Some believe that Kennedy was shot by elements of the CIA, and that theory can be supported by plausible arguments. Others believe that Kennedy was shot by elements of the Mafia, and that theory, too, can be supported by plausible arguments. I believe, however, that Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, and I believe that this theory can be supported by convincing arguments.
Oswald was a perfect example of the criminal personality. Oswald’s father died two months before he was born. Oswald’s mother, like Oswald himself, had only one parent. Oswald’s two older brothers were put in an orphanage, and Oswald himself lived in an orphanage for a time. When Oswald was twelve, he and his mother went to New York City. For two months, Oswald skipped school, hung around the zoo, rode the subway, etc. Finally he was picked up by a truant officer, and sent to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist said that he was emotionally frozen, trusted no one, and was close to no one. The psychiatrist also said that he was prone to violent, assaultive behavior.
When Oswald was about seventeen, he joined the Marines, and became an accomplished marksman. He was aloof, and acted like he was superior to other people. He dreamed of greatness. He read socialist literature, and studied Russian. He complained to his fellow Marines about the capitalist system. He quarreled with his superiors, and was disciplined repeatedly.
After leaving the Marines, Oswald went to Russia. He kept what he called a “historic diary”. He tried to defect, but the KGB saw no value in the information he had, and had no interest in him. He cut his wrists, and said he’d do it again if he wasn’t allowed to stay in Russia. So they let him stay, and gave him a job and an apartment in Minsk. There he met and married a woman named Marina. They had a daughter.
Tiring of Russia, Oswald returned to the U.S. with his family. Expecting to be mobbed by the media when he stepped off the plane, he was disappointed to find only his brother at the airport. He settled in New Orleans, and held a series of rather menial jobs. He became an admirer of Castro, whom he felt represented true socialism, as opposed to Russian-style socialism. He started a pro-Castro organization, of which he was the only member, and he passed out pro-Castro leaflets. He received socialist literature at a post office box that he rented under an assumed named, Hidell (from Fidel, Castro’s first name). He also made contact with anti-Castro people, probably to learn more about his opponents. He was mad at Kennedy for launching the Bay of Pigs operation against Castro. Oswald acquired a reputation as a communist, and debated two opponents of communism on a local radio station.
He bought a pistol and a rifle. He attempted to assassinate General Walker, a right-wing agitator. He shot into the General’s house, just missing him. He kept a record (for posterity) of the assassination attempt, complete with maps, sketches, etc. The police thought the shooter was driving a car, but in fact Oswald left the crime scene on foot.
While he was living in New Orleans, Oswald seemed intent on establishing his credentials as a pro-Castro revolutionary. Finally, with these credentials in hand, he went to Mexico and visited the Cuban and Russian embassies, hoping to go to Cuba, as he had previously gone to Russia. When the Cuban and Russian embassies refused his requests, Oswald talked with Marina about hijacking a plane to Cuba. She made fun of the idea, and he abandoned it.
Oswald moved to Dallas and got a job at the school book depository. Hearing of Kennedy’s planned visit to Dallas, he seemed to regard it as his big chance, his opportunity to enter history. Some people said they saw Oswald practicing at a rifle range, where he almost started a fight by shooting at other people’s targets. Others said he visited a car dealer, test drove a car at high speed, and said he was going to come into money. Perhaps he wanted to fuel speculation that he was in the pay of a foreign country. He always loved intrigue. After the assassination, he said he was “just a patsy”, a tool of a vast conspiracy.
There has been much speculation about how many shots were fired at Kennedy, and from which direction. Oswald seems to have fired three shots over a period of about eight seconds. The first shot was the shortest but the most difficult, since Kennedy’s car was moving from left to right, just under Oswald’s window; this shot missed its target. The second shot went through Kennedy’s throat, then struck Connally in the front seat; at this point, Kennedy’s car was starting to move away from Oswald, instead of left to right. The third shot was the easiest, since Kennedy was an almost stationary target, moving in a straight line directly away from Oswald. The third shot made a small entrance wound in the back of Kennedy’s head, a large exit wound toward the front, as bullets generally do. The large exit wound in front caused Kennedy’s head to lurch backward. This lurch backward may have given some people the impression that Kennedy had been shot from the front.
Several witnesses said that they heard more than three shots. Three shots may well sound like more than three, especially in an urban environment, where echoes are likely.
Some people find it hard to believe that the second shot could wound both Kennedy and Connally. A NOVA documentary showed how the particular gun and ammunition that Oswald used could wound both men with one shot.
Oswald thought that he could get away on foot, as he had done after firing at General Walker. Oswald walked to his boarding house and got his pistol. Since he was the only employee in his building who wasn’t accounted for, the police began looking for him. He was stopped by a policeman, whom he shot. Then he entered a movie theater, where he was arrested.
