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Feb 28, 2007 6:34 pm

LBJ Tapes

I am listening to Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes 1963 1964, edited by Michael R. Beschloss.

It's a stunning experience.

Listening to LBJ agonize on the phone with Robert Kennedy and Dick Russell about Vietnam in the spring of 1964 one realizes just how difficult a position he was in. Couldn't get out but also couldn't say why we were in. You hear LBJ saying as we do now that we don't want another Vietnam, that he didn't want "another Korea." And why should he send American boys to fight in Vietnam ? He couldn't come up with a reason.

He tells an aide that Ambassador Lodge needs to understand that we can't turn Vietnam into America overnight. Hey, isn't that what historians have said LBJ didn't understand?

You also hear RFK telling LBJ that we can't win Vietnam militarily. We need to win it politically. LBJ agrees.

All the stereotypes about Johnson come crashing down as you listen to these tapes. He was a liberal's liberal? Yet we hear him on the tapes saying that he wanted welfare reduced because poor women were getting pregnant and having baby after baby on the government's dime. Sounded pure Reagan.

It's history as it happened, not neat and tied up in a ribbon the way it's usually remembered. There's the conversation with J. Edgar Hoover about the threat of assassination. Hoover tells him he was astonished to learn that the bubble top was not bullet proof. Hoover recommends that LBJ take one of the FBI's two bullet-proof cars for his own use. He says he ought to use the car even when he's down at the ranch where anybody could take a shot at him if they wanted. LBJ is incredulous. You mean I can't even ride around the ranch in my convertible. That's what I'm saying, Mr. President, Hoover tells him.

Yet a short time later, after LBJ has gotten grief for having a bloated staff, we hear him tell the head of the secret service that he wants to reduce the size of his retinue of agents when he goes out in public. Having 6 or 8 agents around him was too many. In his typical LBJ style he says that if they can't arrange for him to be accompanied by fewer agents then he'll just stay in the White House and never even go outside to take a piss.

It's pure LBJ.

And it's absolutely entrancing.

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Maarja Krusten - 3/3/2007

I see the ARC links above cannot be followed because they were associated with my individual research session. Those of you with a deep interest in this can go to NARA's ARC site at
and enter the search term "Daily Diary." This will take you to results for the images to which I tried to link. The LBJ link above is to another site and does work, however.

Maarja Krusten - 3/3/2007

Thanks, Rick!

Another thing to keep in mind is that transcription or logging best are
done with good access to related textual materials.

For example, many modern Presidential offices have generated something called the
President's Daily Diary. This is not a personal diary or journal
recording an individual's reflections. Rather it records a President's
contacts (telephonic and in person) during the day. This differs from
a schedule in the sense that it shows retrospectively what happened,
not what was scheduled to happen.

Excerpts from some of LBJ's Daily Diary are available on the web at
Unfortunately, the images are not as good as some of the scans for later President's Daily Diary pages, probably due to problems inherent in the original pages.

NARA has posted selected Daily Diary pages for various President's in
its Archival Research Catalog.



for pages from George H. W. Bush's Daily Diary. See;pg=1&rn=39&tn=186313&st=b&rp=digital&nh=93&si=0
for an image of a NARA withdrawal sheet, which shows how archivist's
note redactions.

Having the Daily Diary and other materials, such as briefing papers,
available makes it easier to log or transcribe tapes. The materials
are useful sources for checking the spellings of names, etc.

There are few digital images of the Nixon Daily Diary, one such is posted by NARA at;pg=52&rn=52&tn=596563&st=b&rp=digital&nh=93

I imagine it is much harder to produce transcripts in isolation without such materials available.

Rick Shenkman - 3/2/2007

Thanks to you Maarja! And Mitch! Very interesting discussion.

Maarja Krusten - 3/1/2007

Good story about the transcription error! Of course, transcription can be tricky. When tapes are of poor quality, people sometimes hear things differently. The National Security Archive in 2005 posted some clips from Nixon's tapes at . A graduate student working for the National Security Archive produced some transcripts, also posted there. One is of a conversation taped soon after Nixon learned that J. Edgar Hoover had died. In his
transcript for conversation 717-10, the graduate student appears to miss Nixon's reference to Attorney General
Dick Kleindienst early in the conversation. He also refers in the transcript to Nixon's
aide, Charles Colson. .

The National Archives' tapes subject log for 717-10, however, does refer to
Kleindienst and later, after the discussion of the amphitheater at Arlington Cemetary, to Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover's associate. Colson also comes up in the conversation.

The references to Kleindienst
and Tolson, picked up by NARA archivists but not by the grad student, comport with what H. R. Haldeman wrote in his diary. See
see page 451 of the hardback version of _The Haldeman Diaries_, entry
for May 2, 1972, as published by Putnam's in 1994.

You can listen to the clip in question at and see for yourself if you hear the reference to Kleindienst. The grad student also left out the reference to the Rebild group in the section on Colson and schedule changes. The National Security Archive posted what it said was a version of our NARA tape log at . The National Security Archive's transcript is at . So people could compare the two. We had the advantage of really having been immersed in Nixoniana, of course. I worked at NARA for 14 years, 10 years solely with the Nixon tapes.

