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The Great Riddle

Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald

by Edward Jay Epstein
Reader’s Digest Press/McGraw-Hill, 382 pp., $12.95

Who killed Kennedy?” is a riddle that won’t go away. Most Americans still doubt the official explanation, that Lee Harvey Oswald did it all unaided. Nor have criticisms come only from eccentrics. John Connally, for example, contradicted the Warren Commission in insisting that he and the president were hit by different bullets.

Indeed, details of that sort make up the assassination writ. The 888-page Report is only the beginning. After that come the fifteen volumes of hearings (7,907 pages) and eleven volumes of exhibits (another 9,832 pages). A further store of materials can now be viewed at the National Archives. There is a mass of interpretative literature, with authors ranging from Dick Gregory and Gerald Ford to the Coroner of Allegheny County. To follow the debate requires familiarity with an endless litany of names (Billy Lovelady, Candy Barr, Carlos Bringuier); places (Oak Cliff, Stemmons Freeway, the Texas Theater); and theories (“Single Bullet,” “Grassy Knoll,” “Two Oswalds”). Speculations have included Cuban connections, a Mafia involvement, and—now—a mission beginning in Moscow.

What we need is someone we can trust, to guide us through this overgrown trail. Edward Jay Epstein would seem ideally suited for this job. He is one of our best national reporters, whose work has always been based on solid factual grounds. His book Inquest, still the best single study of the assassination, focused on the Warren Commission and the constraints under which it operated. His Agency of Fear, on Nixon’s attempt to create a personal police force, again showed Epstein’s mastery at discovering important material and inducing people to talk. That he was devoting his next book to Oswald was welcome news. Moreover, with an abundant advance from his publisher he and a staff of helpers conducted over 400 interviews, many with people never approached by the Warren Commission. For example, they tracked down sixty-two men who had served with Oswald in the Marines almost twenty years ago.

Legend is a very curious book. This said, let me add that it is utterly absorbing. It is a saga of fits and starts, essentially the life of a loner. Yet under Epstein’s rendering this morose young man becomes increasingly interesting. Epstein tells of an adolescent year in the Bronx, where Oswald was picked up for truancy at the Zoo. (“Tense, withdrawn, and evasive,” wrote Dr. Renatus Hartogs, then a staff psychiatrist.) Of his discovery of sex in Minsk. And of a talk to Jesuit seminarians in Mobile, who thought he was “at least” a college graduate. At the end we feel we know Oswald better, yet remain as perplexed as ever. Perhaps this was Epstein’s intention.

It is a fascinating book. There were times when I felt like hurling it across the room, yet knew I would immediately rush to retrieve it. Perhaps that, too, was Epstein’s plan. One way to describe the sensation is to say that reading Legend is like laboring over a jigsaw puzzle and then discovering many key pieces are missing. And to make matters worse, included in the box are pieces from several other puzzles.

Thus, while the core of the book is about Oswald, Epstein devotes the opening and closing chapters to tensions inside American intelligence agencies. As a result Legend closes not with a last word on Oswald, but with the CIA in turmoil.

Epstein has one thesis, which he sustains throughout the book. It is that Oswald entered the Soviet Union intending to give his hosts military information; that he received training as a spy while resident in Minsk; and that on his return to the United States he carried out espionage assignments for the Russians. Yet at no point does Epstein seek to show a link between these activities and Oswald’s role in the assassination.

Indeed, Legend is conspicuously agnostic about what Oswald may or may not have been doing during some crucial midday seconds on November 22, 1963. Having committed himself on Oswald’s “secret life” as a spy, Epstein seems to be asking his readers to solve the rest of the puzzle for themselves. Nor will they be aided by a six-page appendix entitled “The Status of the Evidence.” Even Epstein’s skills cannot compress all the controversies into that space.

Finally, after Legend was already on its way to the bookstores, Epstein gave an interview to New York magazine, where he spoke precisely about some matters which had been left ambiguous in the book.1 A paperback edition would be well advised to include that interview as an appendix, even referring to it at appropriate places in the text.

A legend is an operational plan for a cover,” according to one CIA official. “A legend is a false biography,” according to a KGB counterpart. The “legend” created for Lee Harvey Oswald is in fact the story most of us have been believing. This is that he was a withdrawn and mixed-up young man, given to half-baked political opinions, and certainly not someone to be trusted with an earth-shattering assignment. Indeed, this was the version the Warren Commission promulgated. To be sure, that two-and-a-half year Soviet sojourn could raise embarrassing suspicions about the leading assassination suspect. But not if we accepted the “legend” that Oswald spent his days as a “checker” at a television factory in Minsk and his nights going out with girls. Moreover, according to the “legend,” his later forays into Cuban politics simply show how mercurial he was.

