weekend of Kennedy’s death, sometimes by producing outlandish scenarios with a large cast of double-crossing associates to paint Lee as a tragic victim in the whole affair. Conspiracist authors Richard Popkin and John Armstrong would even set out to prove that there were in fact two “Lee Harvey Oswalds”—a patriotic American agent who loved President Kennedy, and a scheming doppelgänger whose mission it was to make the real Lee Oswald look like a deranged Marxist.
The popularity of these alternate scenarios was partly due to the Warren Commission’s failure to ascribe a clear motive to Kennedy’s assassin. But that does not mean he had none. In fact, there were several opinions circulating among the Commission’s staff, two of which offer a good deal of insight into Oswald’s possible motive for killing Kennedy.
The first theory was defended most strongly by Wesley Liebeler, the Commission’s junior counsel investigating Oswald’s personal life. Liebeler argued in a draft chapter of the Warren Report, which was ultimately rejected by the commissioners, that Oswald’s decision to shoot Kennedy was a last minute affair—one which he formulated in the two or three days before it happened. This decision was swayed by his hatred of the United States, his revolutionary Marxist beliefs, his pro-Cuban activism, and his desire to prove to the Castro regime, the one that had recently refused his petition to move there, that he could be an important figure in the struggle against capitalist imperialism. Liebeler also argued that, although Oswald’s act was politically motivated, it was his troubled youth, his repeated personal failures, and his delusional personality that had ignited his murderous passions. “Lee Harvey Oswald was a man profoundly alienated from the world,” Liebeler wrote, “His life was characterized by isolation, frustration, suspicion, failure at almost everything he ever tried to do, and increasingly, by a system of delusion and fantasy designed to protect himself from his own failure and impotence.” In other words, Oswald was an angry, lone, politicized nut, radicalized by his feelings of alienation and Marxist literature. This, in essence, made JFK a victim of the Cold War.
Warren Commission's research staff.
(Wesley Liebeler is on the back row, third from left. J. Lee Rankin is in front row, third from left.)
The reason this argument was rejected by the Commission—despite the fact that it is now the leading view among non-conspiracist Kennedy experts—was that it had the fearsome potential, at least in mid-1964, to stir public opinion in favor of a conflict with Cuba and a possible nuclear showdown with the Soviets—a scenario that President Johnson, Chief Justice Warren, Bobby Kennedy, and other Washington mandarins wished at all costs to avoid, even if this required lying to the public. The Commission thus chose to keep the whole matter of Lee Oswald’s motive nebulous.
Republican Congressman and future President Gerald Ford, who was one of the Warren commission’s commissioners, believed that Oswald’s motive was essentially psychological (some might say Freudian) and that the explanation for his actions could be found in Lee’s personal diary, which he called his Historic Journal. This text, Ford later wrote, was a “vivid self-portrait of a young man, who, when he couldn’t have his own way, resorted to melodramatic and rash actions to call attention to himself.” In other words, Oswald was a classic teenage runaway—except that in his case, instead of hiding in a treehouse or taking a bus to the next town, he fled to Russia. His impulses were juvenile, said Ford, like those of a small boy. His political ideas were unsophisticated, too simplistic to push him to murder. Ford therefore believed that Oswald was primarily motivated by his desperate thirst for attention—the sort he never received from his self-centered mother, his estranged stepfather, his two older brothers, and his disparaging wife who frequently mocked him in front of their friends. “He was like a child,” added Ford, “who, failing to gain the attention he wants, finds that smashing a toy or making a mess is the easiest way to obtain recognition.” Philip Shenon, the author of A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Warren Commission, adds that “Marina’s mocking of his sexual performance had left him so humiliated that he set out to prove his masculinity with a rifle”.
Earl Warren submits his commission's report to President Johnson, September 1964.
(J. Lee Rankin and Gerald Ford are in the back row, first and second from the left)
A third theory, based on Marina Oswald’s testimony and voiced by Warren Commission lead counsel J. Lee Rankin, was that to counter his feelings of insignificance, Lee simply wanted to become famous. Other non-conspiracist explanations have included mental illness, symbolic parricide, brute nihilism, and even demon possession. Similarities can also be drawn between Oswald and other famous political assassins like Arthur Bremer, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, The “Unabomber” Ted Kazinski, and the Tsarnaev brothers (better known as the “Boston Marathon bombers”). “In the end,” concluded a resigned James Swanson, author of End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, “perhaps the reason is much simpler and more fundamental and lies beyond rational human understanding: Lee Harvey Oswald was evil.”
Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme: Manson Family member who attempted to murder President Ford
Convicted serial murderer and eco-terrorist Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a., "The Unabomber")
Oklahoma City bomber and right-wing survivalist Timothy McVeigh
While it may be impossible to reach a conclusion that will please everybody, it’s important to state that Lee Oswald’s guilt needs not be established from a singular motive. His behaviour following the murder says more about Oswald’s state of mind, argues Swanson, than his psychological profile or political statements. After all, Oswald had fled the crime scene, packed a revolver, shot a policeman, attempted to shoot another while resisting arrest, lied to the police about easily disproven personal facts, changed his story during his interrogation, and showed little concern for the dead President and policeman. Guilty people act guilty, wrote Swanson, and Lee Harvey Oswald certainly did that. “He toyed with the interrogators down at the Dallas police station all that weekend,” said Lee’s brother Robert in a1993 PBS interview, “It was a game to him. He knew something they didn’t know, and he would keep it to himself. He was in control.”
Asking why Oswald specifically targeted President Kennedy may be the wrong question to ask. It may be more enlightening to ask why Oswald chose to assassinate the first important American statesman who happened to drive past his workplace at a time in his life when he had nothing to lose. Historian Mel Ayton, co-author of Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Warren Report and Lee Harvey Oswald’s Guilt and Motive 50 Years On (2014), suggests that, “If Lee Oswald had not assassinated President Kennedy he would inevitably have committed a different kind of violent political act.” The violence Oswald displayed towards his wife, and the deep resentment he harbored towards his mother, oldest brother, the American government, the FBI, anti-communists in Dallas and New Orleans, the Soviet Union, and Cuban immigration officials… all of this turned Oswald into a ticking time bomb. He might perhaps have shot somebody else. President Kennedy just happened to be the best available target. “At that moment,” wrote Robert Oswald in 1967:
Lee was not shooting at a human being but at a prominent political figure who was receiving the applause of the crowd. This was his final protest at a world that had ignored him, sometimes mocked him, always failed to acknowledge his superiority. […] The whole pattern of failure through most of his twenty-three years led to [his attempt on General Walker] in April and the final tragedy in November 1963.
Robert Oswald with a copy of his 1967 memoir about Lee
All this being said, former prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi reminds us that to convict a suspect of murder in an American court, we need not establish their motive beyond a reasonable doubt, only that he or she had the intent to use deadly force. “Motive is the reason that prompts a person to act (or fail to act),” he writes, while “intent is the state of mind with which the act is done.” Did Lee Oswald intentionally fire shots at JFK’s car with the intention to harm? If so, he can be found guilty even without a known motive.
There remain many mysteries concerning Oswald’s innermost thoughts at the time of his own premature death, mysteries that may or may not have been revealed in a lengthy court trial. What the abundant literature on his short life tells us, however, is that despite the fact that Kennedy’s murder makes little sense to most people, it seemed to make perfect sense to Lee Oswald. As Oswald biographer Norman Mailer once wrote: “Oswald was a secret agent. There is no doubt about that. The only matter unsettled is whether he was working for any service larger than the power centers in the privacy of his mind.” A description that seems to apply to a perpetually expanding list of lone-wolf assassins and mass murderers.
Lee Harvey Oswald in police custody, Dallas, TX. 22 November 1963.
Michel J. Gagné, 2023.
