President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Secret White House Recordings
Six hours and thirty-six minutes of secret White House recordings made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940.
In January of 1939, President Roosevelt became upset after statements attributed to him, were published in the New York Times. These comments were leaked from a private meeting with the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Roosevelt was not only angry that the comments were leaked, but he also felt he was inaccurately quoted. Roosevelt asked his official stenographer, Henry Kannee, to find a way to make certain there were accurate records of his meetings. Keane first tried unsuccessfully to use a hidden Dictaphone. After contacting RCA, the White House was given a working prototype of the experimental RCA Continuous-Film Recording Machine. Tape recorders as we know them today had not yet been invented. This prototype was three feet tall and two feet wide. This device used motion picture sound recording equipment and 35 millimeter motion picture sound film. Instead of recording longitudinally, this device recorded on the film from side to side. This allowed long conversations to be recorded on a small reel of film. One hour of conversation could be recorded on fifteen feet of film. During the time President Roosevelt utilized the machine, only one roll of film was used.
In June 1940, the United States Secret Service installed a taping system in the White House, based on the RCA Continuous-Film Recording Machine, directly under the Oval Office. A microphone was placed in the shade of a lamp that sat on top of President Roosevelt's desk. This is why Roosevelt's voice is the clearest sound on the recordings. The wiring to control the device was installed in one the desk drawers. The existence of the recording system was only known by President Roosevelt, Keane, Roosevelt's new stenographer Jack Romagna, the machine's inventor John R. Kiel, a representative from RCA, and the Secret Service Agents who installed it.
This primitive recording set-up was used from August 23, 1940, to November 8, 1940. These recordings consist mainly of fourteen press conferences and several accidentally recorded conversations held in the Oval Office. Roosevelt intended to only use the taping system to record press conferences. In addition to the fourteen press conferences, the recording captured audio of conversations in the Oval Office, since the device was turned on several minutes before the conference began with the doorman's call of "all in." The device was often left on after a press conference ended. The only means for reporters to record the proceedings of the conferences, were with their handwritten notes. During these press meetings held in the Oval Office, President Franklin Roosevelt often spoke only on background and off the record, making remarks that the press were not to attribute to him. It is believed that the presidential campaign of 1940 was Franklin Roosevelt's primary reason for wanting to record in the Oval Office. President Roosevelt abandoned the device, not long after his 1940 victory over Wendell Wilkie.
Although hampered by the inherit lack of technology available for the recording system. This set of recordings captures Franklin Roosevelt's personality in a way unique from his public speeches or even his fireside chats. The recordings show that the emphasis on domestic concerns that dominated most of his first two terms as president, had considerably receded. The recordings reflect Roosevelt as directly confronting the gathering storm of war in Europe.
In these recordings of press conferences and in the recordings of conversations accidently captured after the conference's end, President Roosevelt can be heard speaking about:
Reinstating the military draft. Roosevelt can be heard discussing former New York State Senator and New York City mayor Jimmy Walker's mistress Betty Compton and Walker's relationship with Walker's wife. Followed by comments about his Republican presidential campaign challenger Wendell Willkie's relationship with Wilkie's wife. Conflict with Congress on military appropriations. Strengthening the Air Force. Naval defenses in the Pacific. America's military resources gap with Germany. The Three-Power Pact between Germany, Italy, and Japan. A conversation with A. Philip Randolph, the leader of the first African-American labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, in which Randolph issues his case for the integration of the military and an improved role for African-Americans in the military. Randolph pleads the importance to African-Americans to be able to participate in the defense of the country. The politics of building military plants. Speculation on whether Germany is working against President Roosevelt's reelection campaign. Roosevelt's alarm concerning Japan wanting the United States to give up its naval base at Pearl Harbor. Sale of military equipment to Great Brittan.