Three Years After the Presidential Tapes Conference and Still No Promised Follow-Up?





Mr. Stern was historian at the JFK Library from 1977 to 1999 and is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003) and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005) in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

Click here to read Timothy Naftali's defense of the Miller Center's presidential tape transcripts.

In February 2003, the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston hosted the first-ever conference about the secret audio tapes made by the six presidents from 1940 (Franklin Roosevelt) to 1973 (Richard Nixon). The two-day conference was sponsored by the JFK Library Foundation, the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, and the National Archives and Records Administration. In his prepared remarks, Philip Zelikow, then director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs (which has been publishing “authoritative” transcripts of these presidential recordings since 2001) acknowledged the importance of contributions and criticism by scholars unaffiliated with the Center. In that spirit, he announced that the Center had activated a new website that very day to enable scholars to amend the published transcripts and to download corrected versions. Scholars, Zelikow affirmed, “should invite further comments and criticism and…try to welcome them. … I want to announce today that as of this morning, we have put out on the Internet a new website. . . to enable scholars to download our publications of corrected transcripts . . . [thus] providing a multi-media errata sheet. . . . That’s the way that scholars work.”

One year after the conference, the online errata system had yet to appear and I wrote an article for the History News Network reiterating that since the published transcripts contained many serious errors, the Miller Center should promptly honor its pledge to create an interactive correction system. Zelikow replied on HNN that his work as director of the 9/11 Commission had delayed the multimedia errata sheet: “Once that task is completed, later this year, my colleagues and I look forward to doing this work to make this scholarship a living project, benefiting from collegial suggestions for improvement.”

Still another year passed and scholars who had purchased the $165. Norton set were still waiting for the online errata system. At that point, I joined LBJ tapes scholar Max Holland in writing a second article on HNN pointing out the need to deal expeditiously with this problem:

Two years later, the website exists (www.whitehousetapes.org) but there are still no corrections and no process for submitting them. Indeed, the Miller Center website…does not mention Zelikow’s 2003 public commitment to establish an online errata system—which he reiterated on HNN in March 2004. Scholars working independently on presidential recordings deserve open and unambiguous information from the Miller Center about ongoing corrections and revisions. It is especially incumbent upon Zelikow, Naftali, [Ernest] May, and the Miller Center to clarify the record because four distinct versions of “authoritative” missile crisis transcripts now exist (two published by HUP [Harvard University Press]: hardcover in 1997 and paperback in 1998 and two published by Norton: hardcover in 2001 and paperback in 2002)—in addition to amendments and corrections that were incorporated in various printings without any notation or explanation. Scholars working with the transcripts have to sort out this muddle in order to decide which “authoritative” version to use. The 2002 Norton paperback, for example, uses the identical title and identifies the same two editors, May and Zelikow, as the HUP 1997 hardcover and 1998 paperback. In fact, it is actually a concise version of the substantially different 2001 Norton hardcover edition in which Naftali was an editor as well.

As Holland and I also pointed out, the Miller Center receives substantial public funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission: “If the presidential recordings, as May and Zelikow once wrote, are ‘historical treasures in a class with the papers of the Founding Fathers,’ they ought to be treated as such by historians producing books that they claim are scholarly and authoritative. These recordings are public records held in trust by the National Archives for the American people, not a private trove to be cornered and exploited without public accountability.”

On February 3, 2006, almost exactly three years after the JFK Library tapes conference, the Miller Center finally took the first step toward fulfilling its public commitment to the larger scholarly community. The White House tapes website posted a point by point response by Miller Center presidential tapes scholar David Coleman (Zelikow left the Center for the State Department in 2005) to the 76 disputed transcriptions cited in the appendix to my 2003 book (see biographical entry above). 52 of these corrections and revisions were adopted—completely or substantially—in the update. In the cases that remain in dispute, we must simply agree, at least for the moment, to disagree.

Some of these disagreements can be explained by the fact that we have, as the new update observes, operated within different editorial guidelines. But, it must be emphasized, these disputed transcriptions are not nitpicks and can have a substantial impact on the historical record. For example, I clearly heard (later corroborated by another historian) CIA director John McCone’s snide interjection (“Oh, come on!”—Stern, p. 434) as Dean Rusk was speaking. The secretary of state was speculating that the apparent Soviet decision to turn around their ships heading for Cuba “possibly could fit” a remark reportedly made by the Cuban U.N. ambassador to his Brazilian counterpart that Castro might accept U.N. inspection if the U.S. delayed the blockade for a day or so. The White House tapes update concludes: “It is possible that McCone murmurs this aside, but it is not clear enough to be sure. It does not break into Rusk’s statement.” I disagree. McCone’s remark is audible and sheds light on the human element in the meetings by exposing both McCone’s abrasiveness and Rusk’s acute sensitivity to the implication that he was soft or weak. After McCone’s groaning interjection, Rusk promptly reversed the tone of his remarks and conceded that this report was indeed unreliable. It is to the Miller Center’s credit that they have listed such suggested corrections even if they have not actually adopted them—thus alerting readers that specific transcriptions have been questioned by other scholars.

The incorporation of these corrections, nonetheless, should not obscure the fact that many additional errors remain to be put right. The new whitehousetapes.org update implies, for example, that I identified only 76 transcription errors in the “1,797 pages that make up volumes 1-3” of the Kennedy tapes. That inference is extremely misleading. These 76 examples are representative cases selected from the Cuban missile crisis transcripts alone (about 35% of the 1,797 pages). An interactive website, as promised, is essential to facilitate and expedite the transparent and systematic discussion of the accuracy of all these published transcripts—especially because the Presidential Recordings Program has received public funding.

We do agree that there is no such thing as a definitive or authoritative transcript. Scholars must listen to the recordings and make their own decisions. But, instead of repeating claims from 2001 about utilizing “trained professional historians…a team method…[and] the best technology,” the new website update should explain why it took three years to review these disputed transcriptions and how so many errors could slip through this elaborate editing process. I have already received emails from historians who have listened to some of the still disputed transcriptions on the whitehousetapes.org update; one asserted: “some of yours [transcriptions] that the Miller Center didn’t accept are patently correct.” The only way to resolve these differences is, as noted above, to create an interactive online system that includes an explicit procedure for outside scholars to submit proposed revisions and corrections to the published transcripts and to have them listed (whether or not they are adopted) on the White House tapes website.

The Miller Center transcriptions are not “official” or “authoritative”—any more than mine or anyone else’s. Nothing short of full public participation and disclosure is acceptable in dealing with these publicly-owned historical records. The current language of the website update, which recommends that scholars “send those suggestions and we will do our utmost to review them,” seems to assume that “the truth stops here”—that the Miller Center has some sort of final authority to judge the accuracy of these transcripts. They don’t. I don’t. No one does. The new White House tapes update is welcome as a first step, but falls far short of making whitehousetapes.org the publicly accountable, interactive, “living project” we have been awaiting since 2003.

Related Links

  • Sheldon M. Stern and Max Holland: Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Crafting a New Historical Genre

  • Sheldon M. Stern: Errors Still Afflict the Transcripts of the Kennedy Presidential Recordings

  • Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, Timothy Naftali: Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Response to Stern and Holland

  • Robert KC Johnson:Presidential Tapes

  • Timothy Naftali: Even Our Critics Have Made Mistakes Transcribing Presidential Recordings


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