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Response to AnotherMcIntosh (Reply #4)

Wed Sep 26, 2012, 10:08 AM

6. What JFK Really Said

Last edited Wed Sep 26, 2012, 11:57 AM - Edit history (1)

As Noam Chomsky reported, Shoup was alone among the Joint Chiefs to oppose escalation in Vietnam. However, in this case, the White House taping system caught the Marine Commandant in an act of insubordination -- denigrating the Commander in Chief before his fellow Joint Chiefs of Staff. The mis-translation of what was said in the meeting had been the "gold standard" among historians since the publication of tape transcripts created by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow, "academic" friends of the right.

What JFK Really Said

The author checked the Cuban-missile-crisis transcript in The Kennedy Tapes against the recorded words. He discovered "errors that undermine its reliability for historians, teachers, and general readers

by Sheldon M. Stern
The Atlantic


An unforgettable moment in these unique historical records concerns JFK's apprehension that military action in Cuba might touch off the ultimate nightmare of nuclear war, which he grimly describes at a meeting on October 18 as "the final failure." Brian McGrory, of The Boston Globe, who listened to this tape with me in 1994, after it was declassified, used those words in the lead of his article on the newly released tapes. But when I checked the transcript recently, I was unable to find "the final failure." Certain that the editors must be right, since they had technically cleaner tapes, I listened again; there is no question that Kennedy says "the final failure." The editors, however, have transcribed it as "the prime failure."


The participants then discuss evidence that work on the missile sites is continuing. They debate whether to add petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL) to the list of quarantined materials immediately, or to wait twenty-four hours to see if talks proposed by UN Secretary-General U Thant produce a breakthrough. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy's national security adviser, suggests that they "leave the timing until we've talked about the U Thant initiative." The inaccuracy in The Kennedy Tapes is especially bizarre in this case, with Bundy saying "leave the timing until we've talked about the attack thing." These last two examples—"the destroyers " and "the attack thing"—could easily leave a reader wondering what in the world these men were talking about. (Three days later, on October 29, U Thant was mentioned again. JFK asserts, "We want U Thant to know that Adlai is our voice." But The Kennedy Tapes transcribes this line as "We want you to know that Adlai is our voice."

October 27 saw the darkest moment in the crisis. An unconfirmed report was received at midday that a U-2 spy plane had been shot down over Cuba by a Soviet SAM missile, and the pilot killed. On the tape of the late-afternoon meeting Kennedy discusses whether to order an air strike on the SAM sites if the incident is repeated (a delay that produced consternation at the Pentagon). He declares that two options are on the table: begin conversations about Khrushchev's proposal to swap Soviet missiles in Cuba for U.S. missiles in Turkey, or reject discussions until the Cuban crisis is settled. Kennedy chooses the first, with the caveat that the Soviets must provide proof that they have ceased work on the missile sites. He repeatedly refers to "conversations" and "discussions" and concludes, "Obviously, they're not going to settle the Cuban question until they get some conversation on Cuba." Incredibly, The Kennedy Tapes substitutes "compensation" for "conversation." It's easy to imagine how Cold War veterans like Rusk, Bundy, and McCone would have reacted to any suggestion of compensation for the Soviets in Cuba.

On October 29, the day after Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles, the President and his advisers, relieved but not euphoric, conclude that surveillance and the quarantine will continue until the missiles have actually been removed. After a lull in the meeting, during which the conversation turns to college football, the President observes, "I imagine the Air Force must be a little mad," referring to the division of responsibility for aerial photography between the Air Force and the Joint Chiefs' photo-reconnaissance office. The Kennedy Tapes transcribes this as "I imagine the airports must be looking bad," which must leave many readers scratching their heads: the removal of the missiles had nothing to do with Cuban airports. Kennedy then ponders why, in the end, the Soviets decided to back down. He notes, "We had decided Saturday night to begin this air strike on Tuesday." No effort was made to conceal the military buildup in southern Florida, and Kennedy wonders if the impending strikes pushed the Russians to withdraw their missiles. The Kennedy Tapes, however, has JFK saying "We got the signs of life to begin this air strike on Tuesday," making his shrewd speculation unintelligible.

ONE particular error, among scores not cited above, seems to epitomize the problems with these transcripts. On the October 18 tape Dean Rusk argues that before taking military action in Cuba, the United States should consult Khrushchev, in the unlikely event that he would agree to remove the missiles. "But at least it will take that point out of the way," The Kennedy Tapes has Rusk saying, "and it's on the record." But Rusk actually said that this consultation would remove that point "for the historical record." The historical record is indeed the issue here.



The "prime failure" is much different than "final failure." Presidents -- especially the Hawks since then -- have all made clear to the Soviets, Russians, terrorists, rogue states that nuclear war was winnable and survivable. Unfortunately, "survivable" could be defined as zero enemy and one American.

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