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Defection in Moscow
"There's a man here and he wants to renounce his citizenship," Jean Hallett announced to American Consul Richard Snyder. Jean, the receptionist for the American Embassy in Moscow on this particular Saturday morning in October 1959, then produced the man's passport and laid it down on Snyder's brown wooden desk. Snyder looked up; it was a little after eleven A.M., and on Saturdays the embassy always closed at noon. "Well, send him on in, then," Snyder replied.
Meanwhile, out in the lobby, an interesting group of people bumped into each other. The lobby at the entrance to the building was the only way to the elevator that ascended to the other sections of the embassy and the living quarters for the Americans working there. Twelve-year-old Carolyn Hallett had come out of the elevator and down the three steps into the lobby after her mother had disappeared into Snyder's office to announce Oswald's arrival. Carolyn found her mother's chair empty, but not so the couch — two young men were sitting on it. The one that fascinated twelve-year-old Carolyn was Lee Harvey Oswald. His countenance seemed to be anything but normal, and a curious little girl was probably the last thing he wanted to see before carrying out his plan to defect. At this particular moment he was working himself up for what he later referred to as a "showdown" with the American consul.
Sitting on the couch next to Oswald was Ned Keenan, an American graduate student based in Leningrad who was there that day seeking the embassy's assistance on visa matters. "I saw him sitting on the sofa when I arrived," Keenan recalls, "and I sat down next to him." Like Carolyn, Keenan also thought Oswald looked odd. "He was a memorable character," Keenan says. "He was strangely dressed — I remember him being lightly dressed above [i.e. on top]." Jean Hallett came back out from Snyder's office and found there were now two visitors on the couch as well as her daughter staring at Oswald, who was undoubtedly happy to be extricated from this scene.
As Lee Harvey Oswald confidently strode across the old wooden office floor behind Jean, he passed the other American consul, John McVickar, on his way to Snyder's desk. Oswald was dressed immaculately, in a dark suit with a white shirt and tie — "very businessman-looking," Snyder later recalled. But Snyder soon noticed odd things, like the fact that the man had no coat or hat on this brisk October thirty-first morning in Moscow. And then there were those thin, dressy white gloves that he wore into the room and removed rather deliberately as he came to a halt in front of Snyder's desk. Snyder, who was typing a report, was struck by the "humorless and robotic" quality of Oswald's demeanor. "Please sit down," Snyder said, still typing.
Oswald, perhaps annoyed at being put off, complied with this invitation to sit. He later wrote a one-page essay about the visit which contains this recollection:
I do so, selecting an armchair to the front left side of Snyder's desk. I wait, crossing my legs and laying my gloves in my lap. He finishes typing, removes the letter from his typewriter, and adjusting his glasses looks at me. "What can I do for you," he asks, leafing through my passport.
This passage is nearly identical to Snyder's account of this scene. Of course, Oswald's perspective of himself was quite different from Snyder's, whose attention was distracted by those little white gloves.
Jean returned to her reception desk to find her daughter bursting with curiosity. "Mommy, who was that weird man at your desk?" Jean replied, "I got rid of him."
Richard Snyder studied the scrawny, nervous young man sitting next to him as he posed the question, "What can I do for you?" Oswald responded with what appeared to be a carefully prepared statement: "I've come to give up my American passport and renounce my citizenship," he said firmly but without emotion. With a dignified hand movement, he then gave Snyder a note which formally announced his intention to defect to the Soviet Union.
Oswald continued talking. "I've thought this thing over very carefully and I know what I'm doing. I was just discharged from the Marine Corps on September eleventh," he said, "and I have been planning to do this for two years." That remark really caught Snyder's attention. Even McVickar, the other consular official, who was across the room, began to listen more closely, and Oswald later remembered noticing McVickar look up from his work. "I know what you're going to say," Oswald said matter-of-factly to Snyder, "but I don't want any lectures or advice. So let's save my time and yours, and you just give me the papers to sign and I'll leave." By "papers" Oswald meant the forms to formally renounce his American citizenship. Snyder was struck by Oswald's "cocksure" and even arrogant attitude, and remarked later, "This was part of a scene he had rehearsed before coming into the embassy. It was a preplanned speech."