Epstein proposes that all this was a cleverly fabricated cover. In fact, he says, Oswald had committed himself to the Soviet Union even while a teen-age Marine. Stationed at a radar base in Japan, he had access to “classified information pertaining to almost all aspects of the Air Defense Identification Zone in the Pacific.” So of course did other leathernecks. But while they were carousing with local bargirls, Oswald had mysterious meetings with an “attractive Eurasian woman.” (“Much too good-looking for Bugs,” recalled an envious barracksmate.) Back in California for his final months in the service, there were more unexplained liaisons. (“A heated discussion with a man in a top-coat.”) Six weeks after leaving the Marines, and three days before his twentieth birthday, he crossed into the Soviet Union via the Finland Station.

As is well known, he went immediately to the American Embassy in Moscow, where he made a big fuss about wishing to renounce his citizenship. After that he was sent to Minsk as a semi-skilled factory laborer. Epstein finds the story that he worked as a “checker” flimsy. For one thing, Oswald was given a sumptuous riverside apartment, the kind ordinarily reserved for officials. In addition, he got a handsome supplement to his salary from the Soviet “Red Cross.” More pointedly, Legend provides a map of central Minsk, showing two training schools for spies just a short stroll from Oswald’s doorstep. In his New York interview, Epstein alludes to “the true nature of his activities in Russia.” By this he means Oswald was being trained in espionage.

The book also suggests that Oswald was thoroughly questioned by the Russians about the military secrets he knew. And it was at that time that they finally hit a U-2. As it happened, some of those U-2 overflights originated at the Japanese base where Oswald had been stationed. From his radar experience he could have deduced the U-2’s precise altitude, the figure the Soviets needed to bring Gary Powers down. In an age of elaborate equipment, one well-situated serviceman can recall a fugitive fact that unlocks an entire system.

After about a year and a half of defection, Oswald began putting it about that he was disillusioned. So he wrote our Moscow embassy saying he wanted to come home. That was of course another prearranged chapter in the “legend” of a mixed-up kid. Just to add to the confusion, the next month he told a member of a visiting University of Michigan band that he “despised the United States and hoped to spend the rest of his life in Minsk.” About a year later, he wrote his brother saying, “I really don’t want to leave until the beginning of fall, since spring and summer here are so nice.”

Yet in less than two months, he and Marina and their daughter were en route to the United States. Even the CIA swallowed the “legend.” “The CIA did not debrief him,” William Colby told Dan Rather and Les Midgeley in a 1976 CBS interview. “We had no contact with Oswald before he went to the Soviet Union, and no contact after he returned.” Not even to ask him about barge traffic on the Svislach River that flowed in front of his window.

In October of 1962, four months after his return, Oswald decided it was time to start spying. He allowed the Texas Employment Commission to send him to Jaggars-Chiles-Stovall, a Dallas typesetting firm, where he was hired as a “photo-print trainee.” This company was a CIA-subcontractor, printing Cuban, Chinese, and Soviet place names for affixing to overflight maps. Even though the maps themselves never left Langley, simply having the names would indicate regions in which American intelligence had an interest. In his New York interview, Epstein says that Oswald’s espionage probably consisted of copying lists of names and passing them on to the Russians. And in Legend he recalls that Oswald wrote the word “micro-dot” in his address book next to the name of the company. Just what one would expect from a spy with a goofy-kid cover. After all, goofy kids like to play that they are spies.

But Epstein has another account to unfold, which he reserves for a prologue and epilogue. Much of this material comes from a declassified FBI report, now available in the National Archives. But the ultimate interpretation stems from interviews with former CIA officials, in particular James Jesus Angleton.

Two months after the assassination, one Yuri Ivanovich Nosenko, an officer of the KGB, handed himself over to the CIA, claiming to be a defector. As an earnest of his sincerity, he turned in the name of an American sergeant who had been acting as a Soviet informant. Of course, Nosenko might still be Moscow’s man, sent to give us “disinformation.” So he was kept in a small, secluded room for three years while questioners pummeled him for loopholes and inconsistencies. Apparently he never cracked. Nosenko is now living in North Carolina, on the CIA’s payroll as a “consultant.”2

Nosenko did indeed come with a “message from Moscow,” as Epstein titles this prologue. One of his KGB duties, he said, was supervising their file on Oswald. So he was in a position to clarify any doubts about that ex-Marine’s activities in Russia. Shortly after the young man’s arrival, “it was decided that Oswald was of no interest whatsoever.” He was “unstable…and of little importance.” So he was sent to Minsk to work in a television factory. Such knowledge as he had about radar or U-2 altitudes was deemed not worth eliciting: “Oswald was never asked for any information about the American military.” And when the lad showed signs of homesickness, he was allowed to leave with his wife and daughter.

  1. 1

    The interview appeared in the issues of February 27 and March 6, 1978, and was conducted by Susana Duncan. All quotations here will be from the second part of the interview.

  2. 2

    The Nosenko episode was mentioned by Daniel Schorr in his article “The Assassins,” which appeared in these pages: NYR, October 13, 1977, pp. 14-22. Schorr focuses on various CIA plots to kill Castro and Cuba’s reactions to them. This raises the possibility of Oswald as a self-anointed avenger, a point I take up later.

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