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What JFK Really Said

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What JFK Really Said

The author checked the Cuban-missile-crisis transcript in The Kennedy Tapes against the recorded words. He discovered "errors that undermine its reliability for historians, teachers, and general readers"

The Atlantic

Sheldon M. SternMay 1 2000, 12:00 PM ET


MY twenty-three years as the historian at the John F. Kennedy Library, in Boston, were punctuated by intensive work on sound recordings. I conducted scores of taped oral-history interviews and verified the accuracy of the transcripts, edited President John F. Kennedy's recorded telephone conversations, and, in 1981-1982, evaluated tapes made during the Cuban missile crisis, in October of 1962, as the library prepared for their declassification. The work was fascinating and exhilarating, but the poor technical quality of the tapes frequently required that I listen to the same words dozens of times, sometimes to no avail. It was, notwithstanding, a historian's ultimate fantasy—a chance to be a fly on the wall during one of the most dangerous moments in history, and to know, within the technical limits of the recordings, exactly what happened. I spent just over a year on the tapes, and in 1983 I received an award for "careful and perceptive editing and proofreading of the JFK tapes" from the archivist of the United States. From 1983 to 1997 the library declassified twenty-two hours of tapes, and I continued to review them before each declassification.

Imagine my surprise when, in the summer of 1997, I learned that Harvard University Press was about to publish The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow—complete transcripts of all twenty-two hours. Months of lead time are required to prepare a book for the printer, so I was astonished that the editors could have completed this task less than a year after the majority of the tapes were released to the public.

The editors explained that they had commissioned a team of professional court reporters to prepare a set of "draft transcripts" from the Kennedy Library tapes. Audio experts, using NONOISE, a "technically advanced noise-reduction system," had then produced an improved set of tapes, subsequently checked by the court reporters to be sure that nothing had been lost. However, May and Zelikow stressed their own responsibility for the final product.

The two of us then worked with the tapes and the court reporters' drafts to produce the transcripts printed here. The laboriousness of this process would be hard to exaggerate. Each of us listened over and over to every sentence in the recordings. Even after a dozen replays at varying speeds, significant passages remained only partly comprehensible.... Notwithstanding the high professionalism of the court reporters, we had to amend and rewrite almost all their texts. For several especially difficult sessions, we prepared transcriptions ourselves from scratch. In a final stage, we asked some veterans of the Kennedy administration to review the tapes and our transcripts in order to clear up as many as possible of the remaining puzzles. The reader has here the best text we can produce, but it is certainly not perfect. We hope that some, perhaps many, will go to the original tapes. If they find an error or make out something we could not, we will enter the corrections in subsequent editions or printings of this volume.

An unforgettable moment in these unique historical records concerns JFK's apprehension that military action in Cuba might touch off the ultimate nightmare of nuclear war, which he grimly describes at a meeting on October 18 as "the final failure." Brian McGrory, of The Boston Globe, who listened to this tape with me in 1994, after it was declassified, used those words in the lead of his article on the newly released tapes. But when I checked the transcript recently, I was unable to find "the final failure." Certain that the editors must be right, since they had technically cleaner tapes, I listened again; there is no question that Kennedy says "the final failure." The editors, however, have transcribed it as "the prime failure."

I decided to check the entire transcript for October 18 against the tape, and what I discovered left me dismayed. The transcript abounds in errors that significantly undermine its reliability for historians, teachers, and general readers. Spot checks turned up similar errors in all the other transcripts. Despite the often poor sound quality of the Kennedy Library recordings, many of the relevant passages are clear enough to be heard conclusively. Since details are everything in this kind of microhistory, in which an inaccurate word or phrase can distort our perception of the historical record, we should examine some representative examples.

IN the first days of the secret meetings between Kennedy and his advisers, before the American people knew that the Soviets had missiles in Cuba, the President grappled with decisions that could determine the fate of the world. Should the United States bomb the missile sites or invade Cuba? If it became necessary to take decisive action, would the other nations of the Americas condemn the United States as the aggressor? The United States belonged to the Rio Pact, a mutual-defense treaty signed by more than twenty countries in North and South America. A two-thirds vote by the pact's member nations would authorize U.S. action against Cuba, and would preserve a unified front against the Soviets. On the October 18 tape Secretary of State Dean Rusk clearly assures the President, "I would suppose there would be no real difficulty in getting a two-thirds vote in favor of necessary action. But if we made an effort and failed to get the two-thirds vote, which I doubt would be the result, then at least we would have tried as far as the American people are concerned, to have done ... to have done our ... to have done our best on that."

Twice Rusk said that he expected to get the needed two-thirds vote. But here is how The Kennedy Tapes transcript reads (words in brackets were added by the book's editors for clarification): "But I suppose the only way we have of [using that is] getting [a] two-thirds vote to take necessary action. But if we made an effort and failed to get the two-thirds vote [unclear], then at least we will have tried as far as the American people are concerned. We'll have done that." Both of Rusk's assurances are missing. To understand Kennedy's decision-making process, readers must know what advice he was given. But this crucial evaluation of the diplomatic situation by Kennedy's highest foreign-policy official is lost in the gaps of the published transcript. (The United States did receive the two-thirds vote.) JFK's decision to begin with a blockade rather than with air raids is all the more striking given these assurances of hemispheric support for "necessary action."

