Did JFK Say It?

Mr. Stern was historian at the JFK Library from 1977 through 1999. He is the author of Averting ‘the Final Failure’: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (2003) and The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (2005) in the Stanford University Press Nuclear Age Series.

Early in 2003, as I began the final editing of the manuscript for my book on the Cuban missile crisis ExComm meetings, I turned to the dreaded but unavoidable task of checking the accuracy of hundreds of footnotes. 1 I had already decided to include a JFK remark apparently made late on September 30, 1962 when federal troops failed to arrive in time to prevent a riot over the enrollment of James Meredith at the Oxford campus of the University of Mississippi. Kennedy was fuming over the troop delay since two people had already been killed and many, including federal marshals, had been injured: “They always give you their bullshit about their instant reaction and their split-second timing,” JFK exploded, “but it never works out. No wonder it’s so hard to win a war.” The remark seemed entirely consistent with Kennedy’s well-documented skepticism about the competence and reliability of the military.

I first saw these words in Richard Reeves’s 1993 book on JFK—where they appeared to be taken from a tape-recorded White House meeting during the Meredith crisis. 2 I had heard those recordings years earlier when researching oral history interviews on civil rights during the Kennedy administration, but I could not recall that specific remark. Therefore, I listened again—several times—to these tapes and to my surprise could not find the alleged JFK statement cited by Reeves. I then checked the September 30, 1962 Meredith meeting transcripts in the 2001 Miller Center-Norton edition of JFK tape-recordings; the quote cited by Reeves was not in the transcripts. As a result, I reluctantly deleted the remark in question from my manuscript and subsequently forgot about it.

Then, early in 2007, I reviewed Nick Bryant’s book on JFK and civil rights.3 To my surprise, the baffling JFK quote resurfaced (p. 350)—with a footnote to the same September 1962 tape in which neither the Miller Center transcribers nor I had been able to locate it. As a result, I checked to see if other historians had used that mysterious quote. The 1997 Harvard Press edition of JFK Cuban missile crisis transcripts, for example, had cited the remark to illustrate JFK’s attitude toward the military (as I had planned to use it) and, routinely and legitimately, had cited the Reeves book rather than the tape itself as the source. 4

Four years later, as discussed above, the Miller Center transcribers and editors evidently did not hear those words on the Meredith crisis meeting tapes. However, the editors nonetheless used JFK’s alleged words as historical background, claiming instead that President Kennedy had indeed made this statement “to an aide (with the tape recorder running)” during the Meredith desegregation crisis on September 30th. Unfortunately, they did not footnote this intriguing assertion to a specific tape recording or to any other source.5  

Even more puzzling, the elusive JFK quote has just resurfaced in Michael Beschloss’s new best seller about presidential courage.6  Beschloss’s endnote cites two sources for the quote: a September 20, 1962 JFK Library tape recording and a book by Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell about civil rights recordings during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. 7 In fact, JFK was on vacation from September 14-24; he did briefly return to the White House on September 19-20, but no tapes were recorded on those days. Presumably, this is a typo—and was supposed to refer instead to the September 30th tape. But, as we have already seen, the quote is not on that tape. Similarly, the quote does not appear in the Rosenberg-Karabell account of the tapes made during the Meredith crisis meetings. “Curiouser and curiouser!”—as Alice cried out in Wonderland.

This much we know: the Meredith tapes from which the JFK remark allegedly came were declassified in 1983; ten years later the quote in question appeared in the Reeves JFK volume. Perhaps Reeves got these words from another JFK tape, a Kennedy Library oral history interview, or an interview he conducted for his book—and inadvertently attributed them to the September 30, 1962 Meredith crisis tape. The subsequent citations discussed above then grew out of the original error. (It is, of course, naive to expect   historians to check and verify every secondary background source—especially, in this case, by listening to a nearly two and a half hour tape recording that is often extremely difficult to decipher.)

The basic question remains: did JFK really say it? Is there a credible and unequivocal source for this remark? Hopefully, someone will come forward on the History News Network to resolve this historical enigma.

1 Sheldon M. Stern, Averting the “Final Failure”: John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings, Stanford, 2003.

2Richard Reeves, PresidentKennedy: Profile of Power, Simon and Schuster, 1993, p. 363.

3 Sheldon M. Stern, review of Nick Bryant, The Bystander: John F. Kennedy and the Struggle for Black Equality, Basic Books, 2006, Reviews in American History, March 2007, pp. 118-125.

