History Lesson

The Cuban Missile Tape Crisis

Just how helpful are the White House recordings?

Listening to history: not necessarily hi-fi

For several years, political junkies have periodically feasted on the releases of White House recordings, eavesdropping gleefully on presidential decision-making, chicanery, and chitchat. The National Archives, which has 3,700 hours of tapes that Richard Nixon secretly made while president, has been making them available in installments since 1996 (Watergate-related tapes were opened before that, for use in criminal trials). Since 1993, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library has been doling out helpings of the 643 hours of Johnson’s conversations. The John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, after releasing a few hours of tape in 1983, began opening the bulk of its audio archive—some 248 hours of presidential talk—in 1996 as well.

With each offering, reporters swoop in to snatch up the delectable bits. Next-day stories excitedly highlight new ethnic slurs from Nixon, new flashes of Johnson’s insinuating charm. News programs tickle audiences by broadcasting choice excerpts. Then, after the reporters move on, historians linger in the archives, some with small armies of researchers and stenographers, emerging later with anthologies of transcripts—Stanley Kutler’s Nixon volume, Abuse of Power; Michael Beschloss’ Johnson collections, Taking Charge and Reaching for Glory; Ernest May’s and Philip Zelikow’s Cuban Missile Crisis transcripts, The Kennedy Tapes;and, this month, a narrative account of the missile crisis that draws heavily on the tapes, Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, by former Kennedy Library historian Sheldon Stern.

It’s natural to get excited about White House tapes. The thrill is like that of reviewing old letters or diaries, but greater. Put on the headset, press play, and suddenly you’re listening to momentous, top-secret conversations, as if you’re in the Oval Office, or—given the sound quality—the Oval Office broom closet. Whereas documents reveal decisions after they’re firm and final, already congealing into history, the tapes catch them live, in flux, in all their spontaneity. As a result, they seem to promise, as documents do not, a rare glimpse of history unmediated—a chance to realize the goal that the great 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke famously said was the aim of history: to show the past “wie es eigentlich gewesen,” as it really was.

But do they? With so much resting on the promise of the tapes, it pays to ask. Let’s consider the case of the Cuban Missile Crisis recordings.

During the legendary “Thirteen Days” of October 1962—when President Kennedy and his aides strategized about how to get Soviet missiles out of Cuba without sparking a nuclear showdown—the tape recorders secretly rolled for 22 white-knuckled hours. In late 1996 and early 1997, the Kennedy Library declassified and made available these recordings. (Before releasing any tapes, archivists review them to protect both national security and the privacy of individuals who are either taped or mentioned.) Since the crisis has long generated debate about Kennedy’s leadership skills, this release was eagerly awaited.

In the fall of 1997, Harvard University Press published The Kennedy Tapes, a transcript of all the high-level deliberations that JFK recorded. Its editors were Ernest May, a highly distinguished diplomatic historian at Harvard University, and Philip Zelikow, a lawyer by training who had worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations and then at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A shower of adulatory news coverage and reviews (including from Slate) praised this unique resource.

(Along with diplomatic historian Timothy Naftali, Zelikow and May have since then embarked on an ambitious new project to transcribe much, if not all, of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tapes.)

In May 2000, Sheldon Stern, then finishing his own missile tapes book, reviewed the May-Zelikow book in the Atlantic Monthly. Politely but firmly, Stern contended that May and Zelikow hadn’t put enough care into ensuring the fidelity of their transcripts, judging that their book “cannot be relied upon as an accurate historical document.” He cited 22 errors or omissions that he found while checking the May-Zelikow transcripts against his own copies of the tapes. He suggested there were more.

The catalog of alleged errors can be found in Stern’s article. But a couple of examples give the flavor. On Oct. 23, for example, Kennedy’s national security team discussed how to line up support for their plan of action among columnists and political leaders. John McCone, the CIA director, is quoted in the May-Zelikow transcripts as volunteering to call former President Dwight Eisenhower and get “his view of this thing, as a facilitator”—an odd word to apply to Ike, or for anyone to use in 1962. Stern said the word McCone used was “soldier.” (To listen to this passage, click here.)

In another instance, on Oct. 27, JFK’s team is debating whether to agree to pull American missiles out of Turkey in return for the Soviets’ dismantling of their Cuban missiles. May and Zelikow have Kennedy stating: “Obviously, they’re not going to settle the Cuban question until they get some compensation on Cuba.” Stern maintains that Kennedy said “conversation,” not “compensation.” (To listen to this passage, click here.)

