Despite his roving lifestyle, Lee Oswald tried to save important scraps of his life. Among the hundreds of possessions collected for the investigation into his life were many pieces of correspondence. Present were letters sent from political groups, including the Communist Party of the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Also found were letters that documented his struggles with various government agencies in the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, concerning the immigration status of his family. He also was in contact with very powerful members of the US Military (including future assassination victim, former Secretary of Navy, John Connally) concerning his the status of his military discharge. He and Marina also saved many pieces of mail from friends and relatives. Mail is a very valuable source of information. Letters that were exchanged between the USSR and the US were intercepted and opened during the Cold War as part of a CIA program known as HTLINGUAL. Very little paperwork related to this program still exists; however, among the extant materials are several files related to Lee Oswald. 1 Assassination researchers, fifty years after the events unfolded, much like those CIA investigators, are trying to gather up as much data about Oswald as possible to try to fill in some blanks of his life; his mail remains an excellent primary source.
Some of the earliest correspondence in his possession concerns his visa status in the USSR. A letter, dated November 13, 1961, addressed to Lee in Minsk, sent by Joseph Norbury of the US Consul in Moscow was recovered at the Paine home in Irving. This was a response to an inquiry from Oswald concerning the status of his USSR passport, which was evidently of the type which was issued to an individual who possessed no official citizenship.2 The concern over the legal status of the Oswald Family consumed their attention for several years, for Marina was still receiving mail from the Soviet Embassy as late as August of 1963, informing here that they were still awaiting some forms concerning her case. The Oswalds retained numerous letters from friends, such as Ernst “Erick” Titovets and Ruth Paine, in care of her father in law, Arthur Young of Paoli, Pennsylvania. (Ruth had been staying with Young, an important aviation innovator associated with Bell Helicopter, during the summer of 1963.)
A curious event in the life of Lee Oswald was reflected in several letters exchanged with members of an Alabama Jesuit school, Spring Hill College. His cousin, Eugene Murret, had been attending Spring Hill and invited Oswald to give a talk as part of a semi-formal series of guest speakers hosted by the school. Within Lee’s belongings were two letters sent from Murret, discussing this trip, made during late July 1963. Several attendees were interviewed by the FBI after the assassination, including student Robert Fitzpatrick, who had made notes and recorded some of Oswald’s responses to a question and answer session after the speech. Incidentally, Fitzpatrick wrote a letter to Marina Oswald, in Russian, in which he thanks her for a gift of a record album of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” as well as requesting further contact with Marina as part of an effort to polish Fitzpatrick’s Russian Language skills. Humorously signed “Boris Ivanovich Fitzpatrick,” the letter was found at the Paine residence. 3
According to his mother’s Warren Commission testimony, Lee Oswald became quite upset when his “honorable” Marines discharge status had been changed to “dishonorable,” ostensibly because of his attempted Soviet defection. She said, “He loved the Marines, and as far as he was concerned, he served his country 3 years. And it (the dishonorable discharge) was a stigma to me and his children, and he wanted to right the wrong.” 4 Both Lee and Marguerite expended considerable effort in contacting military officials concerning this situation. Lee felt so strongly about this situation that he contacted former Secretary of Navy, John Connally. Connally’s response to Oswald was found among his belongings, and, essentially, informed Oswald that his inquiry would handed to new Naval Secretary, Fred Korth. (Incidentally, in 1948, Korth had acted as a divorce attorney on behalf of Edwin Ekdahl concerning his divorce proceedings with Marguerite Oswald.)5 One letter concerning this predicament that was found among Oswald’s possessions must have been especially painful: a March 7, 1962 statement from Brigadier General Rathvon McClure Thompkins in response to his earlier inquiries. The letter gives a brief description of the hearings held, in absentia, concerning Oswald’s discharge. Thompkins stated:
“A review of your file at headquarters reflects that a board of officers was convened by the Commander, Marine Reserve Training, Naval Air Station, Glenview, Illinois, for the purpose of determining your fitness to remain a member of the Marine Corps Reserve. Referral of your case to this board was premised on reliable information which indicated that you had renounced your United States citizenship with the intentions of becoming a permanent resident of the USSR. The Commander, Marine Air Reserve Training, made reasonable effort to inform you of your right to appear before the board in person, representation by counsel of your choice and to present any evidence or statements you believed pertinent to your case.”6
Thompkins relates that, because Oswald was unable to be located, the board was convened on August 8, 1960 without his knowledge, and his discharge was altered. Enclosed with Thompkins’ letter was a copy of the certificate of Oswald’s “undesirable” discharge. Marguerite Oswald discussed the situation concerning her son’s status at her Warren Commission testimony, relaying that she had attempted to act on her son’s behalf while he was in the Soviet Union. Oswald felt that because her son was evidently missing in the Soviet Union, that he should be given a stay of action until he could be located. She wrote to the Marine Corps on June 10, 1960, but her requests to postpone the proceedings were ignored or denied. No mention of her inquiry was noted in Thompkins’ letter to Lee. In the mind of Marguerite Oswald, her son had been treated unjustly.
