Setting the Record Straight (Again) on the Presidential Recordings Program


Mr. Naftali is Associate Professor and Director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. The co-author of “One Hell of a Gamble:” Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy, 1958-1964 (with Aleksandr Fursenko), he is also the author of Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. He edited the first volume of The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy (July 30-August 1962) and the pre-Cuban missile crisis transcripts in volume 2 (September—October 21, 1962). An historical consultant to the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group, Naftali is a regular contributor to Slate and the Huffington Post.

Click here to read Sheldon Stern's
indictment of the Miller Center's presidential tape transcripts.

Since early 2000 Sheldon Stern has engaged in a public row with Philip Zelikow and Ernest May over the quality of their Cuban missile crisis transcripts. In recent years this has spilled over into criticism of the Presidential Recordings Program, which I direct, at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Dr. Stern writes that “we must simply agree…to disagree” and that is what scholars would expect from each other. My colleagues and I are hopeful that we can finally move on.

First, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions that keep creeping into Sheldon’s descriptions of what we do. In 2004 I tried to dispel some of them, but from what Sheldon submitted to HNN this February, they all bear repeating.

  • The Presidential Recordings Program does not produce official transcripts and has never claimed to. It is a group of eleven people, eight of whom are professional historians, dedicated to a non-partisan and non-profit enterprise: making available to the public high quality transcripts and annotations for some of the most historically significant documents on modern US political history. Sheldon writes as if we are some kind of corporate black box. Instead, we are, besides myself, David Coleman, Patricia Dunn, Kent Germany, Ashley High, Ken Hughes, Erin Mahan, Guian McKee, Marc Selverstone, David Shreve and Lorraine Settimo. And we, as a group or individually, study a wide range of things other than the Cuban missile crisis, including the origins and evolution of the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, the War on Poverty, the modern urban crisis, economic theory and policy, terrorism and counterterrorism, the federal response to natural disasters, and post-World War II political culture. The term I use to describe the transcripts we strive to produce is “authoritative.” By implying that the PRP is engaged in creating “official” transcripts—putting “official” in quotation marks—Sheldon very unfairly insinuates that we have ever made this claim. I hope he will retract this characterization.
  • The National Historical Publications and Records Commission subsidizes about 15 percent of the cost of this Program. The rest comes out of the Miller Center’s endowment. But more to the point: the NHPRC did not pay for our work on the Cuban missile crisis tapes or for the non-Cuban missile crisis tapes from the July 30-October 28, 1962 period (covered in the first three volumes of our JFK series). Our two three-year NHPRC grants, for which we are very grateful, have aided our work on the first eight volumes of our Lyndon B. Johnson series and for Kennedy volumes 4 and 5. Our first three Johnson volumes appeared last April and the next three will be published in April 2007. Publication of the Kennedy volumes is expected in 2008 along with two more Johnson volumes.
  • The controversial Cuban missile crisis transcripts were done by Philip Zelikow and Ernest May and they have publicly taken responsibility for them. If Sheldon still has a beef about them, he should take it up with Ernest and Philip. David Coleman, George Eliades, Frank Gavin, Max Holland, Erin Mahan, Jonathan Rosenberg, David Shreve and I divided up the tapes, formed teams and gave our allotted tapes a hard listen in the spring of 2000 to assist Ernest and Philip. I oversaw that review and thought that we did a very good job under pressing deadlines. We have learned a lot about making authoritative transcripts since then—we use advanced audio software and have altered our work schedule to devote more time to multiple reviews to weed out errors without introducing them from listening fatigue. But in 2000 we were proud to have produced the first set of annotated, chronological transcripts of John F. Kennedy conversations, including all recorded telephone conversations, and tapes of both foreign and domestic policy meetings, for the period July 30-October 28, 1962.
  • Our process is transparent, which I outlined in my reply to Sheldon Stern in 2004. Ernest May and I are the general editors of the tapes publication series (Philip had to leave when he joined the government in February 2005) and we abide by that approach.
  • I am not entirely sure what Philip Zelikow meant in 2003 by an “online errata sheet” other than the update we posted, with the audio segments, of the original text, Sheldon’s suggested corrections and Philip and David’s review. The transcripts are going to evolve, at the margins, with time and this approach allows scholars to make up their own minds when there are disputes. At the same time, more than meets the high standard for a digital clearing house for people interested in presidential recordings that Philip Zelikow set out in his conference presentation in 2003. All of the JFK transcripts we have published are available online as are a number of our LBJ transcripts. We don’t pretend to be the arbiters of truth and know from experience that transcripts can always be tweaked. As we move increasingly toward web-only, multimedia, digital editions, we are looking for ways to streamline the updating process and welcome suggestions and participation from the scholarly community.
  • is already proving to be a valued resource. Since its launch in February 2003, a growing number of students, teachers, scholars, and the interested public have used the site to listen to these recordings for themselves. It has been commended by some major web sites and in 2005-2006 was recognized by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ EDSITEment program as part of its "Best of the Humanities on the Web" initiative. Closer to home, our web site has become the foundation for multimedia teacher-prep projects on “presidents and civil rights” devised by the Program in cooperation with the Virginia Center for Digital History, Roanoke City Schools and other high school programs around the Commonwealth.
  • Sheldon Stern repeats his canard that the eleven of us are somehow engaged in cornering the market. “These recordings are public records held in trust by the National Archives for the American people,” he writes, “not a private trove to be cornered and exploited without public accountability.” First, in 2003 we placed all available Kennedy and Johnson tapes (and many Nixon tapes) on These belong to the American people. They can be purchased from NARA or downloaded, free, from us. We have done more than anyone else to make these recordings available to anyone who has access to the internet. That’s the opposite of cornering and exploiting them. Moreover, I take exception to Sheldon’s insinuation that the $165 list price for the volumes published by Norton and the accompanying CD-Rom somehow generated an economic windfall for the Miller Center. Not only is the print run for these volumes very small, but the financial return on this investment, given the resources that the Miller Center contributes to the project, is negligible. In any case, by agreement with Norton, we eventually put our transcripts online.
  • I abhor errors, but almost half of the cases Sheldon cites to create a cloud over our work involve judgment calls, not errors. These were places where Philip and Ernest after our review chose not to render an indistinct section and placed ‘[unclear]” instead. I believe that was very responsible of them. Most of what Sheldon told us they should have heard in those [unclear] passages, we still don’t.
  • In looking at David Coleman and Philip Zelikow’s fine review of Sheldon’s 76 cases, it is also worth noting those instances where David and Philip produced a sentence that was different from both what appeared in our 2001 edition and what was suggested by Sheldon. Since all of the participants in this process are professional scholars who did this work very carefully, this is a reminder that scholars should make a point of listening to the tapes themselves in cases where a certain interpretation rests on a particular phrase.

