TOPICS > Politics

New Collection Listens in on President Kennedy’s Secret White House Tapes

October 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A new book, "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," shares a treasure trove of the president's secretly-recorded phone calls, meetings and private reflections. Gwen Ifill talks to Ted Widmer, historian and librarian of Brown University, who edited and annotated the tape transcripts.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight: a treasure trove of presidential recordings. Richard Nixon may have had the most famous secret taping system in the White House, but his wasn’t the first.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy installed his own, capturing conversations with his advisers, world leaders, former presidents, and even with his family. He began taping just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union went up to the brink of nuclear war.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of that standoff. Tense conversations from those 13 days are among the transcripts and CDs in the new book “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

Ted Widmer, director and the librarian of BrownUniversity, sorted through the material and annotated it. Gwen Ifill recently sat down with him.

GWEN IFILL: Ted Widmer, thank you so much for joining us.

Tell us a little bit about these tapes. What’s the providence of them? Where do they come from?

TED WIDMER, “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy”: Well, he decided to start taping in the summer of 1962, which is an interesting moment. He’s about halfway through his presidency.

And we don’t know why exactly. Our main source of information is an oral history left by a man named Robert Bouck, who was a Secret Service agent who installed the tapes. And from that, we know where he placed the mikes around the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room.

And we know that his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, was in the know and stored the tapes. But almost no one else knew at the time. And in fact, it wasn’t until 1973 that the world learned that they existed.

The day after Alexander Butterfield famously revealed the Nixon tapes, the then head of the Kennedy Library, which was not yet even a building, revealed that there were Kennedy tapes also. But it’s taken a long time for them to become fully cleared and available.

GWEN IFILL: And just to be clear, nobody else knew about that they were being taped, that they were being recorded.

TED WIDMER: That’s right.

GWEN IFILL: Only the president was aware that he was the one was pushing the button on any of this.

TED WIDMER: Even top advisers like Ted Sorensen claimed to be dumbfounded when he learned that the tapes existed.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s walk through some of the key moments in John F. Kennedy’s presidency that these tapes capture.

One of them was the Cuban Missile Crisis, very interesting trove of information. And we want to listen to one part. And the voices you hear are Arthur Lundahl, a CIA expert on mapping and aerial photography, and Sidney Graybeal, a CIA Russian expert.

And they’re all talking to the president about what they’re seeing there.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, President of the United States: How advanced is this?

ARTHUR LUNDAHL, CIA analyst: Sir, we’ve never seen this kind of installation before.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Not even in the Soviet Union?

ARTHUR LUNDAHL: No, sir.

But from May of ’60 onward, we’ve never had any U2 coverage of the Soviet Union, so we do not know what kind of practice they would use in connection with…

JOHN F. KENNEDY: How do you know this is a medium-range ballistic missile?

ARTHUR LUNDAHL: The length, sir.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: The length of the missile?

SIDNEY GRAYBEAL, CIA: The unknown factor here, sir, is the degree to which the equipment has been checked out after it’s been shipped from the Soviet Union here.

It’s the readiness of the equipment. If the equipment is checked out, the site has to be accurately surveyed, the position has to be known. Once this is known, then you’re talking a number of hours.

GWEN IFILL: What was it like to watch something like this, a big historical moment, unfold in real time?

TED WIDMER: Well, you sit on the edge of your seat listening, as I’m sure people were doing in 1962. It’s uncanny that he started taping just before the crisis.

But the result is we have a nearly perfect record of all of the meetings and what people were saying and their shifting opinion. So it’s very important for historians that we have these tapes.

And this is the very first meeting. It’s the meeting on Oct. 16, 1962, when he’s seeing the pictures for the first time. And he’s shocked because they contradict what the Russians have been saying, and everything he understands about the world, the very complicated world picture is upset at that moment.

GWEN IFILL: Another important part of a short presidency with a lot of moments is the civil rights moment, the civil rights crisis, when civil rights leaders came to his office and they talked to him about what they expected of the Kennedy presidency.

But also he found himself in a difficult position in trying to manage what was unfolding in Mississippi at the time of the integration at the University of Mississippi with James Meredith.

In this little piece of tape, we hear him talking to the then Governor of Mississippi Ross Barnett.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: We couldn’t consider moving Meredith if you — if we haven’t been able to restore order outside. That’s the problem, Governor.

