BOSTON– The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum today announced that it has declassified and made available the final 45 hours of White House recordings that were secretly taped during President John F. Kennedy’s time in office. In all, President Kennedy recorded over 248 hours of meeting conversations and 12 hours of dictabelt telephone conversations on a system that remained a closely held secret even from his top aides. Today’s release encompasses meetings held during the three months leading up to the end of the Kennedy Administration.
“The Library has been systematically reviewing and opening these secretly recorded tapes since 1993,” stated Tom Putnam, Kennedy Library Director. “We are thrilled to have completed the process and know researchers will be fascinated with these recordings from John F. Kennedy’s final days as President.”
The tapes cover a range of important topics, events, and even moments, including: Vietnam, the 1964 presidential campaign, a discussion with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Oval Office visits from President Kennedy’s children and the final recordings made before the President left on his final trip to Texas.
VietnamDuring a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military and diplomatic advisors and asked them to explain why their eye-witness accounts contrast so widely. General Victor Krulak and State Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to the President on their four day fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military leaders was generally optimistic while Mendenhall, a Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread military and social discontent.
According to the meeting minutes Krulak was on record as stating that “the Viet Cong war will be won (by the United States) if the current US military and sociological programs are pursued.” Meanwhile Mendenhall replied, “The people I talked to in the government when I asked them about the war against the VC, they said that is secondary now – our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the regime here in Saigon. (pause). There are increasing reports in Saigon and in Hue as well that students are talking of moving over to the Viet Cong side.”
These vastly different viewpoints caused President Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to the same country?”
After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean how is that you get such different - this is not a new thing, this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the one hand you get the military saying the war is going better and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its deterioration is affecting the military …What is the reason for the difference – I’d like to have an explanation what the reason is for the difference.”
The American government had long been a supporter of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem but policy makers were growing frustrated over the influence of Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife, Madame Nhu. In August, a month prior to the recorded meeting released today, Cable 243 had been issued authorizing the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to pressure Diem to remove his brother Nhu; if Diem refused, the US would explore the possibility of alternative leadership. The issuance of the controversial cable caused infighting among the diplomatic and military advisors of the Kennedy Administration, which continued during the autumn of 1963.
The September 10, 1963 meeting continued with a presentation by advisor Rufus Phillips, which suggested various counterinsurgency efforts. Remarking on these recommendations, former Vietnam Ambassador Frederick Nolting asked, “What do you think will be the result of this? … ‘Cause what I’m thinking about is what happens if you start this and you get a reaction as expected from those that you’re encouraging, do you then get a civil war or do you get a quiet palace revolution or what do you think we get?”
Phillips answered that he believed it was still possible to split the Nhus from President Diem. He then commented: “When someone says that this is a military war, and that this is a military judgment. I don’t believe you can say this about this war. This is essentially a political war…for men’s minds.”
At a meeting the following day on September 11, 1963, President Kennedy asked Defense Secretary Robert McNamara if he thought that Diem’s reign was viable long-term. McNamara answered, “Mr. President, I don’t believe I can forecast that far ahead. I believe strongly that as of today there has been no substantial weakening of the military effort. I don’t know what the future will hold. I strongly support Dean Rusk’s suggestion that we proceed carefully and slowly here and this is quite contrary to what Ambassador Lodge has recommended.”
Later, President Kennedy decided to send Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam. At the September 23, 1963 meeting, as Taylor and McNamara are about to start their mission, the President stated his hope that, based on what the two find, the US could “come to some final conclusion as to whether …they’re (Diem and Nhu) going to be in power for some time…and whether there is anything we can do to influence them or do we stop thinking about that.”
At a Cabinet meeting that same day, Undersecretary of State George Ball commented to the President on Vietnam, “It’s not an easy situation … what we want to do is to see if we can bring the situation about where the war can continue successfully and come at some point to a conclusion, because we don’t want to be bogged down in Southeast Asia forever.”
The coup in Vietnam occurred six weeks later on November 1, 1963 resulting in the assassination of both President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.
