A Presidency in Crisis
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MARGARET WARNER: What’s it like to be President of the United States in a time of military crisis, when you and your advisers face decisions that could have literally life-and-death consequences? Some of the answers can be found in the secret tape recordings made by President John F. Kennedy. Transcripts of those recordings are available to the public in full for the first time in a new three-volume work entitled “The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy.” Between its covers are the fully transcribed tapes of three months of Kennedy’s Oval Office and cabinet room conversations, from July 30, 1962, when the system was first activated, to Oct. 28 of that same year. That period saw the most dangerous foreign policy dilemma of Kennedy’s presidency, the Cuban missile crisis. The set comes with a multimedia CD-Rom with an audio track synchronized to the transcripts, a video tour of the rooms where meetings were taped, and links to companion documents and photographs. All this is the work of the Presidential Recordings Project at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The center has teams of scholars working on White House tapes from six administrations, from Franklin Roosevelt’s through Richard Nixon’s. Some 70 volumes are expected in all, and the Kennedy collection alone will ultimately fill 12 volumes.
For more insight into the Kennedy tapes and what they tell us about a presidency in a time of crisis we’re joined by one of the co-editors, Philip Zelikow. He’s also director of the Miller Center, and he served on the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration. Welcome, Mr. Zelikow.
PHILIP ZELIKOW, Co-Editor, “The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy:” Good evening.
MARGARET WARNER: Scores of book have been written about the Kennedy presidency. Some scholars have actually listened to some of these tapes. What do you think it adds to our understanding and the public’s understanding to see them, to read them, or hear them in toto?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: A couple of things. First, you start from the fact that we’ve never had evidence of this scale about any government in all of recorded history. So you have a kind of evidence that’s almost like Pompeii, the volcano that covered ancient Rome and allowed us to rediscover a Roman city, but with two differences: It’s not about ancient Rome in the year 79, it’s about your United States in our generation; and second, instead of mummified casts of people whose lives we try to imagine, these shadows live and speak, and you can be there as if you’re like a child going through a time machine to be in the past. What you see is the whole situation of a President’s Day. It’s not just this crisis or this fragment. You see him turning from the international economy to missiles in Cuba, to a dilemma over Berlin, to a civil rights crisis in Mississippi, and you see how things come together and interact with each other as he tries to fashion a policy for the whole country.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, how did he happen to install this taping system, and why did he activate it not until 18 months into his presidency?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: As best we can tell, he installed the taping system because he wanted to use it as a kind of an electronic diary to use in writing the memoirs that he planned on preparing when he left office, still a young man. Remember, Kennedy was an amateur historian– he’d won a Pulitzer for history a few years before becoming president — and this was the way he was planning to keep track for his own private use of what he thought were his most important meetings.
MARGARET WARNER: And then now he controlled the on-off switch, and who else knew about the system?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: No one else knew about the system except two Secret Service agents who installed and maintained it, his private secretary, and perhaps his brother and possibly Kenny O’Donnell.
MARGARET WARNER: His chief of staff.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, against the backdrop of what’s going on now, what do these tapes tell us about how the Kennedy presidency operated in a time of crisis?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: They show that the presidency in some ways was a high-wire act: Disorganized, fluid in many ways, but at its center it relied on John F. Kennedy to use his formidable talents to pull things together and ask the right questions. In the missile crisis, Kennedy was at his best: He did succeed in pulling things together; he did figure out how to ask the right questions.
MARGARET WARNER: But how good… For instance, how good was the information that he got?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: The information he got was in general very good, but what’s surprising in many ways is that that information wasn’t digested for him with the sophistication that information is digested for presidents today. So a lot of what you hear on the tapes is the advisers at the table trying to sort out the information, and "What does it mean, what’s the significance of this?" and wondering aloud how to interpret some fragment.
