Friday, March 20, 2020

Listening In - By Caroline Kennedy and Ted Widmer

Listening In – The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy, selected editing and introduction by Ted Widmer and a forward by Caroline Kennedy. (Hyperion Books, 2012)


Having personally transcribed the Air Force One radio transmission tapes, I take a close interest in the White House recordings as well.

But they were left to the Miller Center in Virginia to transcribe and I don’t trust Miller Center associates Phil Zelikow and Max Holland and their dubious translations and analysis, since Zelikow became executive director of the 9/11 Commission and kept vital information from the commissioners and Holland wrote a book about the JFK Assassination Tapes that fails to mention the vital role of Collins Radio and their relay station that serviced Air Force One and the other planes in the system. 

And now we have this book, which is a complete gloss over of the serious conversations that we need to know about. 

As Caroline Kennedy says in her forward, “I was always told that my father installed secret Oval Office recording devices after the Bay of Pigs disaster so that he could have an accurate account of who said what, in case any later disputes as to the exact nature of the conversations. And as an avid reader of history, and a Pulitzer Prize – winning author, he intended to draw upon this material in his memoirs. The full 265 and a half hours of tape-recorded conversations that have now been made available by the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston provide insight into the magnitude, the complexity, and the range of issues confronting the president on a daily basis…”

In his introduction, Ted Widmer writes: “The (Secret Service) agent who installed the taping system, (in July 1962) Robert Bouck, recorded an oral history in 1977 that shed some light on the devices, although his memories had arleay become somewhat hazy. Bouck’s responsibilities included the protection of the President from electronic surveillance, so he was a logical person to ask to improvise a new recording system for the private use of the President himself. Accordingly, he placed a microphone in the keyhole of the famous HMS Resolute desk and another, disguised, on the coffee table between the two sofas where the President sometimes sat with visitors. Kennedy could activate the device with a push button under his desk. According to Bouck, ‘It looked just like a button you’d press to signal your secretary – like a buzzer button.’”

It should be noted that Bouck was the head of the Protective Research Section of the Secret Service, responsible for keeping tabs on threats to the president, and when the agents assigned to the Dallas leg of the trip stopped in his office to get a list of  those considered threats to the president, he told them there wasn't any. Now that's incredulous, since there was an unknown sniper who had taken a shot a General Walker and a dozen protesters with signs who had physically assaulted UN Ambassador Stevenson a few weeks earlier, so it was impossible that there were no threats to the president in Dallas at all. But that's what Bouck told them. 

As Widmer continues, “Immediately after the assassination, Bouck dismantled the system, and from there, the tapes went on a long journey to warehouses and federal storage facilities before the opening of the Kennedy Presidential Library in 1979. It is impossible to know exactly what happened to them in these years, or if any disappeared. Some recordings found their way into private possession, but over the years, many have been tracked down and reunited with the collection.”

Now that is an understatement if there ever was one, as we know a lot of what happened to the tapes.
In the aftermath of the assassination, LBJ gave JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln a few days to clear out the Oval Office, and she took everything home with her, with the approval of RFK. Then after the death of RFK, Mrs. Lincoln became estranged from the Kennedy family, and when she wasn’t invited to Caroline’s wedding, she felt scorned and drew up a will that left everything left in her possession to Robert White, of Baltimore, Maryland.

One thing JFK had in common with General LeMay and Fidel Castro was their mutual enjoyment of a good cigar. 

When I recently saw a Pawn Stars show where a guy tries to sell JFK's box of cigars, I knew right away it came from Robert White by way of Mrs. Lincoln, and sure enough, that's what the guy said. 

As a young schoolboy, White had written to President Kennedy early in his administration asking for an autographed photo of the President, which Mrs. Lincoln sent him, beginning a correspondence that continued until she died. As an avid collector of Kennedy memorabilia, White legally inherited whatever Mrs. Lincoln had when she died, which included most of what was in the Oval Office – the cigar box, a rocking chair, top secret documents, photos from the walls, and most significantly the Oval Office dictabelt and recordings, even though the items were the personal property of the Kennedy family and didn't belong to Mrs. Lincoln.

White’s collection was massive, and he approached Donald Trump and Trump agreed to let him open a JFK museum at the Trump Tower in New York, which they charged $20 to see, and then they moved the museum to the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. That’s when I first learned of it when they asked me to promote it as a reporter, but I recognized that pretty much everything really belonged to the Kennedy family and not Robert White.

When White needed money, he began to sell of certain items, including the wrist watch JFK was wearing when he was killed and six cassette tapes, copies of the dictabelt recordings made by White and sold to one Christopher Fulton, a building contractor.

When White died at a relatively early age, his collection was put up for auction in New York City, where many items were successfully contested by the Kennedy family. Meanwhile Fulton was arrested for bank fraud, and served time in prison.

