Moreover, as a student of history, Kennedy likely entertained thoughts of using the tapes in the service of memoirs he’d expected to write. And his interest in war and decision making, enhanced by his appreciation of Barbara Tuchman’s then-recent The Guns of August, which recounted the tragic onset of the First World War, might also have fueled his desire to keep track of how his administration handled itself in moments of crisis.
He certainly got that, and more. His tapes on the Cuban Missile Crisis represent a significant chunk of the 260 hours of conversation he recorded, 248 of them from meetings with groups large and small, and another 12 capturing telephone conversations with aides, legislators, and private individuals. The subjects they cover are among the most significant of the day: civil-rights crises in Mississippi and Alabama, superpower relations and the threat of nuclear war, and an escalating war in Vietnam.
Tragically, Kennedy would not live to resolve them, as his vice president vowed upon Kennedy’s death to continue the work they’d begun a thousand days earlier. In the course of doing so, Lyndon Johnson maintained the practice of secret taping, recording conversations virtually from the moment he assumed the presidency. Taping first from the then-Old Executive Office Building before moving into the Oval Office four days later, Johnson used the phone as an extension of his being as he grasped the levers of power and reassured a nation in mourning.
During the course of his roughly five years as president, Johnson recorded over 800 hours of conversations, the vast majority of them—around 650—on the telephone. The meeting tapes that make up the remainder of that corpus come from the final year of the Johnson presidency, as LBJ struggled to manage an increasingly unpopular war, a bitterly divided Democratic Party, a dramatic rise in public and political violence, and his own declining fortunes in the nation’s highest office. Collectively, the Johnson tapes reveal a president, like those who came before him, intent on making a record of what he and—probably even more so—his counterparts said on each end of the line. And beyond his use of a recording system in real time, Johnson was able draw on the materials while writing his memoirs.
Having benefited greatly from his taping regime, Johnson counseled his successor on the value of recording his own White House conversations. But it would be more than two years before Nixon followed suit, making do with human note takers and transcribers. In the search for greater candor in his meetings, and better color for later writings, Nixon eventually installed his own system. It differed from Kennedy’s and Johnson’s in one key respect: Unlike their manually operated setups, Nixon’s was voice-activated, and therefore captured virtually everything said in the many rooms he wired for sound in the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, and at Camp David.