Indeed, Oswald had planned well — exceptionally well. "Since he arrived in Moscow in mid-October 1959 and was discharged from the Marine Corps in September 1959," McVickar told the State Department in 1964, "he would have to have made a direct and completely arranged trip." In addition, Oswald had entered the Soviet Union through Helsinki, not the customary route for Americans, but an ideal place to apply for an exception to the rules and get a quick entry visa. "It [Helsinki as an entry point] is a well enough known fact among people who are working in the Soviet Union and undoubtedly people who are associated with Soviet matters," McVickar later told the Warren Commission, "but I would say it was not a commonly known fact among the ordinary run of people in the United States." In fact, even in Helsinki, the average turnaround time for a visa was still seven to fourteen days at that time, something which the Warren Commission checked into carefully after the Kennedy assassination. However, the point is that exceptions were often made — perhaps more often than anyplace else — in Helsinki. That Oswald had managed to go from the U.S. straight to the ideal site where such exceptions were sometimes made — and succeeded in becoming just such an exception — suggests that his defection had been well planned and was intended to be speedy.
Oswald tried to remain calm during the scene in the embassy, "but he was wound up inside tighter than a clockspring," Snyder said later, "hoping he could keep control of the conversation." Oswald's diary corroborates this, describing the meeting as a "showdown." Oswald told Snyder he had not applied for a Soviet tourist visa until he reached Helsinki on October 14, and that in doing so he had purposely not told the Soviet Embassy of his plan to remain in the Soviet Union. Oswald then described how he had implemented the next phase of his game plan upon reaching Moscow: On October 16 he had applied for Soviet citizenship by letter to the Supreme Soviet.
Oswald paused here for Snyder's reaction. The consul searched for a way to knock the young man off his prepared script. Snyder recalls that there was a brief moment of silence while Oswald, still clutching those little white gloves in one hand, calculated his next move. The sunlight shone through the wall of glass to Snyder's left, painted opaque so that the Soviets could not see the classified work that went on in the office.
Snyder, a seasoned diplomat, was drawn to the olive-green passport that lay on the desk between the two of them. Picking it up and examining it carefully, he was immediately able to deduce that he was speaking with a minor, a twenty-year-old young ex-marine. Snyder noticed that Oswald had deliberately scratched out his address. That gave the consul some leverage. "Well, I'm afraid that to complete the papers for renunciation I will need some basic information," Snyder said at last, "including an address in the U.S. and an address of your closest living relative." Oswald, upset at the prospect of involving his mother, Marguerite, in the extraordinary move he was undertaking, was suddenly out of his game plan. He began to protest, but Snyder would not budge: no address, no papers. Finally, Oswald gave Snyder Marguerite Oswald's address in Forth Worth.
Snyder knew that Oswald had lost control of the exchange, and the consul therefore decided to press his advantage. "Why do you want to defect to the Soviet Union?" Snyder probed. The "principal reason," Oswald said, thinking on his feet, was because he was a "Marxist." Of course, this answer left open the possibility that he might have other reasons for defecting, too. Snyder then tested Oswald with a barb that was subtle but aggressive: "Life will be lonely as a Marxist." However, this cleverly worded inference that the Soviet Union was anything but Marxist seemed to go right over Oswald's head. He had no pat answer, and was clearly unprepared for a verbal duel about Marxism with Snyder. The consul was not as easy to bamboozle with Marxist quips as his marine colleagues had been in Japan, where he had been assigned. There, Private Oswald had especially enjoyed outwitting officers on political, especially left wing, subjects.
Now, however, Oswald was clearly out of his depth, and so he returned to what he had come prepared to say. Oswald declared he wanted the matter to conclude "quickly," Snyder recalls. In a feeble attempt to stop Snyder's questions, Oswald made what appears to be a slip-up. Snyder recalls that Oswald then blurted out, "I was warned you would try to talk me out of defecting."
