During July 1962, President John F. Kennedy installed hidden recording systems in the Oval Office and in the Cabinet Room. The result is a priceless historical archive comprising some 265 hours of taped material documenting a time when Civil Rights tensions were near the boiling point and Americans feared a nuclear war.
Now, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency, the John F. Kennedy Library and historian Ted Widmer have carefully selected the most compelling and important of these remarkable recordings for release, fully restored and re-mastered onto two 75-minute CDs for the first time.
“Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy” covers watershed events, including the Cuban missile crisis, the space race, Vietnam, and the arms race.
According to his daughter, Caroline Kennedy, the taped conversations “also give a sense of the human side of the presidency.” According to Widmer Kennedy placed a microphone in the “kneehole of the famous HMS Resolute desk and another, disguised, on the coffee table between the two sofas where the President sometimes sat with visitors.” The president could control the recordings with a push button under his desk as well as another button on the coffee table where he sat for more relaxed conversations. In the Cabinet Room, they were behind drapes, where there used to be light fixtures. Kennedy also created a separate system that would record his telephone calls. The tape reels were recorded in the basement, overseen by his personal secretary. Very few, even inside his closest circles, knew he was taping. In fact, the existence of the tapes came as a shock to Kennedy intimates. According to the book, the agent who installed the taping system, Robert Bouck, believed that the president was able to record inside his private living quarters, but that has never been proven nor are there existing tapes to substantiate that claim.
Political Ambitions text: On Jan. 5, 1960, the journalist James M. Cannon recorded a dinner party conversation between John F Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline and a few close friends including Newsweek bureau chief Ben Bradlee. Kennedy had declared his candidacy three days earlier. At the dinner, he admitted to Bradlee that when he ran for Congress in 1946 it had never occurred to him that he would one day run for president. His ultimate goal was to be governor of Massachusetts. He humorously told Cannon that while he has an unlisted number, “everybody seems to have it.”
Kennedy did not have lofty political aspirations, which is corroborated by a personal recording in the early 1960s that reveals his entry into politics was “somewhat accidental.” Kennedy describes how he was “at loose ends” at the end of the war, but was reluctant to go to law school or follow a business career. He opted for politics because “for all the Irish immigrants, the way up in Boston was clearly charted. The doors of business were shut. The way to rise above being a laborer was through politics.”
However, Kennedy did not see himself as the “political type.” He told Bradlee and Cannon that he found it “hard work,” while his grandfather was “a natural political type (who) loved to go out to a dinner. Loved to get up and sing with the crowds. Loved to go down and take the train up and talk to eighteen people on the train.” He later added, “I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician … What he loved to do was what politicians are expected to do … I don’t enjoy. I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else.” Despite his self-described aloofness, other professions – such as news reporting – paled in comparison to politics. “A reporter is reporting what happens; he’s not making it happen … they, in a sense, are a secondary profession,” he noted. Being a politician, in his view, was ideal as it “filled the Greek definition of happiness: ‘Full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.'” Of course, the “ultimate source of action,” for Kennedy was the presidency.
Integration in Mississippi text: These tapes record President Kennedy’s all out campaign to persuade reluctant Southern governors to accede to federal power and join the civil rights movement. In the summer and fall of 1963, polls indicated Kennedy was losing six or seven white voters for every new black voter he gained, but Kennedy Widmer writers was “determined to deploy the full powers of the presidency to advance the cause.” President Kennedy’s first call to Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi on Sept. 22, 1962, revealed the battle lines between them. Kennedy was bargaining in vain for the peaceful entrance into the University of Mississippi of its first African-American student James Meredith.
“Barnett: Oh, I should say I am concerned about it, Mr. President. It’s a horrible situation.
JFK: Well now, here’s my problem, Governor … Listen, I didn’t put him in the university, but on the other hand, under the Constitution, I have to carry out the orders of the, carry that order out, and I don’t want to do it in any way that causes difficulty to you or anyone else. But I’ve got to do it. Now, I’d like to get your help in doing that.