Well, enough rambling, just demonstrating that transcription (or logging) can be very tricky especially when sound quality is poor.

I'm glad Rick Shenkman posted this entry about the LBJ tapes (thanks, Rick), lots of interesting things to consider both in terms of historical content and archival processing.

Mitch Lerner - 3/1/2007

I am working on a book about the LBJ presidency that makes use of some of the tapes. Once in a blue moon I will give a talk somewhere about the tapes, and I usually play the following, all of which can be found on streaming audio-video at the Miller Center website. They need context, of course, but they do generate interest.

LBJ and Bundy, March 2, 1964, on Vietnam, which is good because it shows LBJ's doubts about the war ("but I don't know what we can do if there is [a coup]…What alternatives do we have then? We're not going to send our troops in there—are we?"); and because it hints at LBJ's fears of the political consequences of withdrawal ("I just can't believe that we can't take 15,000 advisers and 200,000 people and maintain the status quo for 6 months.")

LBJ and Gene McCarthy, Feb 1 1966, on Vietnam, which makes a similar point ("Well, I know we oughtn't be there, but I can't get out. I just can't be the architect of surrender.") Says some interesting things about Diem also.

LBJ and Ralph Dungan, Mar 28, 1964, which suggests that LBJ's views of women are, well, not exactly Friedan-esque.

LBJ and Walter Heller, Dec 14, 1963, on LBJ's underlying economic beliefs ("Why is he [LBJ] cutting these expenses? He's cutting the waste and the things he need not do in order he has some money to do the things that he does need to do….Faced between an installation and grandma, he's for grandma.")

LBJ and Richard Russell, January 10, 1964, about problems in Panama, which is good as it shows LBJ trying to maintain control and walk a largely diplomatic path, but at the same time keeps the hawks placated.

My favorite story from the tapes comes from a transcription error. At one point LBJ, according to the original transcript, LBJ notes an impending meeting with "A pack of bastards." Who are these alleged bastards? Turns out, he actually said he was meeting with the "Pakistani Ambassador."

Maarja Krusten - 3/1/2007

I couldn't get that search page to work either, Ed. I'll have to give that a closer look when I have more time.

BTW, for anyone who doesn't have the Beschloss book but wants to listen to some sample tapes, a few audio clips are posted with transcripts on the Miller Center's site. Including, yes, the famous one where LBJ orders some pants. See


Of course, I'll add, as I used to when I gave the tape briefing to students at the National Archives' Nixon Project, "imagine if you recorded for your own use many of your conversations at the office, thinking you would control access, only to have them end up in government archives. . . . ."

You can get a sense of how poor was the audio quality of some of the other Presidential tapes, such as Nixon's by listening to the conversation between Nixon and H. R. Haldeman at . Note the ticking clock, ambient room noise, etc. That transcript is by the Miller Center. I transcribed some of Nixon's tapes during my career, but not for historians, rather for a few court cases. Somewhat different requirement there. NARA did not transcribe all 3,700 hours of Nixon's tapes.

Maarja Krusten - 3/1/2007

Quite right, an historian can provide context. Dr. Beschloss has done a good job in selecting segments of tapes for his books and providing comments which, as one reviewer noted, sometimes run longer than the segments in question. But he is not the only one who can do so, of course. My comment about accessibility via the LBJ Library naturally was geared towards historians in general, not so much students, although Presidential Libraries would allow both Professors and college students to come in and to do reserch. Dr. Beschloss does not have an exclusivity agreement, of course.

Ed Schmitt - 3/1/2007

Especially dangerous to let them hear the president order some pants...

I don't know how "dangerous" it is Rick. It's like having students analyze any primary source. I certainly understand your concern given LBJ's complexity, I agree with the value of Beschloss's contextualizations, and I'm not really trying to start a point/counterpoint here, but it strikes me that their value for drawing students in - perhaps particularly in unvarnished form - is really powerful. Then of course they need to build context, with the help of their instructor.

Thanks very much for your explanation of the process, Maarja, but I can't seem to search the LBJ new releases. I won't ask you to troubleshoot that, though...

HNN - 3/1/2007

There is one great reason for waiting for Beschloss's editions. He provides context.

Without context the tapes can be wildly misleading.

Almost nothing LBJ ever said to anyone could be taken at face value; it takes a historian to decipher LBJ's code so listeners know what's sincere and what's manipulation. At the same time, for instance, that LBJ was leading James Reston, the NYT reporter, to believe that RFK was still in consideration for the vice presidency in the spring of '64, he was telling Clark Clifford that RFK was nothing more than a political handler whom he didn't take seriously. As Beschloss notes, if RFK had known this was what Johnson was saying to Clifford he would have been livid. Reston of course would have felt he was being used by LBJ to maintain a fiction that helped keep the peace between the Johnson and Kennedy factions in the White House and the party.

Letting students listen to the tapes without expert help would be dangerous. They need the guidance provided by a historian familiar with the context. Beschloss is as excellent a guide as one could imagine.

