Even Our Critics Have Made Mistakes Transcribing Presidential Recordings

Mr. Naftali is Associate Professor and Director, Presidential Recordings Program, Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia.

Dr. Stern critiques 76 separate passages or individual words in 18 of them in the Appendix to his book, Averting ‘The Final Failure:' John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings . Thirty-one of the 76 “errors” he cites, or nearly half, are instances where we felt after team-review that the word or sentence fragment was so muddy that we preferred not to take a guess and left it as “[ unclear ]” in the reference transcript. We did this reluctantly and only after concluding that the uncertainty was high enough that we might be unintentionally putting words in famous mouths. In each case, Sheldon has made his own judgment call and then asserted an error on our part.

Sheldon, however, goes further and alleges some mis-transcriptions; each one is potentially significant, though as a set they are not widespread. Over 60% of the mis-transcriptions he alleges come from three conversations on one day, October 27, 1962. Nevertheless, as a scholar of the Cuban missile crisis I recognize the potential importance of errors in those transcripts - particularly in the conversations of October 27 – and we are looking carefully at those passages.

I mention these statistics not because we tolerate errors. I don't and the very talented men and women who work with me don't either. But I believe this HNN thread on possible errors in the Miller Center transcripts may give the unfortunate and inaccurate impression that either the Miller Center's work during 1999-2000 was less than acceptable or the process of transcribing Kennedy tapes is itself futile. Although it pains me that some elements of those conversations that were published in 2001 may not have met the standards of the rest, I remain very proud of the overall quality of the 1,800 pages of annotated transcripts that we produced [all of which are posted on www.whitehousetapes.org].

In three years, the vast majority of our transcripts - those for the conversations on the Nuclear Test Ban, Brazil, Intelligence issues, Civil Rights, International Monetary Policy, Tax Reform as well as many of the conversations on Cuba - have never been assailed for their professionalism or, for that matter, for their accuracy. For reasons I will explain below, I am also confident that not all of Sheldon Stern's suggestions will prove accurate.

Nevertheless, I would still like us to be batting 1,000. Although we do not have as many scholars in our Program as I would like, we are fortunate in having from the Miller Center the largest institutional commitment to the transcription, annotation and study of White House tapes anywhere in the country. Our scholars are subdivided into three projects – JFK, LBJ and Nixon – each of which is responsible for producing chronological volumes of transcripts for their president. Since the production of the first three JFK volumes we have completed the transcription of Volume 4 (October 29 – November 20) and begun work on Volume 5, which takes the narrative of the Kennedy presidency into 1963. Meanwhile our LBJ scholars have completed the first three volumes of their series (November 1963 – January 1964) and will submit the second trio (February – May 1964) to our publisher this summer. The Nixon team is completing the transcription of its first volume. Last year saw the publication by our scholars Jonathan Rosenberg and Zachary Karabell of a study of civil rights policy in the Kennedy and Johnson years as seen through the relevant tapes.

I have already borrowed some of our scholars' time in order to take a new look at some of the conversations questioned by Dr. Stern. I wish the task of evaluating his suggestions were as easy as just assigning one scholar to re-listen to those conversations. Sheldon's catalogue of possible emendations will be treated as we would any re-transcription. We will have at least two scholars review the passages before they are sent to the volume editors for final review. Our editorial system, which I designed, assigns the volume editors the final say on the transcripts in their volume. Since Sheldon Stern's suggested corrections come primarily from Volume 3 (he alleges in his Appendix only two mis-transcriptions in the 614 pages of annotated transcripts of Volume 2) any new Miller Center version will need careful input from Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, the two volume editors responsible for the Cuban missile crisis tapes. As Philip Zelikow indicated, his responsibilities over the next few months will delay his return to the task of reviewing our scholars' assessments of Dr. Stern's recommendations. He will certainly do this review with Ernest May once he completes his work for the independent commission investigating the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

In the meantime, our work on Volume 4 already suggests that scholars should reserve judgment before adopting Sheldon Stern's 76 specific “corrections” as accurate. His book includes direct quotations from October 29, the first day in our as-yet-unpublished Volume 4. My colleague David Coleman and I are the editors for that volume and had completed the transcript of October 29 before the appearance of Dr. Stern's book. Our transcript went through four different edits before David and I gave it the volume editors' review. After comparing our transcript to Dr. Stern's book, we found significant discrepancies with his work. Below are seven examples of what we believe are significant errors in Dr. Stern's direct quotations or his tape-based narrations from three conversations on October 29. These range from misidentifications of a speaker – for instance, believing the speaker of a key passage is Rusk when it is Walt Rostow - to mis-transcriptions of sentences to missed words.

