The 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy is a historical inflection point, the exact moment where, for many Americans, everything about their worldview changed. And since the 1990s, the vast archive of research, reports, and primary sources related to almost every aspect of the investigation has slowly been released, thanks to the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, something that President Trump tried to claim credit for, despite being nowhere near Washington in 1992. By Thursday, what remains of the archives are scheduled to be released by law. So what’s in them, and what can we learn?
- There will be no smoking gun: Although most Americans think there’s more to the story, if you were hoping that there would finally be definitive proof, of any theory, conspiracy-minded or otherwise, it’s not going to turn up in these documents. This is just the final release of a five million page archive that’s been happening across decades. If there had been any definitive proof, it would have emerged by now.
- That doesn’t mean it won’t be interesting, though: Since 1992, as the National Archives has released data, we’ve learned a lot about what the intelligence community was up to at the time, which has sometimes been an embarrassment to the modern CIA and FBI. It turns out the conspiracy theorists were half-right: The CIA and FBI were covering something up. It’s just that it turns out what they were covering up was that they were performing highly illegal and unethical secret spying operations, to Americans and non-Americans alike, and still couldn’t figure out Oswald, who talked openly about shooting the President, was going to attempt to shoot the president. Ironically, this archive might be the clearest and most complete collection of information about what America’s spies were actually up to during the Cold War.
- The files will be a mess: What’s emerged over the years is the Kennedy assassination investigation stumbled into such a massive cobweb of secret spying operations, criminal investigations, ongoing espionage, and other skullduggery run by some of the most paranoid people on Earth. As a result, nothing the Commission, or ensuing investigations, have found is particularly coherent and (in some cases) has taken decades to piece together. Philip Shenon, who wrote an excellent history of the Warren Commission and the surrounding cover-up of various operations by the CIA, talked about previous releases of documents to Politico and warned that they’re not going much sense, at first:
“When the files could be downloaded, many of those documents proved to be illegible, or were so full of CIA and FBI code names and other jargon that it will take months or years to make sense of them. At worst, especially if the White House blocks the release of some of the files, this month’s document release will simply cement the idea among the nation’s army of conspiracy theorists that, 54 years after those gunshots rang out over Dealey Plaza, the truth about the assassination is still being hidden.”
- There may be larger, very real, political implications. Investigations into every possible suspect at the time meant that the CIA, in particular, had to look closely at some of the dirty tricks it pulled in other countries. It’s already clear the CIA would rather its attempts to kill Castro not be publicly discussed, and there’s a good chance we’ll learn more about those in the release. If so, it’s unlikely the Cuban government will be very happy about the details. Similarly, some historians believe that we may learn more about the US-orchestrated coup of South Vietnam in 1963. Again, there’s unlikely to be any smoking gun here, either, but it’s likely to raise some awkward questions for which the current administration will need to provide good answers.
In short, this is Christmas come early for historians, and a little more fuel to the fire for conspiracy theorists convinced Oswald was a patsy. It’ll help us better understand America in the ’60s, and it’ll be an invaluable look at history kept secret, but any definitive answers likely won’t be hiding among these reports and receipts.