Preface, The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy

Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow, general editors, The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy. The Winds of Change, vols. 4–6

[Reprinted from The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy. The Winds of Change, vol. 4 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), xiii–xviii]

These three volumes in the Miller Center Presidential Recordings series cover the three-month period that followed the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, as issues from that crisis still simmered, unsettled.

Before and after becoming president, Kennedy had made use of a recording device called a Dictaphone, mostly for dictating letters or notes. In the summer of 1962 he asked Secret Service Agent Robert Bouck to conceal recording devices in the Cabinet Room, the Oval Office, and a study/ library in the Mansion. Without explaining why, Bouck obtained Tandberg reel-to-reel tape recorders, high-quality machines for the period, from the U.S. Army Signal Corps. He placed two of these machines in the basement of the West Wing of the White House in a room reserved for storing private presidential files. He placed another in the basement of the Executive Mansion.

The West Wing machines were connected by wire to two microphones in the Cabinet Room and two in the Oval Office. Those in the Cabinet Room were on the outside wall, placed in two spots covered by drapes where once there had been wall fixtures. They were activated by a switch at the President’s place at the Cabinet table, easily mistaken for a buzzer press. Of the microphones in the Oval Office, one was in the kneehole of the President’s desk, the other concealed in a coffee table across the room. Each could be turned on or off with a single push on an inconspicuous button.

We do not know where the microphone in the study of the Mansion was located. In any case, Bouck, who had chief responsibility for the system, said in 1976, in an oral history interview, that President Kennedy “did almost no recording in the Mansion.” Of the machine in the basement of the Mansion, he said: “Except for one or two short recordings, I don’t think it was ever used.” So far, except possibly for one short recording included in these volumes, no tape from the Mansion machine has turned up.

President Kennedy also had a Dictaphone hooked up to a telephone in the Oval Office and possibly also to a telephone in his bedroom. He could activate it, and so could his private secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who knew of the secret microphones, often made sure that they were turned off if the President had forgotten to do so, and took charge of finished reels of tape when they were brought to her by Bouck or Bouck’s assistant, Agent Chester Miller.

Though Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy’s secretary, Angie Novello, certainly knew of the tapes and Dictabelts by some point in 1963, it is not clear that they had this knowledge earlier. Oral histories done by the John F. Kennedy Library in the 1970s indicate that the President’s close aide and scheduler, Kenneth O’Donnell, knew about the system. Most White House insiders, including counsel Theodore Sorensen, who had been Kennedy’s closest aide in the Senate, were astonished when they learned later that their words had been secretly captured on tape.

After Kennedy’s assassination, Evelyn Lincoln was quickly displaced by President Johnson’s secretaries. She arranged, however, for the Secret Service agents to pull out all the microphones, wires, and recorders. She took the tapes and Dictabelts to her newly assigned offices in the Executive Office Building, adjacent to the White House. Though Robert Kennedy had charge of these and all other records from the Kennedy White House, Lincoln retained physical custody.

During Kennedy’s presidency, only a small number of conversations were transcribed, primarily by the President’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln. Though Lincoln attempted to make some other transcripts, she never had much time for doing so.

The tapes and Dictabelts migrated with President Kennedy’s papers. First they moved to the main National Archives building in downtown Washington, D.C. Herman Kahn (an archivist, not the strategic analyst) was responsible for them within the National Archives system; Robert Kennedy was the custodian for materials belonging to the family, including all the tapes. Robert Kennedy disclosed the existence of the tapes in 1965 to Burke Marshall, a legal scholar and former Justice Department colleague. Robert Kennedy assigned Evelyn Lincoln responsibility for looking after the materials, and she hired George Dalton, a former Navy Petty Officer and general chore man for the Kennedy family, to begin transcribing the tapes to help determine which, if any of the recordings, the family might eventually donate to the Kennedy Library. The papers and the tapes then were moved to a federal records depository in Waltham, Massachusetts. Still considered family property, the tapes, however, were kept in a safe to which only the Kennedys or their staff had the combination. In the summer and fall of 1967, when Robert Kennedy drafted his famous memoir of the Cuban missile crisis, Thirteen Days, he used whatever transcripts existed and almost certainly listened to tapes. Passages in the book that refer to “diaries” seem nearly all to be based on the secret recordings.1

After Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, custody of President Kennedy’s private papers became the primary responsibility of Senator Edward Kennedy (Burke Marshall represented Jacqueline Kennedy’s interests). Dalton was employed by Senator Kennedy and his transcription project continued. Despite occasional rumors, none of the custodians publicly acknowledged that the tapes existed.

When Nixon’s taping system was revealed in 1973 and Congress was seeking access to those tapes, Senator Kennedy was a member of the inquiring Judiciary Committee. With rumors by then rife, he and the family quickly confirmed that President Kennedy had, indeed, also secretly taped meetings and conversations in the White House. They publicly promised to turn the tapes over to the National Archives. Although the Kennedy family argued in 1973 that the tapes were included in the original deed of gift to the United States, which Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy had signed in 1965, the combination to the safe where the tapes were held would still not be turned over to the archivists at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, Massachusetts, for another two years.

In 1975, tapes recording about 248 hours of meetings and 12 hours of telephone conversations became part of the President’s Office Files at the library. While a treasure trove for history, this handover appeared not to include all the recordings that President Kennedy had made, nor were all the recordings complete.

The Secret Service agents had originally numbered and catalogued the reels of meeting tapes in a simple way, so removals and anomalies are easily noticed. And there are a few. Three tapes were received by the library with reels containing “separate tape segments.” It is possible that they had been cut and spliced, for two of these tapes, including the one made on August 22, 1962, concerned intelligence issues and may have involved discussion of covert efforts to assassinate Castro. Former Kennedy Library archivist Alan Goodrich says, however, that the “separate tape segments” may exist simply because the Secret Service agents were winding some partial reels of tape together to fill out the reels of blank tape being fed into the machine.

