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Inside Lee Harvey Oswald's Lost Soviet Days


Although Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of President Kennedy in 1963 is one of the most infamous events in American history, Oswald’s brief defection to the Soviet Union remains a relatively understudied chapter in the assassin’s life. This passage from The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union covers the months leading up to Oswald’s departure from the Marine Corps and his move to the Soviet Union. Though Oswald’s move to the USSR can be seen as an extension of his migratory childhood, it was, ultimately, an unsuccessful attempt to achieve some sense of place overseas.

In late 1958, Lee Harvey Oswald’s tour in Japan ended, and he was shipped back to the United States. By chance, he nearly crossed paths with his half brother, whom he hadn’t seen in years. John Pic had left the coast guard in 1956 and immediately joined the air force, and on November 10, 1958, he arrived in Japan. Eight days before, Lee had left Yokosuka for San Francisco on the USNS Barbet. Pic said he had received a letter telling him that Lee was in Japan, but he couldn’t remember whether the letter had come from his half brother Robert or his mother, with whom he was no longer speaking. Whoever it was thought he might want to see Lee.

Oswald was sent to the Marine Corps Air Station at El Toro, in California, and from the moment he arrived, in December, he seemed determined to leave the Marines as soon as possible and to defect to the Soviet Union. It’s unclear when his interest in Marxism hardened into a desire to go to the Soviet Union, and when this desire sharpened into a plan. He never says anything about this evolution in his diary, which doesn’t begin until after he arrived in Moscow, or in his other writings, which include almost no autobiographical detail. What characterizes this period—from his arrival at El Toro to his discharge from the Marines nearly ten months later—are all the lies he told. He had lied before, and he would lie promiscuously in the Soviet Union—about his family, work, nationality, sexual prowess, and reason for venturing to Russia. But those later lies and half truths were more scattered, and they were playful or arbitrary. They were not part of a plan. During the six months or so prior to his departure for the Soviet Union, he hewed to a plan that had been building in his head since late 1958, shortly before he was sent to El Toro. He lied to his superiors in the Marines, to the admissions officers at Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland, and to the passport clerk at the Santa Ana Superior Court. And he lied to his mother. These were not complicated lies. He didn’t have to remember what he had told whom. Mostly, he lied by omission.

Oswald enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1956.

As Oswald’s conversations with fellow marines make clear, he was not good at deception. In fact, as he inched closer to leaving the Marine Corps, he found it harder not to talk about, or hint strongly at, his impending departure, which would seem to undermine the whole point of lying. “He is said to have had his name written in Russian on one of his jackets,” the Warren Commission Report observes, “to have played records of Russian songs ‘so loud that one could hear them outside the barracks’; frequently to have made remarks in Russian or used expressions like ‘da’ or ‘nyet,’ or addressed others (and been addressed) as ‘Comrade’; to have come over and said jokingly, ‘You called?’ when one of the marines played a particular record of Russian music.” Nelson Delgado, a fellow marine, told the Warren Commission that he had shared with Oswald an admiration for Fidel Castro. According to the Commission’s report, “Oswald told Delgado that he was in touch with Cuban diplomatic officials in this country; which Delgado at first, took to be ‘one of his … lies’ but later believed.”

Oswald’s last six or seven months at El Toro, before his departure for the Soviet Union, are particularly revealing. On March 19, 1959, he applied to Albert Schweitzer College, in Churwalden, Switzerland, hoping to begin study in the spring term of 1960. On his application, Oswald stated that he wished to study philosophy and “to live in a healthy climate and Good moral atmosphere.” He also indicated that he had a longstanding interest in psychology, football, tennis, stamp collecting, and “ideology,” and, oddly, that he had taken part in a “student body movement” in school meant to combat juvenile delinquency. His application was accepted, and on June 19, he sent a registration fee of $25 to the college. About two months later, on August 17, he asked the Marines for a “dependency discharge” on the grounds that his mother, who had recently turned 52, needed help. (He was required to serve until December 7 of that year to make up for the time he had spent in military prison.) On August 28, the Dependency Discharge Board recommended that Oswald’s request be approved, and soon after, it was. 

On September 4, he applied for a passport at the Superior Court in Santa Ana, California. On his passport application, he stated that he planned to leave the United States on September 21 to attend the Albert Schweitzer College and the University of Turku in Finland; he also said that he wanted to visit Cuba, the Dominican Republic, England, France, Germany, and Russia. Six days later, he received his passport. The next day, September 11, he was released from active duty and transferred to the Marine Corps Reserve. On September 14, he arrived home, in Fort Worth, and three days after that, he left for New Orleans. In New Orleans, Oswald went to Travel Consultants, Inc., and filled out a Passenger Immigration Questionnaire. He said that he was a “shipping export agent” and that he would be overseas, on vacation, for two months. Then he paid $220.75 for room and board on the freighter SS Marion Lykes, which would depart three days later for Le Havre, France.

The Marine Corps had failed to deliver Oswald from his past, and now he was doing what he had always done—moving. He had watched his mother do this from his earliest childhood, and then he had done the same thing by enlisting; when the Marines turned out not to be what he had expected, he copied his mother yet again and moved. The roots of this move could be traced back at least two or three years, to his time at Beauregard and Warren Easton. But there was a critical difference between his decision to enlist in the Marines and his decision to defect to the Soviet Union: the military had been handed down to him by his brothers. He had taken an interest in the Marines because he wanted to get away from his mother, and the Marines had offered him the easiest way out. But he had found Russia all by himself. No one had given him that, and there was a feverishness, a territoriality, about this move that was absent from his first encounter with the Marines. The Soviet Union would be his entirely, and nobody would ever be able to take it away from him.

Adapted The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union by Peter Savodnik.