While Oswald was under arrest, he was shot by Jack Ruby, and this fed speculation that Oswald was part of a conspiracy. Why did Jack Ruby shoot Oswald? A lot of people wanted to shoot Oswald at that time. Ruby was the sort of person who acted out his impulses. He liked to fight, and was easily angered; people called him Sparky Ruby. He was also somewhat unstable mentally. He felt that he was doing the will of the people, that he would become a hero.
Oswald was emotionally disturbed, just as those who tried to assassinate other American politicians—such as President Ford, President Reagan and George Wallace, Governor of Alabama—were emotionally disturbed. Oswald was narcissistic and thought himself superior to others. Thus, he had the temerity to go to Russia alone when he was only about twenty. Oswald’s narcissism resulted from not having a father. As Jung said, those who don’t have fathers sometimes “become terribly autoerotic, even criminal.”(C. G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, 1957)
The genius, like the criminal, is narcissistic; the genius and the criminal have a certain affinity for each other. Oswald’s narcissism and independent spirit made him similar, in some ways, to a great man. The great man, as Freud said, is narcissistic-obsessional. Criminals like Oswald resemble great men without the obsessional element, without the super-ego. Freud recognized the connection between crime and narcissism; Freud said that the narcissistic temperament “contains some of the essential conditioning factors which make for criminality.”(“Libidinal Types,” 1931)
If Oswald is an example of “no father, no conscience”, John F. Kennedy is an example of “weak father influence, weak conscience”. Kennedy’s father was often away from his family during Kennedy’s early years; Kennedy’s father spent long periods in Hollywood and elsewhere, while his family was living in the East. A father usually identifies most closely with his eldest son, and usually has most influence over his eldest son. Kennedy’s father seemed to have more influence over Kennedy’s elder brother than he had over Kennedy himself. Thus, Kennedy’s elder brother was more conscientious than Kennedy. Kennedy had a weak conscience, a weak super-ego, which manifested itself in a hedonistic lifestyle and in a penchant for prevarication. Kennedy told people that he had studied socialism at the London School of Economics, though he hadn’t done so.
an essay on The Chappaquiddick Affair
Shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, CBS commentator Eric Sevareid noted the principal legacy of the murdered leader might well be an ‘attitude,’ a contagious spirit that all things are possible if only we have the vision and will.
In fact, JFK had important tangible accomplishments – as well as failures – during his brief tenure in office. Nonetheless, Sevareid was remarkably perceptive in emphasizing the emotional impacts of this president on the population. His shocking grotesque murder continues to reverberate in our collective lives, even after a half century.
The administration’s disastrous failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs dogged President Kennedy from the start, and provided Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with strong incentive to deploy offensive missiles on the island. Intense U.S. efforts to kill Fidel Castro, directly pressed by Attorney General Robert Kennedy, spurred Moscow.
This led to the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. In recent years, meetings between surviving officials from both sides in the confrontation have revealed that nuclear war was even closer than realized in that tense time.
The President, a combat veteran of World War II, resisted powerful pressure to attack Cuba and was highly imaginative. He and his advisers were able to get the missiles out of Cuba through a blockade, combined with a secret Cuba-Turkey missile trade. Kennedy’s outlook contrasts markedly with the administration of President George W. Bush regarding Iraq.
In the aftermath of the missile crisis, Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev achieved a treaty banning nuclear tests in the atmosphere, a major breakthrough. The Senate ratified the treaty with a bipartisan vote of 80-19. JFK had other success with Congress, including international trade negotiation authority key to the 1967 Kennedy Round agreement.
Two domestic issues always on the front burner were civil rights and organized crime, the former reflecting growing popular pressures, the latter the focus of driven RFK. JFK was careful on race relations, addressing the subject decisively only when pressed to do so by a massive public march on Washington.
RFK was relentless in pursuit of the mafia, while simultaneously gangsters were recruited for the effort to kill Castro. Dallas ended both efforts. Regarding organized crime, a decade passed before the Nixon administration returned to prosecution, notably with the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) legislation.
People around Robert Kennedy were puzzled by his marked disinterest in possible conspiracy in the assassination. In hindsight, RFK no doubt avoided that dark tangled path because he might come face-to-face with it himself.
Senator John Kennedy’s book ‘Profiles in Courage,’ about U.S. Senators who put principle above political expediency, received the Pulitzer Prize. While critics cracked President Kennedy should show less profile and more courage, he actually demonstrated considerable personal strength.
Professor Herbert Parmet has documented exceptionally serious health problems that plagued JFK from birth. Despite this, he managed to enlist in the U.S. Navy in World War II, then volunteered for hazardous PT boat duty.
Sevareid’s observation applies perhaps most tangibly to the American space program. President Kennedy early on made a dramatic public commitment to carry out a successful manned moon landing, including safe return to earth.
A number of technological innovations resulted from the mammoth space effort, including extreme miniaturization of electronics. Every time you turn on a computer or cell phone, you’re saying hello to JFK.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of the book After the Cold War (NYU Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Lake Effect essayist Art Cyr reflects on the anniversary of JFK's assassination.