MARGARET WARNER: And how well did he work with his advisers?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: He worked really well with his advisers, but more in the sense of challenging them, almost clinically, questioning premises — somewhat distant and remote. He’s a person who will never say ten words when he thinks he can be understood in eight, and his advisers are always chasing to hold his attention and to keep up with what he’s saying.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, we have one excerpt that shows some of these crosscurrents, and I’ll just set the scene briefly. It’s Oct. 26. It’s the second week of the missile crisis. The U.S. has already blockaded Cuba, but set it up further. What are the choices he’s facing now?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: The blockade is reaching its climax. Khrushchev isn’t pulling the missiles out. Is Kennedy now going to attack the island? And there’s a diplomatic idea coming from the United Nations. The American representative there is Adlai Stevenson. He says, "Let’s accept a standstill, a freeze on the situation: Okay, the missiles will stay in Cuba, but we’ll put in international inspectors, and it will buy us some time to sort this out diplomatically." So he supports a standstill, a freeze, the way things are. Other advisers say, "If you let that situation stay in place, it’s a fait accompli; the missiles will never go out." But when you listen to the transcript, listen to the way Kennedy tries to push past that very important argument to deeper choices underneath.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, and the other voice we’re going to hear is John McCone.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: You’ll hear John McCone, the director of the CIA, a stubborn, opinionated man, but a man who had been prescient about the Soviet decision to deploy the missiles, and a Republican, by the way, in the Kennedy cabinet.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, let’s listen.
STEVENSON: …I want to conclude by making it very clear that the intention here was a standstill, not positive acts. And the standstill was to include the discontinuance of construction, discontinuance of shipping, discontinuance of the quarantine which we, we’d have to agree how to do that in 48 hours. After that, we’d negotiate a final settlement, which would relate to the withdrawal of the weapons, or the inoperability of weapons already operable. I would think inoperable becomes meaningless, because during the long-term negotiations we’re concerned with the withdrawal of the weapons from the hemisphere.
McCONE: That threat must be removed before we can drop the quarantine. If we drop that quarantine once, we’re never to be able to put into effect again…And I feel that we must say that the quarantine goes on until we are satisfied that things are inoperable.
KENNEDY: Well, now the quarantine itself won’t remove the weapons. So we’ve only got two ways of removing the weapons. One is to negotiate them out – in other words, trade them out. Or the other is to go in and take them out. I don’t see any other way you’re going to get the weapons out.
McCONE: I say that we have to send inspections down there to see at what stage they are. I feel that if we lose that…But this is the security of the United States! I believe the strategic situation has greatly changed with the presence of these weapons in Cuba.
KENNEDY: That’s right. The only thing that I am saying is, that we’re not going to get them out with the quarantine. I’m not saying we should lift the quarantine or what we should do about the quarantine. But we have to all now realize that we’re not going to get them out. We’re either going to trade them out, or we’re going to have to go in and get them out ourselves. I don’t know of any other way to do it.
MARGARET WARNER: So you can see McCone and Stevenson are both talking about the process, and he’s trying to look ahead, the president is, to what the end result is.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Right. They’re arguing about what’s our diplomatic position for the standstill, and Kennedy’s saying, "Okay, but bottom line it comes down to trade ‘em out or attack Cuba and blow them out–" "take them out," as he puts it. "That’s the fundamental choice I have to make." And that’s the choice that he’s urging his advisers to face with him.
MARGARET WARNER: But you’re saying that, when it’s presented to him, that it isn’t presented as a clear-cut choice; he sort of has to find that clear-cut choice.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Exactly, and that’s why, listening to these tapes, experiencing the real West Wing, is so different from watching the television the show "The West Wing." In the television show, you have a narrative that presents a dilemma, and the advisers argue about the dilemma. presidents or senior officials see this show and say, "if only life were so easy as it is on ‘The West Wing,’" because the dilemma is rarely so clear. The president is presented with a string of choices about a bill or something like that, and he has to sift through that jungle of detail and all those choices. "What’s the real choice here? What’s the fundamental choice that lies beneath all this clutter that’s going to determine how people will see my presidency a month, a year, a generation from now?"
