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

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.

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

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