As the 54th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy nears, information from the previously sealed FBI files related to the tragedy is still being processed by scholars and enthusiasts alike.
Jeffrey Engel, who heads Southern Methodist University's Center for Presidential History, says the documents so far offer some interesting insight, but he's seen nothing that changes what happened on that November day in Dealey Plaza.
On Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone: There’s really been nothing new in these documents that should change our opinion from the Warren Commission, that should change the idea that there was a lone gunman. There’s been a lot of anticipation. It’s been fascinating to watch people’s excitement build, hoping that they’re going to find something that would completely explain away every problem, every quandary that we’ve had trying to figure out what happened in November of 1963. But these records have been more about the process of the investigation than they were about actual assassination itself.
The value in exposing the process: We’re starting to understand why the CIA, in particular, did not want these records being revealed because they show the CIA not in a great light, in many cases, in how they were conducting their operations more generally. The truth is in the '60s and '70s, the CIA was doing a lot of business they’re not proud of, and so we’re seeing them really expose how they operate in ways they wish they had not, 40 years later.
3 reasons it’s difficult for people to accept Oswald acted alone:
- There is a subset of society that just simply refuses to accept the easy answer. The easy answer is usually the right answer. They just want to see a conspiracy. They want the world to be more complex because they like the idea that there is actually somebody in charge.
- There are these coincidences, and the more you pull on strings, the more you realize there are more strings to pull. It doesn’t mean the strings are connected to anything.
- We’re still dealing with the trauma of having lost this presidency, which in a real sense, was the end of America’s innocence as it conceived of itself. We don’t really think of the 1960s beginning until Kennedy’s assassination, and of course, we know how the 1960s ended in tragedies like Vietnam and racial tensions and civil rights tensions. We don’t necessarily want to believe that it could just be a simple act of murder; perhaps there’s some greater meaning given what we know came to be a tumultuous decade.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.