President John F. Kennedy
Secret White House Recordings
One-hundred and two hours of President Kennedy White House recordings. These recordings date from July 30, 1962 to November 7, 1963.
John F. Kennedy was the first president to extensively record his meetings and telephone conversations.The recordings consists of Meeting Recordings, mainly of meetings in the Cabinet Room and Oval Office, and Dictabelts, mainly of telephone conversations. The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public research in June of 1983. Over the past 21 years, the Library staff has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and a large portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that it required manual operation to start and stop the recording, it was not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set pattern for its operation. The tapes represent raw historical material.
Among the many individuals heard on the recordings are President John F. Kennedy, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Director of CIA John McCone, Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Maxwell Taylor, Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs McGeorge Bundy, Undersecretary of State George Ball, Lt. General James H. Doolittle, Adlai Stevenson, General Curtis LeMay, Evelyn Lincoln, Theodore Sorensen, Edward R. Murrow, Clark Clifford, Arthur Schlesinger, Admiral George W. Anderson, Under Secretary of the Treasury Henry H. Fowler, Director State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research Roger Hilsman, Senator Everett M. Dirksen, Senator J. William Fulbright, Senator Hubert Humphrey, Senator Richard Russell, Secretary of Treasury Douglas Dillon, Chairman Federal Reserve System Board of Governors William Martin, Richard Helms, General Douglas MacArthur and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The many topics discussed include: The Cuban Missile Crisis; Vietnam hamlet program; Military coup in Vietnam; Deaths of Diem and Nhu in Vietnam, University of Mississippi integration crisis; Discussion of what to include in Ambassador Adlai Stevenson's presentation to the United Nations confronting The Soviet Union on missiles in Cuba; Consideration of civil defense measures during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Latin American politics and economy; Coup in Peru; Nuclear Test Ban Treaty; Soviet disarmament agreements and inspections; Tax cuts; Interest rates; Laotian military expenditures; Use of napalm in Vietnam; Possible United States action against Cuba; Bay of Pigs; Khrushchev's actions; Berlin invasion contingency planning.
Some of the material in this set was not made available to the public until August 2004. More recent releases of JFK Meetings recordings include Discussions on Middle East crises, Vietnam and the 1964 election scene including commentary by the President on Nixon and Kissinger
Historians have often debated and will continue to debate what steps President Kennedy would have taken in Vietnam. On one of the tapes, President Kennedy listens to recommendations by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later that same day, has an informal meeting with U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson during which Stevenson expresses concern that any moves in Southeast Asia might signal a further commitment by the U.S. About the situation, the President says: "When we came in we were at the point of having to go in and fight. At least we are not going to do that."
On 4/19/63, 4/20/63, and 4/22/63, President Kennedy met with his staff to discuss the present military situation in Southeast Asia and the diplomatic and military moves that the United States will make in response. As a chess-move directed at Hanoi and Moscow to indicate how seriously the U.S. is taking the situation in Laos, the U.S. military is moving forces into Thailand, a carrier and destroyers into the Gulf of Tonkin. The Joint Chiefs of Staff discuss depositing a sunken ship across Hanoi harbor to disrupt shipping or destroy rail lines. The President asks that if the carrier is moved into the Gulf: "What kind of threat would it be to Hanoi?" Later he states: "It seems to me we ought to have a study made of exactly what we could do that would really have an effect. I am not sure that bombing even Hanoi would do much compared to the risk that it would entail." This discussion occurs seven months before President Kennedy's death and sixteen months before President Lyndon B. Johnson would ask Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.
On 4/26/63, President Kennedy meets with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Germany Walter C. Dowling to discuss Germany. The President asks for Dowling's opinion on the President's upcoming trip to Germany and the possible comparison to French President Charles DeGaulle's recent trip to Germany. Today, 41 years later, we know that President Kennedy's June 1963 trip to Berlin was an enormous success. He made his stirring, symbolic "Ich bin ein Berliner" statement to a huge, triumphant crowd at the Rudolph Wilde Platz in Berlin. The Rudolph Wilde Platz would later be renamed John F. Kennedy Platz. However, the tapes reveal Kennedy's concern prior to the trip about how his trip to Germany would be viewed in comparison to General DeGaulle's earlier, celebrated German tour. The President states: "I don't want to look like I am doing a tour of Germany like De Gaulle. On the other hand, I think any place we go it would be worth it if there's going to be a reasonable response." Ambassador Dowling responds by telling the President: "My money's on you Mr. President." To which, Kennedy, in uncharacteristic uncertainty, says: "We'll see, we'll see, we'll see. It's hard of course, he spoke German and he had that Franco-German business. But I think we can do it as long as we don't get into a business where we seem to be comparing if we keep the press off it."
