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By Jean Davison
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Jean Davison
All rights reserved.
A Most Unusual Defector
On a crisp, clear day in October, 1959, advisers and allies of the Kennedy family gathered for an important meeting at Robert Kennedy's house on Cape Cod. Seated in front of a fireplace, they listened as Senator John Kennedy talked about his decision to make a run for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. This election would mark the end of the Eisenhower era, a period of deceptive tranquillity compared to the raucous decade that lay ahead. The country was at peace, although the Cold War continued, as both sides tested intercontinental ballistic missiles and began putting unmanned satellites into orbit. In Cuba, Fidel Castro's revolution was less than a year old. There was a small group of U.S. military advisers in South Vietnam, but this would not be a campaign issue. Earlier that year the milestone of first American casualties—two GIs killed by a Vietcong bomb—made front-page news. However, the conflict there soon dropped to the back pages. At home, the civil rights movement was quietly gaining momentum. It was the year of "Father Knows Best" and "Leave It to Beaver," the TV quiz show scandals, and the kitchen debate between Premier Nikita Khruschev and Vice-President Nixon.
During the same month the Kennedy forces assembled to map strategy, a young ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald entered the Soviet Union on a six-day visa. Soon after he reached Moscow he informed his female Intourist guide that he wanted to become a Soviet citizen. She helped him draft a letter to the Supreme Soviet and put him in touch with the appropriate officials—who were not encouraging. On October 21 he was informed that since his visa had expired, he would have to leave the country that evening. Oswald went back to his hotel room and cut his left wrist about an hour before his guide was scheduled to arrive. She found him in time, and he was taken to a hospital where his minor wound was stitched up and he was held for observation. The ploy of a suicide attempt apparently turned the Soviet bureaucracy around. According to Oswald's Russian diary, a new group of officials interviewed him and told him that his request to stay in the country was being reconsidered and that he would hear from them, but "not soon."
After waiting in his hotel room for three days, Oswald decided a "showdown" was needed to give the Russians a sign of his faith in them. On October 31 he took a taxi to the American Embassy, slammed his passport down on Consul Richard Snyder's desk, and announced that he wanted to give up his American citizenship. Oswald gave Snyder a signed, handwritten note:
I, Lee Harvey Oswald, do hereby request that my present citizenship in the United States of America be revoked.
I have entered the Soviet Union for the express purpose of applying for citizenship in the Soviet Union, through the means of naturalization. My request for citizenship is now pending before the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.
I take these steps for political reasons. My request for the revoking of my American citizenship is made only after the longest and most serious consideration.
I affirm that my allegiance is to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The note showed that Oswald understood the legal procedure for renouncing his citizenship. Snyder observed at a glance that Oswald was "wound up like six watch springs." He later said, "You could tell he'd been rehearsing this scene for a long time."
When Oswald demanded that he be allowed to sign the necessary papers then and there, the consul stalled. The month before, another American had formally renounced his citizenship and had been accepted by the Soviets. It turned out that the man had been discharged from the armed forces with a 100% mental disability. When the mental problem became obvious, the Soviets had reacted as though they had purchased damaged goods. They contacted the embassy and ordered the Americans to "get him out of here." With that incident in mind, Snyder, who had once worked for the CIA, tried to get more information from Oswald. He asked his reasons, and Oswald launched into a condemnation of American military imperialism.
When Oswald declared, "I am a Marxist," Snyder joked that he was going to be a very lonesome man in the Soviet Union. Evidently, Oswald didn't get it. He replied that he had been warned the consul would try to talk him out of his decision, and he didn't want any lectures. Snyder quizzed him about his knowledge of Marxist theory. He later remembered asking him "if he could tell me a little bit about the theory of labor value." Oswald didn't have the faintest notion of what he was talking about. When he wrote to Washington about this incident two days later, he said that Oswald had "displayed all the airs of a new sophomore party-liner." The overall impression Snyder got was one of "overbearing arrogance and insufferable adolescence." He thought Oswald was intelligent and mentally competent—but unintellectual, intense, and humorless.
Sometime during their conversation, Oswald dropped another hot potato in his lap. While Oswald was in the Marines he had been a radar operator at a U.S. base in Japan from which America's secret U-2 planes made reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union. He had tracked the high-altitude U-2S on his radar screen. When Snyder asked him if he was actually prepared to serve the Soviet state, Oswald told him about his duty as a radar operator and that he had informed Soviet officials he was ready to give them any military information he could recall concerning his specialty. He hinted he might know something of special interest.
