JFK Tapes: New Insight Into White House Tensions During Cuban Missile Crisis

New book gives glimpse of the most turbulent days of the Kennedy presidency.

September 21, 2012, 5:32 PM

Sept. 24, 2012 — -- 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."

The extended recordings and transcripts provide more context about how military leaders were pressing the president to take military action against Cuba. After Gen. Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, tried to force Kennedy's hand by equating the president's chosen course of a naval "quarantine" with the appeasement of Hitler before World War II, Kennedy walked LeMay through his predicament.

"We do nothing, they have a missile base there with all the pressure that brings to bear on the United States and damage to our prestige. If we attack Cuban missiles or Cuba … we would be regarded as the trigger-happy Americans who lost Berlin. We would have no support among our allies," Kennedy said.

"Which leaves me only one alternative, which is to fire nuclear weapons – which is a hell of an alternative – and begin a nuclear exchange, with all this happening," he continues.

"You're in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President," LeMay famously told the President.

Kennedy made him repeat that statement before coming back: "You're in there with me."

Moments later, with Kennedy and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara having left the room, the tapes kept rolling, capturing several members of the Joint Chiefs musing openly about how to press the president toward a stronger response in what they thought would lead to nuclear war.

"You pulled the rug right out from under him," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Shoup told LeMay.

"I agree with that answer, General, I just agree with you, I just agree with you a hundred percent," Shoup continued. "Somebody's got to keep him from doing the goddamn thing piecemeal. That's our problem. Go in there and frig around with the missiles. You're screwed. You go in there and frig around with anything else, you're screwed."

Caroline Kennedy told Sawyer: "I think you really get a sense of just how scary it was to the people in the room. It wasn't just outlining a set of options. It was really that they felt this sense of, you know, this could be life or death for not just the people in the room, but our whole country."Kennedy consulted with high-ranking lawmakers in real-time during the crisis, and also checked in with former President Dwight Eisenhower – himself, of course, a retired general.

Click here to purchase an advance copy of the new book "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," on sale Sept. 25, 2012

On Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy asked Eisenhower whether he thought Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would start a nuclear war if the United States invaded Cuba to take out the missiles.

"Oh, I don't believe that they will," Eisenhower said. "Something may make these people shoot them off. I just don't believe this will."

When the crisis abated without either side having to fire a shot, Kennedy placed calls to all three living former presidents -- Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman and Eisenhower -- to give them relieved updates. Eisenhower warned Kennedy to stay vigilant, again referring to the Soviets as "these people."

"They take any spot in the world. They don't care where it is," he said.

"That's right," Kennedy agreed.

WATCH: Jacqueline Kennedy: In Her Own Words

On civil rights, the tapes show a president being pulled into deeper and more decisive action by events far from the Oval Office. He pushes Southern governors to respect federal power, while at the same time counseling African-American leaders for patience in understanding the limits of his authority in forcing cities and states to end segregation and advance voting rights.

In May 1963, on the day The New York Times ran a photograph with police dogs attacking peaceful protesters, Kennedy told leaders of Americans for Democratic Action that even a president can't stop some injustices.

"There is no federal law that we can pass to do anything about that picture in today's Times. Well there isn't," he said. "I mean, what law can you pass to do anything about police power in the community of Birmingham? There is nothing we can do. There is no federal law, is no federal statue, no federal law we can pass."

But Kennedy would be persuaded by a string of violent clashes that more federal intervention was necessary. Civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph told the president to his face that he needs to "lead this crusade" to overcome congressional opposition to a civil rights law, and Kennedy seemed to agree, mapping out the start of a legislative strategy.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made a personal, emotional appeal to Kennedy in September 1963:

"The Negro community is about to reach a breaking point," King told Kennedy on the tapes. "There is a great deal of frustration and despair and confusion in the Negro community, and there is a feeling of being alone and not being protected. If you walk the street, you aren't safe. If you stay at home, you are not safe, there is a danger of a bomb. If you're in church now, it isn't safe."

Kennedy took on the cause of civil rights even though he knew it "could have cost him the election" in 1964, Caroline Kennedy recalled.

"So it was a very courageous thing to do. And I think it shows," she said. "It shows, also, the kind of behind-the-scenes cooperation with Martin Luther King and the leaders of the movement and then the great sort of relief when they come in after the March on Washington and that's been such an incredible event and such a success. And so everybody is so proud."

Click here to purchase an advance copy of the new book "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," on sale Sept. 25, 2012

The book captures lighter moments as well, including the president's attention to small matters that he thought might have large meaning. After the U.S. national hockey team was crushed in a game to Sweden, 17-2, in March 1963, Kennedy called a longtime friend of his brother Robert's, David Hackett, who had played on the Olympic hockey team years earlier.

