The John F. Kennedy Library released the tapes of the ExComm sessions beginning in 1987. They are available from the library, on CD. Transcripts were made of the first and final days of the crisis. It is amazing how few historians have made use of these tapes, which utterly contradict the reigning mythology.
In 1997, historians Philip Zelikow and Ernest May published their own transcript, The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (W.W. Norton), but it was a shoddy book: The transcripts were inaccurate (in part because they used a noise-reduction filter that made many words inaudible), and the accompanying analysis off-base.
Four years later, May, Zelikow and Timothy Naftali produced a much better transcript, as part of a three-volume set, The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises (W.W. Norton). Caro draws on Volume 3 of this set, but too sparingly.
The Oct. 19 ExComm session (the one where RFK disparaged the idea of a “sneak attack”) took place in the State Department, while JFK was briefly out of town, and so was not taped. All scholars rely on the official notes taken at that meeting. (Notes were taken at all the ExComm meetings—nobody but the Kennedys knew the sessions were being recorded—and most of them are fairly consistent with the tapes. The notes can be found in U.S. State Department, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-63, Vol. XI. Caro’s quote from the Oct. 19 meeting is taken not from this primary source but from Arthur Schlesinger’s biography of Robert Kennedy, which selectively quotes from it. (He includes the line about “sneak attack” but not the one about taking down the Soviets now rather than later.)
Sheldon Stern’s forthcoming book, The Cuban Missile Crisis in American Memory (Stanford, 2012), which I mention in the column is—or should be—the seminal account of the crisis and the myths that have flourished. I read it in galleys (and, I should note, wrote one of the blurbs). An earlier book by Stern, Averting ‘The Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Recordings (Stanford), is also very good.
Another article that challenges the mythology about Robert Kennedy’s pacifying role in the ExComm sessions is Mark White, “Robert Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Reinterpretation,” American Diplomacy, September 2007.
A note about Ted Sorensen, JFK’s devoted speechwriter. President Kennedy told Sorensen to put out the word that he won the Cuban missile crisis in a contest of strength and will; it would not have gone down well, in 1962, to admit to a trade. Over the years, Sorensen may have come to believe his own myth—though not always. When I interviewed Sorensen in 1987, he admitted that he’d spun a false story, both in Kennedy and in Thirteen Days, the posthumous account of the crisis by Robert F. Kennedy (which was RFK’s diary, as rewritten, edited, and tampered with by Sorensen). However, in his 2008 memoir, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Harper), Sorensen goes back to writing that JFK settled the crisis by accepting Khrushchev’s first letter and ignoring the second. Apparently, he’d gone back to this story during their interviews. I am not imputing malice or mendacity here. Memory is a tricky thing.
I first became entranced with the history of the crisis—the facts and the revisions—when, in 1987, as a reporter for the Boston Globe, I wrote a story on the JFK Library’s release of the first transcript of the tapes. What I read (and later heard) contradicted everything that had been written about the crisis before. I had bought Garry Wills’ revisionist view of JFK as a macho Cold Warrior—but now I saw that he’d based that view on Sorensen and Schlesinger’s account of the Cuban missile crisis. Since then, I have read all the subsequent transcripts, listened to all the tapes, and continued to follow the evolving chronicles.