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

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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