"Christ, who are we sending over there? Girls?" Kennedy said. "So, obviously, we shouldn't send a team unless we send a good one. Will you find out about it and let me know?"

Attuned to public perceptions as always, JFK exploded in anger when he saw pictures of a $5,000 hospital bedroom that had been built at a Navy base on Cape Cod, ready in case his wife, Jacqueline, went into labor while on the Cape, in 1963.

"Let's cut their budget another hundred million," Kennedy told Arthur Sylvester, an assistant secretary of Defense. "I don't care what we owe the store, I'd just like to send that goddamn furniture back. And that silly fellow who had his picture taken next to the bed, have him go up to Alaska, too."

Tense moments are occasionally broken up by moments of levity, sometimes driven by Kennedy's young children. A 4-year-old Caroline Kennedy is heard drawing laughter in the Oval Office just moments before her father reviewed the latest surveillance photographs of missile installations in Cuba.

And Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. burst into the room at the end of a long meeting between the president and Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who is introduced to the children as the man whose boss, Khrushchev, sent them a puppy.

"His chief is the one who sent you Pushinka," Kennedy tells his children.

In the interview, Caroline Kennedy recalled hiding under her father's desk, trying to get candy from the grownups who were around and being forced to leave the Oval Office so important business could be conducted.

"Obviously, our dream was to be allowed into the office to see him. ... I used to go after school or walk him over before school or he would come out and see what we were doing, if we were outside," she told Sawyer. "He was obviously from a big family and so it didn't bother him at all to have kids running around and hiding under the desk. There's a few episodes here where we're being ushered out of room and we don't want to go. But, obviously, he was a good persuader."

The book also includes recordings from earlier in Kennedy's political career, when he harbored significant self-doubts about his own political acumen. In a conversation with two journalist friends, three days after he declared his presidential candidacy, he confided that he was "not a political type" who enjoyed glad-handing and meeting new people.

"I think I personally am the antithesis of a politician as I saw my grandfather who was the politician," Kennedy told James Cannon and Ben Bradlee, who were both then working for Newsweek. "I'd rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else. I'd rather not go out to dinner.

"I had not regarded myself as a political type," he continued. "My father didn't, he thought I was hopeless."

In a personal reflection he recorded for himself, most likely in 1960, Kennedy recounted why he entered politics after finding himself, in his words, "at loose ends at the end of the war" and considering a career in business.

He said he didn't even think about going into politics until legendary Boston pol James Michael Curley left his congressional seat to serve as mayor, leaving the seat once held by JFK's grandfather vacant.

"Suddenly, the time, the occasion, and I all met," Kennedy said. "I've been running ever since. Fascination began to grip me and I realized how satisfactory a profession the political career could be. I saw how ideally politics filled the Greek definition of happiness: 'Full use of your powers along lines of excellence in a life affording scope.'"

While in the White House, though, Kennedy is seen placing an eager eye on 1964. In August 1962, Kennedy asked Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then 82, of his opinion of Michigan Gov. George Romney, the father of future Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

"Do you know this fellow Romney? Have you met Romney? George Romney?" the president asked the general.

MacArthur said he knew Romney "only casually" but added that "he doesn't stand a chance" of being elected president because he was "practically unknown" at the time. MacArthur said he had just asked 100 people he'd "happened to meet" whether they knew Romney and "there were only two knew who Romney was."

"He's a very presentable man, personally, he would fit the bill. He looks it and everything," MacArthur said. "Even if he got the nomination, he couldn't win it. And he'd have to build himself up as the governor of Michigan and make a campaign from the bottom up."

While Kennedy was beginning active plans for his re-election race, including planning for the 1964 election, he expressed concern about his political prospects. The civil rights movement was pushing Southern voters into the Republican Party, he feared, and congressional paralysis was reflecting poorly on the Democratic Party.

"Politically, the news is somewhat disturbing, looking toward 1964," Kennedy recorded in a private dictation Nov. 12, 1963 -- 10 days before his assassination. "All these make the situation politically not as good as it might be."

For Caroline Kennedy, this final recording is an emotional one.

"I think, obviously, he probably would have won and people seem to think he would have won. And my mother talks about how he was also excited about his re-election prospects and all the things he could do in a second term," she said. "But I really thought that was incredibly moving, as well, because it shows that he ... understood how difficult all of this really was."

Click here to purchase an advance copy of the new book "Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," on sale Sept. 25, 2012

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