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Week of 4 December 1998

Vol. II, No. 16

Feature Article

History Professor Bruce Schulman:

Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon tapes: what they reveal -- and what they don't

By Burt Peretsky and Brian Fitzgerald

Historians always have the last word. Don't they?

Public response to the newly available audiotapes containing Oval Office conversations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon "has been astonishing," says Bruce Schulman. However, he points out that historians aren't as mesmerized with the recordings as the American people seem to be.

In a recent Journal of American History review of three books on the tapes, the CAS associate professor of history and director of Boston University's American Studies Program acknowledges the natural appeal of the transcripts. "Until recently, we've had little knowledge of either the extent of the presidential tapes or their specific contents," he says. Consequently, major newspapers printed revelations from the transcripts on their front pages, Newsweek magazine published excerpts from the Johnson recordings, and ABC News devoted several episodes of Nightline to dramatic readings of both the Johnson and Nixon tapes.

Author of Lyndon B. Johnson and American Liberalism, Schulman acknowledges the tapes' historical importance and agrees that they are "extraordinary treasures for historical research." But, he says, "they're not exactly earth-shattering. They contain no substantial revelations." Schulman is even skeptical about a conversation in which Johnson tells Sen. Richard Russell that he believes a conspiracy was behind the Kennedy assassination. "Did that recording betray his real feelings," Schulman asks, "or was he simply trying to convince the reluctant Russell to join the Warren Commission?"

Bruce Schulman

Bruce Schulman
Photo by Vernon Doucette

The recordings in question are closely examined in The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis, edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow; Taking Charge: The Johnson White House Tapes, 1963-1964, edited by Michael R. Beschloss; and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes, edited by Stanley I. Kutler.

In 1992, after the passage of the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Act, which requires all government archives to open records containing information on Kennedy's death, the Johnson Library decided to release not only the tapes concerning the assassination, but also the entire volume of material -- 900 hours in total -- as soon as technically feasible. Some 300 hours of the Kennedy recordings have been released. The Nixon estate agreed to release 3,700 hours of tapes as the result of a lawsuit by Kutler.

Other voices and meanings

Schulman says that the public's fascination has focused not so much on Johnson's powers of persuasion or Nixon's illegal activities (Nixon is heard ordering his top aide to burglarize the liberal think tank Brookings Institution) as the fact that these decisions were captured on tape. Over the past decade, he says, the ubiquity of videotape and audiotape -- and their role in high-profile investigations of events from Abscam to the Rodney King beating -- has dramatically altered American standards of evidence. He says that although "it's exciting to hear the voices of these presidents and their top aides" in deliberations inside the Oval Office, acetate alone doesn't necessarily create a direct, unmediated experience of history. These days, however, if there is no tape, the public "increasingly suspects the veracity of any testimony," he writes. "Americans have largely embraced this technological anti-nomianism; historians would do well to resist it." (Nomianism refers to a Christian sect that holds that faith alone is necessary to salvation.)

"Professional historians," he writes, "reliant as they are on more mundane and less certain sources of evidence, have been decidedly less enthusiastic about the presidential tapes." He cites several reasons for this. "The new material merely buttresses prevailing interpretations. In no way does it alter historians' fundamental understanding of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon presidencies."

Something new, something old

What about the 37 hours of Kennedy tapes released on November 24, after Schulman's September article, in which the president concedes that his administration must bear some responsibility for the assassination of South Vietnam President Ngo Dinh Diem?

"We already knew this from the memoirs of Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara," says Schulman. "From the tapes we get some sense about Kennedy's shock and remorse -- Diem's family was killed -- but the fact remains that he still took the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach. As long as U.S. personnel weren't involved in the coup, he didn't object to it." As for Nixon's intentions to steal the Brookings Institution's Vietnam files, the president's proposal was already published in his 1975 memoirs, in which he recounts telling his staff to deliver the files to him "even if it meant having to get [it] surreptitiously."

Another reason for many historians' lack of enthusiasm, he writes, is that "the tapes cannot speak for themselves. Without independent knowledge of the historical context, they make little sense. Third, the tapes hardly constitute a frank, unguarded record of intimate conversations in the Oval Office . . . none of the three chief executives ever expected the tapes to become public, and they often seemed to let their hair down as the reel-to-reels rolled. But they all carefully managed the recordings." Kennedy, for example, could turn the system on and off with a flip of a switch, choosing to record only parts of any conversation. And, "In a May, 1973 tape," Schulman writes, "Nixon and Haldeman spoke for the machines when they deliberately strained to discredit John Dean."

"Finally," he points out in the article, "even if the recordings offered unfiltered testimony from the Oval Office, the transcripts are not interchangeable with the original tapes . . . considering the difficulty of hearing and deciphering the tapes [and putting them into the appropriate context], the editors' interpretations of the tapes, rather than the tapes themselves, will likely remain the standard sources for the presidential recordings."

Schulman says that "what these tapes have done so far is largely to confirm and flesh out our understanding of these presidencies rather than to challenge it. More tapes are yet to be processed and made public, and it is possible new tapes may change our opinion of the importance of these as historical record." He adds, "My guess is that the Nixon tapes yet to be released might be the ones that may further alter and define our knowledge of history."

It's doubtful, Schulman says, that we'll hear again the actual voices of future presidents in taped conversations from the Oval Office. Recent scandals and the possibility that tapes could be used to embarrass presidents have made it "hard to imagine that any future president would set up a taping system in the White House." And the unfortunate result of all this is, he says in a historian's last word, is an "impoverishment" of the historical record for all time.