And Now for a Recorded Message
The Laborious Process of Transcribing the Kennedy Tapes
President John F. Kennedy was chatting with his four year-old daughter Caroline at approximately 11:50 a.m. on October 16, 1962 when an advisor came into his office to inform him that a medium range ballistic missile launch site" was "installed in west central Cuba."
This glimpse inside the Kennedy White House is one of the many new insights available via recorded Presidential tapes which are now slowly being released.
Although the 87 page transcript of the 33-minute Cuban Missile Crisis tape which was released in October contain few startling revelation they help enhance the understanding of the 13-day crisis according to professors and researchers who have studied the transcripts.
These tapes however, do point out how the ultimate of action differed from the original discussions. At the time, the tapes reveal, Kennedy aid his advisors for example, seriously considered air strikes against Cuba.
"We're certainly going to do number one," John Kennedy says on the tapes. "We're going to take out those missiles."
Thus far, over 500 pages of transcripts have been released by the Kennedy Library covering topics such as the missile crisis, tax cuts, economic policy, and the integration of the University of Mississippi. The recordings also cover conversations between Kennedy and a wide range of advisors including businessmen, university professors and Congressional leaders.
For example, in the original set of transcripts released last summer two Harvard professors, David E. Bell, currently Gamble Professor of Population Sciences and International Health at the School of Public Health and Archibald Cox '34 Loeb University Professor Emeritus (both of whom served as Kennedy aides) played a role in the discussion of integration protests at the University of Mississippi.
On the whole however, as former Kennedy aide Richard E. Neustadt, Littauer Professor of Public Administration at the Kennedy School of Government, says the discussions do not include material "that scholarship hasn't already addressed." Nevertheless, he adds, their value is mainly in their use as historical tools.
Graham T. Allison '62, dean of the K-School, said that the tapes served to remind the readers of the seriousness of situations such as the missile crisis.
According to Cox, "People today don't really know much about Kennedy. His influence at the time was much greater than it appears to be."
Approximately 5 percent of the total recordings have been transcribed and released by the Kennedy Library. Although the National Security Council may recommend that parts of the tapes the Library should transcribe the library has discretion over what parts of the tapes they "will work on first and over how much transcribing they want to do," says Bill Johnson chief archivist at the library.
By next winter, approximately 8 percent of the total recordings will have been transcribed and released, adds Megan Desnoyers, a supervising archivist at the library, who works on transcribing the tapes. But it will be years before all the material is released, she says.
One of the reasons it takes so long to open the information, she says, is that approximately 100 hours of transcribing are necessary for each hour of taped recordings Nevertheless, they plan to release logs, but not transcripts, of the large portions of the tapes over the next few months.
The logs will be a subject-by-subject listing of what is on the tapes. "In this way people can zero in on exactly what type of information is there, so they can then say what we should continue opening." Desnoyers said.
In the spring, they will release logs describing the recordings of Kennedy's office meetings, in the summer, civil rights logs will be released; and by next winter they will open the transcripts of his taped telephone conversations.
But, before any information is released it must pass through at least two phases of screening. First, the National Security Council reviews the transcripts to remove all material that may affect current or future national security. Second, the Kennedy family can have a say on what is opened and what is not.
In order to keep personal information from being released, the family selected their own screening committee to review the tapes. The committee consists of Brook Marshall, who is currently a professor at Yale Law School, Samuel Beer, professor of the Science of Government at Harvard and Theodore Sorensen, a former Kennedy advisor and a close friend of the family.
Most of the deleted information, however, is related in some way to national security. In fact, in the last set of transcripts that were released, there was only one deletion as a result of family privacy, whereas there were over 50 related to national security.
Parts may be also deleted from the transcripts if someone who is involved or related in some way to the information on the tapes feels it should not be made public.
For example, if a recording involves names of sources who do not want to be revealed they may have parts of the tapes deleted, says Johnson.
Or if the CIA or any other government agency feels that certain information should remain confidential, they may order it closed. "In fact," Johnson says, "anything can be closed for as long as anyone thinks it should be closed."
Nevertheless, there is a formal procedure to allow researchers to ask that a closed portion of the tapes be made public.
After two years, Desnoyers said, researchers can appeal to the screening committees to reexamine the tapes to determine whether or not they still constitute a threat to security.
While researchers have already used this procedure successfully to open previously closed materials in Kennedy's personal papers, the tapes have not been released long enough to allow this type of preview.
However, Johnson said, "Eventually everything will be opened."