Source Material: The 1997 Published Transcripts of the JFK Cuban Missile Crisis Tapes: Too Good to Be True?

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1997, I learned that Harvard University Press was about to publish The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, complete transcripts of the tape-recorded missile crisis conversations between President Kennedy and his advisers, edited by the distinguished Professors Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow. I was astonished at the speed with which the transcriptions had been made ready for publication since the bulk of the recordings had not been opened by the John F. Kennedy Library until late in 1996 and early in 1997.

In my twenty-three years as historian at the Kennedy Library, I had done extensive work with sound recordings, particularly the missile crisis tapes. From my own long experience, I knew all too well how difficult and frustrating it could be to work with these noisy, low-fidelity reel-to-reel tapes. Yet, it was the historian's ultimate fantasy--the unique chance to be a fly on the wall in one of the most dramatic and dangerous moments in human history--to know, within the technical limits of the recordings, exactly what happened. Complete transcripts would be of inestimable value to historians, teachers, and lay readers alike.

Of course, I took for granted that the transcripts were accurate.

This article addresses the fact that the transcripts are, unfortunately, far less accurate than they could or should have been. A plethora of transcription errors distort the substance of the discussions. Also, the omission or mistranscription of passages clearly audible in the original tapes raises troubling questions about the noise-reduction technology used by the editors. The present author reviewed these transcripts using a home tape player and low-tech Kennedy Library cassettes--without digital audiotape, a real-time timer, or any kind of noise-reduction system. Since the editors claim that the Presidential Recordings Project of the University of Virginia's Miller Center, under the direction of Dr. Zelikow, is now using more expensive and "far better technology" than available in 1997, scholars should be concerned about whether any technical problems have been overcome.

The editors explained that they had commissioned a team of professional court reporters to prepare a set of "draft transcripts" from the Kennedy Library tapes. Then, audio experts, using NONOISE, a "technically advanced noise-reduction system," had produced an improved set of tapes, subsequently checked by the court reporters to be sure that nothing had been lost. However, Professors May and Zelikow (1997) stressed their responsibility for the final product:

   The two of us then worked with the tapes and the court reporters' drafts to
   produce the transcripts printed here. The laboriousness of this process
   would be hard to exaggerate. Each of us listened over and over to every
   sentence in the recordings. Even after a dozen replays at varying speeds,
   significant passages remained only partly comprehensible....
   Notwithstanding the high professionalism of the court reporters, we had to
   amend and rewrite almost all their texts. For several especially difficult
   sessions, we prepared transcriptions ourselves from scratch. In a final
   stage, we asked some veterans of the Kennedy administration to review the
   tapes and our transcripts in order to clear up as many as possible of the
   remaining puzzles. The reader has here the best text we can produce, but it
   is certainly not perfect. We hope that some, perhaps many, will go to the
   original tapes. If they find an error or make out something we could not,
   we will enter the corrections in subsequent editions or printings of this
   volume. (P. xiii)

In one of the most dramatic moments on the tapes, during the October 18 meeting, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) grimly refers to the ultimate nightmare of nuclear war as "the final failure." However, several months ago, I was unable to find those words in the May-Zelikow transcript. …