[Page numbers are from Sheldon M. Stern, ­ Averting ‘The Final Failure:' John F. Kennedy and the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis Meetings (Stanford University Press, 2003). The Miller Center transcripts are from the forthcoming volume: The Presidential Recordings, John F. Kennedy , Volume 4 (October 29 to November 20, 1962) edited by Timothy J. Naftali and David G. Coleman (W.W. Norton, forthcoming).

Tape numbers are from John F. Kennedy Library, President's Office Files, Presidential Recordings Collection. Digital copies of these audio files are available for download at www.whitehousetapes.org . Timecodes refer the digital audio files available at that site.]

#1 p.391 [tape 43, 24:05]

Stern text : Rusk: … “that there does not appear rn to be much danger that the Soviets will attempt to delay implementation of the rn final dismantling of sites .”

MC text : Rusk: … “that there does not appear to be much danger that the Soviets will attempt to delay implementation of a promise to dismantle and inspect, I think that would affect our decision to some extent .”

#2 p.392 [tape 43, 35:53]

Stern text : McNamara noted that Rikhye would be happy to have a Cuban and a Russian on board…

MC text : McNamara: “ We'd be quite happy to have a Russian, Cuban . . .”

#3 p.394 [tape 43, 44:41]

Stern text : Rusk warned, quite presciently as it turned out, “U Thant has two big hurdles to get over to bring this thing [inspection] home: one is Kuznetsov and the other is Castro. And he's gonna have, I think, more trouble with Castro perhaps than Kuznetsov. And a …so we've got to think a little bit about that .”

MC text : Rusk: ... “And he's going to have, I think, more trouble with Castro perhaps than Kuznetsov. And so we've got to think a little bit about the circumstances in which he can persuade Castro .”

#4 p.395 [tape 43, 49:00]

Stern text : President Kennedy: … “Unless we know that there are technical people on this mission in whom we have confidence, we really need that photographed at our own lens .”

MC text : President Kennedy: “So, unless we know that there are technical people on this mission in whom we have confidence, we really need that photograph of our own Wednesday .”

#5 p.395 [tape 43, 49:21]rn

Stern text :You'd need an army,” McNamara began, but Gilpatric finished the sentence, “to cover all of the sites, to take all of the pictures.”

MC text : McNamara: “ He'd need an army.”

Joseph Charyk : “To cover all of the sites—”

George Ball: “Yeah.”

Charyk: “ — to take all the pictures it would be quite an expedition .”

#6 p.399 [tape 43, 72:48]

Stern text : Shoup: … “If that joker [Castro] ever had… had the control now,” but the Soviets are “tellin' him that they have the keys, like we've got the keys.” “I'm sure they do… to Cuba ,” JFK agreed.

MC text : Shoup: “If that joker [Castro] ever had the control, now . . . Of course, they're [the Soviets] telling that they got the keys, like we've got the keys—”

President Kennedy: “I'm sure they do. I'm sure they do .”

Note : This is a conversation about the control and security of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba . Dr. Stern's rendering suggests that the Soviets were telling Castro that the Soviets maintained control of those weapons, which does not make sense in context. From context, Shoup is saying that the Soviets were reassuring the Americans that nuclear weapons would not be fired off by the Cubans.

#7 p.401-402 [tape 43, 82:54]

Stern : Kennedy-Rusk exchange that spans entire page. A long description of the conversation that includes, “The President unexpectedly became quite incensed and abruptly chewed out the secretary of state.”

Note : In the first instance, the voice is not Dean Rusk's. A catalog of confirmed voice identification clips for comparison is available at www.whitehousetapes.org .

In the second instance, Rusk was at the State Department at the time this conversation took place. Rusk's secretaries kept an unusually precise appointment diary for the secretary of state, listing meetings as they actually happened rather than when they were scheduled. His appointment diary is available at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library (an extract covering this period is also available online at www.whitehousetapes.org under Research materials, Kennedy). Rusk's appointment diary shows that he returned to the State Dept with Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson at 11:04 a.m. and had a series of meetings there. He did not return to the White House until 6:22 p.m. to attend a 6:30 p.m. ExComm meeting. The exchange discussed here took place after Kennedy met with Admiral George Anderson and General David Shoup, a meeting that lasted from 12:30 p.m. until 12:45 p.m. The recorder then stayed on until 1:35 p.m. while Kennedy stayed in the office and engaged in sporadic conversation with various advisers who went in and out of the office.

