Nearly 54 years ago, President John F. Kennedy was fatally shot as his motorcade wound its way through Dallas. Just over an hour later, former U.S. Marine Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested for shooting a police officer, and then found to have assassinated the president. But no trial was ever held, because Oswald himself was murdered by Jack Ruby as he was escorted between jail facilities. The series of incidents shook the nation, led to an immediate inquiry into the events surrounding JFK’s assassination, and ultimately fueled the growth of numerous conspiracy theories.
A series of documents—3,000 never-before-seen documents and 30,000 documents that were partially redacted in the past—were released on Thursday to the public, as ordered by a law passed by Congress 25 years ago and permitted to proceed by President Trump. As the deadline approached, however, Trump did withold some documents after the CIA, FBI and other government agencies argued they might pose a security threat; they were put under 180-day review. And with the flood of new information, and speculation about what was held back, researchers and conspiracy-theorists alike are keen on finding answers to longstanding questions, like how Ruby managed to shoot Oswald when both were surrounded by police officers.
But not so fast, historians say.
“It’s going to be years before anybody can go through all [the documents] and put them in the right context, but by the end of the week I bet there’ll be some people pointing to one document they found saying, ‘This proves such and such,’ when in fact it doesn’t,” says historian Alice George, the author of The Assassination of John F. Kennedy: Political Trauma and American Memory. “You need so much context to be able to analyze a single document out of 5 million documents. It’s not an easy thing to draw conclusions [from].”
The act that requires the last collection of documents to be released now was signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, after years of increasingly frenzied rumors about the assassination were capped off with Oliver Stone’s largely fictional movie, JFK. Although two previous investigations—the 888-page Warren Commission launched in 1963 and the 1978-79 House Select Committee on Assassinations—collectively provided thousands of pages of information, the American public clamored for an untainted truth.
“When the Warren report initially came out, most Americans believed it, but within three or four years that wasn’t the case,” George says. “Then when Watergate happened in the ’70s, people found out you couldn’t trust the attorney general, you couldn’t trust the CIA, you couldn’t trust the President of the United States. This all fed into questioning about JFK’s assassination.”
The 1992 JFK Assassination Records Collection Act took the unprecedented step of creating a review board comprised of five non-governmental employees, citizens with backgrounds in history, archives and law. They were given the power to order all agencies to declassify government documents.
“Fears sparked by the Cold War discouraged the release of documents, particularly those of the intelligence and security agencies. The suspicions created by government secrecy eroded confidence in the truthfulness of federal agencies,” the review board’s report states. “The Board’s review process ultimately ensured that [it] scrutinized each piece of withheld information so that the American public would be confident that assassination records were open to the fullest extent possible.”
After concluding their research, the review board released millions of documents to the public—but set aside a last batch to be released by the 25th anniversary of the passage of the law. Included in the newest set of papers will be files from senior CIA officials who were monitoring Oswald’s activities and information from the CIA station in Mexico City, where Oswald was under surveillance.
“I think most Americans think that these are the last things being declassified, so they must be the most important things,” George says. “The truth is these are the things that federal agencies like the FBI and CIA wanted to keep quiet to protect their sources and their agents and themselves. There are unanswered questions [about the assassination], but I don’t think they’ll be answered in these pages.” In fact, she doesn’t think they’ll ever be answered.
What George found when researching her book was that the sheer volume of available papers was more hindrance than help.
“It’s not always true that the more information you have, the more you know,” George says. “I don’t know what people pictured when they said they wanted all these records to be open, because I’m sure it’s not what’s there in [the National Archives].”
Historian James Barber agrees. A curator at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Barber is no assassination expert but knows a thing or two about doing historical research. “It’s a lot like sleuthing,” he says, but adds that every assertion requires corroboration. “You have to distinguish between historical fact and historical hypotheses.” Attributing certain thoughts to characters in biographies, for example, when there is no written evidence that those people expressed such thoughts.
“You want to be careful about researching to prove a preconceived idea,” Barber says. “Take the sources and evaluate them and see what they’re saying, where they lead you.”
Cherry-picking the new assassination documents to prove a theory is exactly what George and other historians are worried about. She doesn’t think there are likely to be any explosive revelations in this new set of papers, though she is looking forward to seeing notes from Jacqueline Kennedy to Lyndon B. Johnson in the days following the assassination.
But for those who want to try their hand at proving otherwise, the documents will be available digitally and in physical form through the National Archives.