The significance of Oswald's remark is worth considering. Who could have forewarned Oswald about what the American consul in Moscow would say or try to do? It stands to reason — unless Oswald was lying — that someone had helped Oswald plan his defection. But who could that have been? This possibility was so startling that it would later occupy the attention of many people — including Snyder. As it turned out, Oswald had an even bigger surprise in store that morning.
The most extraordinary development during the defection occurred when Snyder — on a roll — asked Oswald if he was willing to serve the Soviet state. Whether or not Oswald had prepared for this question is intriguing, for his answer could not have been worse from the standpoint of eliciting Snyder's cooperation in getting his defection papers. Oswald's reply, McVickar later wrote, "tended to extinguish any sympathy one may have felt for a confused and unhappy young man." It also led to an interesting start to the paper trail on Oswald back in Washington, especially at the CIA, a subject to which we will shortly return. Snyder's contemporaneous written account of the duel with Oswald contains this passage:
Oswald offered the information that he had been a radar operator in the Marine Corps and that he had voluntarily stated to unnamed Soviet officials that as a Soviet citizen he would make known to them such information concerning the Marine Corps and his specialty as he possessed. He intimated that he might know something of special interest.
Here again Oswald's remarks seem laden by significance. Special interest? What "special interest" information did Oswald know beyond what he had learned as a radar operator? Perhaps Oswald had in mind something he had learned because of his assignment to Atsugi Naval Air Station, Japan, where an extremely sensitive CIA program had been — and still was — ongoing.
McVickar also recalls that Oswald said he was going to turn over "classified things" to "Soviet authorities." Snyder later theorized that what Oswald may have had in mind by using the words "something of special interest" was the supersecret American U-2 spy plane that was based at Atsugi. If so, this question then arises: Why drop the hint in the American Embassy? After all, was not Oswald's purpose simply to obtain the defection papers? Snyder's hypothesis was that Oswald assumed the KGB had bugged the American Embassy, and "was speaking for Russian ears in my office."
By this time it was after noontime. "We are closed now," Snyder said, "and I can't get all the papers typed up right now. If you want, you can come back in a couple days when we are open and get them." At this point, Oswald simply turned around and left. "He came storming out," Keenan — who was still sitting on the couch outside Snyder's office — recalls. "It was enough to catch my attention."
In spite of this ending to the defection scene, however, Oswald followed up Snyder's stalling tactics in a curious way. He complained bitterly about Snyder's treatment during an interview with a news reporter in his hotel room but never returned to the embassy to sign the papers. "Perhaps he heard a little voice," Snyder now muses, "[which said] don't burn that bridge." By not executing the renunciation papers, Oswald had, in effect, left open a way to return to America.
Room 233, the Metropole
Oswald left the American Embassy interpreting the outcome not as a defeat but as a victory. This seems strange given that he had failed to get the paperwork for renunciation of U.S. citizenship, the ostensible purpose for his visit that morning. But not if his real objective, as Snyder had guessed, was to impress the KGB, whom he had to assume was bugging the American Embassy. Support for this interpretation comes from Oswald's diary, which records his exuberance after his return to his hotel room:
I leave Embassy, elated at this showdown, returning to my hotel I feel now my enorgies [sic] are not spent in vain. I'm sure Russians will except [sic] me after this sign of my faith in them.
Still wrapped up in his thoughts about his encounter with Snyder, Oswald returned to his hotel room. He had not had time to sort much out, when he was surprised by a knock on his door.
The hand knocking on Oswald's door belonged to the Moscow bureau chief of United Press International (UPI), Robert J. Korengold, whom Snyder had immediately notified by telephone after alerting Washington — in his cable 1304 — about the defection request. "I called on Korengold fairly quickly," Snyder explains, "to try and get another line on Oswald." Snyder encouraged Korengold by telling him that an interview with Oswald might prove "interesting" for the UPI. Snyder may even have told Korengold the room in which Oswald was staying at the Metropole. Korengold wasted no time in following up Snyder's lead, and arrived at the door of Room 233 at two P.M.