1964 Convention PlansOn November 12, 1963, the President met with a team of political advisors for several hours to discuss details of the 1964 convention and the issues that might define the upcoming campaign. President Kennedy asked:
“But what is it that we can [do to] make them decide that they want to vote for us, Democrats and Kennedy – the Democrats not strong in appeal obviously as it was twenty years ago. The younger people, party label – what is it that’s going to make them go for us. What is it we have to sell them? We hope we have to sell them prosperity but for the average guy, the prosperity is nil. He’s not unprosperous but he’s not very prosperous; he’s not going make out well off. And the people who really are well off, hate our guts. … We’ve got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn’t have much identity where these people are concerned.”
He also expressed strong opinions on the films to be played at the convention and the use of color film:
“Should they be made in color?” he asked. “They’d come over the television in black and white. I don’t know if maybe they’d come over the NBC one in color. Probably a million watching it in color and it would have an effect. I don’t know how much more expensive it is. Be quite an effect on the convention. The color is so damn good. If you do it right”
Foreign Relations with the Soviet UnionIn a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 10, 1963, Mr. Gromyko commented that the present US-USSR relations did not offer much of a “fresh look”. In response, President Kennedy suggested recent achievements were evidence of how far relations between the two nations had actually progressed:
“I don’t want you to be discouraged. … There is only a certain tempo which you can move in these matters. We’ve gone ahead with the test ban, we’ve made some progress which for the United States is rather – do you realize that in the summer of 1961, the Congress unanimously passed resolutions against trade with the Soviets and now we’re going ahead, we hope, with this very large trade arrangement that represents what’s changed in American policy of some proportions. That’s progress.”
Kennedy Children in the Oval OfficeIn these final recordings, President Kennedy’s children, Caroline and John Jr., also appeared.
During the October 10, 1963 meeting with Minister Gromyko, President Kennedy introduced them to the Minister:
“You can just open the door there – Just have you say hello to my daughter and son. Come in a minute and say hello. Want to say hello to the Minister? Do you want to say hello to John?” The President later commented to the children, “His Chief is the one who sent you Pushinka.”
Caroline and John left the Oval Office but can be heard in the outer office area. After the meeting, the children returned.
Final Minutes of TapingThe President would depart for Texas on November 21, 1963. On November 19th, his staff attempted to schedule a meeting with visiting General Nasution of Indonesia and suggested Friday November 29th as a possible time for the meeting. The President responded, “I’ll be at the Cape on Friday – but I’ll see him Tuesday” (November 26th).
[On Friday November 29th, General Nasution met with President Lyndon Baines Johnson.]
The final recording is from November 20, 1963, and President Kennedy can be heard commenting on his plans for the following week stating, “I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna get whatever I need for these -they were going to have a briefing book for me by Saturday. I think I ought to be back here til maybe 7:00, then I have to see Cabot Lodge on Sunday and then have to get in touch with him on Monday. So you ought to have something to take to Texas with me."
The November 20, 1963 recording was the last secret White House tape made during the Kennedy Administration. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
“Although on the one hand releasing the final recordings is a bittersweet milestone, on the other, we hope that the public will appreciate having the opportunity to hear these important discussions first hand,” said Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter, who has been overseeing the declassification of the White House recordings since 2001. “The presidential recordings are an historical treasure for those interested in truly feeling like a participant during Oval Office discussions from this time period. No other avenue can present the facts quite like listening to the players themselves.”
The Kennedy Library is providing downloadable audio files and transcripts of sixteen excerpts, most of which are highlighted in this release. Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter is available to answer questions from the media concerning this newly released tape or the Kennedy Library Presidential tapes in general. She can be reached through Rachel Flor, Director of Communications, at (617) 514-1662.
The quality and clarity of the newly released tape recordings are good. Today’s release is from Tape 109 through the final tape, 121/A57, and encompasses over 45 hours of recordings.
The existence of the Kennedy presidential tapes was first announced in July of 1973. The initial segment of the presidential recordings was opened for public research in June of 1983 and systematic review of the tapes began in 1993. Since that time, the Library staff has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and now the presidential meeting tapes. The latter primarily capture meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were made deliberately by the President, they were not created daily or with any apparent set pattern. The tapes housed at the JFK Library represent raw historical material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely. Although most of the recorded conversations are understandable, the tapes include passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background noise and periods in which speakers’ identities are difficult to discern.
