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

By Stern, Sheldon M. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2000 | Go to article overview

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


Stern, Sheldon M., Presidential Studies Quarterly


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.