Three months, 1,700 pages. But what months they were: a season in the midterm administration of John F. Kennedy marked by faltering polls, the aftermath of near nuclear war, and one crisis after another.
Yes, JFK secretly taped conversations in the White House, just like Nixon—and Johnson, Eisenhower, Truman, and Roosevelt. Nixon’s problem was refusing to acknowledge that his tapes existed. Kennedy, write the editors of this exhaustive set of transcripts, most probably taped in order to preserve moments for his post–White House memoir, and they “find no evidence that he taped only self-flattering moments.” Indeed, the tapes find the president wondering whether he’d been responsible for the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the immediate results of which occupy him and his advisers in the first 1,000 pages of this collection, housed at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The present set of volumes opens the day after the crisis, “the world’s closest brush with global thermonuclear war,” ended; it closes with Kennedy still preoccupied with the cat and mouse of dealing with Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev even as other leaders—from France’s Charles de Gaulle to emboldened Congressional Republicans at home—jockeyed to take advantage of changes in global realpolitik. One of those changes was a perceptible rise in American military readiness: as the editors note, on Nov. 4, the Strategic Air Command reached the peak of its force, such that “if the President ordered retaliatory strikes against the Soviet Union on this day, 1,749 nuclear bombers and 182 ballistic nuclear missiles were ready.” Even so, the collection sees Kennedy and aides such as Dean Rusk and Robert McNamara resisting the military’s demands for more funding and new weapons. For instance, said Kennedy to his chief military adviser of a submarine-mounted missile, “I don’t see quite why we’re building as many as we’re building.”
Fascinating to dip into casually and essential to students of the Kennedy administration, the Cold War, and late-20th-century world history.