The Accidental Victim
by James Reston, Jr.
It seemed at first a notion both absurd and demeaning to the grandeur of its victim and its enduring tragic consequences -- the idea that President John F. Kennedy might have been only an unfortunate bystander at his own assassination. But that was what author/historian James Reston, Jr., proposed to his audience at last week’s audience from Friends of SMU Libraries. And he made a compelling case.
It’s not another conspiracy theory. Reston expressed dismay over a poll by the History Channel that found eighty-five percent of Americans favoring conspiracy in some form as a factor in President Kennedy’s death. There’s one part of the Warren Commission’s findings Reston’s willing to accept -- that apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. After all, he asked, “what government or mobster would entrust so horrendous an act as presidential assassination to a volatile, unreliable character like Oswald?”
Instead, Reston believes that the true target of Oswald’s bullets was not the president, but the man riding with him as their convertible drove slowly through Dallas that sunny day in 1963 -- Texas Governor John Connally.
Who wouldn’t wonder, why Connally?
To a great extent, Reston said, because as former secretary of the Navy, Connally had given the “classic brush-off” to Oswald’s pathetic, almost illiterate letter asking for help overturning his downgraded discharge from the Marine Corps. The discharge that, in the view of the ninth-grade dropout that Oswald was, kept him from the employment he needed to support his wife and children.
Worse still, Connally’s perfunctory reply, more than a year after Oswald’s letter, arrived in “a campaign envelope, with John Connally for Governor emblazoned on the front, and Connally’s smiling face centered within a Texas star. . . Connally’s face became the face
of the U.S. government.”
The story isn’t complete without mention of the political infighting that put Connally in the same car with Kennedy, the overworked security team that took little notice of Oswald, the Kennedy vanity that sent a slow-moving convertible past the ex-Marine’s place of employment in the Texas School Book Depository, the rigid back brace that left Kennedy an upright, unmoving target as everyone else scrambled for cover following Oswald’s initial bullet.
At the height of the Cold War, how could the Warren Commission bear to label this anything but an act of political terrorism. A deed so horrible, so vast in its potential consequences surely deserves an antagonist grander than a lone emotional misfit -- although lone emotional misfit is the profile of the overwhelming majority of domestic assassins, terrorists and wannabes, from John Wilkes Booth through Squeaky Fromme to Nidal Hasan.
“My entry into the Lee Harvey Oswald story came through my own military service,” Reston said. It was through serving in the military, Reston said, that he understood both Oswald’s anguish over the downgrading of his discharge from the Marine Corps and the factors that really turn a person against his homeland.
One thing he learned to look for in recruiting foreign agents was “a strong emotional reason for doing something dangerous -- an obsession with a sense of belief of being wronged.”
“If my discharge changed from honorable to dishonorable, in a secret process. . . I would be distraught,” Reston. And so, he maintained, was Oswald.
Despite Oswald’s continued lip service to communism, the sense of wrong didn’t send him back to the Soviet Union, didn’t make his anger political rather than personal.
In an entry in Oswald’s diary, given in his original spelling, he wrote, “When I frist went to Russia in the winter of 1959 my funds were very limited. So after a certain time, after the Russians had assured thereselfs that I was really a naïve american who believed in communism, they arranged for me to recive a certain amount of money every month. . . It really was payment for my denudation of the U.S. I have never mentioned the fact of these monthly payments to anyone. I do so in order to stat that I shall never sell myself intentionally or unintentionally to anyone again.”
For more about Reston and his works, including The Accidental Victim, see