22 October, 2020 | Following is a new article co-written by Greg R. Parker and Jim Purtell. Greg is the author of Lee Harvey Oswald’s Cold War; he is the founder and editor of https://reopenkennedycase.forumotion.net/
Past speculation and claims
One of the many enduring mysteries surrounding Lee Oswald is where and how he learned to speak Russian.
It is often cited that the Warren Commission wondered out loud (though behind locked doors) if Oswald had attended the Defense Language Institute at Monterey after returning from a tour of duty in South East Asia with the Marines. Rumors had circulated to that effect. However, the commissioner’s own musings on the subject were not even in regard to Russian, but Spanish (Warren Commission Executive Session of 27 Jan 1964). In any case, there has never been any foundation for such rumors, except his proficiency itself.
According to the Warren Commission testimony of Patricia Johnson McMillan, Oswald had told her he learned from a Berlitz Russian language book.
McMillan had written a story on his defection in 1959, allegedly based on notes from personal interviews with Oswald. In 1964, she wrote another story giving additional details.
However, she admitted to the Warren Commission that she had not included the Berlitz information in her contemporaneous notes (and it was not mentioned either, in her 1959 story). McMillan was always eager to please the authorities when it came to Oswald and this seems to be another case in point. There are no other sources for Oswald telling anyone this and no sources for any of his Marine buddies seeing him with such a book
But then in 1994, a funny thing happened. A person claiming to be an ex-Marine stationed at El Toro in 1964, sold a library index card at auction showing a person named “Oswald” (no first name given) borrowed a book titled “The Berlitz Self-Teacher: Russian”. According to the provenance provided by the seller, he worked in the base library and obtained the card while there. It sold for $12,500.00 – the type of money that makes fraud in the memorabilia industry so rife. Even if true, borrowing a library book for a few weeks is hardly going to gain you much proficiency in Russian. It must be remembered too, that Oswald had a date with an aunt of a fellow Marine while stationed at that base. Her name was Rosaleen Quinn and she had completed a Berlitz Russian language course. Ms. Quinn was interviewed by the FBI on December 13, 1963 (Commission Document 187, p8). If Oswald had taught himself via a Berlitz self-teacher book, Ms. Quinn would have been the one person he would have mentioned this to, as the subject of how each of them had learned the language would have been brought up in relation, and Berlitz would have been the common denominator.
Note that Ms. Quinn learned Russian for entry into the Foreign Service, and that she seems to have flown to California from New York for the sole purpose of dating Oswald and his commanding officer, John Donovan. Donovan too, was headed for a career in the Foreign Service. The whole episode seems like a test of Oswald by Ms. Quinn followed by her debriefing with Donovan who had been an employee of the FBI before joining the Marines.
Finally, there is the claim that the CIA took a 12 years old Hungarian refugee and gradually merged his life and his records with those of the historical Lee Oswald with the aim of eventually sending him to Russia as a spy. The idea behind this was to have a native speaker who could pretend a lack of ability in Russian in order to obtain information from those speaking to or near him.
The CIA did have a program of infiltrating emigres behind the Iron Curtain. But they were sent there to blend in as a “local” while gathering information and forming cells. They also had a program of sending over US citizens under cover as businessmen, students, teachers, tourists, etc. to gather information legally. It makes no sense at all for the CIA to send a Hungarian refugee (who allegedly learned flawless Russian and English prior to coming to America) to defect to the Soviet Union as a disaffected Marine from the Deep South.
Most who study this case have trouble understanding how a high school dropout could learn a difficult language like Russian. This is the space where the speculation about the Defense Language Institute finds a home.
What is rarely considered is the possibility of Oswald having had an innate ability – a “gift” for learning languages, despite his own problems with writing in English. In fact, those seemingly opposing traits could spring from the same well.
In 1953, Oswald was diagnosed with a schizoid personality disorder while being assessed at Youth House. This disorder has nothing to do with schizophrenia, but is one characterized by a lack of interest in social relationships, a tendency toward a solitary or sheltered lifestyle, secretiveness, emotional coldness, detachment, and apathy. Asperger’s Syndrome was not recognized in the US at that time, and indeed, is now said to be a part of the Autism Spectrum. Certain types of personality disorders can look very much like a spectrum disorder and there is no doubt that had Oswald been a 13-year-old in more modern times, he would have been assessed for Asperger’s.
Although one should not generalize regarding common traits of those on the Spectrum any more than you should in any other demographic, it is well-known some do learn foreign languages easily. According to renowned expert, Tony Attwood,
“sometimes the person with Asperger’s syndrome can have a natural talent and a special interest in foreign languages. The person can acquire the ability to speak many languages without the pronunciation errors expected when a typical person from a specific home country learns that language.” (The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome – Page 225 Tony Attwood – 2007)
There is evidence that apart from Russian, Oswald was also learning Spanish and German.