When he was released he wrote a book that falsely intimidated that he was imprisoned because of his ownership of the JFK watch, that he met with agent Bouck and sold the watch to JFK, Jr. In his book Fulton quotes some of the Oval Office tapes that clearly indicate their value to historians.

But you won't read any of this in "Listening In." 

From The Inheritance – Christopher Fulton (TrineDay, 2018 - (p. 79)

“He (Robert White) took a moment to find one box in particular, from which he unpacked a series of old dictabelts. ‘President Kennedy made these recordings in the Oval Office,’ he said. ‘There are meetings, phone conversations, and dictations of his memoirs made in ’62 and ’63. Mrs. Lincoln set them aside, so I inherited them. I haven’t listened to them yet, but I’ve made one copy of them on cassettes. Some of the belts stretched and broke when I copied them. I don’t think I can get all of the information off them a second time.’ With that he handed me six cassette….’they are the only copies in existence.’”

(p. 86) “I was eager to sit down and listen to the dictabelt recordings Robert had given me. He told me that they hadn’t been listened to in thirty years, and even then, only Evelyn Lincoln and Robert Kennedy had been privy to their content. This verbal history of the slain president had remained silent since RFK’s assassination. I prepared myself; this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a fly on the wall in the Oval Office in the early sixties. It would surely be the closest I would ever get to traveling back in time. I felt a deep sense of honor as I pressed the button and began the playback. Kennedy’s voice was much lower and slower than I anticipated, but it carried his unmistakable lilt. I used the fine adjustment on the tape player to speed up the rotation. All of a sudden, there it was – as if he was sitting in the room with me – President Kennedy’s voice rang out full and clear.”

“I listened as JFK talked to John McCone, the Director of the CIA, in early November 1963. McCone said, ‘…There was a history during the administration of President Eisenhower when the Agency did play footsie with the opposition groups.’”

“’Was that a true story….the CIA did do it?’ President Kennedy asked.

“’Sure’ McCone said. ‘They supplied money, and they were involved in a plot against…..’”

“JFK cut him off. ‘Christ, they did it in Indonesia, they did it in Laos, they did it in Cambodia.’”

“I could tell he was agitated.”

“McCone continued, ‘We are playing for it with our own people, in our own press and in our own Congress. The Agency in those days wasn’t responsible to the State Department; the State Department didn’t know about it. Every time I go to Capitol Hill I get this thrown in my face:  ‘Are you in control?’ I told them I am, well I am, but it’s hard to live with the past…..We have to buckle our belts and really take the ambassador’s advice: get out gracefully on our aid program……Our public position at the moment….is the categorical denials we have anything to do with the opposition there, their plots, or the assassination of Diem, and Nhu…..’”

“JFK spoke again, ‘Yeah, are we going to say we are going to get out?’”

“’Mr. President, I think we are past the stage of being able to turn it around.’”

“’Well, it seems to me we’re going to have to have a public, and probably a Hill position on what we’re going to do about withdrawing our aid. Ok?’” 


When I asked Fulton and his publisher what became of the six cassettes of copies of the Oval Office tapes, they refused to answer me, and then I learned, from an IRS investigator, that Fulton had changed his name, really did commit bank fraud, and his prison term had nothing to do with the watch, all of which I posted on line and cut off any possibility of learning what became of the cassette tapes.

From the National Archives in Washington and the JFK Library in Boston I learned that they had a protracted legal battle with Robert White and the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB) attempts to retrieve sensitive documents and the tapes, the result of which is still a mystery to me.

I did learn that the JFK Library collection of Oval Office tapes available to the public on line end on October 8, 1963, so the recording made from then until the day JFK left for Texas are missing.

My recent interest in Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay and the USAF sidearm pistol strap that was attached to the rifle found in the Sixth Floor of the Texas School Book Depository (TSBD) began with a request from a documentary film maker who wanted to know the details of the references to LeMay on the Air Force One radio transmission tapes.

That interest led me to this book, where I thought I might find some answers.

Unfortunately however, this book is not in chronological order, but is broken down into excerpt in various chapters labeled History, Politics, Civil Rights, Cuba, The Bomb, Space, Vietnam, the World As It Is, and The Burdon and the Glory.

There is a CD that comes with the book that may have more, but the excerpts that I’ve read are pretty boring and do not contain the expected content, though Widmer does make reference to them when he writes: “….it may have occurred to President Kennedy, an omnivorous consumer of intelligence, that leaving the tapes rolling was an interesting way to hear the conversation when he left the room. There is no evidence that he did this – in fact, Evelyn Lincoln later expressed her opinion that he never listened to any of the tapes at all. But a revealing moment in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis occurs when Kennedy leaves and his most shrill critic, Air Force General Curtis LeMay, complains about his leadership. Though it is unlikely Kennedy heard these remarks, definitely NOT intended for the ears of the President, it is fascinating to be able to hear them today, and comforting to know that none of LeMay’s reckless suggestions for invading Cuba and launching a nuclear war were heeded.”


