And Now, All the Presidents’ Words
On a cool autumn morning 35 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy woke up and learned that the world was inching closer by the minute to nuclear war.
An aide told him that the Soviet Union had been quietly installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, as documented by U.S. reconnaissance photos. The missiles were pointed at key American cities. Kennedy said they had enough firepower to kill 92 million people.
Over the next 13 days, Kennedy and his advisors struggled to defuse the crisis, finally averting the world’s closest known brush with atomic destruction. How they achieved this has long been the subject of presidential biographies, memoirs and TV documentaries.
But now Americans can press their ears against the White House doors and hear leaders confronting Armageddon.
“The Kennedy Tapes,” by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (Harvard University Press), offers an unprecedented glimpse into high-level decision-making, with transcripts of the tense, marathon crisis meetings Kennedy had secretly recorded.
Read in conjunction with the audio tapes--available through the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston--the new book expands our understanding of a time when millions of panic-stricken people stocked home fallout shelters and prepared for the worst.
“What we have in these transcripts is unique,” says May, a professor of American history at Harvard University. “Readers can actually watch a president and his aides at work behind the scenes, trying to avoid a national calamity.”
It’s not the kind of book you stumble onto every day . . . unless you’re shopping for new titles about Lyndon B. Johnson.
In an odd coincidence, a collection of LBJ’s secret tape transcripts was published the same day as the Kennedy material. “Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964,” by Michael Beschloss (Simon & Schuster), reveals Johnson’s private side as he grapples with America’s early involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights crises that were tearing the nation apart.
As a bonus, the publisher included two hours of the tapes on an audio-book version. Readers can acquire a full set of the recordings through the LBJ library in Austin, Texas.
While the Kennedy book provides a lesson in how to avoid nuclear holocaust, the Johnson tapes chronicle the highs and lows of a man who outwardly held great power but was privately beset by demons. Hoping to preserve his legacy, LBJ recorded conversations from 1963 to 1969, longer than any president.
“These tapes allow us to tap into Johnson’s private life, and we hear a man who at times is depressed and dejected,” says Beschloss, a respected presidential historian. “He’s worried that it’s all going to come crashing down on him. He’s hypersensitive. The smallest thing can really set him off.”
It will be several years before all of Kennedy and Johnson’s private tapes are released to the public, but historians already view them as a gold mine. Along with Richard M. Nixon’s White House recordings, they constitute an invaluable audio archive of presidential decision-making extending from 1962 to 1973.
Chroniclers of later eras won’t be so lucky. Ever since Nixon was destroyed by his Watergate tapes, presidents have declined to record their conversations--and there’s a growing aversion to more traditional forms of record-keeping as well.
“People don’t write memos like they used to,” Beschloss explains. “Memos were once a great source for historians, yet nowadays people write them as if they’re going to wind up on the front page of the L.A. Times. If they write them at all.”
In 1962, there were no such worries. The secret Kennedy tapes tell us as much about the man as the crises he faced.
When he first convened a meeting of 17 top advisors on the morning of Oct. 16, there was an air of stunned surprise in the Cabinet room. Weeks before, Kennedy had warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that putting nuclear weapons in Cuba would have the “gravest consequences.” Now, spy photos showed that the missiles were in place and could be fired within hours.
Most of his aides favored a military response, but JFK held back. He was the only one to ask: Why is Khrushchev doing this?
When Kennedy decided the Soviets were using the missiles to force concessions on West Berlin, then protected by U.S. troops, he moved boldly. Building a consensus among his aides, he made a TV speech announcing a naval blockade of Cuba.
The United States, he said, would halt Soviet ships carrying weapons and sink them if necessary. He demanded that Moscow remove the missiles and implicitly vowed to invade Cuba if Khrushchev refused.
On Oct. 23, as the first Soviet ships neared the blockade line, Kennedy met alone in the Oval Office with Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, his brother and closest ally.
The two pondered the wisdom of the action they’d taken.
President Kennedy: It looks really mean, doesn’t it? But on the other hand, there wasn’t any choice.
Robert Kennedy, referring to the blockade: Well, there isn’t. I mean (if you hadn’t), you would have been impeached.
President Kennedy: Well, I think I would have been impeached.
As the world held its breath, the Soviets finally agreed to remove their missiles from Cuba and Kennedy savored a foreign policy triumph. Looking back, the two historians who produced “The Kennedy Tapes” describe JFK’s leadership style.
