On Thursday evening, the Trump administration released roughly 2,800 government documents relating to the assassination of the 35th president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. President Kennedy died on Nov. 22, 1963. His public assassination traumatized the nation over a half-decade ago, and several conspiracy theories have been formulated in the absence of concrete answers; we’ve all heard of the Grassy Knoll.
There will be even more documents to come in the near-future, within the time frame of late April. These additional files will undergo a 180-day national security review. This batch of documents may be heavily redacted (unlike the present release), on the grounds of national security.
The JFK files may provide some insight into the assassination of President Kennedy, clarifying many questions in the process. They certainly give us insight into the immediate aftermath of the shooting and the actions and motives of the powerful characters of the time: Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and others within the Kennedy administration, intelligence community and military.
The most interesting profile in this entire release is not JFK, but J. Edgar Hoover. For those that know about Hoover’s tenure as the inaugural FBI Director – one that lasted 37 years and six presidents – know of his obsessive note-taking and arguable paranoia. From these documents, we also learn of his influence in the narrative of JFK’s assassination. It may be a symptom of the chaotic, destabilizing event of losing a president, but Hoover’s rapid response favoring a quick answer and continuity of American political life is interesting. In these document, he argues that the American public should accept the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK and acted alone. On Nov. 25, 1963, he writes, “the public must be satisfied that Oswald was the assassin; that he did not have confederates who are still at large; and that evidence was such that he would have been convicted at trial.” Hoover’s motives may have been pure, but there is a real risk to his rashness.
Director Hoover also reached out to others for support on this theory. In a memo referring to then-Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, it is important to keep in mind that the Attorney General at the time was Robert Kennedy, JFK’s brother. Hoover expressed concern over the American public’s reaction saying, “the thing I am concerned about, and so is Mr. Katzenbach, is having something issued so we can convince the public that Oswald is the real assassin.” It is apparent that these men wanted a quick answer, which almost certainly fueled secrecy and the conspiracy theories formulated in the years since.
Hoover also expressed dismay about Oswald’s premature death. Oswald was assassinated on Nov. 24, 1963 by Jack Ruby when the Dallas Police Department was transporting him to a vehicle. On Oswald’s death, Hoover wrote, “Oswald having been killed today after our warnings to the Dallas Police Department was inexcusable…it will allow, I am afraid, a lot of civil rights people to raise a lot of hell because he was handcuffed and had no weapon. There are bound to be some elements of our society who will holler their heads off that his civil rights were violated — which they were.”
Hoover wanted to see Oswald prosecuted and found guilty in court so the public would have closure, but also so there wouldn’t be any unanswered questions. Hoover feared the conspiracy crowd so much that he fueled their concerns by maintaining an extreme level of secrecy.
Be on the lookout for updates of the JFK files. While many scholars and historians do not expect grand revelations, there will undoubtedly be more interesting information to come. The months leading up to the April release will provide great context of the investigation and transition processes that the intelligence community and White House experienced. Some questions will be answered, but there will be even more that are spurred from this release.