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Reviews in American History 30.4 (2002) 680-688
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The JFK Tapes:
Sheldon M. Stern
Philip Zelikow, Ernest May, and Timothy Naftali, eds. ThePresidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: Volumes 1-3, The Great Crises. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1882 pp. CD-ROM. Index.$165.00.
In the fall of 1997 I was delighted, but surprised, to learn that the Harvard University Press was about to publish complete transcripts, edited by the prominent historians Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, of the nearly twenty-two hours of audio tapes of the meetings of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council (ExComm) recorded during the legendary thirteen days of the Cuban missile crisis. 1 My surprise was based on the fact that the bulk of these tapes, more than seventeen hours, had not been declassified until late 1996 and early 1997. As Kennedy Library historian from 1977 through 1999, and the first historian ever to listen to all of these recordings, I knew that many of the tapes were technically flawed and that producing accurate transcripts required substantial time and patience, as well as knowledge and skill. But there was every reason to have complete confidence in the editors, and I enthusiastically participated with them in a program about the new transcripts before a packed house at the Kennedy Library in late 1997. Over the next few years the book was widely and positively reviewed. In my own work, especially with secondary school history teachers, I applauded the new transcripts and recommended the book as one of the great history primary source bargains of our time—especially after finding copies in a local bookstore for under $10!
Early in 2000, however, I was shocked and dismayed to discover that the transcripts contained numerous errors, which often altered or even reversed the intent of the speakers and significantly distorted the historical record. I subsequently published two articles explaining these findings. 2 Zelikow and May eventually acknowledged in their published responses that the original draft transcripts prepared by court reporters "did not work out well" and that the results of special noise reduction techniques "were disappointing." 3 However, the two editors assured readers late in 2000: [End Page 680]
we have kept going back over the missile crisis tapes repeatedly during the past three years, recently aided by new colleagues and new technology. A three-volume reference set with transcriptions of all Kennedy tapes from July 30 to October 28, 1962, will be published by W.W. Norton early in 2001, the products of the Presidential Recordings Project at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs. The Norton volumes will have accompanying CD-ROMs that include the audiotapes, synchronized with the transcripts. So anyone will now be able to judge the adequacy of the work for themselves (and perhaps gain a measure of empathy for the task). 4
Zelikow and May also maintained: "we think few [readers of The Kennedy Tapes] will find the many amendments in our retranscriptions to be very important." 5 This claim is puzzling since a good part of the new edition is significantly different, indeed sometimes unrecognizable, when compared to the original 1997 version. The key issue for readers today, however, is the accuracy and reliability of the new edition.
This handsome and impressive three-volume boxed Norton set contains nearly 1,800 pages of transcripts of JFK's recorded meetings and telephone conversations (for example, on Berlin, Cuba, the Congo, Laos, a nuclear test ban, the economy, the budget, proposed tax cuts and civil rights) from July 30 to October 28, 1962. These are actually the first three months of JFK tapes since the recording equipment was not installed in the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room until mid-1962. Volume 1, edited by Timothy Naftali (director of the Presidential Recordings Project, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia), covers July 30 through August 30. Volume 2, edited by Naftali and Philip Zelikow (director of the Miller Center), covers September through October 21, including about 180 pages of transcripts...