MARGARET WARNER: Now, back to the Cuban missile crisis. Throughout this, also, when I’ve read the parts I read, he’s… The president’s also very, very conscious of the risk of a much larger… The much larger risks that are involved here– I mean, the risk of nuclear war.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Right, and he’s trying to get both sides to face up to that. He says, "either I’m going to trade these things out or I’m going to have a military attack on Cuba, and a military attack on Cuba lights a fuse that can lead to global thermonuclear war. Are you prepared to step up to that risk?"
MARGARET WARNER: And part of what he’s also trying to do, and I imagine any president in a situation has to, is psyche out his foreign adversary.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Yes.
MARGARET WARNER: There’s a lot of that in here, isn’t there?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Because he firmly believes that if Khrushchev thinks he’s not ready to go to the brink of nuclear war, Khrushchev will push him all the way. In fact, some of the evidence from the Soviet side indicates that Kennedy had Khrushchev read exactly right. Every time Khrushchev thinks the Americans are weakening, Khrushchev ups the ante. So Kennedy does not want to go to war, but he has to convince Khrushchev that he’s ready to do it. It’s a tightrope Kennedy’s trying to walk.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we have another excerpt that goes to that, and this is when he calls former President Eisenhower– actually before the excerpt we just heard– and sort of– how would you describe it– sounds him out on this issue?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Yes, ’cause Eisenhower… The choice of "are you willing to risk thermonuclear war?", There’s one man in the country who understands that choice as well as Kennedy does, and that’s Dwight Eisenhower, ’cause Eisenhower was there. He was behind the Oval Office desk. He had that choice, too. In all the tape recordings during this crisis, there’s only one time where we actually hear Kennedy asking flat out to another man, "would you take that risk?", And that other man was Dwight Eisenhower, and it occurred during this tape excerpt you’re about to hear.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s listen.
KENNEDY: …General, what about if the Soviet Union – Khrushchev – announces tomorrow, which I think he will, that if we attack Cuba that it’s going to be nuclear war? And what’s your judgment as to the chances they’ll fire these things off if we invade Cuba?
EISENHOWER: Oh, I don’t believe that they will.
KENNEDY: You don’t think they will?
KENNEDY: In other words, you would take that risk if the situation seemed desirable?
EISENHOWER: Well, as a matter of fact, what can you do? If this thing is such a serious thing, here on our flank, that we’re going to be uneasy and we know what thing is happening now. All right, you’ve got to use something.
EISENHOWER: Something may make these people shoot them off. I just don’t believe this will.
KENNEDY: Yeah, right.
EISENHOWER: In any event, of course, I’ll say this: I’d want to keep my own people very alert.
KENNEDY: Yeah. Well, we’ll hang on tight.
EISENHOWER: Yes, sir.
KENNEDY: Thanks a lot, General.
EISENHOWER: All right. Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: The laughter’s kind of chilling, isn’t it?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: Yes, it is, because, I mean, of course they don’t think it’s funny.
MARGARET WARNER: Yeah.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: It’s… that grim chuckling, it’s like, "well, we’ll hang on tight; we’re going to be very alert; oh, yes, indeed, we will." They understand each other, and they’re sort of chuckling to each other, and it’s a solemn moment, it’s a stoic moment. They know that these are the calls they have to make.
MARGARET WARNER: Finally, you’ve listened to all these tapes. What do you think, in balance, they teach us that’s instructive for the current situation and the current president?
PHILIP ZELIKOW: They teach us that the surface detail is something that’s very hard for outsiders to understand. We see caricatures of White House decision-making. The reality, the context and circumstance and mix of personality and the way all the issues from different sets of problems converge on the president’s desk, you can’t see that, A.; B., What’s hard for the president to see is, what are the real choices he faces underneath all that clutter, all those choices he has to make to get through that day’s press deadlines?
MARGARET WARNER: Philip Zelikow, thank you very much.
PHILIP ZELIKOW: You’re welcome.