Available evidence suggests that this exchange was between Kennedy and Walt Rostow, the chairman of the Policy Planning Council, and that the President was complaining that he wasn't receiving the studies produced by the Policy Planning Council. In that context, Kennedy was also complaining about the Policy Planning Council studies being too focused on the long-term and not practical enough for short-term policymaking.

* * *

As noted before these seven examples, we always seek a perfect batting average. And there is no doubt that Sheldon Stern shares this goal. But transcription of this nature is not only hard but also very susceptible to human frailty. Mistakes can happen, but so long as the scholar keeps in mind that the tape itself is the principal historical document, the transcripts serve the purpose of increasing the accessibility of this unique primary source. Batting average aside, scholars who care about the tapes should also seek one perfectly attainable goal: maximum cooperation and exchange of findings to ensure the most accurate and reliable transcripts.

Once Philip Zelikow returns and Ernest May's term-specific responsibilities have ended they will turn to the re-drafts that our scholars can provide them. Then, alongside the Miller Center 's 2001 versions of the conversations in question, we will post Sheldon Stern's suggested redraft and our latest versions. Some disagreements may persist – one of which Sheldon described in his posting to HNN - but it is my hope we can reach a consensus on the historically significant passages. At the very least we can offer scholars a narrow range of possibilities.

I do believe that authoritative transcripts of the Kennedy tapes are possible, though we should all bring a lot of humility to the process of transcription. There was no road map for producing reference-quality transcripts when we started in 1999 and, while the learning curve was steep and the learning continues, I believe that the techniques we are constantly updating are transferable to other groups interested in doing similar kinds of work. Sheldon Stern's efforts will no doubt have made some of our Cuban missile crisis transcripts better and it is my hope that the PRP's efforts on October 29 will improve the next edition of his book and will prove useful to other scholars. These meticulous efforts are very important. Without transcripts the tapes are so forbidding that scholars may ignore them, thus denying to future studies of the Kennedy to Nixon era a most powerful resource.


Response by Sheldon Stern

I welcome Tim Naftali's response and hope that presidential tapes scholars will learn from our agreements and disagreements. My article acknowledged that Miller Center specialists would differ with my transcriptions and sometimes be right. However, in some “unclear” passages they consider too “muddy…to take a guess,” I am confident about what I heard—especially when they make sense in historical context. These are the only “unclears” I call “errors.” Many others, alas, remain unclear. Tim calls this “putting words in famous mouths.” I call it responsible scholarship.

I was astonished that Tim, in his 7 points about the 10/29 meetings, seems oblivious to the fact that my book, Averting ‘the Final Failure' , is a narrative— not another set of complete transcripts. Writing a narrative requires selecting only those direct quotes that contribute to the flow of the narrative history. Naftali is clearly right about several incorrect words in points 1 & 4. But, in 1, 3 & 5, he has included transcribed lines that are completely irrelevant because they do not even appear in my narrative— giving readers the false impression that I mistakenly left them out. Point 2 is especially disturbing. It is not a transcription at all—these are my words and there are no substantive differences. On 6, I still believe I am right.

Finally, in point 7, is JFK chewing out Dean Rusk or Walt Rostow? Tim cites Miller Center “voice identification clips” to prove this speaker is Rostow. But, despite this technology, they sometimes misidentify voices—for example, Fulbright for Saltonstall, McCone for McCloy, and even RFK for JFK (vol. 3, pp. 215, 312, 325). More importantly, they also misidentify John McCone as Walt Rostow (vol. 3, p. 459). Rostow's distinctive voice is correctly identified in an earlier meeting (vol. 3, p. 277). Since they were wrong once about Rostow's voice, can we be sure they are right in this case? I still think the much softer voice on 10/29 is Rusk (as did May and Zelikow in 1997). During my 23 years as JFK Library historian, I spoke to or interviewed virtually all these people and I know their voices. Rusk's schedule is inconclusive because the starting time for these meetings is never precise or reliable. But, fortunately for the historical record, neither of these scenarios alter the fact that Kennedy was angry about State Department inertia on the Turkish missile trade.

Tim has uncovered errors in points 1 & 4 of my transcriptions—which is great. But, he avoids dealing with numerous historically significant corrections in my review, book and appendix. It is pointless, however, to continue this tit for tat. He asserts that my work “will no doubt have made some of our Cuban missile transcripts better” and I am eager to improve my book with Miller Center updates. We agree that there will never be a “correct” transcript and that tapes scholars should seek “maximum cooperation and exchange of findings.” That goal prompted my effort to learn when these corrections and unresolved differences would appear, as promised publicly a year ago, on whitehousetapes.org.

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