The Kennedy Tapes

By Lawrence, Mark Atwood | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Kennedy Tapes


Lawrence, Mark Atwood, Presidential Studies Quarterly


The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, the Great Crises. 3 vols. Edited by Ernest R. May, Timothy Naftali, and Philip D. Zelikow. New York: Norton, 2001. 1,882 pages, plus CD-ROM.

Recordings of presidential meetings and telephone conversations can be both a blessing and a curse for scholars of postwar U.S. politics and diplomacy. On the positive side, the tapes provide a kind of time machine, enabling historians to listen in on the policy-making process as it unfolded. Researchers can discern emotion, idiosyncrasies, and the interplay of personalities in a way that written documents rarely permit. On the negative side, recordings can be maddeningly difficult to use. The sound quality is often poor, and many passages defy comprehension. Policy makers frequently wander from their agenda, making obscure references to names and events unfamiliar to researchers lacking encyclopedic knowledge. Often, too, individuals speak in broken or incoherent sentences, making the flow of conversation difficult to grasp.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Since the mid-1990s, researchers at the University of Virginia's Miller Center for Public Affairs have been working to transcribe and annotate the White House recordings of all six presidents who made them between 1940 and 1973, a mammoth task that will take many years to complete. The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, the Great Crises, a three-volume set of books edited by Ernest R. May, Timothy Naftali, and Philip D. Zelikow, represents the first major step in that process. A landmark achievement, the books not only provide researchers with valuable new material from the crisis-filled year of 1962 but also leave no doubt that the entire presidential recordings project will be a major asset to scholars.

The collection is not, of course, the first effort at transcribing presidential tapes and making them available to a broad readership. In 1997, May and Zelikow began the process by publishing The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, now a standard resource for students of the crisis. Michael Beschloss's two volumes of Lyndon Johnson's telephone conversations, published in 1997 and 2001, have similarly proved valuable to historians working across a range of foreign and domestic topics in the later 1960s.

But May, Naftali, and Zelikow's new collection surpasses these earlier efforts in several respects. Most obviously, it is unprecedented in its completeness. The three volumes, more than eighteen hundred pages in all, contain the entire run of recordings between Kennedy's decision to install the taping system at the end of July 1962 and the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis three months later, a logical end point for the first set of books. Researchers can rest assured that the volumes contain every shred of tape that has been declassified for the period in question, including updated versions of all the material included in May and Zelikow's previous book. Indeed, the new collection now stands as the most authoritative version of the missile crisis tapes.

The volumes are even more impressive for the effort that has gone into assuring accuracy. The project, under Naftali's day-to-day direction, used state-of-the-art sound equipment to increase the tapes' clarity, and as many as four members of the Miller Center's team of young scholars listened to each recording to reduce the chances of error. To be sure, readers will be disappointed by the abundance of the notation "[unclear]" inserted by the editors to indicate indecipherable passages. This unwelcome word appears as many as six or seven times on some pages. On the bright side, however, readers will draw confidence from this practice, which suggests the editors' obvious caution about introducing errors. Readers also can gain a sense of the collection's careful attention to accuracy by comparing its missile crisis transcripts with corresponding sections of May and Zelikow's 1997 book.

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