Regarding writing skills, it is noted that
…children with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder integrated in regular schools find it difficult to perform writing tasks. This can impair their academic achievements, social availability, and self-confidence, say experts…the handwriting performances of the two groups showed statistically significant differences. The children with high-functioning autism produced taller and broader letters; waiting times on paper and in the air were longer; and the degree of slant of the pen was smaller. (Science Daily, June 1, 2016)
Dr Hans Asperger, after whom the syndrome was named, noted time and again, the issue of messy writing and spelling errors among the children he studied; this, despite the fact that he called the children his “Little Professors” due to their specialized and highly tuned abilities in disparate areas. For example, of a child named Harro, Asperger noted,
He carried on writing carelessly, and messily, crossing out words, lines going up and down, the slant changing. His spelling, however, was reasonably accurate. As long as his attention was focused on one word, he knew how to spell it. It was very significant then that he made more spelling errors when copying that at dictation. Really, one would expect that copying should not present any problems at all since the words were in front of him; but this very simple and straightforward task simply did not interest him”.
The above description of Harro’s writing style could just as easily have been describing the manner in which Oswald wrote.
Now skip forward to Oswald’s career in the Marines with radar which required the ability to “mirror write”. From the Mentalthlete Blogspot:
Much like a muscle, the brain needs to be used and exposed to exercises that help build it up and stay healthy and functional. And mirror-writing is a great exercise to use. You see, mirror-writing tends to correlate with having a thicker corpus callosum, and that is the part of the brain that enables the right and left hemisphere to communicate with each other. Furthermore, there is some evidence that mirror-writers have bilateral language centers. With the brain, two isn’t always better than one, but in the case of language centers it is. Second-language acquisition comes easier to those with two active language centers, and word play probably does as well.
There can be little doubt that Oswald had an innate ability to learn other languages.
Russian Language Tests
There are two tests you can take in the US military regarding foreign languages. The first is the Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB). This test is typically given to new recruits, and prospective recruits from for example ROTC and the Civil Air Patrol. The purpose of the test is not to assess fluency in a second language but to test, as the name suggests, an aptitude for learning one. If you do well in this test, you may study a language and then undertake the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT) and depending on your score, you may qualify for a monthly allowance. This test can also be requested if you already have a second language ability. These tests are meant to measure how well a person can function in real-life situations in a foreign language according to well-defined linguistic tasks and assessment criteria. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defense_Language_Proficiency_Tests), This was the very test that Oswald took on February 25, 1959 – about a month before applying to attend the Albert Schweitzer College in Switzerland. Oswald stated on the application form that he spoke Russian with fluency equal to one year of college. Note that this is not the same as stating he actually had one year of study.
Colonel Folsom was called before the Warren Commission to explain Oswald’s military records. Following is the Q & A from that part of his testimony dealing with the Russian test Oswald had undertaken:
Mr. ELY – All right. Now, moving further down page 7, we have the record of a Russian examination taken by Oswald on February 25, 1959. Could you explain to us what sort of test this was, and what the scores achieved by Oswald mean?
Colonel FOLSOM – The test form was Department of the Army, Adjutant General’s Office, PRT-157. This is merely the test series designation. Now, under “understands” the scoring was minus 5, which means that he got five more wrong than right. The “P” in parentheses indicates “poor.” Under reading he achieved a score of 4, which is low. This, again, is shown by the “P” in parentheses for “poor.”
Mr. ELY – This 4 means he got four more questions right than wrong?
Colonel FOLSOM – This is correct. And under “writes” he achieved a score of 3, with “P” in parentheses, and this indicates he got three more right than he did wrong. His total score was 2, with a “P” in parentheses meaning that overall, he got two more right than wrong, and his rating was poor throughout.
To summarize, Oswald scored
-5 for “understanding” (listening)
+4 for “reading”
+3 for “writing”
Folsom stated that his rating was “P” for poor in each category. But was he really that bad?
This is one of three schedules of monthly additional pay for proficiency in a foreign language in the Marines as at 2006.
Assuming similar scores were needed in 1959 to qualify for FLPP, Oswald’s alleged rating of “poor” throughout does not seem to be justified – at least not insofar as reading and writing was concerned.
And there may well be a valid reason Oswald scored noticeably worse in “understanding” (listening) than in reading and writing. He had problems his entire life with Otitis Media with his medical records showing he had periodic hearing loss in one ear as a result. If it had been taken on reading/writing alone, Oswald would appear to have done quite well, insofar as the military was concerned.
As at 2014, the following applied:
For example, a Marine who qualifies for schedule 1 pay with a 1+/1+ score — an elementary proficiency “plus” in at least two categories — will receive $150, or $50 more than in the past. Those scores are set by the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, which measures foreign language aptitude ranging from zero, or no proficiency, to five, for native proficiency. The categories include reading, listening, speaking and writing.
Marines with scores of 1/1 in a language for schedule 2 will receive half the amount they used to receive, now taking home just $25 extra per month.
Top qualifiers on schedule 2, however, will take home more money. A Marine with a 4/4 score, for example, will now receive the maximum allowed under Corps regulations, taking home an extra $500 per month compared to $400 in years past. Marines can earn the maximum bonus for up to two languages.
The changes do not alter current eligibility requirements last revised in August 2013. Requirements were tightened then to the current standards, which require more testing. There are three Defense Language Institute tests with one for listening, reading and speaking. Marines must qualify in at least two of those areas to receive extra language pay. In the few languages where there is only a single test, Marines must also undergo an oral exam.
All of which brings us to the question of whether he had tuition at all or was completely self-taught.
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