In a 4/27/63 meeting on the Middle East examines the situation in Jordan involving a possible coup and the reactions of the United Arab Republic (UAR) and Israel. President Kennedy is very concerned that the situation in the Middle East could escalate quickly. One of the President's advisors says to him: "Our real problem today in the Near East is that neither Israel nor the Arabs have any kind of plan to get themselves out of the box of active hostility." The White House is aware that certain moves by the United States may be interpreted by Middle East nations as being too pro-Israeli. President Kennedy says: "Our interest is not solely a concern of Israel but really a concern for their [all of the Middle East] future that there's going to be a 90-day war and we assume that they [all of the Middle East] don't really want that, we want it to be understood in advance that it's not just because of our concern about Israel. Our concern is mutual because the peril is mutual."
The subject of a Kennedy 1964 re-election campaign, which never took place, can be heard on the recordings. In these recordings, informal discussions provide listeners with the opportunity to hear President Kennedy discuss issues in a personal and relaxed setting, the sounds of the President's rocking chair rocking can be heard in the background. Adlai Stevenson, Ambassador to the U.N., and the President have an informal meeting on 4/22/63 to discuss numerous foreign policy issues, including Cuba as the leading 1964 campaign issue for the Republicans, highlighted in recent speeches by Richard Nixon. Nixon is also mentioned in the President's meeting with writer and editor Norman Cousins. In the meeting with Adlai Stevenson, the President refers to a recent Richard Nixon speech as "pure Nixon, he just runs so true to form that he really ought to be preserved." When Ambassador Stevenson asks whether Nixon is really a menace politically, the President responds: "No, he's no menace. But the lies. Cuba is obviously the issue." During the meeting with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Germany Walter C. Dowling on 4/26/63, the President mentions Henry Kissinger's recent article in The Reporter on the Multilateral Force, commenting, "I think he's doing this stuff for Rockefeller." Nelson Rockefeller was considered to be a likely 1964 Republican candidate for president.
In a 10/22/62 meeting during the Cuban Missile President Kennedy during with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Kennedy stresses the need to inform nuclear missile sites in Turkey not to fire if they come under a Soviet attack. Kennedy Discuses making it clear to allies that commitments on Berlin would not be compromised, the need to protect U.S. credibility and the need to maintain the strategic balance.
In one of the last recording made by President Kennedy in the second week of November, 1963., Kennedy give a dictation to be used for his memoirs.
The National Archives holds 6 hours of tapes made during Kennedy's time in the Senate and approximately 275 hours of recording made during his presidency. In 1975 archivists received the combination of a safe containing most of the presidential recordings. In 1998, after the death of the President's longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, the Library received additional hours of telephone recordings. And in 1999, in the papers of NSC staffer Robert Komer, the Library discovered presidential recording number 19, which since 1975 had been deemed missing. In all the Kennedy collections consist of 125 tapes of office meetings.
Neither John F. Kennedy nor his brother Robert F. Kennedy left behind any documents or recorded comments on the reasons for these recordings. There is no evidence of receipts, memoranda, letters, notes or other documents contemporary to the Kennedy administration that deal with the recordings systems and their installation. The circle of those who knew of the recordings was limited to President Kennedy's personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln and the two Secret Service men who operated the tape recording system. Such close staff members as Theodore Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy, Larry O'Brien, Pierre Salinger, and Walter Heller appeared to have been taken completely by surprise when the existence of the recordings was announced in 1973.
