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And Now, All the Presidents' Words

History: Two books compile secret tapes from presidents Kennedy and Johnson, in which JFK averts nuclear war and LBJ confronts civil rights, Vietnam and demons of his own.

October 17, 1997|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a cool autumn morning 35 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy woke up and learned that the world was inching closer by the minute to nuclear war.

An aide told him that the Soviet Union had been quietly installing offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba, as documented by U.S. reconnaissance photos. The missiles were pointed at key American cities. Kennedy said they had enough firepower to kill 92 million people.

Over the next 13 days, Kennedy and his advisors struggled to defuse the crisis, finally averting the world's closest known brush with atomic destruction. How they achieved this has long been the subject of presidential biographies, memoirs and TV documentaries.

But now Americans can press their ears against the White House doors and hear leaders confronting Armageddon.

"The Kennedy Tapes," by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow (Harvard University Press), offers an unprecedented glimpse into high-level decision-making, with transcripts of the tense, marathon crisis meetings Kennedy had secretly recorded.

Read in conjunction with the audio tapes--available through the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston--the new book expands our understanding of a time when millions of panic-stricken people stocked home fallout shelters and prepared for the worst.

"What we have in these transcripts is unique," says May, a professor of American history at Harvard University. "Readers can actually watch a president and his aides at work behind the scenes, trying to avoid a national calamity."

It's not the kind of book you stumble onto every day . . . unless you're shopping for new titles about Lyndon B. Johnson.

In an odd coincidence, a collection of LBJ's secret tape transcripts was published the same day as the Kennedy material. "Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964," by Michael Beschloss (Simon & Schuster), reveals Johnson's private side as he grapples with America's early involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights crises that were tearing the nation apart.

As a bonus, the publisher included two hours of the tapes on an audio-book version. Readers can acquire a full set of the recordings through the LBJ library in Austin, Texas.

While the Kennedy book provides a lesson in how to avoid nuclear holocaust, the Johnson tapes chronicle the highs and lows of a man who outwardly held great power but was privately beset by demons. Hoping to preserve his legacy, LBJ recorded conversations from 1963 to 1969, longer than any president.

"These tapes allow us to tap into Johnson's private life, and we hear a man who at times is depressed and dejected," says Beschloss, a respected presidential historian. "He's worried that it's all going to come crashing down on him. He's hypersensitive. The smallest thing can really set him off."

It will be several years before all of Kennedy and Johnson's private tapes are released to the public, but historians already view them as a gold mine. Along with Richard M. Nixon's White House recordings, they constitute an invaluable audio archive of presidential decision-making extending from 1962 to 1973.

Chroniclers of later eras won't be so lucky. Ever since Nixon was destroyed by his Watergate tapes, presidents have declined to record their conversations--and there's a growing aversion to more traditional forms of record-keeping as well.

"People don't write memos like they used to," Beschloss explains. "Memos were once a great source for historians, yet nowadays people write them as if they're going to wind up on the front page of the L.A. Times. If they write them at all."

*

In 1962, there were no such worries. The secret Kennedy tapes tell us as much about the man as the crises he faced.

When he first convened a meeting of 17 top advisors on the morning of Oct. 16, there was an air of stunned surprise in the Cabinet room. Weeks before, Kennedy had warned Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that putting nuclear weapons in Cuba would have the "gravest consequences." Now, spy photos showed that the missiles were in place and could be fired within hours.

Most of his aides favored a military response, but JFK held back. He was the only one to ask: Why is Khrushchev doing this?

When Kennedy decided the Soviets were using the missiles to force concessions on West Berlin, then protected by U.S. troops, he moved boldly. Building a consensus among his aides, he made a TV speech announcing a naval blockade of Cuba.

The United States, he said, would halt Soviet ships carrying weapons and sink them if necessary. He demanded that Moscow remove the missiles and implicitly vowed to invade Cuba if Khrushchev refused.

On Oct. 23, as the first Soviet ships neared the blockade line, Kennedy met alone in the Oval Office with Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, his brother and closest ally.

The two pondered the wisdom of the action they'd taken.

President Kennedy: It looks really mean, doesn't it? But on the other hand, there wasn't any choice.

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