This essay is adapted from Chapter 10 ("I'm just a Patsy: Lee Harvey Oswald's Life and Motive") of Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination: Debunking the Myths and Conspiracy Theories (Routledge, 2022)
 Testimony of John Edward Pic, WC XI (1964); Testimony of Robert Edward Lee Oswald, WC I (1964). Almost a decade older than his youngest brother, John Pic and Lee Oswald had different fathers. Robert Oswald, the middle brother, was closer in age to John but, having the same father as Lee, shared a closer bond and had more frequent interactions with Marguerite Oswald’s youngest son. Marguerite Oswald remained estranged from her two surviving sons after Lee’s assassination, as well as from Lee’s widow Marina and all of her grandchildren.  Wesley Liebeler: “Possible Personal Motives,” draft chapter of final Commission Report, June 23, 1964, staff files, Warren Commission, NARA, cited in Shenon, 410.  Gerald R. Ford and John R. Styles: Portrait of the Assassin (1965), 53-60, and “Oral History Interview by Vicki Daitch,” July 18, 2003, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 9-10, cited in Shenon, 471.  Cited in Philip Shenon: A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination (2013), 471.  Shenon, 471.  Shenon, 174, 415.  James Swanson: End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (2013), 297.  Swanson, 67, 208-212, 228.  “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? Interview: Robert Oswald”. “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald,” PBS Frontline, November 19, 2013.  Mel Ayton: “Lee Harvey Oswald’s Motives” (n.d.), John McAdams, ed.: The Kennedy Assassination.  Robert Oswald: Lee: A Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald by his Brother (1967), 214, 240.  Bugliosi, 935-936.  Mailer, 352.
Documents related to this episode: *
1. “This Week: A Wilderness of Mirrors” (James Angleton Interview). Thames TV. 1976.
2. “CIA Director, William Colby, interrogated by Senator Frank Church,” Hearings of the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (Church Committee), September 7, 1975.
3. Skeptoid Podcast. www.skeptoid.com.
4. Here Be Dragons (Skeptoid Media. 2008). Written and directed by Brian Dunning.
5. Principles of Curiosity (Skeptoid Media, 2017). Written by Brian Dunning. Directed by Ryan C. Johnson.
6. Science Friction (No Mold Media/Skeptoid Media, 2022). Written by Emery Emery and Brian Dunning. Directed Emery Emery.
7. The UFO Movie They Don’t Want You to See (Skeptoid Media, 2023). Written and directed by Brian Dunning.
8. Vincent Bugliosi: Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
9. Quassim Cassam: Conspiracy Theories. Polity, 2019.
10. Michel Jacques Gagné: Thinking Critically About the Kennedy Assassination: Debunking the Myths and Conspiracy Theories. Routledge, 2022.
11. Richard H. Popkin: The Second Oswald. Sphere Books, 1967.
12. John Armstrong: Harvey & Lee. Quasar Books, 2003.
13. Philip Shenon: A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination. Picador, 2015.
14. James Swanson: End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy. William Morrow, 2013.
15. Mel Ayton with David Von Pein: Beyond Reasonable Doubt: The Warren Report and Lee Harvey Oswald's Guilt and Motive 50 Years On. Strategic Media Books, 2014.
16. “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald,” PBS Frontline, November 19, 2013.
17. Robert Oswald: Lee: A Portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald by his Brother. Coward-McCann, Inc., 1967.
18. Norman Mailer: Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery. Random House, 1995.
19. The Good Shepherd (Universal Pictures, 2006). Directed by Robert DeNiro. Featuring Matt Damon, Robert DeNiro, and Angelina Jolie.
20. Jefferson Morley: Our Man in Mexico: Winston Scott and the Hidden History of the CIA. University Press of Kansas, 2008.
21. Jefferson Morley: The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton. St. Martin's Griffin, 2018.
22. Jefferson Morley: Scorpions' Dance: The President, the Spymaster, and Watergate. St. Martin's Press, 2022.
23. Jefferson Morley, Judge John Tunheim, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, Rex Bradford, and Fernand Amandi: “Smoking Gun In the JFK Files? What Has the Government Been Hiding for Nearly 60 Years?” Mary Ferrell Foundation, 6 December 2022, National Press Club, Washington, D.C.
24. Letter from Judge John R. Tunheim to President Biden (RE: classified JFK-related documents), 5 December 2022.
25. Jefferson Morley: “Late on a Friday Night, Biden Guts the JFK Records Act,” JFK Facts (on Substack). https://jfkfacts.substack.com/
26. Jefferson Morley: Deep States: Monitoring the World’s Intelligence Agencies. https://www.deepstateblog.org/
27. David S. Robarge: “Angleton Unrevealed,” (A review of Jefferson Morley’s The Ghosts, with Morley’s response and author’s rejoinder), in Max Holland, ed.: Washington Decoded, 15 October 2017. (Also published in Studies in Intelligence Vol 61, No. 4 (Extracts, December 2017.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.