Academic journal article Social Education

Window into the White House

Academic journal article Social Education

Window into the White House

Article excerpt

Have you ever wanted to eavesdrop on American presidents as they deliberate, agonize, debate, discuss, or reflect on key policy issues? An exciting online resource, www.whitehousetapes.org, makes this possible. From 1940-1973, six presidents (from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Richard M. Nixon) secretly taped almost S,000 hours of conversations, including telephone calls, meetings, and memoirs. Hosted and maintained by the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, whitehousetapes.org offers free access to presidential recordings covering myriad topics that range from the significant--World War II, the Cold War, the Space Race, the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis--to the mundane--President Lyndon B. Johnson ordering some custom-made pants. All presidential recordings, declassified and released by the respective presidential libraries, are available on the website. In addition, the site offers links to numerous recordings that the Miller Center has augmented to include a scrolling transcript with the audio, so teachers and students can both see and hear the conversation as it plays (see Figure 1). Each of these recordings provides an introduction that details contextual information such as the date, topic and participants, as well as the type of recording (e.g., telephone conversation, meeting, or memoir).

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Designed for use by the research and teaching communities, whitehousetapes.org provides teachers and students the opportunity to learn more about how American presidents have made decisions and exercised leadership during pivotal moments in United States history. (1) These fascinating historical sources offer students the opportunity to explore the presidency beyond the pages of the textbook. They practice key historical thinking skills as they listen, analyze, and discuss the revealing conversations that often provide conflicting viewpoints on events in history. In this article, we highlight the resources available on this site for teaching about a topic that continues to be both controversial and extremely relevant to the current political debate: the Vietnam War.

The Vietnam Recordings

The website's Vietnam tapes include conversations from the administrations of presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon, with the earliest stemming from 1962--the year Kennedy instituted his taping system--to the spring of 1973, when Nixon dismantled his own taping operation. These tapes capture some of the key moments in presidential decision making about the war, from the build-up of the U.S. advisory mission to the final withdrawal of American troops. These tapes highlight, as no other document can, the complexity of the challenge confronting these statesmen.

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The Vietnam recordings are particularly helpful in illuminating various policymaking dynamics, including the role of presidential advisers, tensions between the executive and legislative branches of government, the role of electoral politics, and the challenges of managing the media. Students can hear Kennedy ruminating on topics such as the critical reporting of the American press corps in Vietnam, the possibility of withdrawing U.S. troops, and America's involvement in the overthrow of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. President Johnson also comes alive in these recordings as listeners hear him "work over" members of Congress, discuss the pros and cons of escalating the war, and anguish over the wisdom of committing American blood and treasure. Materials from the Nixon recordings are likewise illuminating, as they detail the 37th president's stormy relationship with the media, his own thoughts on escalating and de-escalating American involvement in Vietnam, and the political calculus that underlay his endgame for the war.

Collectively, these tapes offer a unique window into a period in American history that is perhaps unparalleled in its array of personalities, political change, and drama. …

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