On January 2, 1962, Marguerite received another piece of mail from her son.7 They had been regularly exchanging correspondence, with Lee giving his mother updates about the immigration status of his family, asking about the weather back home, and exchanging pleasantries. Among Oswald’s possessions was a postcard from his mother in Vernon, Texas, where she had been working as a caregiver. However, by January, according to his letter, Lee was looking for a repatriation loan that would enable the Oswalds to travel to the United States. Lee instructed his mother to visit the local Red Cross office in Vernon to inquire about an organization called the International Rescue Committee. He stated:
“I want you to try to get the money through some organization, rather than by yourself, alone. Do not, of course, take any loan. Only a gift and don’t send your own money. A lot of such organizations exist which help people in our case, so it won’t do any harm to take a try.”8
Marguerite dutifully reported to the Red Cross office on January 5 where she encountered Helen Harwell, the executive secretary of the Wilbarger County Chapter. According to a statement made by Harwell, Mrs. Oswald attempted to secure a $450 resettlement loan for Lee and Marina through the Red Cross. Harwell evidently informed Oswald “that the American Red Cross could not make such a loan.”9 Oswald then inquired about the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Harwell was not familiar with the organization, which prompted Marguerite to telegram the US State Department in search of the IRC’s address. Within four days, Marguerite received a response, and promptly called Mrs. Harwell at home, on a Saturday, imploring her to reopen the Red Cross office to take down a letter to be sent to the IRC. Oswald discussed these events in her Warren Commission testimony, claiming that this event was an indication that her son was possibly an agent.
“She (Harwell) called me and told me she had received word from the International Rescue Committee. She read me this letter. So I said to Mrs. Harwell, “Do you mind if I take the letter, because I am very forgetful?” So she took a scissors, gentlemen, and she cut this part out, which was her title and her address-it was addressed to her. This lady wanted no part of anybody in Russia–understand? So she cut this out…But that is why this space is here she cut it out. Now, the letter reads: “Since we had a call from the State Department on Mr. Oswald’s case, your communication of January 14th did not come as a surprise.” So this young lady has followed up with a letter of her own to the International Rescue Committee. Now, why does the State Department… then see fit to put in a personal call to the International Rescue Committee? I would like to know who from the State Department called the International Rescue Committee.” 10
Evidently, someone from the State Department had contacted the IRC before Mrs. Oswald had gotten word to that organization, which could indicate some sort of contact between Lee Oswald and the State Department. The prompt response from the State Department and the attention afforded her son were very suspicious to Marguerite. In her mind, this sort of treatment was evidence that her son may have been part of some conspiracy, although she admitted that she had no proof.11
Another piece of correspondence that referred to the Red Cross was the “Walker Letter.” This manuscript was discovered at the Paine residence on December 2, more than a week after the initial searches of the home, tucked between the pages of a Russian household book called “Book of Helpful Instructions.” Although she initially denied knowledge of the letter, Marina maintained that she had kept the letter hidden during the early days of the investigation because “she loved her husband, and, particularly, on account of their child.”12 The note was described in an undated DPD inventory as “one unsigned page, taken from writing pad. Written in pencil, giving various instructions concerning a post office box, disposition of the writer’s personal belongings, about the paid bills, possible apprehension, and where he could be located in the event of his arrest.” Initially believed to be a note left by Lee Oswald to his wife to be found after the assassination of the President, discussions with Marina revealed that she recalled the letter was written in advance of the assassination attempt on General Edwin Walker, a crime which at that point had no leads. This evidence, which became Warren Commission Exhibit 1, was used to bolster the case against Oswald. The letter was not signed, dated, or addressed to anyone; nor did it mention Walker or any specific incident. The note commands the reader, in Russian, to “send the information as to what has happened to me to the Embassy and include newspaper clippings (should there be anything about me in the newspapers). I believe that the Embassy will come quickly to your assistance on learning everything.” The note went on: “You can throw my clothes away. Do not keep these. However, I prefer you hold onto my personal papers… We have friends here. The Red Cross also will help you.” (“Red Cross” were the only words written in English within the document.)13
The links between Lee Oswald and the Red Cross were not fully explored by the Warren Commission. The American arm of this organization had been in contact with both Lee and Marguerite Oswald since 1959, previous his defection. (The Red Cross assists soldiers in their attempts to receive hardship discharges, a status for which Lee had attempted to apply.) While in the USSR, the Soviet Red Cross aided Oswald and gave him a generous monetary allotment, enabling him to live quite comfortably. Within the findings of the Warren Report, the Soviet Red Cross was erroneously described as a “government agency which the Russians call the ‘Red Cross,’” an attempt to draw a clear distinction between the Soviet Red Cross and the International Red Cross. (There was a “Political Red Cross” in the Soviet Union, but that organization ceased in 1938.) The Russian Red Cross was formed in 1919 as part of a movement to aid the victims of World War I and was affiliated with the International Red Cross.14 If Oswald’s Red Cross relationship was restricted to the USSR, the reasons as to why Oswald instructed both his mother and wife to contact the Red Cross in the United States were never made clear. No matter the case, the links between the Red Cross and US defectors to the Soviet Union are undeniable. In 1979, as part of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, an investigation, entitled “The Defector Study,” was produced, referring to numerous examples of Red Cross assistance being offered to several of the Cold War-era expatriates. It stated “In the cases of these defectors, representatives from the Soviet Red Cross, Intourist, the Office of Visa and Registration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the KGB fulfill overlapping roles.” The report also claimed that some of the Soviet Red Cross activities were being funded by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or the MVD, echoing a claim made by Oswald in a manuscript written upon his return to the US.15 Much time was spent following up leads regarding many of the recipients and senders of some of Oswald’s mail, but some important clues that could have been derived from these letters seem to have been ignored.
