The Presidential Recordings of John F. Kennedy

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 ever published.

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 three different series: three chronological volumes of transcripts covering Kennedy’s telephone and meeting conversations from 30 July 1962 through 28 October 1962, three additional chronological volumes covering conversations from 29 October 1962 through 7 February 1963, and a thematic volume of transcripts covering conversations on Civil Rights from 1963.

The Great Crises (volumes 1–3)

  • Read the Preface to Norton JFK volumes 1–3, by Philip Zelikow and Ernest May
  • Read the Introduction: 500 Days to JFK volumes 1–3, 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. ❊ Errata

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. ❊ Errata

The Winds of Change (Volumes 4–6)

  • Read the Preface to Norton JFK volumes 4–6, by Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow

Volume Four, 29 October 1962 – 7 November 1962, ed. David Coleman

This volume begins in the immediate aftermath of Moscow’s announcement on 28 October that it would pack up the nuclear weapons it had deployed surreptitiously to Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s capitulation ended thirteen pressure-packed days for the Kennedy administration, as well as five harrowing days for the world, as the superpowers faced off over the presence of Russian missiles capable of hitting all major U.S. cities except for Seattle. While the most public and tension-filled moments of the crisis thus had passed, concerns remained over the ability to verify both the removal of those missiles from Cuba and the return to the U.S.S.R. of additional weapons systems perceived as threatening to the United States. The White House tapes from this period focus mostly on these and related challenges, but the easing of the missile crisis allowed President Kennedy to return to other nettlesome matters of state, including foreign aid and ongoing difficulties in the Congo.

Volume Five, 8 November 1962 – 30 November 1962, ed. David Coleman

While administration officials continued to explore avenues for verifying the removal of Soviet offensive weapons systems from Cuba, the President began taping a wider variety of conversations about matters foreign and domestic. Laos, the Congo, the Middle East, the Sino-Indian War—Kennedy would now address all of these concerns more intensively, and make a record of himself doing so. Likewise, he would he spend more time on economic and fiscal matters, including budgeting for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which the President had charged with landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Also included in this collection of the President’s White House tapes are a series of congratulatory phone calls that Kennedy placed to Democrats who had won election or re-election on 6 November.

Volume Six, 1 December 1962 – 7 February 1963, ed. David Coleman

With the missile crisis more fully defused by Moscow’s 20 November announcement that it would remove nuclear-capable bombers from Cuba within 30 days, a further array of challenges and decisions now demanded presidential attention. At home, these included a tax cut designed to stimulate economic expansion, several matters related to agricultural subsidies, various cases of labor unrest, and the State of the Union address in mid-January. Per usual, however, foreign policy absorbed much of Kennedy’s time and his taping reflected it. Materials in this collection feature talks about Britain and Europe in the wake of the Skybolt and Common Market disappointments, ongoing efforts to implement the Alliance of Progress in Latin America, the future of Western rights in Berlin, and the course of the counterinsurgency in South Vietnam, where U.S. military advisers were now fighting, and dying, in increasingly greater numbers.

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.

Kennedy and Vietnam, ed. Ken Hughes and Marc J. Selverstone

This volume of 26 transcripts offers an extraordinary window into White House decision-making during a liminal phase of the American war in Vietnam. Comprising roughly 15 hours of recordings, it captures President Kennedy and his chief aides—White House officials, front-line and mid-level Cabinet officers, and ambassadors—addressing key developments in the limited partnership with South Vietnam. The conversations stretch from early May 1963 through early November 1963, a period bookended by the onset of the Buddhist Crisis in South Vietnam and the assassination of South Vietnamese president Ngô Đinh Diệm. Collectively, they highlight the challenge of acquiring reliable intelligence, relations with the press, strains between Washington and Saigon, and rifts within and between the U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, and military communities. On a more granular level, they shed light on sanctions and coup planning against the Ngô regime, progress in the war against the Vietnamese Communists, and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from South Vietnam. For several of these conversations, the Kennedy tapes provide the only available records of JFK’s policymaking toward Vietnam.