With the help of a team of crack young historians at the Miller Center, May and Zelikow updated their transcripts, including many of Stern’s corrections (such as “soldier” for “facilitator”), but rejecting others (“compensation” stayed put). Stern remained a gadfly. In September 2000, he published a longer dissection of their work in Presidential Studies Quarterly. In December 2002, Reviews in American Historyran Stern’s critique of May and Zelikow’s latest version of the crisis transcripts, which Norton published in late 2001 as part of a three-volume collection. Stern didn’t argue with the bulk of the new material, but on the missile crisis transcripts, he claimed to find more mistakes.

In one instance, on Oct. 27, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara proposes to JFK, according to May and Zelikow: “I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call off these air strikes tonight, I think that settles that.” But Stern notes that no air strikes were planned for that night, and suggests that McNamara instead wanted to summon air-reserve squadrons: “I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call up these air squadrons tonight, I think that settles that.” (To listen to this passage, click here.)

A little while later, the team is discussing the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Cuba. According to May and Zelikow, Kennedy said: “I think that he [Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev] knows about the plane. He’s announced it.” But Stern believes JFK said: “I think that he knows about the plane. We’ve announced it”—a statement that more accurately reflects what happened. The United States, not the Soviet Union, made the announcement. (To listen to this passage, click here.)

What’s curious about this controversy is how much isn’t in doubt. No one denies that these volumes of transcripts add significantly to our knowledge. Nor does anyone deny that Stern found errors. Nor even is the accuracy of May and Zelikow’s overall interpretation in question; Stern says “their introduction and conclusion are among the finest concise analyses of the crisis yet written.”

Rather, the dispute centers on the significance of the mistakes. May and Zelikow say the errors Stern found amount to a fraction of thousands of transcribed words and don’t significantly change the meanings of the conversations they belong to. Stern disagrees. The frequency of the errors even in the limited sections that he checked, he says, call into question the overall fidelity of these transcripts to the original conversations. The misunderstood shades of meaning, he says, “do alter the meaning of key moments in the discussions.”

But the controversy really matters because it underscores the fallacy of thinking of these recordings as an unprecedented historical source. In the end, they aren’t a perfectly transparent window onto history but simply a new, helpful resource that remains subject to similar liabilities as documents, interviews, and other materials.

And May and Zelikow are hardly alone in having published imperfect transcripts. Stern notes that he, too, surely made mistakes in deciphering the tapes for his book. Anyone who’s listened to some tapes will agree that you have to hear each small segment of tape over and over to get it right. Even then, the background noise, faintness of speech, overlapping talk, and your unfamiliarity with particular voices makes transcription tedious, time-consuming, and treacherous. Mental fatigue from concentrated listening overwhelms the initial frisson of excitement at hearing voices from the past make history.

Mishearing is inevitable—as the panelists at a recent Kennedy Library conference about presidential tapes enjoyed noting. On one of Lyndon Johnson’s tapes, one archivist said, he was heard to refer to a “pack of bastards,” but he was really speaking of the “Pakistani ambassador.” Another transcript stated that someone “lied. He gets his information from the Joint Chiefs,” when the speaker actually said he “implied he gets his information from the Joint Chiefs.” Watergate buffs may recall reports in the New York Times in 1974 that Nixon had referred to Judge John Sirica on one tape as a “wop”; it was later learned that he had probably called Sirica—a tough sentencer and a Republican—the kind of judge “I want.”

All of which shows why archivists insist that scholars using the material on the tapes should consult the actual recordings. Archivists don’t furnish transcripts to researchers, since doing so, they say, would be engaging in interpretation—which they say is best left to historians. On the other hand, it would be impossible for every researcher to make brand new transcripts for his or her own work. In researching my own book on Nixon, I relied on Stanley Kutler’s Abuse of Power. To have replicated even a portion of his work would have cost many years (and dollars).

No one doubts that the historians who offer transcripts are performing a tremendous service. Their volumes are indispensable for all manner of historians. Yet these volumes shouldn’t be mistaken for authoritative references—not necessarily because of any editorial shortcomings but simply because of the nature of the work. It’s a little disquieting to realize, but these transcripts—any transcripts —are necessarily, like history itself, works of interpretation.

It’s an occupational hazard of being a historian that I know (and admire) most of the players in this story. I met Sheldon Stern 15 years ago when, as a college student, I interned at the Kennedy Library. I met Tim Naftali when I considered working on the Presidential Recordings Project at the Miller Center. W.W. Norton, which publishes the Miller Center’s transcripts, is also publishing my own book, Nixon’s Shadow.