The release last Thursday of previously classified, or at least unseen, government files of all kinds relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy is being heralded as Donald Trump’s decision—though it was simply his decision not to prevent their release, which had long been scheduled. In fact, at the last minute, Trump listened to requests from the intelligence services not to release some three hundred of the remaining three thousand files. But that decision raised more suspicions, so on Friday night the President tweeted, “I will be releasing ALL JFK files other than the names and addresses of any mentioned person who is still living.”
It’s always possible that some smoking gun of a document will reveal itself in the remaining files. Scrolling through the PDFs of the (very well presented) documents, though, mostly reveals just what one expected: rumors and scuttlebutt, with uncertain sourcing. We learn that, two days after the assassination, the F.B.I. was roiled by the possibility that Jack Ruby was identical to a Florida racketeer named Rubin. And that, two weeks before the assassination, one Robert C. Rawls overheard someone in a bar in New Orleans offering to bet a hundred dollars that President Kennedy would not be alive in three weeks’ time. But, the document reads, “He does not recall ever seeing the man before and is not certain that he would recognize him if he did. He admits being somewhat intoxicated at the time and said the man also was in an intoxicated condition.”
Anything more notable that’s turned up simply echoes what we already knew: the C.I.A. was enlisting gangsters in an effort to assassinate Castro (with what depth of knowledge on the part of the Kennedy brothers is still unclear); J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with American Communists and with Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s purported ties to them, to the point of mania; Lee Harvey Oswald went to Mexico City in the fall of 1963, probably in order to try and get to Cuba, and while he was there had contacts with Russian intelligence in the person of embassy staffers; Lyndon Johnson never entirely bought the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald had acted alone; Oswald was a good, not an inept, shot. (This last fact, known already from Oswald’s service record from his time in the Marines, is curiously sourced to a Cuban diplomat.)
There are strange historical pleasures in sorting through the records. The obsession with Castro and Cuba is, given that we now know that the United States can actually flourish quite well with “Communists right off our shores,” still startling. Certainly, the entanglements of the government and the Mafia remain shocking: one document, prepared for the House Select Committee on Assassinations, summarizes the evidence flatly, stating that Allen Dulles, the head of the C.I.A., authorized payment of a hundred and fifty thousand dollars for a plot against Castro involving Johnny Roselli and Sam Giancana. It’s scary to read the minutes of a “Special Group meeting” in November, 1960—just before Kennedy’s election—which included such Cold War worthies as Generals Charles Cabell and Ed Lansdale, and in which someone asks if “any real planning has been done for taking direct positive action against Fidel, Raul and Che Guevara.” Cabell advises that the suggestion is “beyond our capabilities” but not, apparently, beyond our consideration. (Ted Cruz’s dad, however, does not as yet seem to be mentioned in any of the documents.)
Perhaps that smoking gun may yet exist; God knows there are enough dogged assassination researchers out there to find it if it does. But, so far, the documents seem to confirm the wisest twin conclusions about the J.F.K. assassination: Oswald was guilty, and acted alone; and, at the same time, the intelligence services—the F.B.I., the C.I.A., and the rest—were up to their armpits in bad acts that they were trying to keep concealed. These conclusions, as I wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, point to two more: that the Warren Commission is almost certainly the only plausible account of what happened on that day in Dallas, and that the underlife of the government was more sinister, or at least more complicit in guilty knowledge, than the image makers of the time, and the Kennedys, wanted to accept or to publicize.
The pretense last week was that, in releasing the files, Trump took action on behalf of the American people, in the pursuit of openness. But Trump acts in his own interest, and his pursuit of apparent openness has as its real end the undermining of public institutions and practices which depend on professionalism, independence, and trust. Trump was likely prodded to speak out about the files by Roger Stone, one of the figures from the fringes of American life whom the President has brought to the center. Stone wrote a book titled “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ.” Last week, his profane rants got him suspended from Twitter, but he still appears to be in touch with Trump. Stone has warned of the “deep state,” the new villain of right-wing paranoia—well, an old villain, newly restored to primacy. The thinking in this case seems to be that, if Trump’s followers can be persuaded that no one in the “permanent government” should be trusted, they can perhaps be more easily persuaded not to trust the institutions of the state when, say, they pursue charges against anyone associated with his campaign. The implicit, and increasingly explicit, argument here is: Don’t listen to special counsels who worked for the F.B.I.; those are the guys that withheld all those documents about the J.F.K. assassination.
As David Frum has pointed out, what Trump’s surrogates really mean by “the deep state” is the rule of law. The idea that there are civil servants or functionaries within the government whose chief trait is loyalty to the Constitution and to the ongoing administration of the state is intolerable to the autocratic mind. So, if those other actors question challenge the White House, they must be taunted, demoralized, and, if possible, dismissed.
Yet what the true history of the Kennedy assassination, including the newly released documents, reveals is not how formidable the government agencies during the Cold War era were but how vulnerable they were to exposure by what was then called “the press,” and to the countervailing power of Congress. The genuine heroism of those members of Congress who in the seventies pushed to reopen inquiries about the Kennedy assassination, in the light of the post-Watergate revelations about C.I.A. murder plots, has not been sufficiently applauded in this much more obedient day. Their work resulted, as few people now recall, in a public apology from Richard Helms, the C.I.A. chief, for the agency’s contacts with organized crime. The committee reviewed all the crucial evidence against Oswald and, somewhat to its own surprise, validated it. (A tentative, last-minute conclusion that there may have been a second, unknown gunman was based on acoustic evidence that has since been universally discredited.)
The effort today is not to get at the truth but to make the truth look unobtainable. By damaging people’s confidence not just in good government but in the separation of powers, which allows one part of the government to investigate another, you create an illusion of powerlessness that can only produce rage and despair, the two emotions that Trumpism profits from. Progressives who imagine that conspiracy thinking ever helps their causes are deluded. Pessimism about reform is essential to the authoritarian mind. Confusion is its lifeblood. Then preposterous theories become just as likely as rational ones. Any potential attempt to collude with a hostile foreign government to undermine democracy becomes the same as an attempt by others to find out if anyone has been potentially colluding. It’s Chinatown, friends. You can’t trust anyone.
What we should fear is not a deep state but a state robbed of its depth. As the historian Timothy Snyder has pointed out many times, it is when states are robbed of their memory and their self-respect, which are most often embodied in a civil-servant class, that tyranny flourishes. There is no “deep state” that exists beyond the scrutiny of responsible citizens; there is a cynical paranoia that always acts, and is meant to, as a pathogen to public trust.