GOV. ROSS BARNETT,Mississippi: Well, I will tell you what I will do, Mr. President. I will go up there myself…

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Well, now, how long will it take you to get there?

ROSS BARNETT: And I will get a microphone and tell them that you have agreed for him to be removed.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: No. No. Now, wait a minute. How long — wait a minute, Governor. Now, how long is it going to take you to get up there?

ROSS BARNETT: About an hour.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Now, I will tell you what you. If you want to go up there and then you call me from up there. Then we’ll decide what we’re going to do before you make any speeches about it.

ROSS BARNETT: Well, all right.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: No sense in…

ROSS BARNETT:  I mean, whatever you — if you’d authorize…

JOHN F. KENNEDY: You see, if we don’t — see, we got an hour to go, and that’s not — we may not have an hour.

GWEN IFILL: Gov. Barnett clearly had a different idea about how to handle this crisis than President Kennedy did.

TED WIDMER: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And that’s a key moment. And, sometimes, you can tell more from the intonations than from the words themselves.

And President Kennedy is raising his voice a little and saying, I’m in charge here, and you’re not. And the governor backs down. They’re each trying to work with the other. They’re trying to save face a little bit, and not let this thing get out of hand. But at that moment, JFK really takes control of the situation.

GWEN IFILL: Gov. Barnett wanted James Meredith removed because he thought that he was the source of the problem?

TED WIDMER: Yes.

And President Kennedy thought, if he were removed, he might be vulnerable to the mobs that were around the jail. And he just didn’t trust Governor Barnett to maintain order. There’s a lot of talk of keeping order in that call.

 

But that is the moment where the sometimes the sluggish Kennedy administration decides that civil rights is a major priority, and it never looked back after that.

GWEN IFILL: The other interesting section — and there’s lots in this book that is not on the audiotapes that come with it. But, still, another interesting part that I found curious was when he talks — toward the end, he reflects on his presidency.

And it turns out to be 10 days before he’s assassinated. Let’s listen to some of his thoughts. This was into his Dictaphone.

TED WIDMER: All right.

JOHN F. KENNEDY: Politically, the news is somewhat disturbing, looking toward 1964, the election in Texas and the poll tax, the Republican meeting in Charleston, S.C., which the Republicans are more optimistic than usual about the South.

TED WIDMER: It had only been a year earlier and a month or two since the Mississippi crisis.

And they had come a very long way. They had put civil rights at the top of the agenda. He had called it a moral crisis. He had called on all Americans to move past the divisions of the past.

But, as a result, he was in some danger of losing states in the South. And he’d won by so narrow a margin in 1960 that reelection wasn’t a foreordained conclusion. So he’s a little bit worried looking ahead, and he’s got foreign policy problems and a difficult Congress that didn’t — including Democrats who didn’t always want to work with him.

So he had his work cut out for him. And that’s an interesting moment, because his voice is a little more fragile than it at other — throughout these meetings, he’s very decisive, very much in command, even in times of great difficulty. And this moment very near the end, there’s a fragile human quality.

GWEN IFILL: Why did it take 10 years for us to learn of existence the tapes, 1973, and then 50 years for us to actually see them in this form?

TED WIDMER: Well, some have been released.

The library, Kennedy Library, has been releasing them to scholars since 1983 in targeted batches by theme. So the Cuban Missile Crisis tapes were released. Certain civil rights tapes were released. But it takes time to go through the vast extent of these tapes. And they need to be cleared by representatives of the federal government to make sure that there are no national security secrets being released. And…

GWEN IFILL: And also by the family.

TED WIDMER: And by the family.

And it just takes time to do it right. But, in the last couple years, the library has really done an extraordinary thing by making the last batch available, by finishing the process, but by putting a huge amount of it online for Americans to hear. So, it’s really a remarkable chance for the American people to hear what it’s like to be president in a very visceral way.

GWEN IFILL: Very visceral way. It’s fascinating to listen to.

The name of the book is “Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy.”

Ted Widmer, thanks for listening to them all for us.

TED WIDMER: Thank you, Gwen.

MARGARET WARNER: And, online, you can listen to more of the Kennedy recordings from the JFK Library website. Find a link on our home page.

Plus, a program note: On October 23, you can watch the documentary “Cuban Missile Crisis: Three Men Go to War” on most PBS stations.