Sep. 12, 2013 at 8:15 AM ET
In "The Accidental Victim," James Reston Jr. presents an astonishing argument that the Warren Commission's explanation of the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy was way off base and that Lee Harvey Oswald may have had a different target in mind when he pulled the trigger. Here's an excerpt.
Two weeks later the blow struck. Oswald received a letter from his mother, Marguerite, informing him that the Marine Corps had, summarily and without a proper hearing, changed his discharge from honorable to dishonorable. (The downgrading had actually stopped at “undesirable,” one notch short of “dishonorable,” but that was bad enough. Anything less than an honorable military discharge is a curse in America, especially for the working man…)
Lee Harvey Oswald was devastated at the news. That he would care at all is noteworthy. Why should a true convert to Communism, one so desperate for political action, one so ready to take up arms against America – in short, a person who was described by the Warren Commission as a Marxist – have even a moment of anxiety over what the fascist United States and its most dangerous military force might do in his buried military records? The true believer would be amused. But Oswald did care. At bottom, his military service gave meaning to his life – beyond his new family, it was the only thing that did.
Immediately, he sat down to write letters of complaint about the injustice. He had a valid case: his discharge had been changed for actions he took not in the Marine Corps but as a private citizen afterwards. It had been changed without a fair hearing, upon the basis of rumors that were largely unsubstantiated and upon statements like his threat to turn over military secrets that were made at a moment of high stress, and which, in fact, he never carried out. Perhaps more important than the emotional impact were the practical consequences. As he prepared to go home, Oswald knew that his road to America would be far rougher now.
On January 30, 1961, his campaign began with a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, since the Navy Department held sway over the U.S. Marine Corps. That secretary was John Connally.
From the beginning of his public life in politics, during his brief, yearlong stint as Secretary of the Navy at the beginning of the Kennedy Administration, through his victorious 1962 campaign and his ascension to the governorship in January 1963 and with his first bold speeches as the state’s chief executive, John Connally epitomized the big man of Texas. In his elegant looks he stood with the wealthy over the poor, the business executive over the working man, white over black and Hispanic, the glamorous over the commonplace. In short, he symbolized Texas royalty over Texas peasantry. He was a taunting, polarizing figure, engendering feelings of intense loyalty and utter contempt, even hate. His first term as governor began in a decisive year of change in America, when political passions were overheated (though they had not yet reached the boiling point) and where hate mail and threats on lives were common. America was in the throes of revolution.
But that was all in the future. In January 1961, Connally had only just assumed his sub-cabinet post and was little known in Washington except as a protégé of the new Vice President, Lyndon Johnson. In a long-forgotten speech, Connally had nominated Lyndon Johnson for president at the Democratic Convention of 1956.
Lee Harvey Oswald, in his schoolboy scrawl, full of his usual misspellings and awkward constructions, pleaded his case grandly. He began with a reference to the common bond he shared with Secretary Connally, calling the secretary’s attention to a case “about which you may have personal knowledge since you are a resident of Fort Worth as am I.”
The Fort Worth papers, he wrote Connally, had blown his case into “another turncoat sensation” when, in fact, he had come to Russia to reside “for a short time, much in the same way E. Hemingway resided in Paris.”
“I have and always had the full sanction of the U.S. Embassy, Moscow, USSR,” he lied, and now that he was returning to the United States, “I shall employ all means to right this gross mistake or injustice to a bonified U.S. citizen and ex-serviceman.” He asked Connally personally to “repair the damage done to me and my family”...
Oswald did not get an answer to his plaintive letter to Connally for thirteen months. In December 1961, Connally had resigned as Secretary of the Navy and had returned to Texas to run for governor. As Oswald languished in Minsk, frustrated at the hassles he was having with the American Embassy in Moscow about his return to the States, what the ex-serviceman got from the ex-Navy Secretary on February 23, 1962 was a classic bureaucratic brush-off: a perfunctory promise to pass the problem on to his successor. Connally’s letter to Oswald arrived in Minsk in a provocative, inflammatory package—a campaign envelope with John Connally for Governor emblazoned on the front, Connally’s smiling face centered within a Texas star.
Thus, at the beginning of this painful journey home, Oswald had been spurned by a fellow Texan, and he resented it deeply. The change in his discharge was only one, but perhaps the worst indignity that Oswald felt he had suffered. Now he had a face to go with his torment.
A cascade of slights by the naval and Marine Corps functionaries followed Connally’s brush-off. A letter from the Department of Navy told Oswald that the department did not contemplate a change in the downgraded discharge. On March 22, 1962, Oswald appealed for further review. The department replied that it had no authority on the matter and sent yet another form, referring Oswald to the Navy Discharge Review Board. Oswald filled out the form in Minsk, but he did not mail it until he landed in America.
This last appeal carried the tone of moral outrage: “You have no legal or even moral right to reverse my honorable discharge.” It, too, led nowhere. It was a classic case of a powerless nonentity mired in a hopeless battle with an aloof, faceless bureaucracy. Oswald would not get an official answer to his appeal for thirteen months, only four months before the assassination.
Excerpted from THE ACCIDENTAL VICTIM by James Reston Jr.. Copyright © 2013 by James Reston Jr. Excerpted by permission of Zola Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.