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JFK Library Releases Remaining Presidential Recordings

BOSTON, January 24, 2012

The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum today announced that it has declassified and made available the final 45 hours of White House recordings that were secretly taped during President John F. Kennedy’s time in office. In all, President Kennedy recorded over 248 hours of meeting conversations and 12 hours of dictabelt telephone conversations on a system that remained a closely held secret even from his top aides. Today’s release encompasses meetings held during the three months leading up to the end of the Kennedy Administration.

“The Library has been systematically reviewing and opening these secretly recorded tapes since 1993,” stated Tom Putnam, Kennedy Library Director. “We are thrilled to have completed the process and know researchers will be fascinated with these recordings from John F. Kennedy’s final days as President.”

The tapes cover a range of important topics, events, and even moments, including: Vietnam, the 1964 presidential campaign, a discussion with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Oval Office visits from President Kennedy’s children and the final recordings made before the President left on his final trip to Texas.


During a meeting on September 10, 1963 regarding the civil war in Vietnam, President Kennedy expressed frustration with the conflicting reports provided to him by his military and diplomatic advisors and asked them to explain why their eye-witness accounts contrast so widely. General Victor Krulak and State Department Advisor Joseph Mendenhall were reporting to the President on their four day fact-finding mission to South Vietnam. Krulak’s view, based on his visits with military leaders was generally optimistic while Mendenhall, a Foreign Service Officer, shared his impressions of widespread military and social discontent.

According to the meeting minutes Krulak was on record as stating that “the Viet Cong war will be won (by the United States) if the current US military and sociological programs are pursued.” Meanwhile Mendenhall replied, “The people I talked to in the government when I asked them about the war against the VC, they said that is secondary now – our first concern is, in effect, in a war with the regime here in Saigon. (pause). There are increasing reports in Saigon and in Hue as well that students are talking of moving over to the Viet Cong side.”

These vastly different viewpoints caused President Kennedy to pause and then comment: “You both went to the same country?”

After nervous laughter, the President continued, “I mean how is that you get such different - this is not a new thing, this is what we’ve been dealing with for three weeks. On the one hand you get the military saying the war is going better and on the other hand you get the political (opinion) with its deterioration is affecting the military …What is the reason for the difference – I’d like to have an explanation what the reason is for the difference.”

The American government had long been a supporter of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem but policy makers were growing frustrated over the influence of Diem’s brother Ngo Dinh Nhu and his wife, Madame Nhu. In August, a month prior to the recorded meeting released today, Cable 243 had been issued authorizing the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, Henry Cabot Lodge, to pressure Diem to remove his brother Nhu; if Diem refused, the US would explore the possibility of alternative leadership. The issuance of the controversial cable caused infighting among the diplomatic and military advisors of the Kennedy Administration, which continued during the autumn of 1963.

The September 10, 1963 meeting continued with a presentation by advisor Rufus Phillips, which suggested various counterinsurgency efforts. Remarking on these recommendations, former Vietnam Ambassador Frederick Nolting asked, “What do you think will be the result of this? … ‘Cause what I’m thinking about is what happens if you start this and you get a reaction as expected from those that you’re encouraging, do you then get a civil war or do you get a quiet palace revolution or what do you think we get?”

Phillips answered that he believed it was still possible to split the Nhus from President Diem. He then commented: “When someone says that this is a military war, and that this is a military judgment. I don’t believe you can say this about this war. This is essentially a political war…for men’s minds.”

At a meeting the following day on September 11, 1963, President Kennedy asked Defense Secretary Robert McNamara if he thought that Diem’s reign was viable long-term. McNamara answered, “Mr. President, I don’t believe I can forecast that far ahead. I believe strongly that as of today there has been no substantial weakening of the military effort. I don’t know what the future will hold. I strongly support Dean Rusk’s suggestion that we proceed carefully and slowly here and this is quite contrary to what Ambassador Lodge has recommended.”

Later, President Kennedy decided to send Robert McNamara and General Maxwell Taylor to Vietnam. At the September 23, 1963 meeting, as Taylor and McNamara are about to start their mission, the President stated his hope that, based on what the two find, the US could “come to some final conclusion as to whether …they’re (Diem and Nhu) going to be in power for some time…and whether there is anything we can do to influence them or do we stop thinking about that.”

At a Cabinet meeting that same day, Undersecretary of State George Ball commented to the President on Vietnam, “It’s not an easy situation … what we want to do is to see if we can bring the situation about where the war can continue successfully and come at some point to a conclusion, because we don’t want to be bogged down in Southeast Asia forever.”

The coup in Vietnam occurred six weeks later on November 1, 1963 resulting in the assassination of both President Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu.

1964 Convention Plans

On November 12, 1963, the President met with a team of political advisors for several hours to discuss details of the 1964 convention and the issues that might define the upcoming campaign. President Kennedy asked:

“But what is it that we can [do to] make them decide that they want to vote for us, Democrats and Kennedy – the Democrats not strong in appeal obviously as it was twenty years ago. The younger people, party label – what is it that’s going to make them go for us. What is it we have to sell them? We hope we have to sell them prosperity but for the average guy, the prosperity is nil. He’s not unprosperous but he’s not very prosperous; he’s not going make out well off. And the people who really are well off, hate our guts. … We’ve got so mechanical an operation here in Washington that it doesn’t have much identity where these people are concerned.”

He also expressed strong opinions on the films to be played at the convention and the use of color film:

“Should they be made in color?” he asked. “They’d come over the television in black and white. I don’t know if maybe they’d come over the NBC one in color. Probably a million watching it in color and it would have an effect. I don’t know how much more expensive it is. Be quite an effect on the convention. The color is so damn good. If you do it right”

Foreign Relations with the Soviet Union

In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on October 10, 1963, Mr. Gromyko commented that the present US-USSR relations did not offer much of a “fresh look”. In response, President Kennedy suggested recent achievements were evidence of how far relations between the two nations had actually progressed:

“I don’t want you to be discouraged. … There is only a certain tempo which you can move in these matters. We’ve gone ahead with the test ban, we’ve made some progress which for the United States is rather – do you realize that in the summer of 1961, the Congress unanimously passed resolutions against trade with the Soviets and now we’re going ahead, we hope, with this very large trade arrangement that represents what’s changed in American policy of some proportions. That’s progress.”

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