In 1992, the US Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which determined that all official records concerning Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 would be released to the public. However, this act allows the government to postpone the release of any document that presents an “identifiable harm” to US military, intelligence, law enforcement, or foreign relations. Since 1992, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has released more than 250,000 records, or about 90% of the total records. In 2017, President Donald Trump pledged to release the rest, but went back on his word in 2018, claiming that the NARA would need an additional three years to review the remaining records due to national security concerns.
Three years later, on October 22, one month shy of the fifty-eighth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, President Joe Biden announced that he would continue to postpone the full release of documents. Biden, however, pledged that the NARA would have only one additional year to continue reviewing information before facing a deadline for public disclosure on December 15, 2022. All other information that does not require additional attention will be released by December 15 of this year.
Although the release of the remaining 10% of records when 250,000 are already publicly available may seem inconsequential, these remaining records matter greatly because the events and motives of President Kennedy’s assassination still remain unclear after fifty-eight years.
President Kennedy died on November 22, 1963 from a bullet wound to his head. He was shot while riding in an open limousine during his visit to Dallas, Texas. Three shots were fired: the first bullet missed, the second bullet struck Kennedy in the neck and injured Texas Governor John Connally, and the third bullet fatally struck Kennedy’s head. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested just over an hour later, and the evidence found since then clearly supports that he was the killer. However, he was never tried—on November 24, 1963, local nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally shot Oswald while he was being transferred to the county jail.
Since 1963, eight official investigations and countless public theories have attempted to string the details of JFK’s assassination together, and while what happened is mostly clear, unsolved, suspicious circumstances still surround the assassination. Why did Oswald, a psychologically troubled former marine who briefly defected to the Soviet Union, decide to kill the president? And why did Jack Ruby kill him before he could be tried?
While the 1964 Warren Commission investigation concluded that Oswald acted alone, conspiracy theorists attribute the assassination to a larger conspiracy by groups such as the Cuban government, the Mafia, the Soviet Union, the CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service, and even Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. A 1979 House committee erroneously found that a second gunman was involved. This conclusion and the audio evidence supporting it have since been disproven. Yet today, across many polls, between 65 and 75 percent of Americans believe that Kennedy’s assassination involved a cover-up or conspiracy.
Biden’s delay of the release of records in October only fanned the flames of conspiracy theories. What could make Donald Trump rescind his bold promise to release all the records, and make Joe Biden follow in his footsteps? Trump cited national security concerns, while Biden cited personnel shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These weak excuses suggest that
the US government is reluctant to release all the records without careful review, perhaps in fear of hurting their imagine, or even revealing some dark truths about Kennedy’s assassination.
Countless conspiracy theories find incongruencies with the Warren Commission’s verdict in almost every aspect of the assassination, from the number of gunmen, to the roles of the spectators present in the Zapruder film, to the number of bullets fired and their trajectory. Most theories have little definitive evidence to support them, but the most detailed and logical of them involve Cuba and the Mafia. The CIA tried to organize the assassination of Cuba’s new revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, many times. They even turned to the Chicago Mafia for assistance, offering Johnny Roselli $150,000 to kill Castro. While the Mafia generally opposed Castro because of its ties to casinos in Cuba, conspiracy theorists hold that they may have turned against JFK because of the US’s failure to overthrow or assassinate Castro. Also, they harbored resentment for the president’s brother Robert Kennedy, who heavily attacked organized crime as Attorney General under JFK. Jack Ruby also had ties to the Chicago Mafia through Sam Giancana, which has led to speculation that Ruby killed Oswald to prevent him from revealing the Mafia’s involvement. According to the Warren Commission’s findings and Ruby’s own words, however, Ruby acted purely for personal reasons: he was deeply outraged by the president’s death, and wanted to administer justice himself as well as spare Jackie Kennedy “the discomfiture of coming back to trial.”
Other, simpler theories attribute JFK’s assassination to Cuba. They hold that Castro’s government organized the assassination as a retaliation to the US’s failed attempts to kill Castro. However, a statement from Castro himself in 1977 best shows the glaring fallacy of this theory: “It would have been absolute insanity by Cuba… It would have been a provocation. Needless to say, it would have been to run the risk that our country would have been destroyed by the United States.”
While it still seems unlikely that Kennedy’s death was the result of a grand conspiracy, there still may be details about the assassination that the US government wants to hide. We will only know once every record has been released. While Biden has pledged this will happen before December 15 of next year, I remain skeptical.