“The first thing you hear is his cool intelligence,” May says. “He listens very hard. He chooses words carefully. . . . He has an extraordinary clinical capacity for empathy.”
Adds Zelikow, a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government: “Kennedy is not an emotionally engaging person. He doesn’t come across as someone who feels your pain.
“He would never grasp you by the hand and look soulfully into your eyes. That would be anathema to him. And it would be hard to be in a meeting with him. After 12 words, you’d be under pressure to say something without repeating yourself.”
Most important, the authors say, Kennedy and his brother embodied a sense of manliness that now seems dated. For 13 days, they flirted with atomic warfare, yet never betrayed any emotion. They didn’t agonize over widows and orphans.
On Oct. 23, President Kennedy discussed what might happen if Soviet missiles were fired at a 1,100-mile arc of targets in the southeastern United States.
Kennedy: Now, what is it we could do in this [arc] to evacuate those communities so that [we can take care of] the people living out in the country, to the extent it is possible, against radiation? And then you’ve got the problem of blast. Can we, maybe before we invade [Cuba], evacuate these cities?”
Steuart Pittman, assistant secretary of defense for civil defense, responds: If there will be fallout, the only protection that exists today is in the cities, and there’s little or no protection in the rural areas.
In the end, diplomacy won out. But Kennedy’s success was short-lived. Less than 13 months later, he was dead.
The man who succeeded JFK had ample preparation for higher office. Yet Lyndon Johnson was a different political animal, as insecure and suspicious as Kennedy was cool and confident.
Early in his first term, LBJ installed a secret taping system in the White House. Determined not to be overlooked, Johnson wanted an audio record for the ages.
Was he posturing for history? Beschloss concedes that Johnson had a gigantic ego. Yet he also notes that the LBJ tapes are full of moments that do not flatter the president.
At one point, Johnson criticizes his 1964 running mate, Hubert Humphrey, in a chat with Humphrey ally James Rowe.
Johnson: Our friend Hubert is destroying himself with his big mouth.
Rowe: Is he talking again?
Johnson: Yeah, all the time. And you just can’t stop it. Every responsible person gets frightened when they see him. The damned fool just ought to keep his goddamned big mouth shut on foreign affairs, at least until the election is over. He’s just yak-yak-yak. Just dancing around with the bald head.”
Above all, Johnson was the consummate politician. In a phone call to Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, he made it clear that his appointment of a GOP ambassadorial candidate was a political debt to be repaid--big time.
LBJ: Do you want him appointed?
Dirksen: Well, he’s a damned good guy.
LBJ: I don’t care if he’s a damned good guy. There are a million Johnson men that are good guys, but he’s a Republican, and if we’re going to appoint a Republican ambassador, it’d better be your ambassador. Do you want this guy appointed?
LBJ: All right, he’ll be appointed. Period. But don’t think I’m going to be appointing Republicans around without talking to Republicans.
During his first year in office, Johnson was consumed with civil rights and Vietnam. The tapes offer fascinating insights.
“Without being unkind to Kennedy, the tapes show that Johnson had a gut commitment to civil rights that Kennedy did not have. . . . He understood what to say [to Southerners], how far to go, and he didn’t ram civil rights down their throats.”
Johnson sounded less confident, however, in dealing with America’s widening military involvement in Southeast Asia.
On Aug. 2 and 4, 1964, the White House claimed a U.S. destroyer was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. Those skirmishes led to a dramatic escalation of the war, yet some historians believe the second incident was concocted to justify LBJ’s later bombing of North Vietnam.
The tapes suggest an even more unsettling story.
According to Beschloss, while Johnson was trying to decide whether there had been a second attack, the Associated Press ran an unattributed story reporting the incident. LBJ felt trapped.
If he were to call the evidence ambiguous, his GOP opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater, would brand him a coward. The other choice was to order the bombing of North Vietnam, which is what the president did.
“This is history slipping on a banana peel,” Beschloss says. “It’s a lot more fascinating to see someone being carried against his will into a tragedy which is partly of his own making . . . than to consider the Oliver Stone version, which is simply: ‘I’m glad I’m president. Let’s have a big war.’ ”
We would not get this insight without the existence of these White House tapes, the historian adds, and it’s a pity that future biographers won’t be able to rely on similar material beyond 1973.
“It’s ironic, all these laws requiring presidents to disclose tape recordings, diaries and memos,” Beschloss says.
“They sprang from good intentions. But as the historical record shrinks, it may lead to the greatest cover-up of all.”