Surprisingly soon after the Warren Commission Report concluded that Lee Oswald acted alone in assassinating John Kennedy, a significant and growing segment of the American public began to speculate about alternative perpetrators whose actions the Warren Commission had covered up. In 1992, facing the persistence of that speculation, Congress enacted the statute that prompted this week’s disclosures (and non-disclosures) of secret documents relating to the assassination. It hoped to assure the public that the government was not complicit in the assassination, and nor was it withholding evidence of a conspiracy, a hope that President Trump reiterated upon the documents’ release last Thursday.
The effort was a noble one. Congress designed a timed disclosure mandate that would allow the public to know more and theorize less. In the predominant telling of history from the 1960s on, the assassination had initiated the public’s radical doubt about the government’s actions and willingness to tell the truth. In its wake, various cottage industries have circulated theories about government conspiracies to cover up, among other things, all of the major assassinations of the 1960s (RFK and MLK as well as JFK), its relationship with alien visitors, the rise of a globalist “new world order,” the truth behind the 9/11 attacks, and the place of President Obama’s birth. Perhaps by cleaning out its archives, the federal government could reset the public’s view of government and rid us of this persistent tendency to find conspiracy everywhere.
This has proven to be a false hope. The disclosure of fascinating if obscure documents from the National Archives has already begun to fill in details about the assassination, its main and supporting characters, and the Cold War. But these documents won’t solve all of the questions and mysteries surrounding an event so seemingly random and complex, as well as so pored over by professional historians and amateur sleuths. Redactions and delays in disclosure, meanwhile, don’t merely frustrate but appear to prove conspiracy’s existence. And even if the Trump administration or a future one could claim to release everything, those predisposed to disbelieve it would simply assume the truth remains buried or, worse, was destroyed.
This reveals a deeper truth about disclosure, secrecy, and the public’s relationship to its government. The idea that more information can improve democracy and trust has driven all manner of federal and state open government mandates. The Freedom of Information Act, which just turned fifty years old, has led to the disclosure of millions of documents that would not have been available earlier. Indeed, “transparency” has become a governance buzzword that every political candidate and administration claims to embrace. Both campaigns in the 2016 presidential election decried the secret documents of its opponent, whether deleted emails or tax returns. Allegations that the other candidate was corrupt or worse, and that the full truth of their wickedness would soon be revealed, helped rally supporters and persuade some uncommitted voters.
And yet, as the election and its aftermath have made quite clear, open government laws have not improved trust in government. This lack of trust has many causes: hyper-partisanship, dysfunctional political parties and political institutions, a new and continually-evolving media landscape, and political scandals that FOIA and similar laws have not prevented and sometimes help expose. But more disclosure has not fixed distrust, nor has it ended or even curbed conspiracy theories.
The release of new assassination-related documents demonstrates this paradox. Knowing more can help us make better decisions in our lives and can help government devise better, more effective public policy. When government discloses information about its regulatory programs, or it releases data it collects regarding the services it provides, the public can hold its elected officials and civil servants accountable
But disclosure cannot solve our deepest worries about the government or our deepest disagreements about divisive political issues. Donald Trump’s supporters do not seem to mind that he hasn’t released his tax returns despite his pledge to do so after the election, nor do they seem to care to know more about conflicts of interest between his actions and his family’s businesses. Hillary Clinton’s supporters did not consider her private email server of the actions of the Clinton Foundation to be nearly as important as her opponent and his supporters. More disclosure would not have persuaded those who were already predisposed for or against the candidates.
Similarly, unless the highly unlikely smoking gun that definitively proves or disproves the Warren Commission’s conclusion turns up, more assassination-related documents will not shake the dogged belief that someone other than or in addition to Oswald is responsible for John Kennedy’s death. That belief will continue to ebb and flow, as it has over the previous decades.
But the extent of conspiracy theorizing will have little to do with government disclosure. We have long been a nation captivated by conspiracy theories and alternative explanations for complex events, since well before Lee Oswald shot John Kennedy (or not), dating back to our revolutionary beginnings. No amount of new documents will change that.