Another tape from August 1962 is simply blank. Several more numbered tape boxes, for tapes made in June 1963, had no tapes inside, though the library has “Dalton transcripts” for these missing tapes which, thanks to Library Director Thomas Putnam, the Kennedy Library released in 2013. The fact that still other tapes received by the library had been miswound suggests at least that they had been clumsily handled.

The Dictabelt recordings never had any order. Lincoln seems to have filed them randomly. Some seem to have been partially overwritten. The Kennedy Library’s numbers merely distinguish one item from another. They provide no guidance to chronological sequence or content. As with the meeting tapes, archivists at the Kennedy Library have worked hard to date and identify the tapes, and the editors of these volumes have confirmed and, in various cases, amended this information as a result of further research. A number of Dictabelts were taken by Lincoln without authorization for her own private collection of Kennedy memorabilia. Some of these went to the Kennedy Library after her death in 1995; others turned up in the hands of a collector who had befriended her. In 1998 the Kennedy Library was able to recover these Dictabelts too, but there is no way of knowing whether there were others and, if so, what their fate was.

Once in the jurisdiction of the Archivist of the United States, the recordings were handled with thoroughgoing professionalism. The library remastered the tapes on a Magnecord 1022 for preservation. The Dictabelts were copied onto new masters. All copies of the tapes, including those used for these books, derive from these new preservation masters.

Some minor anomalies were introduced as a result of the remastering. Listeners will occasionally hear a tape stop and the recording start up, replaying a sentence or two. That is an artifact of the remastering process, not the original White House taping. The original tapes were also recorded at relatively high density (1 inch per second). The remastered tapes necessarily have different running speeds that produce subtle audio distortion. The new masters, for example, seem to have people talking slightly faster than they did at the time.

While the Kennedy Library has been careful to make no deletions or erasures from tapes and Dictabelts in its possession, the copies publicly released, and used for these volumes, do have carefully annotated excisions of passages still security classified. These passages were excised digitally, not literally, and remain intact on the library’s preservation masters. It is to be hoped that future declassification reviews may someday release some of the material that currently is excised. But even for the sanitized tapes, the library issues no transcripts.

Some questions nevertheless linger because of uncertainties, already described, concerning the completeness and integrity of the tapes now available. Why were they made? Did Kennedy use the on/off switch with a view to controlling, even distorting the historical record? Did others, after his murder, tamper with the tapes in order artificially to shape the record of events? In view of the possibility that a small fraction of the meeting tapes were removed or mangled after the fact, can they really be regarded as better sources than self-serving memoirs or oral histories? To the extent that they are valid, undoctored records of conversations and meetings, do they tell us much that could not be learned from other sources?

Our judgment is that any tampering with the tapes was so crude and ham-handed that it extended only to removals, which would have occurred before the National Archives took control of the tapes in 1975. The extent of such removals may have been constrained by the original Secret Service cataloguing system. Since missing tapes would be noticed, too many missing tapes might cause an outcry and lead to unwelcome inquiries. So the removals of meeting tapes, if that is the explanation for the anomalies, were relatively limited. The situation of the Dictabelts is different. Since they were not catalogued at the time they were made, we cannot know how many—if any—are missing.

The most plausible explanation for Kennedy’s making secret tape recordings is that he wanted material to be used later in writing a memoir. Since he seems neither to have had transcripts made (with two minor exceptions in 1963) nor to have listened to any of the tapes, it is unlikely that he wanted them for current business. He had himself written histories and was by most accounts prone to asking historians’ questions: How did this situation develop? What had previous administrations done? He knew how hard it was to answer such questions from surviving documentary records. And he faced the apparent likelihood that, even if reelected in 1964, he would be an out-of-work ex-president when not quite 51 years old.

Those who have spent much time with the tapes and those who have compared the tapes to their own experience working with Kennedy find no evidence that he taped only self-flattering moments. He often made statements or discussed ideas that would have greatly damaged him had they become public. Early in the missile crisis, for example, he mused about his own possible responsibility for having brought it on. “Last month I said we weren’t going to [allow it],” he said. “Last month I should have said that we don’t care.” He never seemed to make speeches during a meeting for the benefit of future listeners. His occasional taped monologues were private dictation about something that had happened or what he was thinking, obviously for his own later reference.

Two other points apply. First, he had no reason to suppose that the tapes would ever be heard by anyone other than himself unless he chose to make them available. They were completely secret. Until Congress intervened to secure President Richard Nixon’s tapes and papers in 1973, presidential records were traditionally the property of the president who created them. Second, he could hardly have known just what statements or positions would look good to posterity, for neither he nor his colleagues could know how the stories would turn out.

The recordings in these volumes cover the period from the settlement of the Cuban missile crisis in late October 1962 through President Kennedy’s struggles with his chief European allies over the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] in the first months of 1963. The presidential plate was very full in this period. Cuba never went away as a concern. But Kennedy did not have the luxury of giving it his full attention, as he had during those fateful thirteen days in October 1962. Countless books on Kennedy have been written but, without these tapes, it is impossible to understand fully the challenges Kennedy faced in building a more stable world after his and Nikita Khrushchev’s brush with nuclear catastrophe.

The greatest value of these recordings does not reside in specific revelations. It comes, as is said in the general preface to the project, from giving a listener or reader not only a unique insight into the presidency but into presidential decision making at an unusually dramatic moment in U.S. and world history. We are proud to be able to put this extraordinary source into the hands of students of history and politics.


[1] See Timothy Naftali, “The Origins of ‘Thirteen Days,’” Miller Center Report 15, no. 2 (summer 1999): 23–24.