In the heat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy thought the nation was so close to war with the Soviet Union that he game-planned how American naval vessels would fire on Soviet ships, making plans for firing warning shots, and even the confiscation of cameras aboard American boats to prevent pictures from making their way into the press.
In a phone call to Assistant Defense Secretary Roswell Gilpatric – secretly recorded by the president on Oct. 23, 1962 – Kennedy ordered that U.S. service members on board ships that would engage the Soviets be forced to turn in their cameras.
He also walked Gilpatric through an intricate series of steps he wanted taken in case Soviet forces defied the American quarantine of Cuba, moves designed to try to minimize confrontations he knew could lead to World War III.
"I was wondering whether the instructions on how that's to be done, or where they're to be shot at, and so on, to cause the minimum of damage," Kennedy said. "And in addition, if they're boarded, it's very possible the Russians will fire at them as they board, and we'd have to fire back and have quite a slaughter."
The recordings are published in a new book and accompanying CDs: "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," on sale Sept. 25, 2012.
Tune in to "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" on Monday Sept. 24, 2012 to see Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Caroline Kennedy
Much of the material is compiled in book form for the first time, though most of it had been previously released. Portions of the recordings, touching on sensitive national security issues, were declassified as recently as this year.
The records offer a trove of first-hand material for historians focused on some of the most turbulent days of the Kennedy presidency. Starting in July 1962, Kennedy had a sophisticated taping system installed in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room at the White House, presumably to record history for future use in memoirs.
The resulting 248 hours of meetings, plus 17-plus hours of phone conversations and private presidential reflections, were probably never listened to by Kennedy himself before his assassination in November 1963.
The recordings reveal a pressure-cooker atmosphere inside the White House at odds with popular perceptions of Camelot. They offer an unfiltered, sometimes profane glimpse of real-time crisis decision-making in critical episodes of the Civil Rights Movement and the Cuban Missile Crisis, among dozens of other hot moments.
"To be able to be a fly on the wall and listen to things unfolding when we know how they turned out, but the -- the people talking didn't, that's what's so amazing," Caroline Kennedy, the former president's daughter, told ABC's Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview. "I think that this is a whole different insight into really work being done -- and, really, his commitment to politics as a way of solving problems."