Richard Snyder's assistant, John McVickar, was in the same room listening to this. The business about giving away secrets "raised hackles," he later testified. He thought Oswald made the threat in order to shock Snyder into taking prompt action on his renunciation of citizenship. The tone of the meeting was so unpleasant that McVickar and two other people who were in and out of the room during part of it—a receptionist and an American exchange student—still remembered it years later.
Finally Snyder told Oswald that the embassy staff would need some time to prepare the necessary papers and that he would have to come back. Oswald stalked out, leaving his passport behind. Snyder immediately drafted a wire to the Department of State reporting Oswald's visit, including his threat to reveal military information. Copies of the telex were sent to the CIA, FBI, and the Office of Naval Intelligence.
Someone at the embassy alerted the press, and the next day the New York Times ran a small story at the top of page 3:
EX-MARINE REQUESTS SOVIET CITIZENSHIP
MOSCOW, Oct. 31 (AP)—A former marine from Texas told the United States Embassy today that he had applied for Soviet citizenship.
"I have made up my mind, I'm through," said Lee Harvey Oswald, 20 years old of Fort Worth, slapping his passport on the desk.
The embassy suggested that he withhold signing papers renouncing his citizenship until he was sure the Soviet Union would accept him.
Mr. Oswald is the third American in recent months to apply for Soviet citizenship upon arriving in Moscow....
Mr. Oswald's mother, Mrs. Marguerite Oswald, lives in Fort Worth. His sister-in-law, Mrs. R. L. Oswald of Fort Worth, said he got out of the Marines about a month ago and returned to Fort Worth for a visit.
After the news broke, Oswald was besieged by reporters at his hotel room. He refused all interviews, as well as telephone calls from his mother and brothers back home. His brother Robert found out when a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram confronted him at work with a telex from Moscow. He told the reporter, "Lee is awfully young, looking for excitement. I don't believe he knows what he is doing." As soon as Robert got home he telegraphed his brother: "Through any possible means contact me. Mistake."
On November 3 Oswald wrote to the American ambassador, going over Snyder's head as it were, to repeat his request for a revocation of his citizenship and to protest Snyder's refusal to grant his "legal right" to sign the papers. The letter concluded by saying that in the event his application for Soviet citizenship was accepted, "I will request my government to lodge a formal protest regarding this incident."
Five days later, he wrote Robert:
Well, what shall we talk about, the weather perhaps? Certainly you do not wish me to speak of my decision to remain in the Soviet Union and apply for citizenship here, since I'm afraid you would not be able to comprehend my reasons. You really don't know anything about me. Do you know for instance that I have waited to do this for well over a year, do you know that I [phrase in Russian] speak a fair amount of Russian which I have been studying for many months.
I have been told that I will not have to leave the Soviet Union if I do not care to. This then is my decision. I will not leave this country, the Soviet Union, under any conditions, I will never return to the United States which is a country I hate.
Reading these cold words, one wonders what there was in Oswald's past that led him to reject not only his country but his brother as well. Others—especially people who have followed the controversy about the Kennedy assassination—may suspect that Oswald was insincere and ask: Who sent him? What was the real purpose behind his coming to the Soviet Union? Certainly there was more to Oswald's defection than appeared on the surface.
Two weeks after his confrontation with Snyder, Oswald changed his mind about'talking to the American press corps. He gave two interviews in which he elaborated on his reasons for defecting. On November 13 he called Aline Mosby, a UPI correspondent, who came to his room on the second floor of the Metropole Hotel. It was a large room overlooking the Bolshoi Theater, with ornate furniture and blue walls and she thought he looked totally out of place there, "like some Okie from the boondocks." Mosby asked questions and took notes in shorthand, and Oswald talked "non-stop" for two hours. He seemed a little stiff at first, but the longer he talked, the more confident, even smug, he became.
Aline Mosby was a veteran reporter, originally from Montana. (It was she who revealed, in 1952, that Marilyn Monroe had once posed for a nude calendar photo.) She had questioned other American defectors during her assignment in Moscow, but as the interview progressed she could see that Oswald was an anomaly. The others, as she perceived them, fell into one of two categories—either a "high-level official who had played an important role in his country and decided to transfer his knowledge to the Soviet side" or someone "of the romantic variety who flees behind the Iron Curtain in the hopes of escaping personal problems." Oswald claimed that his reasons were ideological. When Mosby heard him using phrases like "capitalist lackeys," she thought it sounded "as if it were all being given by rote, as if he had memorized Pravda." She got very few glimpses of the person behind the political talk.
