Presidential Tapes and Transcripts: Response to Stern and Holland


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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

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Maarja Krusten - 2/25/2005

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Maarja Krusten - 2/25/2005

I say above that outside scholars (other than Stanley Kutler and Joan Hoff) have not served the National Archives well in areas of political pressure. If anyone can enlighten me on why, I would be interested in reading your perspective.

I've discussed the National Archives in other forums, such as H-Net's H-Diplo (http://snipurl.com/d1ok). On that message board, Warren Kimball wrote in April 2001, "despite the best and courageous efforts of some individuals within NARA -- is too weak, too timid, too unimaginative, too lacking in purpose and commitment, too hidebound and procedural, to be an effective force for declassification."

Is that how others view NARA? If so (and I would argue that there are many factors at play that Dr. Kimball does not mention) what do you think of the point I made in http://hnn.us/readcomment.php?id=54546#54546 ? Scholars really cannot plead ignorance here, not after people such as Sy Hersh tackled some of the public access problems. Starting with Stanley Kutler's 1992 lawsuit to gain access to the Nixon tapes, there have been plenty of red flags to indicate what challenges NARA faces.

As to why scholars do not engage in, or seem to shy away from, public access issues, I just do not know. You certainly have more potential protection of free speech than I do, as a current federal employee, yet I am far more outspoken than most of you on NARA issues, LOL.

Dr. Stern referred on the other transcription thread to "self absorbed" scholars, which may a factor for some. I suppose it is human nature to focus primarily on what one needs for one's own history projects and to pick and choose, spending one's capital on answering one's critics. But historians, of all people, are trained to consider root causes, to apply critical analysis, and to argue cases in an articulate fashion. Why these skills are used so rarely to defend the nation's record keeper, I do not know.

Maarja Krusten - 2/24/2005

Drs. Zelikow, May and Naftali note correctly that "Like such massive research endeavors in any field, the [transcription] work advanced by trial and error, strengthened by healthy argument and the constructive suggestions of scholarly colleagues."

I think we all can agree, as Dr. Stern points out, also, that transcription is difficult and no one can guarantee 100% accuracy. (See my various comments on the Stern-Holland piece to get a glimpse into my experiences with the Nixon tapes.) I cannot comment on the HUP edition as I have not studied it closely.

In truth, I don't know all the back story here, not even the part that has been aired in public, as I have not had time to go back and read earlier articles discussing your various endeavors. As I have time, I will take a look at them. I enjoyed reading both the Stern-Holland article and the Zelikow-May-Naftali article this week, thank you all for sending them in to Rick Shenkman.

Given your expertise in Presidential history and transcription, I would ask one thing. If you see federal archivists at Presidential Libraries under attack, either by scholars for "bureaucratic footdragging," or by former Presidents and their loyalists for any number of reasons, use your professional capital to speak out in their defense. Most likely, they will not be able to defend themselves publicly. (See my comment from 2/23 on the other thread about how the U.S. Archivist is handicapped.) They will need people such as you to act as advocates.

Unfortunately, this is an area where outside scholars have not served the National Archives well, for reasons I do not quite understand. But put yourself in the positions of the federal archivists. Where you could readily admit to trial and error and healthy argument, we NARA Nixon tape archivists faced withering fire from Nixon's lawyers rather than "constructive suggestions" from scholars.

We screened poor quality tapes, not just to understand what was being discussed, as you do in transcription, but also to segregate releasable information from restrictable information. We had to be careful not to mark for disclosure information that required protection for privacy or national security. Moreover, the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA) required us to segregate personal-returnable information from governmental discussions.

In upholding the PRMPA, the Supreme Court found that while material covering public political associations generally were disclosable, Nixon also had a right to “private political association.” In screening materials for release, government archivists, such as I, have found the concept of “personal-political” to be one of the most challenging.

The President heads the government, but also is leader of his political party. His governmental and political actions can be inextricably intertwined. Can tape segments and documents containing such information be separated neatly into categories, the former to be retained, the latter excised for return to Nixon (now his estate)? Not always with ease.

To understand the challenges government archivists face, look at H. R. Haldeman’s published diary, which chronicles his contacts with Nixon. Try to decide, sentence by sentence (1) where Nixon is speaking as a government official with the potential to exercise executive powers (even if some of that may have political overtones); (2) where he is speaking as leader of his political party--with NO link to present or future Presidential actions; and (3) where he is speaking solely as a private citizen. If these were Nixon’s records (Haldeman's diary was his personal property, of course, and did not fall under PRMPA), you could retain in your archives material in the first category but the law requires you to return to Nixon’s estate anything in the last two categories.

At this point, over 1,000 hours of the 3,700 hours of Nixon's tapes remain undisclosed to the public. Archivists continue to screen them for public access. But, due to a change in law last January, the Nixon records now held at the National Archives in College Park will be transferred over time to the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA.

Early news reports in 2004 suggested that the Nixon White House files that are already open to the public will be the first to be shipped out. The unreleasaed tapes will continue to be processed at Archives II, which I think is wise. We archivists working in the Washington, DC area had enough trouble in the past dealing with pressure from Nixon's representatives as we decided what to open to you, the public.

Processing tapes requires close study of relevant documents and other associated materials, as you know from your transcription work. Fortunately, common sense seems to have prevailed in scheduling transfers of records, at least from what I can tell from an interview with former U.S. Archivist John Carlin in a NARA employee newsletter ("The New Archivist," January 2005). Carlin said that archivists will continue to have access to the White House files as long as tapes processing continues. Let's hope Allen Weinstein sticks to Carlin's plan and does not prematurely move to California records that the tapes archivists still need.

At any rate, with the Nixon records, as with materials in other Presidential Libraries, archivists are counting on you to act as advocates on their behalf. Remember, most of them, too, are historians (most of the archivists I worked with had a Master's or a PhD in history). But, while they work with many of the same materials you do, and apply many of the same skills, the environment is very, very different and the stakes extremely high.

Sheldon M. Stern - 2/24/2005

I am delighted that the Miller Center now feels that the work of transcribing presidential tapes has been "advanced by trial and error, strengthened by healthy argument and the constructive suggestions of scholarly colleagues."

However, let me repeat that the 1997 HUP edition transcripts are indeed unreliable and should have been withdrawn from publication years ago. The Miller Center/Norton version is substantially better, indeed sometimes unrecognizable as the same discussions, when compared to the HUP edition.

But, in any case, I publicly stand by the corrections to the Miller Center/Norton edition listed in the Appendix to my 2003 book and feel confident that the great majority--but certainly not all--will withstand scholarly scrutiny. And I look forward to the chance to openly and publicly correct any mistakes in my own transcriptions

Above all, I welcome the news that the online errata system will be up in the next few months. But, scholars must remember that the Miller Center does not have "official" or final authority to make these determinations because, as Max Holland and I made clear in our HNN article, they do not own these tapes. Their findings are no more definitive or conclusive than mine or those of any other scholar. The point is to once and for all make the entire process open and public.