As a result of Sheldon’s assertion that “[t]hese 76 examples are representative cases selected from the Cuban missile crisis transcripts alone (about 35 percent of the 1,797 pages),” there may be some people out there who wonder whether they can trust any of the Kennedy transcripts that we have put out. His 76 examples are not “representative cases” of our work in those first three volumes of JFK transcripts or of our published work on Johnson or of our current work on both presidents. The identification of 76 alleged errors in a limited pool of transcripts cannot be seen as representative. Since 2002, I have asked Sheldon to share his list of all of the errors he claims to have found in our volumes. Although he wrote back privately in friendly terms that he would like to help us, he has never sent me any suggested corrections other than those he has trumpeted publicly and these come primarily from conversations on only two days, October 26 and 27, 1962. Although it took some time for Philip Zelikow, who edited the Cuban missile crisis transcripts, to do his review—Philip, it should be remembered, oversaw the brilliant work of the 9/11 Commission staff before going into the government in early 2005—I edited all the non-missile crisis work and would have been willing to review whatever problem areas Sheldon found in those transcripts. It would help us and other scholars to know precisely where and what the other “cases” are.

I think we should keep this debate in perspective. The Cuban missile crisis transcripts comprise only about 10 percent of all of the Kennedy tapes. There is much other work to be done to transcribe the entire Kennedy White House tape collection and, we hope, not by us alone. These tapes need to be transcribed because without transcripts scholars are unlikely to use this rich resource. Thanks to assistance largely from the Miller Center but also the NHPRC, we are currently working on annotated transcripts covering topics such as civil rights, Vietnam, the multilateral force, tax policy, the space race, CIA covert action and disarmament and détente with the Soviet Union from the period of late October 1962 through early February 1963. Many tapes from February through November 1963 remain untranscribed by anyone, with yet more tapes from that period due to be declassified and released by the John F. Kennedy Library.

To facilitate further discussion on the Cuban missile crisis tapes, I invite Sheldon to share the Cuban missile crisis transcripts which he evidently drew upon for his books, 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 its description of The Week the World Stood Still, Sheldon’s publisher, Stanford University Press, writes: “Based on the author’s authoritative transcriptions of the secretly recorded ExComm meetings, the book conveys the emotional ambiance of the meetings by capturing striking moments of tension and anger as well as occasional humorous intervals." Sheldon could post them or we would be pleased to post them on with full attribution as we have done for all of Sheldon’s articles on the subject. Then scholars can see where our transcripts differ and listen for themselves where those differences affect their own interpretive work. As we have written before, the tapes themselves are the primary source. It’s been nearly three years since we posted all of our transcripts from Kennedy volumes 1-3, along with all of the audio files, so the comparison would be easy to make. At the same time, I ask Sheldon to share with scholars whatever post-Cuban missile crisis transcripts he has, especially on the settlement period of late October and November 1962. Making the JFK presidential tapes accessible to more scholars through transcription is too important a task to continue an adversarial discussion.

Related Links

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

  • 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

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Sheldon M. Stern - 2/20/2006

    Further thoughts on Naftali's article:
    1)Beneath all his rhetoric about a "row," a "canard," etc., Naftali still manages to evade the main point: how can four different published volumes of transcripts of the same meetings all be "authoritative?"
    2) How, where, and when have the 1997 editors taken public responsibility for the numerous and often inexplicable errors in these transcripts (see examples in the links to my 2004 and 2005 HNN articles)?
    3)An online errata system must allow scholars to post their transcriptions on the White House tapes website regardless of whether Miller Center scholars have reviewed them. (It took 3 years to review mine.) That would be a truly transparent, public process--the "living" system that was promised in 2003 and reiterated in 2004.

    Sheldon M. Stern - 2/19/2006

    Stern's Response to Naftali:
    Tim Naftali seems to think that my ongoing differences with the Miller Center are personal--they are not and never have been. I have simply been trying to get the Miller Center to acknowledge that other scholars can, have, and should be involved in this process and Philip Zelikow's 2003 announcement promised that that was about to happen. Instead, it took 3 years just to review my claims and there is still nothing that resembles the online errata system promised in 2003.

    Once that system is in place, I will indeed submit the remaining examples and let the chips fall where they may in an open and transparent process.