GENERAL CURTIS LEMAY: “Well, I certainly agree with everything General Taylor has said. I’d emphasize, a little strongly perhaps, that we don’t have any choice except direct military action. If we do this blockade that’s proposed, a political action, the first thing that’s going to happen is your missiles are going to disappear into the woods, particularly your mobile ones. Now we can’t find them, regardless of what we do, and then we’re going to take some damage if we try to do anything later on.”

JFK: “Well, can’t they [put] some of these undercover now, now that they’ve been alerted?”

LEMAY: “There is the possibilty of that. But the way they line these others up, I’ll have to say it’s a small possibility. If theyw ere going to hide any of them, I would think they would have hid them all. I don’t think there are any hid. So the only danger is that we haven’t picked up some position in plain sight. This is possible. If we do low-altitude photography over them, this is going to be a tip-off, too.”

“Now as for the Berlin situation, I don’t share your view that if we knock off Cuba, they’re going to knock off Berlin. We’ve got the Berlin problem staring us in the face anyway. If we do’t do anything to Cuba, then they’re going to push on Berlin and push real hard because they’ve got us on the run. If we take military action against Cuba, then I think that the…..”

JFK: “What do you think their reply would be?”

LEMAY: “I don’t think they’re going to make any reply if we tell them that the Berlin situation is just like it’s always been. If they make a move, we’re going to fight. I don’t think it changes the Berlin situation at all, except you’ve got to make one more statement on it. So I see no other problem. The blockade and political action, I see leading into war. I don’t see any other solution. It will lead right into war. This is almost as bad as the appeasement at Munich.”

“Because if this whole blockade comes along, MiGs are going to fly. The IL-28s are going to fly against them. And we’re just going to gradually slip into a war under conditions that are at great disadvantage to us, with missiles staring us in the face, that can knock out airfields in the southeast portions. And if they use nuclear weapons, it’s the population down there. We just drift into a war under conditions we don’t like. I just don’t see any other solution, except direct miliary intervention right now….”

“….There’s one other factor that I didn’t mention that’s not quite our field, [which] is the political factor. But you invited us to comment on this at one time. And that is, if we should talk about Cuba and the SAM sites down there. And we made pretty strong statements about….Cuba, that we would take action against offensive weapons. I think that a blockade, and political talk, would be considered by a lot of our friends and neutrals as being a pretty week response to this. And I’m sure a lot of our own citizens would feel that way, too. In other words, you’re in a pretty bad fix, Mr. President.”

JFK: “What did you say?”

LEMAY: “You’re in a pretty bad fix.”

JFK: “You’re in it with me.” [laughter]

After JFK left the room, in a huff, the tape recorder kept running and picked up the following:

GENERAL DAVID SHOUP (USMC): “You pulled the rug right out from under him.”

CURTIS LEMAY: “Jesus Christ. What the hell do you mean?”

SHOUP: “I agree with that answer, General. I just agree with you. I just agree with you a hundred percent. Just agree with you a hundred percent. That’s the only goddamn,….He finally got around the word ‘escalation.’ I just about…..That’s the only goddamn thing that’s in the whole trick. It’s been there in Laos, it’s been in every goddamn one. When he says escalation, that’s it. Somebody’s got to keep 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.”

LEMAY: “That’s right.”

SHOUP: “You’re screwed, screwed, screwed. And if some goddamn thing, someway, he could say, that they either do the son of a bitch and do it right, and quit frigging around. That was my conclusion. Don’t frig around and go take a missile out….Goddamn, if he wants to do it, you can’t fiddle around with taking out missiles. You can’[t fiddle around with hitting the missile site and then hitting the SAM sites. You got to go in and take out the goddamn thing that’s going to stop you from doing your job.”

While I was basically dissapointed in the excerpts used for this book, and really want to find the missing tapes from October 9 – November 21, there is an interesting graphic that’s worth mentioning.

When I visited Sen. Ted Kennedy at his home some years ago, I noticed a framed yellow legal pad of notes, scriblings and sketches that JFK made that was dated April 17, 1961, the day of the Bay of Pigs, notes that clearly showed his anxiety. 

This book has a similar page of handwritten notes that reads:

Prospect Coup Plans
8:00 PM Coup Coup 2:30
Press Problem Coup plans
Coup plans 2:30
Constitution Constitution Too significant
Algeria V.P. to
Algerians Algerians

It is dated October 25, 1963, less than a month before his assassination, and coup was very much on his mind.

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