by Stephen Plotkin, Reference Archivist
Yesterday the Kennedy Library released the final set of tapes in one of its most widely known collections, the White House recordings that were secretly made during John F. Kennedy’s time in office. Collectively known as the “Presidential Recordings,” they comprise more than 248 hours of meetings and 12 hours of telephone conversations. The full account of the opening can be found here.
We finish things frequently here at the Library. We wrap up projects, we complete the processing of collections, we even bring entire programs to a conclusion. We’re proud of this, and we take considerable pains to document the work. Like any archives or manuscript repository, we are determined to maintain good control of our holdings, and like any government organization we are resolved to bear out the public trust. But among the archivists who are at the Library now or have worked here in the past, there is something more than the feeling of a job well-done with regard to the Presidential Recordings — a kind of pensiveness, perhaps.
Not that we can say we are completely done with the tapes. There are still redactions on them that we will need to revisit over time, and there are considerations about digitization and preservation that remain to be addressed. Just for example, the telephone recordings were created using “Dictabelt” machines. Although the machines were flexible and efficient for their time, their purpose was avowedly ephemeral — the temporary recording of office communications. They were not meant to document history. But even though some work will continue, the main task is done, and as archivists we are left to reflect upon it.
Perhaps we do this simply because the Presidential Recordings have been such a constant in the life of the Library. In one way or another, archivists at the Library have been grappling with the recordings since before our building was even built. The first official release of tapes was in 1983, shortly after the Library opened. In 1993, work on the tapes was reorganized on a systematic basis, and in the past ten years it was a top priority for the archivists of our declassification unit. Accompanying that sense of responsibility and urgency and contributing to it has been our knowledge of the huge impact that these recordings have had on Kennedy scholarship. Not that such recordings were unique to President Kennedy. Other presidents from Roosevelt to Nixon made secret recordings, but the critical documentary importance of the tapes for pivotal events and issues in Kennedy’s administration is undeniable.
But despite the illumination that they shed, there are still mysteries around the tapes. Although we are fortunate to listen to history being made, that sense of immediacy should not obscure the fact that these too are documents that need to be interpreted. That interpretation can be as basic as who is saying what, and what it is they are actually saying. Because of the give and take of conversation and the limitations of the technology used, the audibility of the tapes is not always everything we could want. An even more basic mystery is why we have the tapes at all. What prompted John F. Kennedy to have the systems installed and begin recording meetings and telephone conversations? A number of people have advanced a number of different theories, but the only thing that would be certain is John F. Kennedy’s own word, and that we do not have. In his oral history, Robert F. Bouck, the Secret Service Agent who installed the taping sytem, has much interesting detail about the logistics of the system (he is particularly proud to have used “state-of-the-art” equipment), but when asked about the whys of it, he can only offer the vague statement that there was “concern” and the President wanted the “capability.” And he goes on to make plain that Kennedy did not “particularly” discuss the matter with him.
Ultimately this may be why coming to the end of the tapes has had such an effect on the archivists who have worked on and with them. Because we may have finished with the tapes, but there is much unfinished business about the tapes that must always remain so. It is a distant echo of everything that is unfinished and unknown about the Kennedy Presidency because of the tragic way that it was cut off. For years we have been privileged to bring to the world further instances of Kennedy’s voice. It has been a poignant power, to present this liveliest and most personal kind of historical evidence. We have seen the tapes answer many questions even as they provoked others. But we have come to the end, and only the questions continue on.