To the Editor:
I wouldn’t presume to argue with Ross Douthat’s negative appraisal of the Kennedy presidency (“The Enduring Cult of Kennedy
,” column, Nov. 27), although labeling those who view that presidency in a favorable light as cultists seems rather shrill, and I won’t bother arguing with his characterization of John F. Kennedy as a cold warrior who would have only deepened our involvement in Vietnam, because in light of Kennedy’s murder, such a conclusion is blatant speculation.
What I do argue with is his assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president because of Oswald’s Marxist beliefs, and the concomitant conclusion that the highly volatile political atmosphere of Dallas (and the entire Deep South) thus had nothing to do with his actions. This is as ridiculous as the old canard that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.
Like many conservative writers who look at that day in Dallas, Mr. Douthat has concentrated on Oswald’s political actions and statements, and ignored the man’s severely damaged personality. Conspiracies — like the one that resulted in the death of Abraham Lincoln, or the one that almost resulted in the death of Hitler — are political.
Lone gunmen like Oswald act for other reasons, no matter what they may say in an effort to look rational. If Oswald really was politically motivated, why did he not take responsibility for the murder at some point during the 40 hours between his arrest and his own death at the hands of Jack Ruby? Surely if his prime motivation had been political, he would have thrown up his hands and said, “Yes, it was me, I rid the world of the capitalist warmonger.” (Timothy McVeigh is a good case in point for this sort of behavior.)
Oswald’s Communist beliefs were never more than skin-deep. His real interest was in being viewed as a rebel, an extraordinary fellow who could see the real truth when those all about him were blindfolded. The most important figure in his life was his domineering mother, Marguerite, in whose bed he slept until he was 11 and who alternately praised and belittled him.
When he read “Das Kapital” while on post with the Marines in the Pacific or tried to “organize” his fellow workers in various low-paying jobs, he was acting out the rebellion of which he was incapable with his mother. When he was handing out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets in New Orleans, he was also vacationing from his wife.
Oswald’s guiding star wasn’t Marxism or Communism but the true American cult: renown. He defected to the Soviet Union because he believed that it would make him famous, even exalted. When the Soviet bureaucracy allowed him to stay, but put him to work in a Minsk factory — just another prole sticking vacuum tubes in radios — he became disenchanted with Communism and worked to come back to America. Before landing in Dallas, he instructed his wife, Marina, on how they should respond to the hordes of reporters who would want to talk to them. When there were no reporters, he was furious.
Like many disturbed personalities who fix on political causes, Oswald was a malleable creature who always saw nirvana just beyond the next bend in the road. His infatuation with Russia morphed into an infatuation with Cuba. His Fair Play for Cuba “organization” existed solely in a few post office boxes and his own grandiose imagination. Still, it got him some of what he wanted: media notice, a brief stint in jail and attention, attention, attention.
In Dallas, he drew the regard (through his Russian wife, which must have galled him) of a minor Central Intelligence Agency asset and major dilettante named George de Mohrenschildt, who found the skinny Southerner amusing and decided to wind him up. It was de Mohrenschildt — a self-interested political chameleon, the very spirit of Dallas — who pointed Oswald at the far-right segregationist Edwin Walker, and it was de Mohrenschildt who changed Oswald’s mind about Kennedy, whom Oswald had at first fervently admired as a standard-bearer for the nascent civil rights movement.
De Mohrenschildt knew that Cuba was Oswald’s new city on the hill, and so he, de Mohrenschildt, harped on Kennedy’s efforts to oust Fidel Castro, by fair means or foul. In the end, I would argue, Oswald killed J.F.K. when all his other efforts at making headlines had failed.
To say that the overheated atmosphere of Dallas played no part in Oswald’s final — and probably spur-of-the-moment — decision to shoot from that sixth-floor window is a beautiful example of the conservative determination to avoid the obvious at all costs. Mr. Douthat might as well assert that Squeaky Fromme or Sara Jane Moore tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford for political reasons. That was not the case with them, and it wasn’t the case with Oswald. Lone shooters do what they do because they are damaged people, and damaged people are uniquely susceptible to the environment in which they exist.
If Oswald had been truly political, we might discount the thundercloud that coalesced over John F. Kennedy on that day in Dallas. Because Oswald was not truly political, we cannot. Damaged, dangerous people like Lee Harvey Oswald are loaded guns; the combination of hatred and political extremism is the trigger.
Bangor, Me., Nov. 28, 2011