The discussion soon turned to several proposed plans for bombing Soviet nuclear missiles, nuclear-capable bombers, and anti-aircraft sites in Cuba. If the missiles alone were struck, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara warned, Soviet bombers could attack the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo or even the East Coast of the United States. A key factor in any decision was whether the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were operational, and if not, how soon they might be. General Maxwell Taylor, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, strongly urges the President to destroy the SAMs. Even if they are not yet functional, Taylor insists, "the SAM sites would soon become operational" and compromise crucial surveillance flights. JFK observes that attacks on the nuclear missiles and bombers might be possible before the SAMs are armed. Taylor counters that "they may be operational at any time." The Kennedy Tapes has Taylor saying the "SAM site facilities have become operational"—the very point about which Taylor was so uncertain—and then meaninglessly telling the President that "they'll be operational at the same time." General Taylor's assessment, crucial to JFK's decision for military action, is thus reduced to a contradiction and a non sequitur.

A short time later Kennedy speculates about whether Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev should be given twenty-four hours' notice before the United States bombs the missile sites. But no hotline between the Kremlin and the White House then existed, and Kennedy was unsure how to reach the Soviet leader. "How quick is our communication with Moscow?" he asks. The Kennedy Tapes substitutes "If we have a communication with Moscow ..." obscuring Kennedy's primary concern. One adviser suggests that the President simply use the telephone. Robert Kennedy then asks, "It wouldn't really have to go in code, would it?" The Kennedy Tapes misidentifies the speaker as JFK and turns the remark into the immaterial "It wouldn't really have to be a call, would it?"

A few minutes later RFK frets about the dangers of the blockade, including the military risks in forcing "the examination of Russian ships." The Kennedy Tapes renders this as "the invasion of Russian ships," inaccurately suggesting the very sort of confrontation the blockade was meant to avoid.

SOME of the most gripping moments on the tapes occur during JFK's tense meeting with the Joint Chiefs on October 19. General Earle Wheeler, the Army chief of staff, argues that only air strikes, an invasion, and a blockade "will give us increasing assurance that we really have got the offensive capability of the Cuban Soviets cornered." As transcribed in The Kennedy Tapes, however, Wheeler's recommendation—these actions "will give us increasing assurance that we really have gone after the offensive capability of the Cuban/Soviets corner"—would hardly have made sense to Kennedy.

General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, also bluntly tells the President that a failure to invade Cuba would be almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich before World War II. LeMay then predicts that the blockade would appear weak to the American people and our allies. "You're in a pretty bad fix," he smugly warns the President. JFK, always skeptical about the military, reminds the general with a mocking laugh "You're in with me." The Kennedy Tapes merely tells the reader that JFK makes "an unclear, joking, reply." In fact Kennedy's biting response is perfectly audible.

By Monday, October 22, the decision to begin with a blockade had been made, and the President was scheduled to give a speech to the nation that evening. As the afternoon meeting begins, JFK reiterates that the United States must respond to the situation in Cuba to preserve the balance of power and blunt the "inevitability" of Soviet advances. But, he cautions, the blockade may not work, and if it comes to bombing and invasion, "Khrushchev will not take this without a response," either in Cuba or against Berlin. The Kennedy Tapes renders this critical line as "Khrushchev will not complete this without a response," which makes no sense and deprives the reader of the tension in JFK's words.

Moments later, acknowledging the dissatisfaction of the Joint Chiefs, JFK concedes that the blockade will complicate any subsequent military steps: "I want to say very clearly to the military that I recognize that we increase your problems in any military action we have to take in Cuba by the warning we're now giving." The Kennedy Tapes transcribes this line as "I want to say very clearly to the military that I recognize the appreciable problems in any military action ..." thus losing Kennedy's key point: a failed blockade would increase the danger and difficulty of any bombing or invasion that followed.

Kennedy goes on to argue that the United States has commitments all over the world, not just in Cuba. He concludes that heavy air strikes without warning could be politically counterproductive: "I think the shock to the alliance might have been nearly fatal." The Kennedy Tapes mangles these words: "I think we get shocked, and the [damage to the] alliance might have been nearly fatal." Kennedy then raises the most chilling question: "What happens when the work on the bases goes on?" The editors miss this vital question entirely by transcribing it as "What happens when work [unclear]."

THE next day, October 23, JFK and his advisers discuss how to implement the blockade and win support in the press and on Capitol Hill. John McCone, the director of the CIA, offers to call the former President Dwight D. Eisenhower for permission to use his name in talking with members of Congress and to get "his view of this thing, as a soldier." The Kennedy Tapes, inexplicably, has McCone saying "his view of this thing, as a facilitator." At a meeting that evening JFK zeroes in on the Soviet ships approaching the quarantine line. "Now, what do we do tomorrow morning when these eight vessels continue to sail on?" he asks. "We're all clear about how we handle it?" McCone interjects, "Shoot the rudders off them, don't you?" The Kennedy Tapes muddles JFK's question—"We're all clear about how we enter?"—and omits McCone's reply entirely.

