In This Review

The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises
The Presidential Recordings: John F. Kennedy: The Great Crises
By Timothy Naftali, Timothy Naftali, Philip D. Zelikow, Ernest
W. W. Norton, 2001, pp

It was not just Nixon. John F. Kennedy also secretly taped many White House meetings and phone calls, starting in July 1962, when he began to fear that a Cold War confrontation over Berlin was looming. Watergate put an end to the practice, of course, but ultimately historians must be as grateful about the secret recordings as Nixon was bitter. The transcripts of Kennedy's tapes are an astonishing primary source -- a must for diplomatic historians, Kennedy buffs, or any serious student of the Cold War. The tapes, painstakingly transcribed by a team of scholars at the University of Virginia's Miller Center of Public Affairs, let the reader be a fly on Camelot's wall -- and an uncommonly well-informed fly at that, thanks to bristling annotations and a companion cd-rom. In particular, readers get an unparalleled, hair-raising look at the Cuban missile crisis. The volumes supplant the less accurate transcripts in Zelikow and May's 1997 The Kennedy Tapes and show how Kennedy reined in generals hell-bent on military action. By chronicling the day-to-day blur so well, the transcripts tend to hide some of Kennedy's strategic blunders. But as a crisis manager, J.F.K. is seen here as the real thing: cool, salty, probing, and with a foreign policy range that can only make aides to the current commander in chief wince with comparative embarrassment. "You're in a pretty bad fix," Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay sneers to Kennedy during the Cuba showdown. "You're in there with me," Kennedy shoots back. With these transcripts, so is the reader.