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Feb 22, 2005 12:58 am


More Tapes



Over on the HNN homepage, the authors of the Stern/Holland article about presidential tapes responded to my critique of their work. (Needless to say, they didn't agree with it.) They claimed that I misrepresented their article, since they did not"assert there is only one right way of doing transcripts." Indeed, their piece did not do so: it established criteria that could only be satisfied by a transcription that contains all utterances, sounds, and potentially pregnant pauses, along with an aural rather than grammatical transcription. I don't see much of a difference between coming out and specifically endorsing a transcribing style and providing criteria that would yield only one transcribing style.

Holland and Stern further posit that perhaps the Miller Center might want to produce multiple volumes of each transcript--one that fulfills their criteria, another that employs a more subjective middle ground to transcribing. Left unspoken is why the Miller Center or anyone else would devote the time or resources to producing duplicate volumes; or who would publish a volume most of whose words would be written in phonetic rather than standard English and whose audience would consist of a handful of English, Speech, or perhaps Sociology professors.

What disturbed me the most, however, about the Stern/Holland article was its tone. It insinuates that gross unreliability exists in the Miller Center volumes by comparing them with volumes prepared in haste by single historians (Beschloss, Kutler) who used very different procedures. The article never produces the goods to substantiate such an insinuation, however; it simply leaves the charge hanging for intelligent readers to draw on their own.

The Stern/Holland responses to me continue this pattern:"Let’s suppose," Holland muses,"Richard Nixon answered John Dean by saying 'no' seven times . . . No one would argue though, that if the author/editor rendered a 'yes' in place of seven 'nos,' or had John Dean saying 'no' instead of Nixon, that this was an acceptable transcript. And that was our point."

An ill-informed reader might suppose the Miller Center had committed such a mistake, perhaps by producing a volume in which President Kennedy, having responded by saying"no" seven times to Curtis LeMay as to whether the United States should attack Cuba, is transcribed as actually having said"yes." Instead, in another response to me, the duo provides an example of they consider a 'gotcha' mistake, which Stern terms a"butchered transcription":

Miller Center/Norton edition, Vol. 3, p. 252:

Unidentified: Have you ever seen missile fuel?

McNamara: No. [unclear mentions of 'nitric acid']

Stern's version:

George Ball: Kerosene missile fuel?

McNamara: No, fuming nitric acid.

I haven't listened to this particular Kennedy tape, so I don't know whether the Stern or Miller Center version is correct. But I'd hazard a guess that few historians would consider a transcript stating"[unclear mentions of 'nitric acid']" rather than"fuming nitric acid" is in any way comparable to a transcript that lists a President saying"yes" even though he actually had seven times said no.

It's clear that Holland and Stern feel a strong personal distaste toward the Miller Center, perhaps explaining their tendency to engage in hyperbolic examples. (As Cliopatria readers know, I've been accused of this problem once or twice . . . ) I doubt that there is anything that the Miller Center, or anyone else, could do to remove Stern and Holland from the ranks of the Center's (to borrow another of my favorite LBJ phrases)" carping critics."

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Sheldon M. Stern - 3/7/2005

KC Johnson's defense of the Miller Center requires several specific responses:
First, Professor Johnson consistently ignores the fact that the Miller Center does not own these tapes and does not have special authority to decide what is or is not a correct transcription. They obviously regard any criticism as petty interference with their monopoly--and they have consistently tried to ridicule any independent criticism.

Second, the error he dimisses in his Blog ("Have you ever seen missile fuel?") is very important because JFK was considering attacking the sites on the ground with conventional weapons. Here's another butchered example on the same subject:
(Miller Center/Norton Edition)MCNE, 3, 326: JFK: “Could one bullet do that? Would it blow or is it just…”
Lundahl: “Assuming red nitric acid, sir, very heavily lined trucks….”
STERN: JFK: “Can one bullet do much to that?”
McCone: “Well, if a fella went across there with bullet punctures, it would. It invariably wreaks hell with it.”
JFK: “Would it blow or is it just…?”
Lundahl: “It would be fuming red nitric acid, sir, very heavily-lined trucks….”

Third, Prof. Johnson refuses (like the Miller Center) to respond to the historically crucial errors cited in the Appendix to my book and in my December 2002 article in Reviews in American History. Here are some glaring examples:

MCNE, 2, 598: Wheeler: “If we smear Castro, Khrushchev smears Willy Brandt [in Berlin].”
STERN: Wheeler: “If we sneer at Castro, Khrushchev sneers at Willy Brandt.”

MCNE, 3, 78: JFK: “If we go into Cuba we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won’t be fired. So that’s a gamble we should take.”
STERN: JFK: “If we go into Cuba we have to all realize that we are taking a chance that these missiles, which are ready to fire, won’t be fired. So that’s… is that really a gamble we should take?”

MCNE, 3, 215: McCone: “The next real target we had was when we saw….”
STERN: McCone: “The next real hard information we had was when we saw….”

MCNE, 3, 299: Bundy: “Donny, there are some special restrictions on some of these pictures. But I think the President’s good decision is that everything is waived, and you get the one you like best.”
STERN: Bundy: “But Donny, there are some special restrictions on some of these pictures that I think the President sees. If everything is waived, you get the one you like best.”

MCNE, 3, 329: McCone: “It’s very evil stuff they’ve got there.”
STERN: McCone: “It’s very lethal stuff they’ve got there.”

MCNE, 3, 361: Nitze: “Hare says that this is absolutely anathema….”
STERN: Nitze: “The Turks… the Turks say this is absolutely anathema….”

MCNE, 3, 376: Rusk: “And most important, what if Moscow decides this is too much of a setback for them?”
STERN: Rusk: “I suppose the boys… the boys in Moscow decided this was too much of a setback for ‘em.”

MCNE, 3, 382: Bundy: “I myself would send back word by phone….”
STERN: Bundy: “I myself would send back word by [Aleksandr] Fomin….”

MCNE, 3, 439: McNamara: “We have intense ground fire against our air.”
Taylor: “I wouldn’t worry. I wouldn’t pay any attention.”
STERN: McNamara: “We have intense ground fire against our… our...”
Taylor: “I wouldn’t say that. I wouldn’t say ‘intense’ here.”

MCNE, 3, 470: Thompson: “I think they’ve been put up by the Lippmann piece. It occurs to me that we really aren’t prepared to talk Turkey for Cuba.”
STERN: Thompson: “I think they’ve been put off by the Lippmann piece—encouraged to think that we really are prepared to swap Turkey for Cuba.”

MCNE, 3, 492: McNamara: “I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call off these air strikes tonight, I think that settles that—”
JFK: “I [unclear] want to do that, I think—”
STERN: McNamara: “I would say only that we ought to keep some kind of pressure on tonight and tomorrow night that indicates we’re firm. Now if we call up these air squadrons tonight, I think that settles that.
JFK: “That’s right. We’re gonna do that, aren’t we?”

MCNE, 3, 497: Rusk: “We need just to see whether they are building up the pressures on Khrushchev with an impact that we can live with.”
STERN: Rusk: “We need to see whether we’re building up the pressures on Khrushchev to get back to a pact we can live with.”

MCNE, 3, 510: McNamara: “Yeah, I would suggest to have an eye for an eye.” Unidentified: “Yeah. That’s right. It isn’t too serious.”
STERN: McNamara: “I would suggest a half an eye for an eye.”
Dillon: “That’s right.”
McNamara: “If it isn’t too serious an attack.”

If it is carping criticism to demand that the historical record be publicly corrected, I gladly plead guilty.

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