Mosby asked him how he had become a Marxist, and he told her, "I became interested about the age of 15. From an ideological viewpoint. An old lady handed me a pamphlet about saving the Rosenbergs.... I looked at that paper and I still remember it for some reason, I don't know why." He was living with his mother in New York City at the time. The Rosenberg pamphlet introduced him to socialist literature. He began observing the "class struggle" in New York, "the luxury of Park Avenue and the workers' lives on the [Lower] East Side." Nobody had influenced him, he said and insisted that it was only through his reading and personal observation of American society that he had become a Marxist. "I guess you could say I was influenced by what I read, and by observing that the material was correct in its theses."
Serving in the Marines had strengthened his beliefs, particularly his view of American imperialism: "Like Formosa. The conduct of American technicians there, helping drag up guns for the Chinese. Watching American technicians show the Chinese how to use them—it's one thing to talk about communism and another thing to drag a gun up a mountainside." On guard duty at night, he said, he would dream about getting out of the Marines and going to Russia—it would be, he thought, "like being out of prison."
About his decision to leave America he said, "I would not care to live in the United States where being a worker means you are exploited by the capitalists. If I would remain in the United States, feeling as I do, under the capitalist system, I could never get ahead.... I would have a choice of becoming a worker under the system I hate, or becoming unemployed.... One way or another I'd lose in the United States. In my own mind, even if I'd be exploiting other workers." Evidently, it was fairly important to him to get ahead and not lose.
He presented himself as a struggling idealist: "I'm sincere in my ideal. This is not something intangible. I'm going through pain and difficulty to do this." But even an idealist can be aggressive, and he seemed to believe he had chosen the winning side. At one point he said, "Communism is an aggressive ideal as well as an economic system.... The forces of communism are growing. I believe capitalism will disappear as feudalism disappeared." He also talked about armchair socialists. "You don't just sit around and talk about it," he said. "You go out and do it."
The next day Aline Mosby's UPI story was picked up by a Fort Worth newspaper and run under the headline "Fort Worth Defector Confirms Red Beliefs." After reading her account in another paper available in Moscow, Oswald telephoned Mosby to complain about what he considered to be distortions, saying that his family had not been poverty-stricken, as she had said. True, he told her how he had seen the "impoverishment of the masses" in his own mother, but he felt that Mosby had put her emphasis in the wrong place. He reiterated that his defection wasn't prompted by personal hardship, but was "a matter only of ideology."
On November 16, 1959, Priscilla Johnson stopped by the American Embassy to pick up her mail. She had just returned from the United States, where she was covering the Camp David summit meeting between President Eisenhower and Premier Khruschev. Her first job, ironically enough, had been in Washington as a researcher for the newly elected senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. In the winter of 1954–1955 she had gotten to know him well. She had left Washington and was working in New York as a Russian-language translator when he was hospitalized there for two operations on his spine. She visited him occasionally during his recovery, posing as one of his sisters. In 1958 she went to Moscow as a correspondent for the North American Newspaper Alliance and The Progressive magazine. (In 1977, as Priscilla Johnson McMillan, she would publish a book with Oswald's widow called Marina and Lee.)
At the embassy that day she had run into John McVickar, who told her, "Oh, by the way, there's a young American in your hotel trying to defect. He won't talk to any of us, but maybe he'll talk to you because you're a woman." When she knocked on the door of Oswald's room later that day, he came out into the hall to speak with her instead of inviting her in, but readily agreed to come up to her room on the floor above for an interview that evening.
Oswald arrived dressed in a dark flannel suit. With his "pale, rather pleasant features," he resembled "any of a dozen college boys I had known back home." They talked for about five hours, from nine until two in the morning. Like Aline Mosby, she had also seen other defectors, and she too found Oswald hard to figure. Oswald had just turned 20, and she had never known anyone "of that age ..., or that generation, taking an ideological interest to the point where he would defect." He reminded her of the leftists who had emigrated to Russia for political reasons in the 1930s. The reasons Oswald gave—unemployment in the United States, racial inequalities—sounded "nineteen-thirtyish."
He began by complaining about the runaround he had gotten at the embassy, insisting that the American officials were "acting in an illegal way." He told her he had decided to grant the interview because, now that Soviet officials had assured him he would not be forced to return to the United States, he felt "it was safe to tell his side of the story." He wanted to counter the American Embassy's statements about his defection because, he said, "I would like to give people in the United States something to think about."
Excerpted from Oswald's Game by Jean Davison. Copyright © 1983 Jean Davison. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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