The White House recordings released today are available for research use in the Library’s Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday – Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling (617) 514-1629. The recordings and their associated finding aid are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 514-1622. Members of the media are cautioned against drawing historical conclusions from the sound clips and transcripts alone. These materials are provided as a professional courtesy to facilitate the reporting of the release of the presidential recordings.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. More information is available at www.jfklibrary.org.
EXCERPTS AND TRANSCRIPTS
VietnamTape 109: The September 10, 1963 meeting on Vietnam was essentially the platform by which General Victor Krulak and Joseph Mendenhall to report back to the President on their fact-finding mission to South Vietnam in September of 1963. The four day trip by Krulak and Mendenhall was intended to provide an overview of the military and civilian view of the country. Krulak’s view, taken from his visits with military leaders was generally optimistic on the progress of the war. Mendenhall, a Foreign Service Officer, presented a view opposite of Krulak’s – one of widespread military and social discontent. In the meeting minutes Krulak is on record as stating that “excluding the very serious political and military factors external to Vietnam, the Viet Cong war will be won if the current US military and sociological programs are pursued.”
Mendenhall, states, “The people I talked to in the government when I asked them about the war against the VC, they said that is secondary now – our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the regime here in Saigon. (pause). There are increasing reports in Saigon and in Hue as well that students are talking of moving over to the Viet Cong side.”
President Kennedy: “You both went to the same country? (One out of the military, one’s civilian). Well I mean how is that you get such different - this is not a new thing, this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the one hand you get the military saying the war is going better and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its deterioration is affecting the military, now what – You two gentlemen are both – have a lot of experience, I have a lot of confidence in both of you. What is the reason for the difference – I’d like to have an explanation what the reason is for the difference.”
Nolting asks: “What do you think will be the result of this? Would it be a military action against the Nhu’s? Would it be a military action against the government? Or is it likely to result in a sort of a quiet decision on the part of the Nhu’s that they’ve had it, their departure from the country? ‘Cause what I’m thinking about is what happens if you start this and you get a reaction as expected from those that you’re encouraging, do you then get a civil war or do you get a quiet palace revolution or what do you think we get?”
Phillips answered that he believed it was still possible to split the Nhu’s from President Diem. He then comments: “When someone says that this is a military war, and that this is a military judgment. I don’t believe you can say this about t his war. This is essentially a political war – because to war for men’s minds. And if we lose the minds of these people, we lose the minds of the officer corps and the civil servants, we will have lost the war even though the appearances may look otherwise for some time to come.”
Near the end of the meeting, the President comments that there will be a meeting on Vietnam the following day.
Tape 110: 9/11/63 Meeting on Vietnam:
President Kennedy: “How much of a difference of opinion is there on Lodge’s general feeling? It seems to me after listening to General Krulak and those fellows from State that they’re probably both right. There hasn’t been a real deterioration yet but it could set in. I think maybe two months from now, with the school children and all the rest that must – I would think he would maybe find that deterioration. So my judgment would be, unless there’s some change there, that we’re probably going to be worse off in 2-4 months. Now does Secretary McNamara, General Taylor feel that or not?
Robert McNamara: Mr. President, I don’t believe I can forecast that far ahead. I believe strongly that as of today there has been no substantial weakening of the military effort. I don’t know what the future will hold. I strongly support Dean Rusk’s suggestion that we proceed carefully and slowly here and this is quite contrary to what Ambassador Lodge has recommended. Fact is I read his cable this morning, he recommended that we decide today to get rid of Diem and Nhu, that we start of a course of action that will force that, one way or another, if we try initially to force them out by stopping aid and concurrently we support a coup attempt. I think that Secretary Rusk is proposing that we not make any such decision today, that we not take action that will lead certainly to that kind of a situation. I strongly support this program he’s outlined. I don’t believe we’re ready yet for measures as extreme as the Ambassador recommended because I don’t myself believe we are certainly going to face a weakening of the military effort over the next two months. It think its possible, it may even be probable but I am particularly struck by the point that Secretary Rusk mentioned, that Ambassador Lodge had not been in communication with Diem on any effective basis.
Unnnamed voice: He hasn’t been out of Saigon. He hasn’t seen the things that are going on in the rest of the country, particularly the civil war.
