One More Reason Why Errors in Transcripts of Presidential Tapes Need to be Corrected Online


Mr. Holland, a contributing editor at the Nation magazine, was a research fellow with the Presidential Recordings Program at the Miller Center of Public Affairs from 1998 to 2003 Disclosure: A dispute between the Miller Center and Mr. Holland ended in a mutually agreeable settlement.

Response by David Coleman

Sheldon Stern is correct in asserting that Miller Center’s transcripts on the Cuban missile crisis are not reliable for scholarly use, and that more remedial steps need to be taken promptly. Let me give an example from my own work.

Recently, I was researching an article related to the 1962 crisis, specifically, the roughly 30-day delay in discovering the first missiles (a.k.a., the “intelligence” or “photo gap”). Naturally, I wanted to know what ExComm had to say, if anything, about this issue during its deliberations. The first time the subject came up apparently was on October 22, not uncoincidentally, the day the President was going to brief the congressional leadership and reveal the existence of the missile sites to the public.

I figured that if I compared the first May/Zelikow HUP volume to the Miller Center’s rendition, I would get a fair approximation of what was said, most importantly, by the President himself. According to page 220 of the 1997 HUP version, JFK said,

Now, the point of the matter is, these things [missiles] are so mobile that it doesn’t require a hell of a lot of work just to make it look like they’ve been [unclear] working too much here. The other ones are not ready, and they’re the ones that are [unclear] more. The other ones are mobile and can move rather quickly. So . . . We ought to take the blockhouses and so on, and make sure . . .

According to pages 29-30 from the 2001 Miller Center volume, this same passage reads:

Now, the point of the matter is, these things [missiles] are so mobile that it doesn’t require a hell of a lot of work. You don’t want to make it look like they’ve been working for two months here. Before we knew about it. The fact is the mobile [MRBMs] . . . The other ones [the IRBMs] are not ready, and they’re the ones that require more [construction]. These other ones are mobile and can move rather quickly. So that the President . . . we don’t want to say the blockhouses are complete and so on. And we have to make sure it doesn’t look like it’s been going on for months.

These two renderings were so different that I decided I had to listen for myself. This is what I heard:

Now the point of the matter is, these things [missiles] are so mobile that it doesn’t require a helluva lot of work. You don’t want them to make [it look] like there’s been work for two months here that, ah, our fellas knew about. In fact, it’s the mobile [MRBMs]—the other ones [IRBMs] are not ready, and they’re the ones [that are] far more so[phisticated]. . . the[se] other ones [MRBMs] are mobile and can move rather quickly, so that . . . . Listen: you don’t want to say the blockhouses are complete, and so on. I mean, I wouldn’t . . . I’d make sure this doesn’t look like it’s been going on for months.

The differences in these three renderings are not minor, considering how detail-oriented one must be when writing about the missile crisis. The HUP version, obviously, is so nonsensical and useless that if its publisher and editors had a conscience, they would shred all remaining copies and offer those who bought the volume a refund. The Miller Center rendition is closer to what I believe is an accurate transcript, but it still falls considerably short as a dependable reference. If one relied upon it, one would miss (or misrepresent) what most concerned the President at that moment. Kennedy was acutely worried about the allegation, leveled primarily by Senator Keating, that his administration and/or the intelligence community had known about the missiles for weeks, but had misled the country via consistent denials.

It should be noted that Sheldon Stern has never cited this passage in the various articles he has written criticizing the work of May/Zelikow/Naftali. Thus, I think Stern is correct in his estimate of the scale and scope of the problem with the Miller Center’s published transcripts, and about what would constitute a proper remedy—especially given that it has taken the Miller Center three years to incorporate his limited number of suggestions. There needs to be an online system that is both faster to acknowledge scholars’ contributions, and less dependent on the Miller Center’s willingness to admit shortcomings in its transcripts.

One truism about doing transcriptions is that one has to guard against an eye-ear link. That is, what one reads influences what one hears all too easily. The ear has to take priority, and thus the more ears the better. The Miller Center, in accordance with its 2003 promise, and as a recipient of U.S. taxpayer funds, should expeditiously post substantive suggestions submitted by serious scholars and students who undertake the hard work of listening to the tapes.

Response by David Coleman
David Coleman is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's Miller Center, where he is deputy director of the Presidential Recordings Program and directs the Program's JFK project. He writes and teaches on foreign policy and nuclear history and is the author of Real World Deterrence: The Making of International Nuclear Policy since 1945 (with Joseph Siracusa; forthcoming) and co-editor of forthcoming volumes 4 and 5 of the PRP's JFK series.

Max Holland has disputed a passage from the Presidential Recordings Program's published transcript of the Cuban Missile Crisis recordings, specifically from the 11 AM meeting on October 22, 1962, published in Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises, volume 3: October 22-October 28, 1962 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), pp.29-30. Max was an Associate Editor of that volume.

We'd like to thank Max for his suggestion and we have posted it on the Updates section of our website. We have included the transcript of that passage as it was published by the Presidential Recordings Programin 2001 along with Max's suggested rendering. The sound quality of the original recording is poor, but we have included the corresponding sound file and encourage readers to listen to the disputed passage and decide for themselves whether they hear what Max hears.

Our objective is to help any scholar make the best use of our published transcripts, in particular, and the Kennedy recordings, in general. Since it first went online in early 2003, our website,, has aimed to aid scholars, students, teachers, and the public in making use of the presidential recordings. To that end, we have posted and continue to post links to scholarly contributions relating to the tapes, downloadable sound files of many of the presidential recordings (including all of the JFK tapes that have so far been released by the Kennedy Library), along with the full text of our first three volumes of transcripts in our JFK series. The site will continue to evolve as more material becomes available and we hope that Sheldon Stern will accept our previous invitation to post his Cuban missile crisis transcripts so that scholars will have access to as much information as possible about those important tapes.

With respect to other issues raised by Max in his posting, such as the nature of the PRP’s role in helping Ernest May and Philip Zelikow revise their transcripts originally published in The Kennedy Tapes (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), readers are encouraged to read last week's posting by Timothy Naftali, the director of the Presidential Recordings Program, and his response to Max and Sheldon Stern in 2004.

Related Links

  • Sheldon M. Stern: Three Years After the Presidential Tapes Conference and Still No Promised Follow-Up?

  • Timothy Naftali: Setting the Record Straight (Again) on the Presidential Recordings Program

  • 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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    Max Holland - 2/27/2006

    For the record, it's inaccurate for the Miller Center to depict me as a member of the Kennedy tapes project.

    In the five years I worked there, on one occasion I listened to one passage from the JFK tapes for perhaps 90 minutes. Listing me as an "associate editor" was gratuitous, and not my idea. In fact, I was the only "associate editor" not to receive a royalty check, a true reflection of my genuine contribution to the third volume of JFK transcripts.

    In any case, the general editors and the director of the recordings project are responsible for the inadequacy of the missile crisis transcripts, not the worker bees.

    Max Holland