It is from Kennedy's personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and from two U.S. Secret Service men, Robert Bouck and Chester Miller, that all our information on origin and purpose must be drawn, based entirely on their own memories. Bouck installed the audiotape system to record meetings in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. His assistant, Miller, helped him to monitor the operation of the equipment and to change reels of tape as needed. Evelyn Lincoln actively participated in the manual activation of at least the telephone recordings system, and she was the custodian of all tapes and Dictabelts that bad been recorded upon. Evelyn Lincoln has asserted that the recordings were intended solely for use in writing the Kennedy memoirs when he should leave office, and that he neither listened to any of them himself nor had any transcripts prepared. Bouck and Miller were not told why the systems were installed, but Bouck had an impression that it had something to do with critical discussions about the Soviet Union.
The earliest event on any of the audiotapes of meetings in the collection is dated July 30, 1962. President Kennedy was vacationing on Cape Cod for all four of the weekends preceding that date, and installation could have taken place on any of them. Robert Bouck, who designed, acquired, and installed the system, has the impression that it was much earlier, but there are no recordings in the collection that can be dated any earlier than July 30, 1962.
Bouck, whose normal duty was to protect the White House against electronic eavesdropping from outside, installed microphones in the kneehole of the president's desk in the Oval Office and in unused light fixtures on the wall behind the president's chair in the Cabinet Room. The recording equipment was in the basement of the West Wing, connected to the microphones by wires passed through the floor. The president turned the system on and off by switches located in the kneehole of the desk and at his place at the Cabinet table. At some point, a third switch was installed on the coffee table by the fireplace in the Oval Office. Mrs. Lincoln believes that the system operated like the telephone system, and that she had a switch, but Bouck does not remember installing one for her.
In the early months of the system, Bouck or Miller would check the recording equipment daily and would change reels of tape as they showed signs of use. Later they installed a tandem system whereby a second machine and second reel would automatically begin to record as the first reel ran out of tape. When this happened, a light signal in their office in the Executive Office Building would alert them that a reel needed to be changed. Tapes that were completed were given to Mrs. Lincoln, who made notations as to date and event and placed the reels in the same cabinet in which she kept the Dictabelts.
Bouck personally dismantled the tape recording system on November 22, 1963, immediately after learning of President Kennedy's death.
The exact date of installation and initial operation of the system for recording telephone conversations is uncertain, but it was probably in early September 1962. Mrs. Lincoln recalls that it occurred on a weekend when Kennedy was in Newport, Rhode Island, and he was vacationing there on the weekends of August 25-26, September 1-2, and September 8-9 in 1962. The earliest recording of a telephone conversation on the Dictabelts is September 10, 1962, and there are no belts of conversations of any earlier date. The system itself was a common, commercially available Dictaphone system using red, plastic sleeves. It was installed, according to Evelyn Lincoln, by the telephone company, and neither Miller nor Bouck were involved in the installation. The recording device and belts were located in a cabinet near Evelyn Lincoln's desk, and it was connected by wires to the common telephone line shared by her desk phone and the phone on the president's desk in the Oval Office.
Mrs. Lincoln activated the recording device upon receiving a light signal from the president, who initiated the signal by pressing a switch on his desk. As each Dictabelt was recorded, Mrs. Lincoln would remove it and note the date and participants in the conversations recorded on it. She placed the used belts in a combination-lock cabinet in a small room just off the Oval Office. The system apparently was left in place when Mrs. Lincoln moved to the Executive Office Building on November 23, 1963.
Mrs. Lincoln took the recordings with her to the Executive Office Building when she moved the President's Office Files from the West Wing of the White House on November 24, 1963. They went with her again when she moved to the National Archives in 1964. She states that when she left the employ of the National Archives in 1965 she "turned everything over to the archives," including the recordings.
The recordings appear to have been moved from the National Archives in Washington to the security vault of the Federal Archives and Records Center in Waltham, Massachusetts, the temporary home of the Kennedy Library from 1965 to 1979, in the fall of 1965. At no time during the period 1963 to 1975 did personnel of the National Archives have the combination to the cabinet in which the recordings were stored. At some point prior to the removal of the recordings to Waltham, Robert Kennedy apparently removed from them all the Dictabelt recordings, which were not restored to the collection container in Waltham until July of 1973.