“MR. PRESIDENT, I wish you’d install a tape recorder on your end.”
It was a request made only half in jest, as Russell B. Long, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, sought help in crafting an argument against Senate critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam. As he put it to President Lyndon B. Johnson in a February 1966 telephone conversation, “I wish we had this on tape, because I would like to say it exactly the way you say it, and I’m not sure I could recall it all that way, but I’ll do my best.”1
As it turns out, President Johnson did have their exchange on tape, though he would not admit it to Long, for Johnson secretly recorded many of his conversations in the Oval Office. So, too, did his four immediate predecessors, as did his immediate successor. The resulting 5,000 hours of telephone and meeting tape that Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard M. Nixon recorded during their time in the White House capture some of the most significant moments in modern American political history. From Birmingham to Berlin, from Medicare to My Lai, from Selma to SALT, and from Watts to Watergate, the presidential recordings offer a unique window into the shaping of U.S. domestic and foreign policy.
This history is now accessible via the Presidential Recordings Digital Edition (PRDE), the online portal for annotated transcripts of the White House tapes published by the Presidential Recordings Program (PRP). Created by a team of scholars and researchers at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, these transcripts are presented in PRDE alongside the corresponding audio, enabling users to read and listen to these conversations simultaneously. This effort at deciphering the presidential recordings and decoding their meaning allows these extraordinary documents, many of which would remain otherwise inaccessible, to come alive, providing an intimate view of life inside the Oval Office. (Read more about PRP in “The Presidential Recordings Program,” by Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, and Timothy Naftali).
The creation of this comprehensive PRDE portal has been years in the making. Following the establishment of PRP at the Miller Center in 1998 and its subsequent publication of several print volumes of annotated transcripts, the program began a collaboration with the University of Virginia Press and its Rotunda imprint to publish transcripts of the White House tapes on a digital platform. The first edition of these digital materials, published in 2010, featured transcripts of President Johnson’s conversations on Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty, edited by David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Guian A. McKee, and Marc J. Selverstone. PRDE now comprises all eight print volumes in the The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson (W. W. Norton, 2005–2011), as well as the first three print volumes in the The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy (W. W. Norton, 2001). (See a complete list of publications.) It also includes transcripts of President Nixon’s conversations appearing in Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate (University of Virginia Press, 2014), and Fatal Politics: The Nixon Tapes, the Vietnam War, and the Casualties of Reelection (University of Virginia Press, 2015). The most recent volumes in PRDE include new transcripts from Nixon’s first week of taping and from conversations on the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks.
These transcripts are the product of an extraordinarily talented and dedicated group of scholars, researchers, editors, and student interns. As founders of PRP, Ernest May and Philip Zelikow deserve a special note of recognition for the program’s achievements, as does Timothy Naftali, its first director. Several other scholars, including David G. Coleman, Kent B. Germany, Ken Hughes, Robert David Johnson, Guian A. McKee, and David Shreve, have made major contributions to its work, editing multiple volumes that now reside within the PRDE collection. (See a complete list of editors and staff.)
PRP and Rotunda will add to the PRDE corpus on a regular and continuing basis, publishing exclusively born-digital transcripts, save for three forthcoming print volumes of Kennedy material. Upcoming additions to PRDE include selections from Nixon’s 1971 telephone conversations; a second and final volume of transcripts focusing on Johnson’s engagement with Civil Rights, Vietnam, and the War on Poverty; and a volume on Kennedy’s efforts related to Civil Rights.
With this expansion of PRDE, we invite visitors to explore these remarkable resources, to consider the challenges of presidential decision-making, and to encounter history in real time.
|||“Lyndon Johnson and Russell Long on 17 February 1966,” Conversation WH6602-05-9644-9645, Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [The Presidential Recordings of Lyndon B. Johnson: Vietnam, ed. David G. Coleman, Ken Hughes, and Marc J. Selverstone] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–).|