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Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Response to Stern and Holland

The essay published on HNN by Sheldon Stern and Max Holland on February 21 makes a number of arguments about work published by us, by Michael Beschloss, and by Stanley Kutler.  Speaking only for ourselves, we think four observations will be helpful to readers who are following this matter.

1.      The original works published in 1997 (May/Zelikow & the first Beschloss LBJ volume), followed shortly afterward by Kutler’s work, were all the first, pioneering efforts to incorporate study of the recordings into scholarship on particular episodes or on a particular president on a book-length scale.  Those who reviewed the works at the time and since, have judged the extent to which May and Zelikow advanced the quality of then-available scholarship, including the then-available work on those recordings that had been released or published in the 1980s.  To be specific,   Zelikow and May did significantly revise the basic understanding of the missile crisis, and  their interpretive findings (also expressed in the Allison/Zelikow revised edition of Essence of Decision) were and remain valid.  Mr. Beschloss and Dr. Kutler applied different methods to different purposes, and should speak for themselves.

2.      Gratified by the reception to the initial May-Zelikow effort, Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs then embarked on a much more ambitious enterprise.  The Center decided to transcribe, fully annotate, and provide needed background for all of the available presidential recordings and then publish this material in both print and multimedia forms.  It would take a generation to accomplish this task.  The work has begun.  The creation of a series of such reference volumes in such a novel kind of documentary project raised the bar for what we were trying to do, and required considerable investment of money and talent into developing new methodologies for the conduct of such a basic research project on such a massive scale.  Aided by advice from an editorial board and a group of talented scholars, the Center developed guidelines for the conduct and method of such new enterprise in collective basic research.  Like such massive research endeavors in any field, the work advanced by trial and error, strengthened by healthy argument and the constructive suggestions of scholarly colleagues. 

3.      The first three JFK reference volumes, published in 2001, were an initial product of this new enterprise.  Those who sample those volumes will appreciate the scale of the undertaking.  We were and are satisfied with the outcome.  As one might expect, in subsequent months and years we have discovered some errors.  Stern, in particular, has charged that the transcriptions are unsatisfactory.  But almost all his criticisms of those volumes draw ammunition from four particular conversations taped on October 26 and 27, 1962, and  indeed we found that Zelikow and May's work on those conversations still included a number of transcription errors.  

   Treating these critiques as if they were constructive suggestions for improvement, the Center has gone over these conversations so that we can produce, and post, an updated transcript for those four conversations.  We found that some of Stern’s suggestions have merit.  Others do not.  Unfortunately our publication of the corrections has been delayed – Zelikow and May were obliged to concentrate on other duties during 2003 and 2004.  But all concerned now hope to be able to post the corrections within the next few months.  They will be keyed to the current pages in a way that will be user friendly to interested scholars and readers.

4.      If anyone is concerned, though, about the larger value or reliability of the work that has been published to date, there is a simple way for you to satisfy your curiosity.  The Miller Center has empowered any Internet user to check and fault our work.  Just pick any one of our volumes you like.  Select a conversation that interests you.  Then go to the Miller Center’s website on this topic, www.whitehousetapes.org.  You will find we have collected all the available sound files there for every user of the Internet   and have posted all of the transcripts from the first three volumes of the Kennedy reference series .  Find the soundfile that matches the conversation you have chosen.   Then listen and compare for yourself.  Judge for yourself.  And, by the way, if you’re pretty sure we’ve made a mistake in one spot or another – let us know.  We welcome the help.

Philip Zelikow
University of Virginia

Ernest May
Harvard University

Timothy Naftali
University of Virginia