For several years, political junkies have periodically feasted on the releases of White House recordings, eavesdropping gleefully on presidential decision-making, chicanery, and chitchat. The National Archives, which has 3,700 hours of tapes that Richard Nixon secretly made while president, has been making them available in installments since 1996 (Watergate-related tapes were opened before that, for use in criminal trials). Since 1993, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library has been doling out helpings of the 643 hours of Johnson's conversations. The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, after releasing a few hours of tape in 1983, began opening the bulk of its audio archive—some 248 hours of presidential talk—in 1996 as well.
With each offering, reporters swoop in to snatch up the delectable bits. Next-day stories excitedly highlight new ethnic slurs from Nixon, new flashes of Johnson's insinuating charm. News programs tickle audiences by broadcasting choice excerpts. Then, after the reporters move on, historians linger in the archives, some with small armies of researchers and stenographers, emerging later with anthologies of transcripts—Stanley Kutler's Nixon volume, Abuse of Power; Michael Beschloss' Johnson collections, Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory; Ernest May's and Philip Zelikow's Cuban Missile Crisis transcripts, The Kennedy Tapes;and, this month, a narrative account of the missile crisis that draws heavily on the tapes, Averting 'the Final Failure': John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, by former Kennedy Library historian Sheldon Stern.
It's natural to get excited about White House tapes. The thrill is like that of reviewing old letters or diaries, but greater. Put on the headset, press play, and suddenly you're listening to momentous, top-secret conversations, as if you're in the Oval Office, or—given the sound quality—the Oval Office broom closet. Whereas documents reveal decisions after they're firm and final, already congealing into history, the tapes catch them live, in flux, in all their spontaneity. As a result, they seem to promise, as documents do not, a rare glimpse of history unmediated—a chance to realize the goal that the great 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said was the aim of history: to show the past "wie es eigentlich gewesen," as it really was.
But do they? With so much resting on the promise of the tapes, it pays to ask. Let's consider the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis recordings.
During the legendary "Thirteen Days" of October 1962—when President Kennedy and his aides strategized about how to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba without sparking a nuclear showdown—the tape recorders secretly rolled for 22 white-knuckled hours. In late 1996 and early 1997, the Kennedy Library declassified and made available these recordings. (Before releasing any tapes, archivists review them to protect both national security and the privacy of individuals who are either taped or mentioned.) Since the crisis has long generated debate about Kennedy's leadership skills, this release was eagerly awaited.
In the fall of 1997, Harvard University Press published The Kennedy Tapes, a transcript of all the high-level deliberations that JFK recorded. Its editors were Ernest May, a highly distinguished diplomatic historian at Harvard University, and Philip Zelikow, a lawyer by training who had worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations and then at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A shower of adulatory news coverage and reviews (including from Slate) praised this unique resource.
(Along with diplomatic historian Timothy Naftali, Zelikow and May have since then embarked on an ambitious new project to transcribe much, if not all, of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tapes.)
In May 2000, Sheldon Stern, then finishing his own missile tapes book, reviewed the May-Zelikow book in the Atlantic Monthly. Politely but firmly, Stern contended that May and Zelikow hadn't put enough care into ensuring the fidelity of their transcripts, judging that their book "cannot be relied upon as an accurate historical document." He cited 22 errors or omissions that he found while checking the May-Zelikow transcripts against his own copies of the tapes. He suggested there were more.
The catalog of alleged errors can be found in Stern's article. But a couple of examples give the flavor. On Oct. 23, for example, Kennedy's national security team discussed how to line up support for their plan of action among columnists and political leaders. John McCone, the CIA director, is quoted in the May-Zelikow transcripts as volunteering to call former President Dwight Eisenhower and get "his view of this thing, as a facilitator"—an odd word to apply to Ike, or for anyone to use in 1962. Stern said the word McCone used was "soldier." (To listen to this passage, click here.)
In another instance, on Oct. 27, JFK's team is debating whether to agree to pull American missiles out of Turkey in return for the Soviets' dismantling of their Cuban missiles. May and Zelikow have Kennedy stating: "Obviously, they're not going to settle the Cuban question until they get some compensation on Cuba." Stern maintains that Kennedy said "conversation," not "compensation." (To listen to this passage, click here.)