His presidency was brief—two years, 10 months, two days. Yet the life and murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy still fascinate Americans 53 years after shots rang out on Dealey Plaza.
Later this month, a trove of secret documents related to JFK’s assassination is slated to be released by the National Archives. What those documents reveal, if anything meaningful, remains unknown. President Donald Trump can block the release, if he chooses, on the grounds of national security. It’s hard to imagine any scenario in which national security remains a concern more than five decades later, so we hope the president lets the documents emerge.
Nevertheless, if Americans think the records’ release will once and for all debunk the swirl of conspiracy theories—LBJ ordered it; the mob did it; no, the communists were behind it—they’re probably wrong.
Conspiracy theories reflect a natural human tendency to search out information that fits our view of the world or that makes sense of the perplexing.
It’s why people suspicious of government cling to the theory that 9/11 was not the handiwork of al-Qaida but actually an inside job perpetrated by the Bush administration. It’s also why some Americans insist that former President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
As for JFK and Dallas, conspiracy theories were more than just a byproduct of a bewildered, saddened nation groping for answers. They created a cottage industry that produced a raft of books and documentaries and, of course, JFK, Oliver Stone’s feature film take on what happened. There’s profit in conspiracy, and it’s easy to see why: A poll in 2013 found that more than half of Americans believe Kennedy’s murder was a mission concocted by multiple conspirators, while only a fourth thought Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone.
The information up for release now includes more than 3,000 secret documents. In 1992, Congress ordered that virtually all assassination documents be released within 25 years. That deadline has arrived—and unless Trump steps in, the National Archives must comply by Oct. 26.
JFK scholars say they don’t expect any big revelation. One potential thread that interests them: Oswald’s six-day trip to Mexico City, and his visits there to the Cuban and Soviet embassies, weeks before Kennedy’s murder. The purpose for the trip remains murky, scholars say, and the documents might shed some light.
But what America shouldn’t expect is an end to the conspiracy theories that have surrounded JFK and Nov. 22, 1963, for half a century.