Among the documents are memos between President Kennedy and former National Security Council Adviser McGeorge Bundy, cables sent from the U.S. Embassy in Laos to the State Department during the early days of the Vietnam War and efforts at political subversion in Cuba.
Hundreds of historians are expected to scrutinize the 4,500 pages made public Wednesday at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
"The puzzle of the Kennedy administration is almost complete, but there are definitely holes," said Maura Porter, an archivist at the library.
The materials, which span Kennedy's years in office from 1960 to 1963, should help give a clearer picture of the administration's foreign policy decisions, said David Coleman, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs.
But the historian, who been eagerly anticipating the release of the documents, cautioned against expecting any stunning revelations.
Coleman is working on a project to transcribe tapes Kennedy secretly recorded in the White House. CIA-related documents are especially valuable because they have been the most difficult to obtain, he said.
In addition to Cuba and Vietnam, the files also include documents concerning the United States' relations with the Dominican Republic, Germany, India, and the Soviet Union.
Despite the so-called "white papers" â€“ in-depth analyses of countries or individuals â€“ the more interesting information is generally contained in the memos, Porter said.
"To hold a document handwritten by President Kennedy, it makes history come alive," she said.
One document, a November 1963 message from the CIA to the White House's "International Situation Room," offers a breathless account of an assault on the presidential palace in Vietnam: "Officer who lives adjacent palace area reports all his windows blown out and small arms fire from all directions on palace."
Others seem less weighty.
A once-classified memo from October 1963 regarding the activities of former Vietnamese first lady Madame Nhu reads: "The press, digging deep for sidebar stories as Madame Nhu kept to her hotel room, noted that New York specialty stores appeared to be trying to touch off a Southeast Asian style motif with Oriental scenes and fashion advertising featuring her coiffure and almond eyes."
The release of the material is the result, in part, of an executive order by President Clinton mandating all documents 25 years and older containing national security classified information be reviewed for declassification.