When Oswald opened his door, Korengold requested an interview. "How did you find out?" Oswald asked in response, flabbergasted at the speed with which events were unfolding. (Korengold might even have beaten Oswald back to his room, a possibility suggested by Korengold's recollection that his contact with Oswald came "after several unsuccessful attempts.") It was rare that a chance to interview a defector came around, and it began to look as though his persistence had paid off. "The embassy called us," Korengold replied hopefully. Caught off guard, Oswald flatly refused to give Korengold an interview. Korengold recalled, "Oswald stated he knew what he was doing and insisted he did not wish to talk to anyone."
After ten minutes of getting nowhere with Oswald, the intrepid UPI bureau chief left the Metropole, disappointed but not about to give up. When Oswald shut the door, he felt Korengold was part of a plot. Oswald later wrote of his feelings: "This is one way to bring pressure on me. By notifing [sic] my relations in U.S. through the newspapers." Meanwhile, Korengold went back to his office and spoke with a correspondent for the UPI, Aline Mosby. As we will discuss in a later chapter, Mosby led a colorful life in the Soviet Union, including being "drugged" in a Moscow restaurant and victimized in the Soviet press for her "drink and debauchery."
Within minutes of talking to her bureau chief, Mosby was on her way to Room 233 in the Metropole. She told the FBI in 1964 that she had learned of Oswald in the fall of 1959 "from a source she can no longer recall," but the source was probably Korengold. Mosby recounts her journey to Oswald this way:
I went up in the creaky elevator to the second floor and down the hall, past the life-sized nude in white marble, the gigantic painting of Lenin and Stalin and the usual watchful clerk in her prim navy blue dress with brown braids around her head. An attractive fellow answered my knock on the door of Room 233.
For Oswald, life was getting more interesting by the moment. Oswald was surprised at the attention he was getting: two American reporters in less than half an hour.
"I am Lee Oswald," he said with a "hesitant smile" to Aline, who recalls that she then "murmured some pleasantry" in reply. Oswald, still off guard and unsure, refused her a formal interview, but Mosby, it seems, was far more successful than Korengold in loosening Oswald's tongue. "I think you may understand and be friendly because you're a woman," Oswald told her. He then agreed to answer Mosby's questions.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Oswald And The CIA"
Copyright © 2008 John Newman.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ALSO BY JOHN NEWMAN,
FOREWORD - A Crisis of Confidence,
CHAPTER ONE - Defection in Moscow,
CHAPTER TWO - Paper Trail in Washington,
CHAPTER THREE - Top Secret Eider Chess,
CHAPTER FOUR – "I Am Amazed",
CHAPTER FIVE - The American Girls in Moscow,
CHAPTER SIX - The Thin Line of Duty,
CHAPTER SEVEN - Early Cuban Connections,
CHAPTER EIGHT - Nixon, Dulles, and American Policy in Cuba in 1960,
CHAPTER NINE - Lost in Minsk,
CHAPTER TEN - Journey into the Labyrinth,
CHAPTER ELEVEN - The Riddle of Oswald's 201 File,
CHAPTER TWELVE - Turning Point,
CHAPTER THIRTEEN – "Operational Intelligence Interest",
CHAPTER FOURTEEN - Oswald Returns,
CHAPTER FIFTEEN - The Unworthy Oswald,
CHAPTER SIXTEEN - Undercover in New Orleans,
CHAPTER SEVENTEEN - Oswald and AMSPELL,
CHAPTER EIGHTEEN - Mexican Maze,
CHAPTER NINETEEN - The Smoking File,
CHAPTER TWENTY - Conclusion: Beginning,
EPILOGUE, 2008 - The Plot to Murder President Kennedy: A New Interpretation,
Appendix to the 2008 Edition,