Oswald had anticipated significant newspaper coverage upon his return from the Soviet Union, even drafting up some answers to questions he expected to be asked at the expected press conference. However, very few media outlets covered the event. Some reporters did take interest in his story. A June 22, 1962 letter mailed to Oswald within weeks of his return, sent from reporter Johnny Tackett of the Fort Worth Press, was found among the accused’s belongings at the Beckley St. rooming house. In his letter, Tackett said:
“As I am sure you know by now, I would like to talk with you. It is not my intent to stir the embers of your personal controversy or to subject you to ridicule. I do not pretend, either, to offer exoneration for what you did because, I don’t know why you did it or how you feel… But whatever your reason for defecting, I think people can be made to understand it.”
Tackett even attempted to entice Lee with possible future projects:
“As a freelance writer myself, I happen to know that selling words is like selling anything else: The buyer needs to be teased with a wee taste first. With a “teaser” short for Scripps Howard’s 21 papers, the full meal could well turn out to be a story in a national magazine, even a book and possibly a movie.”
Johnny Tackett’s letter evidently made an impression on Oswald, for he had made a point to keep it, bringing it along with him to his boarding room. In a 2014 article, Tackett explained how this letter came to be. “My first step was to find out where in Fort Worth Oswald was. Luckily, a fellow reporter of mine at the Press, Caroline Hamilton, was doing a feature on a local stenographer. And that stenographer told Caroline she was transcribing notes for Oswald for a book he was doing. Through this connection I learned Oswald was staying with his brother, Robert, only a few blocks from where I lived.” 16Tackett hand delivered the letter to Lee at his brother’s home. “As I stood on the Robert Oswald’s doorstep, talking through the screen to his wife, I could see the back of a man as he sat in the living room watching television. Since Robert was at work on his milk route, I assumed the man was Lee Harvey. He paid no attention to my presence.”17
Oswald did not grant the interview, but Tackett’s connections to the assassination do not end with his ambitious request. A year later, John Tackett was assigned to cover President Kennedy’s Texas visit for Scripps Howard. He recalled, “I and other credentialized reporters met the President when he landed in San Antonio, on to Houston, Fort Worth and then to Dallas, where the celebrated tour ended in shock and sadness. “ Tackett was in the Dallas motorcade, riding in one of the press buses, several vehicles behind the Presidential limousine. “As I sat chatting with big time reporters, I asked what one of them thought about Kennedy’s chances of remaining in office. He said, “I think we have John Kennedy for another four years.” No sooner had he completed that sentence than did I hear three shots ring out. The trio of blasts shattered the joy of the moment.” Tackett was also hired by Scripps Howard to cover Jack Ruby’s trial in Dallas. He later became a press agent for Marguerite Oswald. Reflecting upon the more profound moments engraved within his memories, Tackett recalled “Over the years, people have said I must remember this whole sequence of events as if it happened yesterday. Actually, it is like it happened forever — over and over and over… I never will I be able to watch a President of our great United States making a public appearance without knowing how fragile our government is.”
1 HSCA, Segregated CIA Collection (Microfilm – Reel 44: HTLINGUAL, Oswald)
2 Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 1076
3 Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 76
4 Warren Commission, Testimony of Marguerite Oswald
6 Thompkins, R. McC. “Correspondence regarding Discharge.” Letter to Lee H. Oswald. 7 Mar. 1962. MS. N.p.
7 Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 189
9 Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 2731
10 Warren Commission, Testimony of Marguerite Oswald
12 Secret Service memorandum, Leon Gopadze (author), 3 Dec. 1963.
13 Warren Commission, Commission Exhibit 1
14 “History of the IFRC.” History – IFRC. International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, n.d. Web. 12 May 2015.
15 “Chapter Six: Investigation of Possible Conspiracy.” Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy.1964. 272.
16 Tackett, Johnny. Letter to Lee Oswald. 22 June 1962.
17 Tackett, John. “Kennedy Special: A John Tackett Experience.” The Senior Voice Newspaper. The Senior Voice, 6 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 May 2015.