Barnett: You know what I am up against, Mr. President. I took an oath, you know, to abide by the laws of this state. And we have a statute that was enacted a couple of weeks ago stating that no one who had been convicted of a crime, or whether the criminal action pending against them, would not be eligible for any of the institutions of higher learning …
JFK: … What I want, would like to do is to try to work this out in an amicable way. We don’t want a lot of people down there getting hurt … we don’t want to have a lot of people getting hurt or killed down there.”
Barnett ended the call with the president on an unexpected note, taking the president aback:
“Barnett: I appreciate your interest in our poultry program and all those things.
JFK: Well, we’re [suppressed laughter]
Barnett: Thank you so much.”
Kennedy’s calls to Barnett ultimately failed as he eventually had to send the Army to put down the resulting riots in Mississippi.
The Fight for Civil Rights text: In 1963, Birmingham, Alabama, became the focal point of the civil rights movement as the grim violence that gripped the city raised the specter of uncontrollable riots. The president and his inner team, including his brother Attorney General Robert F Kennedy and Associate Attorney General Burke Marshall, met on May 12, 1963 to discuss how they could negotiate effectively with Martin Luther King, Jr.
“RFK: Martin Luther King is coming back, I guess he is probably in Birmingham at the present time … He’ll have some effect on those that attend the rest, it’s questionable… On the other side, the Negroes who are tough and mean and have guns, who have been bitter for a long period of time, who are worked up about this, and figure one of the best services they can perform is to shoot some of them.
JFK: … So it really is just a question, we have to have two things. First, we have to have law and order, and therefore the Negroes not to be running around the city. And then secondly, we have to get this arrangement working. We can’t just have the Negroes not running around the city, and then have the agreement blow up …
Burke Marshall: If that agreement blows up, the Negroes will be …
Marshall: And I think not only in Birmingham.”
On Aug. 28, 1963, Martin Luther King gave his famed address, “I have a dream” on the Mall in Washington. JFK invited King and the leaders of the march, which included Philip Randolph, to the White House. Randolph, according to the tapes, told Kennedy, “It’s obvious that it’s going to take nothing less than a crusade to win approval for civil rights measures. And if it is going to be a crusade, I think nobody can lead this crusade but you.” Kennedy urged the leaders to focus on educating the younger generation.
“JFK: “On this question of education …Now isn’t it possible for the Negro community to take the lead in committing major emphasis upon the responsibility of these families, even if they’re split and all the rest of the problems they have, on educating their children? Now, in my opinion, the Jewish community, which suffered a good deal under discrimination, and what a great effort they made, which I think has made their role influential, was in education, education of their children. And therefore, they’ve been able to establish a pretty strong position for themselves.”
The Kennedy Children text: “I recall spending happy afternoons eating candy and making paper-clip necklaces under my father’s desk while men talked in serious voices,” writes Caroline Kennedy in the foreword to “Listening in.” While the tapes recorded serious issues that ranged from racial injustice to foreign intervention, they also captured light hearted moments of levity with Kennedy’s young children. One example is when John Jr., on Nov. 4, 1963, interrupted his father privately recording his ruminations on the overthrow of Vietnam’s President Diem.
“JFK: Do you want to say anything? Say hello.
John Jr.: Hello.
JFK: Say it again.
John Jr.: Naughty, naughty daddy.
JFK: Why do the leaves fall?
John Jr.: Because it’s autumn.
JFK: Why does the snow come on the ground?
John J.r: Because it’s winter.
JFK: Why do the leaves turn green?
John Jr.: Because it’s spring.
JFK: When do we go to the Cape? Hyannisport?
John Jr.: Because it’s summer.
JFK: It’s summer.
John Jr.: [laughter] Your horses.