4 Ernest May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Harvard, 1997, p. 174.

5 Timothy Naftali and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises, Volume II, Norton, 2001, p. 579. The Meredith crisis meeting in question, which began late on the evening of September 30 and ended about an hour after midnight, was recorded on Tapes 26 and 26A in the Kennedy Library presidential recordings collection—available on the website of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia (www.millercenter.virginia.edu).

6 Michael Beschloss, Presidential Courage: Brave Leaders and How They Changed America,1789-1989, Simon and Schuster, 2007, p. 256.

7 Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell, Kennedy, Johnson, and the Quest for Justice: the Civil
Rights Tapes
, Norton, 2003, pp. 27-84.

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More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 7/1/2007

Even post-Watergate occupants of the White House have had -- and still have -- an expectation of privacy. Federal statutes protect purely private information (information about a person's medical conditions, financial affairs, family issues, etc.) from release during the lifetime of the principals. That protection applies to everyone, regardless of rank.

Confidentiality of executive deliberations is another matter, distinct from the concept of personal privacy. The courts have found that that privilege "is not a fixed and permanent one, but erodes with the passage of time."

But I understand what you mean, Kennedy expected what he said about governmental matters to remain confidential. He was President at a time when presidential records were considered by custom to be personal property. His Vice President, LBJ, placed a 50-year seal on his taped conversations. Yes, there always was the chance that someone might publish a diary (Harold Ickes published his FDR-era accounts in the 1950s). But in the days before the Presidential records statutes and Freedom of Information Act, officials expected that what they wrote during the performance of their duties would remain unseen for some time.

Dr. Stern actually raises a good point. Doesn't it make a big difference to us as historians whether a quote derives from a tape recording of a principal's remarks or from a retrospective account in an oral history? If an author mixed those two up, and others have relied on him, that bears pointing out. Much of what is said in oral history interviews is "uncorroborated testimonial evidence." As are the unsourced accounts in newspapers which purport to tell readers about behind the scenes activities. Untrained readers may ooh and ah over such accounts when they hit the press -- aha, we're finally getting an inside look!! -- and debate them in the blogosphere. But an auditor or an historian would ask the author, "where's the support, are there documents to back up all or some of your assertions?"

Oscar Chamberlain - 6/29/2007

Kennedy would have had a greater expectation of privacy--at least in the short run--than post-Watergate presidents. In itself, that does not confirm the quote, of course.

I agree that the generation touched by Kennedy, whether for good or ill, will have much trouble evaluating him. He was inspirational and cautious. He had a wonderful way to encourage people to look for the "better angels" within their own natures, and in his private life, he often did not do so.

His assassination broke his presidency at such a crucial moment: after the March on Washington but before major Civil Rights legislation had passed; after Diem's assassination but still with some room to alter course on Vietnam. He died at a time in which Americans had a remarkable optimism about what their country could accomplish, and before the limits of that power would be tested so terribly at home and abroad.

Like the rest of the 1960s, the good and ill are so intermixed in Kennedy that I think that it will take someone in the future with a Shakespearean sense of human endeavor to make real sense of the man or the times.

George Robert Gaston - 6/26/2007

I'm sure there have been a lot of things attributed to Lincoln that he did not say. I'm also fairly sure Washington did not throw a dollar across the Delaware. However, I'm also fairly certain these things have not been published by serious historians. It appears the remarks attributed to John Kennedy during a fairly serious domestic political crisis cannot readily documented.

A modern president making an off handed remark to an aide is doubtful. John F. Kennedy was a serious man. I doubt that aides would really hear too many off the cuff things during an international crisis or a domestic political crises.

However, there was a concerted effort in the late 1970s and 1980s to remake, and polish, the JFK legacy. This was especially true in regard to the war in Vietnam and civil rights. However, these were not Christian conservatives.

Randll Reese Besch - 6/25/2007

Some years after his death their were quotes attributed to Lincoln that weren't his but attributed to him none the less. Specifically of Christian conservative origins.

George Robert Gaston - 6/25/2007

Sounds like the stuff of scholarly urban legends. It could be that we will have to get a century or so away from JFK before we can take a really objective look at his short administration.

So far as the military is concerned I think his relationship with Maxwell Taylor led to a true tragedy. Sometimes the military guy that tells you what you don’t want to hear could be more valuable than the one who has the “right” answers. Had they only read Matthew Ridgway’s report.

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