Kennedy assassination documents to be released in time for anniversary
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
President Donald Trump has decided it is time for the public to see the long held remaining documents pertaining to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Wikpiedia Commons
Just in time for the 54th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, finally, historians are going to be able to see the last piece of the puzzle. President Donald Trump announced on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017, that he would allow the release of the remaining CIA and FBI documents on the 35th president’s assassination. Trump’s decision ends Congress’ 25-year hold on the documents. On Oct. 26, approximately 3,100 files are set for release, adding to the heavily redacted 30,000 that have already been released.
President Trump tweeted on Saturday morning, “Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long-blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened.” The White House released a longer statement to the press, saying, “The President believes that these documents should be made available in the interests of full transparency unless agencies provide a compelling and clear national security or law enforcement justification otherwise.”
Although the documents will enrich research and scholarship on Kennedy’s assassination, historians do not believe that it will change the narrative or conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Historians are concerned that they will give conspiracy theorists a field day. Originally, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act in 1992 to thwart the release of the documents.
The law was partially inspired by the rampant conspiracy theories set forth in Oliver Stone’s box office hit JFK, which claimed a vast government conspiracy, was behind Kennedy’s assassination with the CIA and FBI at the forefront. The Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) claimed in their report that the film, a “popularized a version of President Kennedy’s assassination that featured U.S. government agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the military as conspirators.”
The bill gave only the president the power to delay the documents release once the bill expired. The president would have been able to do so claiming national security interests. It is rumored that the CIA appealed to Trump to delay the release. Trump friend Roger Stone claimed, “specifically CIA director Mike Pompeo has been lobbying the president furiously not to release these documents.” The agency denied this and issued a statement saying the CIA “continues to engage in the process to determine the appropriate next steps with respect to any previously unreleased CIA information.”
Many were lobbying President Trump to release the documents, among them his friend Stone and Senate judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). Stone like Trump believes there is a conspiracy surrounding Kennedy’s assassination. Stone however, believes the documents “show that Oswald was trained, nurtured and put in place by the Central Intelligence Agency.” Strone says, “It sheds very bad light on the deep state.”
While Grassley recently tweeted his support for the release, writing, “No reason 2 keep hidden anymore. Time 2 let American ppl + historians draw own conclusions.” Earlier, Grassley also introduced a resolution on the Senate floor to release the documents. Grassley argued, “Americans deserve a full picture of what happened that fateful day in November 1963. The assassination of President Kennedy occurred at a pivotal time for our nation, and, nearly 54 years later, we are still learning the details of how our government responded and what it may have known beforehand.”
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics recently wrote an article in Politico with Philip Shenon entitled, “The JFK Document Dump Could Be a Fiasco.” The article’s subtitle argues, “Later this month, the National Archives is set to release thousands of documents about John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s likely to fuel conspiracy theorists for years.” Sabato and Shenon, however, claim that releasing the documents will congest NARA’s website but not doing so would fuel more speculation and theories then releasing them.
Both authors have written books about the assassination, Sabato wrote, “The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy” and Shenon wrote, “A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination” both published in 2013, the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. After President Trump announced his decision on Saturday, Sabato praised Trump on Twitter. Sabato wrote, “Thank you. This is the correct decision. Please do not allow exceptions for any agency of government. JFK files have been hidden too long.”
The documents supposedly cover Oswald’s trip to Mexico prior to the assassination. In September 1963, Oswald traveled to Mexico City where he met with officials at the Cuban and Soviet Union embassies about visiting those respective countries, although he also might have met with Cuban and Soviet spies. It was in Mexico City that Oswald came under CIA radar. It is widely speculated that Oswald discussed his plans to assassinate President Kennedy during the trip.
Investigative journalist Gerald Posner spoke to USA Today about the trip and the documents. Posner is the author of the 1993 authoritative book “Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK.” Posner concluded in his study that Oswald acted alone. Although the files will not alter long-held conclusions, they could cause embarrassment for the US and Mexico and hinder already strained relations. Posner commented on this factor, “There may not be deep, dark secrets in there, but the release could be embarrassing to people who were involved. You have to remember that Mexico City in the 1960s was a hodge-podge of intrigue where everyone was spying on everyone else. There may be people who were informing to the CIA at the time who have moved on to careers in politics and business, and the revelation that they were informing will be embarrassing to them.”
Among the documents are also historical gems that are unrelated with any theories about the assassination. Posner recounted, “All of those will cause a flash of excitement. For one thing, there’s supposedly a handwritten letter by Jackie Kennedy about the (JFK) funeral. There’s a letter from (former FBI Director J. Edgar) Hoover that’s been closed for all these years. There’s the testimony of (former CIA counterintelligence chief) James Jesus Angleton from the 1970s before the Church Committee.” The Church Committee was an investigation by Democratic Senator Frank Church of Idaho, about the FBI and CIA and their plans to assassinate Cuba’s, Fidel Castro.
This past July, NARA already began the process of releasing the documents. According to NARA, they released already, “3,810 documents, including 441 formerly withheld-in-full documents and 3,369 documents formerly released with portions redacted.” Researchers and the media clamored to the NARA site, but many of the documents were difficult to read, many illegible others in code or jargon not comprehensible to the public or even scholars. NARA was supposed to release slowly the documents, but instead opted to wait on Trump’s decision, and now release them all on Oct. 26 and cause a traffic backlog on their website yet again.
