Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill JFK?

Lee Harvey Oswald
Archive Photos/Stringer/Archive Photos

What was Lee Harvey Oswald’s motive to assassinate President John F. Kennedy? It is a perplexing question that does not have an easy answer. It is also probably one of the reasons why there are so many different conspiracy theories surrounding the events that took place on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza.

It is possible that Oswald’s motive had nothing to do with anger towards or hatred for President Kennedy. Instead, his actions may have resulted from his emotional immaturity and lack of self-esteem. He spent most of his adult life trying to make himself the center of attention. In the end, Oswald placed himself at the center of the largest possible stage by assassinating the President of the United States of America. Ironically, he did not live long enough to receive the attention that he so badly sought.

Oswald's Childhood

Oswald never knew his father, who had passed away from a heart attack before Oswald’s birth. Oswald was raised by his mother. He had a brother named Robert and a half-brother named John. As a child, he lived in over twenty different residences and attended at least eleven different schools. Robert has stated that as children it was obvious that the boys were a burden to their mother, and he even feared that she would place them up for adoption. Marina Oswald testified to the Warren Commission that Oswald had a hard childhood and that there was some resentment toward Robert, who had attended a private school that provided Robert with an advantage over Oswald.

Serving as a Marine

Although Oswald had barely reached the age 24 just before his death, he did a number of things in life in an attempt to increase his self-esteem. At age 17, he quit high school and joined the Marines, where he received a security clearance and learned how to shoot a rifle. During nearly three years in the service, Oswald was punished on several occasions: for accidentally shooting himself with an unauthorized weapon, for physically fighting with a superior, and for improperly discharging his firearm while on patrol. Oswald also learned to speak Russian before being discharged.


After being discharged from the military, Oswald defected to Russia in October 1959. This act was reported by the Associated Press. In June 1962, he returned to the United States and was quite disappointed that his return received no media attention whatsoever.

Attempted Assassination of General Edwin Walker

On April 10, 1963, Oswald attempted to assassinate US Army General Edwin Walker while he was at a desk by a window at his Dallas home. Walker held very conservative views, and Oswald considered him to be a fascist. The shot hit a window which caused Walker to be injured by fragments. 

Fair Play for Cuba

Oswald returned to New Orleans, and in August 1963 he contacted the pro-Castro group Fair Play for Cuba Committee's headquarters in New York, offering to open a New Orleans chapter at his expense. Oswald paid to have flyers made titled “Hands Off Cuba” that he passed out on the streets of New Orleans. While handing out these flyers, he was arrested for disturbing the peace after being involved in a fight with some anti-Castro Cubans. Oswald was proud of having been arrested and cut out the newspaper articles about the incident.

Hired at the Book Depository

In early October 1963, Oswald obtained employment at the Texas School Book Depository solely by chance due to a conversation that his wife had with neighbors over coffee. At the time of his hiring, while it was known that President Kennedy was planning a visit to Dallas, his motorcade route had not yet been determined.

Oswald had kept a diary, and he was also writing a book in longhand that he had paid someone to type for him—both were confiscated by authorities after his arrest. Marina Oswald informed the Warren Commission that Oswald had studied Marxism just to obtain attention. She also stated that Oswald had never indicated that he harbored any negative feelings towards President Kennedy. Marina claimed that her husband had no moral sense whatsoever and that his ego caused him to be angry at other people.

However, Oswald didn’t take into consideration that a person like Jack Ruby would step forward and end his life before he could receive all the media attention that he so badly sought.

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Your Citation
Kelly, Martin. "Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill JFK?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/motive-lee-harvey-oswalds-president-kennedy-104252. Kelly, Martin. (2020, August 27). Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill JFK? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/motive-lee-harvey-oswalds-president-kennedy-104252 Kelly, Martin. "Why Did Lee Harvey Oswald Kill JFK?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/motive-lee-harvey-oswalds-president-kennedy-104252 (accessed March 20, 2023).