By October 26 the discussion had turned to how to handle press questions about ships stopped at the quarantine line. McNamara reports that just one cargo ship has been boarded. "In any case," he says, "it's been successful and I think to do any good the story must be put out immediately." The Kennedy Tapes distorts this important conclusion beyond recognition: "In any case, it was successful and I think the destroyers [unclear]." McNamara never mentions destroyers.

The participants then discuss evidence that work on the missile sites is continuing. They debate whether to add petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) to the list of quarantined materials immediately, or to wait twenty-four hours to see if talks proposed by UN Secretary-General U Thant produce a breakthrough. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, suggests that they "leave the timing [on adding POL] until we've talked about the U Thant initiative." The inaccuracy in The Kennedy Tapes is especially bizarre in this case, with Bundy saying "leave the timing until we've talked about the attack thing." These last two examples—"the destroyers [unclear]" and "the attack thing"—could easily leave a reader wondering what in the world these men were talking about. (Three days later, on October 29, U Thant was mentioned again. JFK asserts, "We want U Thant to know that Adlai [uN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson] is our voice." But The Kennedy Tapes transcribes this line as "We want you [unclear] to know that Adlai is our voice.")

October 27 saw the darkest moment in the crisis. An unconfirmed report was received at midday that a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SAM missile, and the pilot killed. On the tape of the late-afternoon meeting Kennedy discusses whether to order an air strike on the SAM sites if the incident is repeated (a delay that produced consternation at the Pentagon). He declares that two options are on the table: begin conversations about Khrushchev's proposal to swap Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. missiles in Turkey, or reject discussions until the Cuban crisis is settled. Kennedy chooses the first, with the caveat that the Soviets must provide proof that they have ceased work on the missile sites. He repeatedly refers to "conversations" and "discussions" and concludes, "Obviously, they're not going to settle the Cuban question until they get some conversation on Cuba." Incredibly, The Kennedy Tapes substitutes "compensation" for "conversation." It's easy to imagine how Cold War veterans like Rusk, Bundy, and McCone would have reacted to any suggestion of compensation for the Soviets in Cuba.

On October 29, the day after Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, the President and his advisers, relieved but not euphoric, conclude that surveillance and the quarantine will continue until the missiles have actually been removed. After a lull in the meeting, during which the conversation turns to college football, the President observes, "I imagine the Air Force must be a little mad," referring to the division of responsibility for aerial photography between the Air Force and the Joint Chiefs' photo-reconnaissance office. The Kennedy Tapes transcribes this as "I imagine the airports must be looking bad," which must leave many readers scratching their heads: the removal of the missiles had nothing to do with Cuban airports. Kennedy then ponders why, in the end, the Soviets decided to back down. He notes, "We had decided Saturday night to begin this air strike on Tuesday." No effort was made to conceal the military buildup in southern Florida, and Kennedy wonders if the impending strikes pushed the Russians to withdraw their missiles. The Kennedy Tapes, however, has JFK saying "We got the [unclear] signs of life to begin this air strike on Tuesday," making his shrewd speculation unintelligible.

ONE particular error, among scores not cited above, seems to epitomize the problems with these transcripts. On the October 18 tape Dean Rusk argues that before taking military action in Cuba, the United States should consult Khrushchev, in the unlikely event that he would agree to remove the missiles. "But at least it will take that point out of the way," The Kennedy Tapes has Rusk saying, "and it's on the record." But Rusk actually said that this consultation would remove that point "for the historical record." The historical record is indeed the issue here.

Of course, the editors of The Kennedy Tapes and other historians would never assume that any transcript is absolutely accurate. The tape itself must always remain the primary historical document. Nonetheless, as the editors affirm, "reliable transcripts—ideally, annotated transcripts—are essential to make the tapes intelligible." These published transcripts, however, require substantial work. The revisions suggested above will inevitably contain some errors; the editing process can never be final or perfect. But if the editors disagree with these findings, we can listen to any of these disputed passages, in private or in public, using the Kennedy Library tapes or the NONOISE tapes.

May and Zelikow, both distinguished scholars, have assured readers that if they listen to the tapes and discover errors or make out unclear remarks, corrections will be included in future editions or printings. And as we go to press, a fourth printing of the book has corrected three of the errors cited above ("the invasion of Russian ships"; "What happens when work [unclear]"; and "the [unclear] signs of life"). However, the editors have not acknowledged these corrections in the preface or identified them in the transcripts, and, of course, uncorrected copies continue to circulate. Readers deserve to know that even now The Kennedy Tapes cannot be relied on as an accurate historical document.

Sheldon M. Stern was the historian at Boston's John F. Kennedy Library from 1977 to 1999

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