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Listening to Kennedy

December 11, 2009

Audio recording technology has opened a new window into the past.

Today the National Security Archive released a an electronic briefing book on its website entitled: “Kennedy Considered Supporting Coup in South Vietnam, August 1963, Newly Declassified Audio Tapes Reveal JFK Saw Only Negative Choices.”

Listening to these tapes of President John F. Kennedy mulling over key decisions on the Vietnam War is like being the proverbial fly on the wall at a passage of history. John Kennedy prodding his advisers to go over one more time the balance of Vietnamese coup forces versus the loyalists; Robert McNamara remarking that the key problem is to make the US course work; former ambassador Frederick Nolting insisting the Saigon leaders of whom Kennedy has grown tired are men of integrity; many voices ranging back and forth on whether coup leaders ought to be permitted the use of US helicopters—on tape this Vietnam tragedy comes alive in a way hardly possible in sparse written memoranda. As I listened I could almost see the president and his advisers link hands to jump over the precipice of war in Southeast Asia.

The last big tape project I dug into, selected presidential tapes edited and published in Eavesdropping on the President (New Press, 2003), we were able to arrange for electronic improvements, digitally remastering the recordings and cleaning them up somewhat for significant improvements. The technology for reproduction onto CDs has advanced since then, so the basic quality of the tapes is better here. Yet it has not been possible—at least so far—to enhance these newly released recordings of President Kennedy’s key decision to support a coup against South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. No doubt someone else will step up to the plate on that. Here the Archive works with the exact versions released by the Kennedy Library. Even with digital enhancements there will be headaches because of the way John F. Kennedy set up his taping system, with mikes in the Cabinet Room wall or, for the small portion of the final audiotape recorded in the Oval Office, in his desk. I was frustrated at some of the interference—chairs moving, bursts of bedlam, and other odd noises. But the discussions come through clearly and repeated listening, as is always the case with tape, is the key to understanding these conversations.

Identifying speakers is a major difficulty with audiotapes too. Here Maura Porter of the Kennedy Library has given listeners assistance by annotating copies of the written meeting records (which we post with the Electronic Briefing Book) to show the minute and second when individuals on the tapes start discussing different points. John Kennedy himself—and his brother Robert—have very distinctive Boston lilts. Roger Hilsman opens the first tape and soon becomes familiar, easier for me because I knew him years ago. Vice President Lyndon Johnson, Bill Colby of the CIA, and Ambassador Frederick Nolting also have distinctive voices, and Robert McNamara’s I knew from many other contexts. I benefited—and listeners will too—from the fact that this set of meetings involves the same top officials meeting day after day. We leave it to others to develop definitive transcriptions of these Vietnam coup meetings, but the raw material for that is all in this Electronic Briefing Book.

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