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.

ByABC News
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."

"Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy" is on sale Sept. 25, 2012

"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

Tune in to "World News with Diane Sawyer" and "Nightline" on Monday Sept. 24 to see Diane Sawyer's exclusive interview with Caroline Kennedy.

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."