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Secret John F. Kennedy tapes published by Miller Center

John F. Kennedy (second from right), when he was a Mass. senator visiting U.Va. for “Law Day” in March 1958, was already considered a presidential candidate for 1960. With John are his wife, Jacqueline, his brother, Ted (left), who was enrolled at U.Va. Law School, and his brother Robert (Law ‘51).

Staff Report

Although every president expects to face a host of problems, John F. Kennedy understood that he was confronting an unusual set of foreign and domestic crises. Determined to leave behind a record of that extraordinary era, Kennedy began in July 1962 an unprecedented program of secretly taping White House meetings and telephone conversations.

Presenting perhaps the most reliable record of the Kennedy presidency ever published, the first of several volumes containing the complete transcriptions of Kennedy’s recently declassified secret recordings will be published Oct. 15 by the University’s Miller Center of Public Affairs and W.W. Norton & Company. The center’s Presidential Recordings Project eventually will transcribe, analyze and publish White House recordings made during the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy, Volumes 1-3, The Great Crises, including a CD-ROM of the actual tape recordings, provides an unparalleled glimpse into the inner workings of the Kennedy administration as it grappled with some of its most monumental challenges, including the Mississippi civil rights crises, the Cuban missile crisis, and the complexities of the Cold War. The tapes reveal the drama and complexities of that period, when a fearful America experienced nuclear danger and racial strife. At the center of the tapes is Kennedy himself, whose personality, judgment, and leadership style emerge more clearly than ever before, says Miller Center director and presidential historian Philip Zelikow.

The first three volumes cover the period from July to October 1962, the first three months after Kennedy installed the taping system. The transcripts were transcribed, edited and annotated at the Miller Center and were researched by a team of 12 historians and scholars in the fields of politics, military history and foreign affairs.

Edited by Zelikow, Timothy Naftali, director of the center’s Presidential Recordings Project, and the noted Harvard historian Ernest May, the volumes are organized in chronological order. They cover a wide range of issues, from meetings on the nuclear test ban and budget and tax-cut proposals, to crises in foreign nations and trade policy. Unlike diaries, private papers, or oral histories, the recordings reveal not only what Kennedy said during these discussions, but also what he heard from his advisors, cabinet members, and congressional leaders, Naftali pointed out.

The first volumes in The Presidential Recordings series offer a unique look at many of the personalities and figures with whom Kennedy had in-depth discussions, including former U.S. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. With detailed background information on each conversation, explanatory annotations and comments from living participants who were interviewed for the project, The Presidential Recordings is a guide to understanding one of the most critical periods in America’s history and how a president dealt with the enormous responsibility of seeing the country through it.

Among the highlights in the first volumes: a fall in the stock market leads President Kennedy to consider a short-term tax break; a leak of highly classified intelligence information to the New York Times spurs Kennedy to confer with his advisers about how, for the first time, the White House might use the Central Intelligence Agency for domestic surveillance of American reporters; Kennedy tapes the tense hours as the White House dispatches the army to rescue James Meredith following Meredith’s effort to enroll at the University of Mississippi; and the secret discussions during the Cuban missile crisis.

“The Great Crises is a treasure trove of new insight and information on three of the most promising and dangerous months in American history,” said historian Michael Beschloss, a member of the project’s advisory board. “These volumes will intrigue the general reader and keep historians working hard for a long time as we assess and reassess John Kennedy’s presidency.”


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