JFK: [Returning to his Dictaphone] I was shocked by the death of Diem and Nhu. I’d met Diem …”
The Cuban Missile Crisis
According to “Listening In,” the Cuban missile crisis shows off Kennedy’s taping system to “its finest advantage.” On Tuesday morning, Oct. 16, 1962, President Kennedy was informed that the CIA had photographic evidence of the Soviets installing missiles in Cuba, which led to the president on Monday evening, Oct. 22, giving a televised address announcing a quarantine around Cuba and demanding the missiles’ removal.
During this tense week, President Kennedy used his taping equipment as a means to record his own observations. On Thursday Oct. 18, he recorded his memory of the day:
JFK: “The consensus was that we should go ahead with the blockade beginning on Sunday night … that we could tighten the blockade as the situation requires. I was most anxious that we not have to announce the state of war existing … It was determined that is should go ahead with my speeches so that we don’t take the cover off this and come back Saturday night.”
Kennedy was under a lot of pressure from his own military advisers who were urging him to invade Cuba. “Listening in” describes how on Oct. 19, 1962, Air Force General Curtis LeMay attempted to force the President’s hand when he complained that Kennedy’s delay in attack was similar to “the appeasement of Hitler at Munich.”
JFK: “If we attack Cuban missiles or Cuba … we would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies … There’s bound to be reprisal from the Soviet Union, there always is – of their just going in and taking Berlin for force. Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is one hell of an alternative – and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening … On the other hand, we’ve got to do something.
Lemay:… In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President.
JFK: What did you say?
Lemay: You’re in a pretty bad fix.
JFK: You’re in there with me. [laughter].”
Cuba Missile Crisis: Tension Among the Generals text: On Oct. 19, 1962 Kennedy met with several of his military advisers, including General Curtis LeMay of the Air Force and General David Shoup of the Marines, to discuss the Cuban missile crisis. They were pressuring him to invade Cuba. Kennedy left the room and kept the tapes recording, unbeknownst to them. “Listening In” notes “there is no indication that JFK ever listened..”
Gen. David Soup: You pulled the rug right out from under him.
Gen. Curtis Lemay: Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean? …
Shoup: He finally got around to the word ‘escalation’ … You’re screwed, screwed, screwed. And if some goddam thing, some way, he could say that they either do the son of the bitch and do it right and quit frigging around. That was my conclusion. Don’t frig around and go take a missile out … You got to go in and take out the goddam thing that’s going to stop you from doing your job.”
The 13-day crisis ended on a diplomatic note without any military intervention. On the final weekend, Russian President Nikita Khruschev sent President Kennedy two messages – the first conciliatory and the second threatening and hostile. President Kennedy and his brother RFK decided to reply to the first one, which defused the situation.
NASA’s Race to the Moon text: According to “Listening In,” the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union “was fought in all theaters of the world, including one that was extraterrestrial,” the race to the moon. The book excerpts transcripts of two meetings between President Kennedy, his science adviser Jerome Wiesner and NASA Administrator James Webb. In a meeting on Nov. 21, 1962, President Kennedy emphasizes to Webb the urgency of the race to the moon.
“JFK: Do you put this program… do you think this program is the top priority of the agency?
Webb: No Sir, I do not …
JFK: Jim, I think it is a top priority, I think we out to have that very clear … This is important for political reasons, international political reasons, and for, this is, whether we like it or not a race. If we get second to the moon, it’s nice, but it’s like being second anytime …
Webb:…It’s very hard to draw a line with what, between what –
JFK: Everything that we do ought to really be tied to getting onto the moon ahead of the Russians.”
Nearly a year later, on Sept. 18, 1963, Kennedy asks Webb if he got reelected as president whether he would see an American on the moon during his tenure. Webb regretfully says that it would take longer than that but ends on a positive note, explaining to the president how this push in science and technology will advance the nation.:
“While you’re president, this is going to come true in this country. So you’re going to have both science and technology appreciating your leadership in this field. Without a doubt in my mind. And the young, of course, see this much better than my generation … and I predict you are not going to be sorry, no sir, that you did this.”
