Kennedy School Associate Professor of Public Policy Philip Zelikow wants his course, History 1682: "The Cold War in World History," to be the equivalent of sitting with your ear pressed to the Oval Office door.
Zelikow, who was an arms control negotiator for the State Department before he came to Harvard, has been working on a book compiling many of the Oval Office tapes made during the administrations of John F. Kennedy '40 and Lyndon B. Johnson, including the discussions about the Cuban Missle Crisis.
"It's little bit like you've been put in a time machine and transported back to the most gripping crises in world history and you can put your ear against the door," Zelikow says. "If you try to suspend your knowledge of how it turns out, it's a very scary crisis."
Together with Warren Professor of American History Ernst R. May, who is on leave this semester, Zelikow has produced a definitive transcript of tapes of White House decision-making meetings from the Cold War era.
"At the time that Kennedy and Johnson installed the taping equipment in the White House, it was not illegal to record a conversation if one of the people voluntarily consented to it," says Zelikow, a former trial lawyer. "We have this unique period in a sense between 1962 and 1973 when thousands of hours of deliberations of the most powerful government in the world were being tape recorded in real time."
The tapes, which Zelikow believes will be "a unique and priceless source of data," are only now beginning to gain public attention because they remained classified for several years. About 20 or 30 minutes had been declassified in 1983, but the major portion of the recordings weren't declassified until fall of 1996. The last fragment was released early this year.
Zelikow says that he and May got the idea for the book, which is carefully annotated with an introduction and conclusion, last fall.
"We had big smiles on our faces by the time we finished talking about this," he says.
The two professors agree that the tapes will do a lot to restore the historical reputation of Kennedy, who is a former Crimson executive. "Ever since about 1967, there's been a process of chipping away at the Camelot myth," Zelikow says. "A lot of people in Kennedy's circle came away impressed by Kennedy's decision-making qualities, but historians have not been able to figure out why."
The tapes may finally provide an explanation. "He very often seems to us to be smartest person in the room," he says. "The Cuban Missile crisis were the finest hours of JFK is public life."
Zelikow's efforts to make the era come alive for his students is an outgrowth of his own philosophy about academic work.
"I figured out while in grad school that the best way to find out about international policy was to do it," the 42-year-old says.
While working for the State Department, Zelikow worked on German unification and maintaining the anti-Iraq coalition during the Gulf War.
Zelikow, who will also teach History 1683: "Reasoning From History" in the spring, is a self-proclaimed "cold warrior," who "happened to be in the right place in the right time during history."
Zelikow's policy of involvement extends beyond the class to his home, where he lives with his wife and two daughters and was elected to the town's school board. "I think you do better if get out of the ivory tower from time to time," he says.
Zelikow will be with his students throughout the historical journey, since he plans to teach the course's sections himself. His interest, he says, "is in doing and not just watching."
"Gosh, what's the point of teaching if you don't have something interesting to say and don't want to say it?" he asks.