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Richard Snyder; diplomat dealt with Lee Harvey Oswald

WASHINGTON - Richard E. Snyder, a Foreign Service officer who as a senior consul in Moscow handled the attempted defection of future presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the Soviet Union, died Jan. 9 at a health care facility in Georgetown, Ky. He was 92.

He had Alzheimer’s disease, said his daughter Dianne.

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Mr. Snyder served as a Japanese and Russian specialist in the State Department from 1950 to 1970. He spent much of his career serving in posts across Japan, and he helped prepare for the 1972 transfer of the Ryukyu Islands from the United States back to Japan.

But it was his two years in Russia at the height of Cold War tensions that proved the most eventful.

From July 1959 to July 1961, Mr. Snyder served as a senior consular official at the US Embassy in Moscow. During that time, he attended the trial of Francis Gary Powers, an American spy-plane pilot who was shot down in 1960 over the Ural mountains.

In 1979, Mr. Snyder wrote an expansive account published in The Washington Post of his encounters with Oswald.

It was on a Saturday - Oct. 31, 1959 - that Mr. Snyder was approached by Oswald, a slim and primly groomed man who announced his desire to dissolve his US citizenship. He had recently separated from the US Marine Corps and had traveled to the Soviet Union inspired by his professed belief in Marxism.

When he came to Mr. Snyder’s desk that day in October, Oswald thrust his US passport into the consul’s hands.

Mr. Snyder inspected Oswald’s papers and found that he had just had his 20th birthday. In his tenure in Moscow, Mr. Snyder had dealt with such defection cases before.

“Among the humanitarian and political considerations in such cases was the naivete of the principals,’’ Mr. Snyder wrote in the Post. “A common characteristic of those who chose the Soviet Union as the place to work out their problems was that they knew nothing about it.’’

Although Oswald seemed adamant about becoming a Soviet citizen, Mr. Snyder told the young man to think about his decision and return Monday to sign the appropriate documents. In the meantime, Mr. Snyder stowed Oswald’s passport in his embassy desk for safekeeping.

Oswald did not come back for 20 months. During that time, he worked in a factory in Minsk.

When Oswald returned to the US Embassy in July 1961, he told Mr. Snyder that he had “learned a hard lesson the hard way.’’

As one of his last duties in Russia, Mr. Snyder agreed to return Oswald’s passport. Days later, Mr. Snyder left Moscow for another assignment in Tokyo.

Mr. Snyder later wrote that Oswald had been “relegated to a forgotten corner of my mind’’ until President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Oswald was shot and killed two days later by nightclub owner Jack Ruby.

Oswald was the principal suspect in the presidential assassination, and Mr. Snyder testified for the Warren Commission about his handling of Oswald.

“Why, an acquaintance once asked me, did we let a guy like Oswald back into the country?’’ Mr. Snyder wrote in 1979. “The answer is that an American doesn’t need permission to return to his own country. Unlike some, the American state has no power to banish those it thinks unworthy.’’

Richard Edward Snyder was born in Newark. During World War II, he served in the US Army in Europe and received the Bronze Star for helping to evacuate his wounded comrades while under enemy fire. He spent 10 years in the Army Reserve and retired at the rank of major.

He was a 1948 Yale University graduate and received a master’s degree in Russian studies from Harvard University in 1956.

His wife of 64 years, Anna Dimeo Snyder, died in 2006. He leaves two daughters, Dianne of Alexandria, Va., and Gail Wiederwohl of Georgetown, Ky.; a brother; three grandchildren; and two great-granddaughters.

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