John McCone: We feel very much the same way as Secretary Rusk and Secretary McNamara expressed themselves, that is, that we should move cautiously. I think we have to recognize that Lodge hasn’t been there very long, he’s only had one extended discussion with Diem, I’m sure it was not productive. I think it could be well for him to have further talks and also to…to become acquainted with the country.”
Tape 112: 9/23/63 meeting as Taylor and McNamara start their mission to Vietnam “What we want to try and find out is, even now, somewhat confused for about six weeks ‘cause the reports are so different so we might try, based upon what you two find, come to some final conclusion as to whether Diem – we, look as if they’re going to be in power for some time, and Nhu and whether there is anything we can do to influence them or do we stop thinking about that. We can reach out military if it’s going sorts begin to unwind and….our worst situation , the situation where there would continue to unwind against Diem and Nhu – what the hell would we do. Then we’d have to take some rather desperate measures because we would bear the responsibility six months from now.
Tape 112: 9/23/63 Cabinet Meeting, George Ball on Vietnam Ball: “It’s not an easy situation, but it’s one where the problem really does exist on two fronts, the military front and the domestic front. And they are closely interrelated and what we want to do is to see if we can bring the situation about where the war can continue successfully and come at some point to a conclusion, because we don’t want to be bogged down in Southeast Asia forever.
(Ball quote at 2:40 of clip)
Relations with the Soviet Union
10/10/63 President Kennedy and Andrei Gromyko on US-USSR relations
Gromyko: Not much of a fresh look.
President Kennedy: I think we’ve done, ah, I don’t want you to get discouraged. We’ve done – you may not be conscious of much progress where you sit, but we’ve been pulling and hauling around the United States for the last three months in a couple, several directions. And we think, for us, we’ve made some progress in our relations with the Soviet Union. We may not get the German question disposed of and may not have solved all the matters, but considering some of the difficulties that both of our countries face – and internally and externally – it seems to me we’ve done pretty well. So I’m rather encouraged, not discouraged. I don’t want you to be discouraged.
Gromyko: Well there is improvement in some things…
President Kennedy: There is only a certain tempo which you can move in these matters. We’ve gone ahead with the test ban, we’ve made some progress which for the United States is rather – do you realize that in the summer of 1961, the Congress unanimously passed resolutions against trade with the Soviets and now we’re going ahead, we hope, with this very large trade arrangement that represents what’s changed in American policy of some proportions. That’s progress. We’re talking about next week going ahead with this matter on the space, we’re talking about getting the civil air agreement settled, we’ve got good communications…I agree we haven’t settled Berlin but considering that we’ve got a lot of problems, we’ve —you’ve taken out some of your troops out of Cuba so it’s less of a problem for us here. I – that’s some progress.
Gromyko: You are right, Mr. President, there is change in the atmosphere and … in more matters important to our relations, affects relations between United States and Soviet Union are concerned.
9/17/63 Foy Kohler and President Kennedy on US-USSR Space Cooperation
President Kennedy: The other thing I talked to him about was space. I don’t know whether we could ever –
Foy Kohler: They were very intrigued by this, Mr. President. I mentioned this when I talked to Gromyko before I left and it was obvious that they were intrigued but a little puzzled by this. I referred to it as a very imagining thing and asked whether they had given any thought to it. He said, well, they agreed it was imaginative. (pause) They’re obviously interested in this – by implication, they are clearly concerned about the cost of these damn things – about a race in space. So Gromyko said, well, it’s a very interesting idea and we would like you to come up with something more definite which we can take a look at. So far, I haven’t been able to consult with all the right people here to see whether anything can be developed.
President Kennedy: I would like to have an agreement on when we both try to go to the moon, then we wouldn’t have this intensive race –I don’t know whether they are going to the moon. Lovell says not.
Kohler: I think maybe he’s right. They have got – you think you have a serious resource distribution problem but believe me, Mr. Khrushchev has a more serious one. The pressure of the claims on a very limited budget must be enormous there and he does refer to it occasionally. Well my military people say one more, my scientist are always waning more – the pressures must be great when resources are very limited.
