The Secret Recordings Of John F. Kennedy

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Fifty years ago this week, the world trembled on the brink of nuclear war and waited for 13 tense days for a resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

During that summer, President John F. Kennedy installed secret recorders throughout the White House.

The new book, "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," offers a look at Kennedy's audio chronicle of the crisis.

Thomas Putnam, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, joined Radio Boston to explain the story behind Kennedy's hidden tapes.

A Secret From Everyone

No one really knows why Kennedy installed the recorders in the Oval Office. Putnam spoke about possible motivations:

He began it in the summer of 1962. Many people felt it was in reaction to the Bay of Pigs, but the Bay of Pigs actually happened in 1961, so there's a long lead time. But there was a sense that he was interested in history, that he was perhaps preparing material for his own memoir, but also...there was a sense that he wanted an accurate accounting so that he could hold people to the advice they had given to him.

He said the existence of Kennedy's tapes was known by very few, even those closest to the president:

No one new about them. The only people who knew about them were the secret service agent who installed them and his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, [who] was the person who pressed the button to start the tapes. There's some question that even Attorney General Robert Kennedy didn't even know the tapes until after his brother's death.

Who would question a seemingly benign desk button? Putnam explained:

There was a button on his desk, and they made it look like the type of button that you might press to call your secretary. So that's why people didn't assume that it was anything. Beyond that, there were microphones hidden — some in the Oval Office, some in the Cabinet room. He actually did have some installed in his private residence but he never used those.

Insight Into The Presidency

Putnam said the tapes revealed a great deal about Kennedy:

What you see is a president totally in control. In the first tape, he talks about why he wants to be president because he says it's the "center of action." Through these tapes you see him in the center of action. He famously never had a Chief of Staff; he didn't want a level between him and what was going on. And so he's right in the middle of each of these debates, asking good questions and ultimately making those decisions.

He also spoke about Kennedy's strategic focus on details:

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, when they're actually going to stop some of the Soviet ships, he [says], "Are there press on these ships? We want to be sure they're not taking photos." He's really thinking ahead about every little detail involved with the decisions he's making.

Crisis Consultation

At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke with former president General Dwight D. Eisenhower over the phone:

Putnam reflected on the interesting relationship between the two men:

[Eisenhower was] this five start general during World War II, whereas JFK was a lieutenant captaining a PT boat. Eisenhower was one of the oldest men elected president, JFK one of the youngest. But over time, as President Kennedy was in his term of office, there was a level of respect. I think he earned Eisenhower's respect, partly because of phone calls like this one.

Eisenhower's advice is in keeping with the advice is in keeping with the advice that JFK got from most of his military advisers, which is go ahead and invade, that won't force them to shoot these things off. President Kennedy had the longer view. He loved history; he understood that he owed it to history to do everything he could to avoid any incidence that could lead to a nuclear exchange. And, as we know, that's the way he resolved the crisis.

Maintaining Public Image

Kennedy was sensitive to how things looked not only to the American people but to those on Capitol Hill as well. In this 1963 tape, Kennedy is upset when he reads in the paper that military aides have built a hospital for the then-pregnant Jacqueline Kennedy on Cape Cod at an air base just in case she went into labor. He complained at the amount of money spent on the furniture:

Why Kennedy Pursued Politics

Some of the recordings featured in "Listening In" were made even before Kennedy was president. One in particular was at a dinner party:

Putnam explained the background of the tape:

Obviously, this one wasn't secretly recorded. It was three days after he had announced for the presidency. He's having dinner with his friend Ben Bradlee and Ben Bradlee's wife Tony. Jacqueline Kennedy's there. And James Cannon — who was  a reporter who worked for Ben Bradlee and was writing a book about American politics and why people get involved in politics — asked, "Could I tape a conversation about why you're running for president? Why do you want to be president?" So JFK agreed. Mr. Cannon donated [the tape] to the library. During this conversation, he's asked by Ben Bradley why does he love politics, why does he want to be involved in the political struggle.

The Power Of The Past

It's almost hard to imagine that a president would want so much of his private moments actually captured for history. Putnam said that Watergate taught presidents that they could be "burned" by tapes such as Kennedy's. But he noted that the secret recordings did more to bolster the president's reputation than to tarnish it:

Many historians say their respect for Kennedy grows the more they listen to these tapes. When you hear him, you see the decisions that he's making. He had a lot of resolve, but he also had a degree of caution, especially during things like the Cuban Missile Crisis and advancing civil rights. But I think it also shows a level of confidence he had in himself and the decisions that he was making.

"Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings Of John F. Kennedy." (Courtesy of Hyperion Books.)
"Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings Of John F. Kennedy." (Courtesy of Hyperion Books.)

We believe that the reason why he taped them was that he could later write a memoir. Obviously, he was never given that opportunity, so this is our ability to at least listen in to the decisions that he was making and the raw material he would have used were he to have written such a memoir.

"Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy" is being issued at during the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy presidency. Putnam said he hopes it can bring history alive for the audience:

It really allows you to relive the Kennedy presidency...we want people to really be able to feel like they were in the Oval Office and experience it the way President Kennedy did.

All recordings are courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

This segment aired on October 18, 2012.


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