The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy

The transcripts from the Kennedy administration in the Presidential Recordings Digital Edition comprise converted versions of volumes originally published in print by W. W. Norton as well as born-digital versions published by Rotunda and created by the editors and researchers at the Miller Center’s Presidential Recordings Program. Currently, they are grouped into two different series: three chronological volumes of transcripts covering Kennedy’s telephone and meeting conversations from 30 July 1962 through 28 October 1962, and a thematic volume of transcripts on Civil Rights from 1963.

The Great Crises

In the summer of 1962, President John F. Kennedy installed a secret taping system in the White House. His aim was to record meetings and conversations he considered important, probably intending to use them when he wrote the memoir of his years in office, a book he never had the chance to write. These volumes provide a unique glimpse into the real workings of the Kennedy White House, presenting perhaps the most reliable record of the Kennedy presidency every published.

  • Read the Preface to the Norton JFK volumes, by Philip Zelikow and Ernest May
  • Read the Introduction: 500 Days to the print JFK volumes, by Timothy Naftali

Volume One, 30 July 1962 – 31 August 1962, ed. Timothy Naftali

As this volume begins, President Kennedy believes that Europe is closer to general war than at any time since 1945, as the Soviet Union tries to force the West out of Berlin. Kennedy’s military advisers gather to lay out for him the path that could lead to nuclear war. Tapes from this period also reveal decisions about covert intelligence operations in Brazil, Cuba, and Haiti that reflect Kennedy’s struggle to balance his hopes for democracy with his determination to contain Communism in the Western Hemisphere. At home, a fall in the stock market prompts Kennedy to push for a short-term tax break to stimulate the economy. A quiet crisis erupts as the president’s advisers clash over how to preserve the value of the dollar and head off a “gold drain” that is threatening the world’s international financial system. More surprising, Kennedy tapes meetings in which he confronts a leak of highly classified intelligence information in the New York Times. He confers with his advisers about how, for the first time, the White House might use the Central Intelligence Agency for domestic surveillance of American reporters.

Volume Two, 1 September 1962 – 21 October 1962, ed. Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow

This volume opens with storm clouds gathering over the Caribbean in early September 1962. As arms-laden Soviet ships steam to Cuba, Kennedy and his advisers wonder about the motives of the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, and debate where possible battle lines should be drawn. In other sessions, Kennedy confides his concerns about the continuing Berlin crisis to former president Dwight Eisenhower and tries to revive negotiations that could stop the testing of new nuclear explosives. While juggling these foreign affairs, Kennedy faces challenges at home that turn violent. The governor of Mississippi and armed mobs try to block the enrollment of a black student, James Meredith, in the state university. The tapes capture the tense hours when the White House dispatches the army to rescue Meredith and the U.S. marshals besieged on the campus of Ole Miss. As the volume ends, in mid-October, a nightmarish worry becomes reality when a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft discovers that Soviet nuclear missiles have secretly been placed in Cuba.

Volume Three, 22 October 1962 – 28 October 1962, ed. Philip Zelikow and Ernest May

This volume begins as the Cuban missile crisis becomes public knowledges, gripping the world with nuclear dread. Every meeting of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council during the crisis was partially or completely recorded and the transcripts are presented here in full. Outside the Cabinet Room, Kennedy had the recorder running as he conferred about the nuclear risk with former president Dwight Eisenhower. The President also taped an extraordinary meeting with Robert Kennedy, two brothers alone in the Oval Office, sharing their fears. After nearly a week of increasingly emotional debates among the tired and anxious officials, the crisis reaches its climax. On October 27, the tapes record the complex decisions that juggled diplomacy and military moves, showing strength but trying not to go over the brink into nuclear war.

Kennedy and Civil Rights: 1963, ed. Kent B. Germany

This volume traces the final months of President John F. Kennedy’s life through his civil rights recordings. It highlights his careful relationship with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his legendary cool-under-pressure style, and his underappreciated legislative acumen. Those recorded moments give a modern audience the chance to sit in on profound historic sessions about the Birmingham bombings, the March on Washington, school desegregation, racism and the military, and many others. Perhaps most important, they reveal John Kennedy’s focus on two tasks: managing crises linked to white terrorism and managing legislation to address grassroots civil rights pressure. A series of bombings, shootings, and beatings in Mississippi and Alabama in 1963 forced the President to take a more direct role in developing solutions. On tape, Kennedy tries to navigate the intensifying demands for racial progress, as well as the increasingly violent white backlash to it. Listeners can follow his transition from a cautious, risk-averse gradualist to a legislative leader who set down the foundation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And they can assess how this secretly recorded story at the White House shaped a much larger transition in American identity and American life.

Read the Editor’s Introduction