It is the personal preoccupation of millions, a cultural touchstone like no other in American life, arguably the crime of the last century, the subject of theories, conspiracies – and conspiracy theories. And on Thursday a passel of new clues is to be made public.
The release of more than 3,000 documents relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy more than a half-century ago may address questions long unanswered or, just as likely, raise new questions about the events of Nov. 22, 1963, when the 35th president was gunned down in broad daylight as his motorcade approached a triple underpass in Dallas.
That shooting changed the trajectory of American life. Without JFK, who suggested he might withdraw U.S. troops from Vietnam after the 1964 election, the war in Southeast Asia deepened and lengthened. At the same time, his death fortified Congress to pass vital civil-rights legislation, and transformed the careers of Lyndon B. Johnson (who became president later that day) and Richard Nixon (whose White House dreams were redeemed by the unpopularity of the Vietnam War and of Mr. Johnson). The ricochet effect of those bullets altered the lives of millions, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, all of whom were thrust into office by forces set in motion that November afternoon.
Just as no one can understand 20th-century Europe without taking account of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in 1914, just as it is impossible to understand the Russian Revolution without considering the killing of Alexander II in 1881, it is impossible to grasp the character of modern America without reckoning with the death of President Kennedy – an event Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson described hours later as "a death so sudden, so shocking, that it left us … stunned and unbelieving." Americans were stunned and a good portion of them were unbelieving, an unbelief that extended to the official version of the assassination as set forth by the Warren Commission: The conviction that a lone gunman shot the President.
All this accounts for the torrent of interest in the release of the assassination materials, a document dump required under a law passed 25 years ago that kept them under seal until this week.
"What could there possibly be – after the cataclysmic changes in Russia and Cuba and China and all the people who have died since 1963 – that was worth hiding for 54 years?" Cyril Wecht, perhaps America's most prominent forensic pathologist and almost certainly the most persistent skeptic of the single-assassin theory, wondered aloud in an interview. "If there are as many as 300,000 pages in those documents there has to be something in there that will be relevant. I'm not predicting anything – no proverbial smoking gun – but there may be something that will open doors." One area of interest, possible fuel for conspiracy theorists: documents detailing Lee Harvey Oswald's meetings with Cuban and Soviet spies in Mexico City shortly before the assassination.
The mystery surrounding the death of the president – a mystery that has lingered for more than five decades after a presidential commission was supposed to have solved the mystery for all time – remains a national obsession, and not only for the approximately 132 million Americans who were 7 or older at the time of the assassination and thus have living memory of the event. The severity of the crime and the nature of the victim have also kept the controversy alive.
In life, John Kennedy – steeped in history and yet an innocent in world affairs, humorous on the campaign stump and in the White House news conference yet coldly calculating in private strategy meetings – was an unusually compelling figure, a mixture of the logical and the sentimental, the romantic and the practical, the cerebral and the hormonal. Today nobody mimics the Eisenhower style, nor the Reagan style – two men who served a full eight years and accomplished far more than Mr. Kennedy did in a mere 1,000 days in office – and yet the adjective "Kennedyesque" is as vibrant a part of the American political lexicon as ever. Even today, grown men weep at his speeches (on civil rights, on the drive to travel to the moon, on asking "not what your country can do for you"), just as others deride him as immature, blundering, unsophisticated.
All those contradictions speak to enduring discrepancies in the American character, especially the twin notions of unrequited potential and unrealized ideals.
"JFK tapped in to a spirit of idealism that runs deep in the American story. He articulated those ideals brilliantly in a way that resonated with many across generations," said Ellen Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire historian who edited a collection of letters written to Jacqueline Kennedy shortly after her husband's assassination.
"He was a pragmatist who acknowledged forthrightly the difficulty in realizing those aspirations. But he celebrated and seemed to embody the striving. The tragedy of his terrible early death in some sense captured the paradox we live with as humans – our lives are so short and so much lies just beyond our reach," she said. Like all political figures, Mr. Kennedy lived in controversy – what was the depth of his devotion to civil rights? Was he committed to withdrawing from Vietnam after the 1964 election? – but, as Shakespeare might have said, nothing in his life shaped his historical legacy like his leaving it. Indeed, the debate over his death has lasted almost 20-per-cent longer than his life.
In many ways Pennsylvania has been ground zero for this controversy. It was the Warren Commission, headed by chief justice Earl Warren, that deemed the Kennedy assassination the work of one man, the loner and sometime Communist Oswald, performed from the sixth-floor corner window of the Texas School Book Depository at the northwest corner of Elm and North Houston Streets in Dallas. Until his death in 2011, Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter, a one-time assistant counsel on the Warren Commission, defended the commission's findings just as Dr. Wecht, the long-time coroner of Allegheny County , disputed it.
Now Dr. Wecht, former president of the American Academy of Forensic Science, is eagerly awaiting the release of the documents.
"Either there is the Warren Commission version – one lone nut who all of a sudden decided he had to kill the president – or there's something else," he said. "What that something else is, I don't know." But he and many Americans know that the John F. Kennedy aura lives on.
"He was the most inspirational political leader of our time and he was murdered," said former senator Paul G. Kirk Jr., who worked for senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and then succeeded him in office. "There's an element of human emotion here. Individuals and America were scarred forever. This is a wound that has never healed."