1964 Convention plans and Campaign, 11/12/63
JFK on what we offer voters: “But what is it that we can make them decide they want to vote for us, Democrats and Kennedy – the Democrats not strong in appeal obviously as it was twenty years ago. The younger people, party label – what is it that’s going to make them go for us. What is it we have to sell ‘em. We hope we have to sell ‘em prosperity but for the average guy, the prosperity is nil. He’s not unprosperous but he’s not very prosperous; he’s not going make out well off. And the people who really are well off, hate our guts. So that, what is it – there’s a lot of negroes, we’re the ones that are shoving the negroes down his throat. What is it he’s got though. We’ve got peace, you know what I mean, we say we hope the country’s prosperous, I’m trying to think of what else. I think probably- we’ve got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn’t have much identity where these people are concerned. And they don’t feel particularly – I’m not, they really didn’t have it with Truman, only in that retrospect they have Truman…hell of a time. Franklin Roosevelt had it, even Wilson had it but I think it’s tough for a Democrat with that press apparatus working. So I’m just trying to think what is it – (tape ends)
JFK on the films to be played at the 1964 Convention and the use of color film President Kennedy: “Steve, on this question of the films and who’s going to do them. I thought that film Five Days or Cities in June was – have you seen that film? The guy who wrote the music was called Vershon or something, but God it’s good. Why don’t you get it from George Stevens. Five Cities in June. Look at it. I think the guy’s fantastic. I’d like to see what else he’s done, whether that just happened to be lucky
(Krim has spoken to Stevens about it. Who it is that he’s been using.)
(RFK: I’ll tell you George did a number of those films that played at Burnhead.)
President Kennedy: “Can’t we get George Stevens to work on the films? “
President Kennedy: “Should they be made in color? They’d come over the television in black and white. I don’t know if maybe they’d come over the NBC one in color. Probably a million watching it in color and it would have an effect. I don’t know how much more expensive it is. Be quite an effect on the convention. The color is so damn good. If you do it right. I don’t know whether he’s got – has film he’d want to use in color. But anyway, that be silly why bring that... You’d have a film the first night, ahead of the keynoter.”
Bailey: This is just a possibility, Mr. President, we’re gonna make – we’ve got an awful lot of money to spend. My thought was – which is convention money, you see, it has to be spent on the convention not partisan campaign money. Some of them could be shown at the Convention, we could make a whole lot of a show in some back room convention then you’ve got, then you can use it.”
President Kennedy: I think you can get the real story told if it’s a good speaker. That’s why the film’s gonna be – and you might lead off with the film, then the keynoter ‘cause people are sick of it after half hour of watching anyway - if you lead off with the film, then the keynoter.”
President Kennedy: “ Just looking at the way that “Five Cities in June” is done is fascinating. So I mean I’d rather tell less then get sort of a…then I would jammed in with eighteen different cotton mills moving.”
JFK on the film of the four Democratic President’s in the century: “There’s no doubt, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a short one on Franklin Roosevelt.
Bailey: “Well what you could do is on the Democratic Party is have the five Presidents of – that we’ve had since, er, Cleveland, Wilson…
President Kennedy: Well, this century. I think, I think Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman…but I think that uh, I think that Wilson’s good if you can get a lot of good film. Roosevelt, Truman, I think that’s a good idea – four Democratic Presidents – that’s a good idea.
Bailey: And that way you – can bring you in at the end.
President Kennedy reviewing states and commenting on his chances in 1964: President Kennedy: “Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont. Well there’s a chance we’ll carry one of those states. What do you put on winning New Hampshire?” (No) (Indiana?)
Bailey: “Well let’s go through this, I mean, let’s talk ‘em over.”
President Kennedy: “…well let’s not quit in Indiana and Iowa. Let’s quit on Kansas and Nebraska. North Dakota? That’s possible. What do you say Dick, possible?
Dick Maguire, Treasurer of the DNC: “Possible. If you could do it you’ll also do it elsewhere. It’s not as big that you make a particular pitch for it. There’s a general trend it’ll get for you.
President Kennedy: “North Dakota. South Dakota. Oklahoma??”
Bailey: “That was the worst we’ve had…”
President Kennedy: “ – religion is deep now, maybe it’s -I sure would think we had a chance to carry Oklahoma as do Indiana or Ohio.” (I don’t know).(Percentage wise) “You’ve got one Dem – Republican Congress. “