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon nearly six years after President Kennedy was assassinated. America fulfilled the promise President Kennedy made on May 25, 1961 in his address to Congress, to send an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade.
The Peace Corps text: While campaigning for the presidency, Kennedy proposed “a peace corps of talented men and women” who would dedicate themselves to the progress and peace of developing countries. A few days after he took office, President Kennedy asked his brother-in-law Sargent Shriver to establish the Peace Corps and lead the organization. The Peace Corps was officially established on March 1, 1961. Two years later, Shriver called President Kennedy to express his fear that the Central Intelligence Agency was attempting to infiltrate the idealistic organization.
“Shriver: Hello, Jack?
JFK: Yeah, Sarge.
Shriver: Hi, how are you?
JFK: Good, fine, fine.
Shriver: I’m sorry to bother you.
JFK: Not a bit.
Shriver: But I’m getting rather suspicious over here that despite your instructions that some of our friends over in the CIA might think they’re smarter than anybody else and that they are trying to stick fellows into the Peace Corps.
JFK: Yeah, yeah … would you call Dick Helms? … He’s the operations officer over there and just say to him that you’ve talked to me and that I won’t want anybody in there … we don’t want to discredit this whole idea.
Shriver: Ok, fine.
JKF: And they, Christ, they’re not even gonna find out that much intelligence!”
Rising Tensions in Vietnam text: In the fall of 1963, President Kennedy continued to receive “conflicting reports on Vietnam and whether U.S. efforts were succeeding or not.” The following conversation with his advisors, Gen. Victor Krulak and the State Department’s Joseph Mendenhall, on Sept. 10, 1963 following their fact-finding mission to South Vietnam crystallizes the confusion with Krulak advocating for the U.S. to stay the course while Mendenhall disagreed.
“Mendenhall: My conclusion is that … Mr. Nhu must go or we will not be able to win the war in Vietnam if he stays …
JFK: You both went to the same country? [laughter]
Mendenhall: Yes, sir.
Krulak: One talked to military, one to civilians.”
The Birthing Room text: “Listening In” describes how President Kennedy was horrified to see in the newspaper a photo of an aide standing next to an expensive new naval project – a hospital bedroom that had been built at a base on Cape Cod to be ready in case his pregnant wife Jacqueline went into labor. They had spent $5,000, which infuriated the president, who was conscious that military spending was going nowhere but up. It resulted in two very angry calls on July 25, 1963.
“JFK: That’s the way these guys spend money … I’d justlike to send the goddamn furniture back … I’d love to send it right back to Jordan Marsh in an air force truck this afternoon with the captain on it.
JFK: [Chuckles] Now what about transferring his ass out of here in about a month? He doesn’t have any sense ….
JFK: And that that fellow’s incompetent who had his picture taken next to Mrs. Kennedy’s bed, if that’s what it is. I mean, he’s a silly bastard! I wouldn’t have him running a cathouse!”
George Romney’s Presidential Ambitions text: In 1962, George Romney became the Republican governor of Michigan and posed as a potential political threat to President Kennedy who was pondering his re-election challenges. In a meeting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur on Aug. 16, 1962, President Kennedy asks MacArthur about Romney.
“JFK: Do you know this fellow Romney? Have you met Romney? George Romney?
MacArthur: Only casually.
JFK: Yeah, yeah.
MacArthur: He doesn’t stand a chance … even if he got the nomination, he couldn’t win it. And he’d have to build himself up as the governor of Michigan and make a campaign from the bottom up.”
MacArthur continued to make his point about Romney’s lack of prominence by telling Kennedy he had taken a poll of 100 people the other day, from window cleaners to his own board of directors, and only two even knew who Romney was.
Secret Tapes Shed New Insight on JFK’s Presidency: ABC News Exclusive
“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.
The last secretly taped White House recordings of John F. Kennedy’s time in office have been released.
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