The Kennedy Assassination: From Trauma to History

The highly anticipated release of a massive trove of classified documents on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy earlier this month was mostly a trove of disappointments for those who seek evidence that it was the result of a conspiracy.

Ever since the tragic event on November 22, 1963, Americans have had their doubts. Before that year was out, Gallup found that 52 percent of Americans thought the man arrested for the crime, Lee Harvey Oswald, was part of a larger conspiracy, with just 29 percent saying he acted alone.

The 1964 Warren Commission Report on the assassination, designed to confirm the theory of the “lone gunman,” did not succeed in dispelling thoughts of conspiracy. The belief that others worked with Oswald has never dipped below 50 percent in Gallup polling, and peaked at 81 percent in 1976.

A poll sponsored by the website FiveThirtyEight found that as of Oct. 20 of this year, only 33 percent of Americans believe in the lone assassin, whereas 61 percent still maintain it was a conspiracy. Though numbers vary among demographics, it seems that a majority belief in a conspiracy of some kind persists across every boundary — racial, political, ethnic, age, gender and educational level.

There are various theories that seek to explain the overall drop of 20 percentage points in the number of conspiracy thinkers

One would assume that the world Americans live in now is far more climatized toward conspiracy than ever before. In the years since the Kennedy assassination, major conspiracies have undisputedly occurred. The Watergate plumbers, the Tobacco Institute and most infamously, the terror attacks of September 11 were not the figments of paranoid conspiracy mongers. They were proven in courts of law. And when the question of conspiracy hovers over news of every terrorist attack, one would expect that the credibility of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy should, if anything, have increased.

A recent computerized reenactment of the assassination that strongly indicated that Oswald was alone may have had an impact. It confirmed the officially stated trajectory of the lethal bullet, which also wounded Texas Governor John Connolly, who was riding with the president; and it refuted the evidence of an auditory tape that suggested multiple shooters.

The failure of conspiracy theorists to adduce decisive evidence to make their case has apparently worn down the skeptical. The latest batch of files — 10,744 of them — have made hardly a ripple in the media, even though it was at first widely publicized around the question of whether President Donald Trump would override objections from security agencies, and journalists and experts on the subject have examined them minutely in the days since their release.

Yet, they didn’t come away empty-handed. An FBI file said that Jack Ruby, the man who later killed Oswald, invited an FBI informant to come and “watch the fireworks” shortly before the shots rang out in Dallas.

“He was with Jack Ruby and standing at the corner of the Postal Annex Building facing the Texas School Book Depository Building at the time of the shooting,” reads the FBI document.

Inconclusive but highly suggestive, such testimony will presumably fuel continued theorizing. Yet, even that item did not produce the shore-to-shining-shore shock that might have been expected. In fact, it went almost without remark in the news.

Some have suggested that Americans are too preoccupied with other, more immediate shooting threats, like the ones in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, to give their attention to yet another round of discussion about the Kennedy assassination. It seems a long time ago — before a whole generation was even born — and far away.

The assassination was a landmark event for those who lived through it. It is said that everyone who was alive and old enough to know about it remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard of the assassination.

But for an increasing number of people, it’s an event that happened before they were born. More and more, it recedes into the stream of historical events before and after. Thus, time converts trauma into history. The muted reaction to the latest declassification of documents reflects that inevitable process.

It doesn’t mean that the question of “Who killed Kennedy?” will die and be forgotten. Especially since the release of documents, large as it was, was not complete. In the end, President Trump bowed to the concerns of the FBI, CIA and others who argued tenaciously that some files had to remain classified for the time being lest it harm national security.

It gives the doubters — who will likely never be convinced no matter what the evidence — another reason to hold onto their suspicions. They can still point to the as yet unclassified files and ask what terrible secrets they hold.

Yet even if and when they are released, it is doubtful that the more determined of conspiracy theorists will concede. Some people are so convinced of their positions that they will never change their minds. Which in itself is something worth contemplating.