Maarja Krusten - 3/1/2007

I had the correct date in earlier posting on February 28.

Maarja Krusten - 3/1/2007

Although his books provide a convenient way for the general public to gain access to LBJ's tapes, you don't have to wait for Michael Beschloss to publish another book. You can go to the source of the materials.

The LBJ tapes are housed in and are being processed by archivists at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, which is run by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). You can get some idea of the labor intensive nature of the process of opening the tapes by studying the release dates at

As you can see, with its November 2006 release of tapes covering August-December 1966, NARA now has completed processing the LBJ's recorded telephone conversations through 1966. (There are two main series of LBJ tapes, telephone and meeting tapes.) Of course, none were supposed to be released until the year 2053; while historians may be impatient to get additional materials released, it was LBJ's intention that they wait 50 years after his death before getting access to any of them. See
As are all the pre-Watergate Presidential Libraries, LBJ's Library is donor-restricted. Under the Presidential Records Act of 1978, White House records of later Presidents fall under government control, as do Nixon's, although those are administered under a separate law passed in 1974.

Having worked inside NARA to release Nixon's tapes to the public, I see several potential reasons for the "slow" going with the tapes: the labor intensive nature of the work -- archivists must screen the conversations word by word to ensure that only releasable portions are opened; the uneven audio quality of the recordings, described by John Powers of NARA in the article to which I link above; NARA's tight budget picture, which affects resources, as it does in many other civil agencies within the executive branch. NARA's managers must juggle a number of priorities in allocating staff and budget resources. Many of the Presidential Libraries face huge processing backlogs; former Truman Library director Larry Hackman alludes to this in passing at

NARA also has worked to meet the needs of some governmental researchers, such as the historians employed by the Department of State. Ironically, the need to set aside systematic processing to assist State Department historians in their preparation of various volumes in the Foreign Relations of the United States series also has slowed down the work on the LBJ tapes. See
which describes some of the FRUS assistance by LBJ Library archivists. Note the statement that "It takes 100 hours to transcribe 1 hour of conversations."

The minutes of the State Department's historical advisory committe stated in 1995 that "[David] Humphrey replied that the Johnson Library was following the schedule fairly well, although they were a little behind on processing the 1964 tapes. He expressed concern that as more HO [State Department History Office] historians listen to the tapes and request transcripts, more time of the two State-paid archivists would be consumed, thus reducing the time available for processing tapes and handling other Foreign Relations research priorities.

I hope this provides some context for what is involved in releasing such materials.

Ed Schmitt - 2/28/2007

C-Span also has a lot of the Johnson tapes on its website and the content of the calls is searchable. I agree - they are utterly fascinating. What I'm wondering is when tapes from 1966-68 are going to be released. The second volume - Reaching For Glory - which looks at 1964-65, came out some time ago. Not only do we as historians love this stuff, I've seen otherwise uninterested students come to life listening to excerpts - especially the one where the Commander in Chief orders slacks.

Maarja - Krusten - 2/28/2007

Of course, you probably know (?) that LBJ died believing the tapes would not begin to be released for public research until the year 2023. They were considered LBJ's personal property, as were other types of Presidential records until 1974. Consequently, LBJ's materials were donor-restricted.

which contains extracts from the article, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996) by John Powers. (You'll see a Summary followed by detailed Provenance and Description information by Mr. Powers.) I know Mr. Powers, he is a respected archivist with NARA's Nixon Project. Of course, no materials are released from any of the Presidential Libraries without being screened by archivists.

Mr. Powers states, correctly, that "One week after President Johnson's death on January 22, 1973, his longtime personal assistant Mildred Stegall transferred to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library custody of eight sealed Federal Records Center (FRC) boxes. She stated that Johnson considered the materials contained in the FRC boxes to be very sensitive and that he had instructed they were to remain sealed for fifty years after his death. The boxes contained recordings of some of Johnson's telephone conversations from November 22, 1963, through January 2, 1969. Stegall also transferred custody of reel-to-reel analog tapes of many meetings held in the Cabinet Room in 1968."

A few segments of LBJ's tapes were released earlier than 2023 due to the requirements of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

The summary on the Miller Center's site notes, "With the 50-year restriction effectively broken by the congressional mandate of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act, the decision was made to continue to open these materials."

Mr. Powers's article is an excellent source of detail on the technical and archival aspects of LBJ's recorded conversation. I post a link to it as a reminder that as exciting as it is for outside researchers to use these materials, considerable effort goes into processing them within NARA. John does a good job in capturing some of that.

Maarja Krusten
Former NARA Nixon tapes archivist

HNN - 2/28/2007


And where else would a character like LBJ have a chance to become its leader?

America: a land where somebody like LBJ could become president!

There's a slogan school children sholuld have to commit by heart.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/28/2007

Where else would this sort of material be available to the public?

HNN - 2/28/2007

I saw Fog of War and can't recall if tapes were used or not. What remains in my mind ... McNamara's contrition.

Tim Lacy - 2/28/2007

Rick: Thanks for bringing the tapes to my/our attention. I wonder if those tapes were used in 'Fog of War,' the documentary about Robert McNamara? - TL