On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States (1961–63), was assassinated at 12:30 p.m. by Lee Harvey Oswald, while in a Presidential motorcade in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas heading towards the Texas School Book Depository. Kennedy was in an open limousine waving at the cheering crowd with First Lady Jackie Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally and his wife Nelly when three shots in succession erupted, which hit the Governor, and then the President. The motorcade rushed to Parkland Hospital, where President Kennedy was pronounced dead at 46 years, 30 minutes after the shooting.
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite first broke news of the assassination, tearing up with his announcement of the president’s death. Afterward there was an immediate outpouring of grief by the nation mourning the loss of an idealized young President. In a recent book “The Kennedy Detail” Secret Service agent Clint Hill has said; “It has taken me decades to learn to cope with the guilt and sense of responsibility for the president’s death, and I have made it a practice to keep my memories to myself. I don’t talk to anybody about that day.”
At 2:38 p.m., Vice-President Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in as the 36th US president, aboard Air Force One with Jackie Kennedy standing by his side, still wearing the clothes stained with the President’s blood. Police arrested Oswald two hours later. Oswald, a Soviet sympathizer with ties to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee had shot Kennedy from the Texas School Book Depository building. Two days later, Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner fatally shot Oswald, as he was being transferred from Dallas Police Headquarters to the Dallas County Jail; Ruby claimed he wanted to spare Jackie Kennedy any further grief.
After three days of national mourning, on November 25, 1963, a state funeral was held for the slain President. It was a preceded by a repose of Kennedy’s body in the East Room of the White House for 24 hours on the 23rd. On Sunday, the 24th, the President’s coffin was carried by the same horse-drawn carriage as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Unknown Soldier before him, to the Capitol building where his body laid in state for 18 hours, with 250,000 people visiting his casket.
On Monday, one million gathered on the route of the processional from the Capitol to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, where the funeral was held. Foreign dignitaries from 90 countries, including 19 heads of state came to pay their respects, and millions of Americans watched the funeral on TV, which was covered by the three big networks; ABC, CBS, and NBC. After the Requiem Mass, as the President’s body was carried from the cathedral, three-year-old John Jr. saluted his father’s casket giving the mourning nation an iconic image to remember. Kennedy was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia after the service Jackie Kennedy lit an eternal flame that remains burning over the President’s gravesite.
Kennedy’s assassination was not put to rest with the president on Nov. 25, 1963; conspiracy theories just began their long life. In honor of the 50th anniversary, Fred Kaplan examined the most popular ones in his article, “John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories debunked: Why the magic bullet and grassy knoll don’t make sense.” Even 50 years later, a 2014 poll indicated that 59 percent of Americans still believe there is a conspiracy theory surrounding the enigmatic president’s death. Soon after Kennedy’s successor President Lyndon Johnson commissioned Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren to chair an investigation, which resulted in the Warren Commission Report. The report concluded that Oswald alone fired all three shots that hit Kennedy. The public, however, was not satisfied and a flurry of books was published in the wake of the report’s finding. The books introduced and supported a host of conspiracy theories.
A home video fuelled the speculations Abraham Zapruder taped on his 8mm home-movie camera the shooting. The 26-second reel with 486 frames was the only direct recording of the assassination. The graphic shots were not released for the public to view until 1975, when President Gerald Ford decided to make it available. The film was both used as proof by the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone and conspiracy theorists that he did not.
Among the many theories, the main point of contention was whether one or bullets shot Kennedy and Connally. Since the time between each frame based on the film made it impossible for Kennedy and Connally to have been shot by separate bullets coming from Oswald’s gun, the Warren Commission concluded with some dissension the “single-bullet theory,” claiming the same bullet hit the Texas Governor and then the president. Originally, the report claimed there was “compelling” evidence, but in the end decided on just saying there was persuasive evidence. Without the Warren Commission being definitive, conspiracy theorists clamored to claim there had to have been the second shooter.
The second most popular theory was that one of the shots came from the grassy knoll. Part of this theory rested in the way Kennedy moved when he was shot suggesting the first shot to the neck was from behind, but the second shot to the head was from in front. There was also an audio recording from a Dallas police officer’s microphone radio transmission. The recording seems to indicate four shots were fired not three and that considering the officer’s location one echoed from the grassy knoll. A 1976 House of Representatives Committee determined this from their report, but later the National Academy of Sciences debunked this when they analyzed the tape. The police officer motorcycle was not in the vicinity, and the supposed fourth shot came after the Kennedy had already been hit.
Although most of the conspiracy theories have remained theories, The CIA’s and FBI’s questionable behavior during the time including, coups and killings only add to the speculation as to what will be included in the previously unreleased documents. It might finally uncover Oswald’s motives, which have long been questioned, with many believing it was related to Cuba and Castro, and the Kennedy administration’s desire to overthrow the Cuban dictator in a planned Operation Mongoose. As well, they might reveal more on Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union. These files were so guarded by the CIA and FBI that they never even handed them over to the Warren Commission. Now the public and scholars will finally read this last puzzle, however, if they are anything like the documents released over the summer, they true meaning might still take a while to decode.
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.