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Tapes, Scholars, and the Value of Community: One Perspective on the Future of Presidential History

ISSUE:  Summer 2003

The world is in the throes of far-reaching technological revolutions. Some of the innovations are having an immediate impact, but others are more gradual. Some become quickly outdated, and others do more harm than good. In a long lifetime, I have witnessed the various ways in which scientists and scholars have contributed to an agricultural revolution. Almost always, revolutions have come through building a sense of community. When I joined the staff of the Rockefeller Foundation in New York, the Agricultural Division was concentrating its efforts on the transformation of food production around the world. Its programs led to what came to be called the Green Revolution. It all began when a little group of agricultural scientists from three of America’s foremost land grant colleges set about studying how Mexico could improve its yield of the basic food crops, especially corn and wheat. They integrated themselves into the Department of Agriculture in the Mexican government in an Office of Special Studies. In this way, Mexicans received credit for their accomplishments. They were confident they could turn around food production in any country by dealing with the root causes of its problems. Mexico had used up its foreign exchange by importing corn and wheat. The goal was to triple or quadruple yields and make imports less necessary. The staff went out into the field to demonstrate new methods and adapt old ones in growing crops. They established demonstration stations. One of the scientists, Norman Borlaug, went to Northern Mexico to work on wheat production and years later won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. The Rockefeller Foundation established an International Rice Research Center in the Philippines where new varieties of rice called IR8 were introduced that quadrupled rice production. The same was true of other crops in Asia and Africa. The international community took on the financing of worldwide programs that Rockefeller and Ford had initiated. American agricultural colleges provided the manpower for these expanded efforts and foreign agricultural centers the knowledge for crossing their varieties with others in neighboring countries. The agricultural revolution provides an example of how a private organization brings about far-reaching changes through expertise that involves bonding with fellow agriculturalists around the world.

For the most part, the scholarly world is better off because of technological advances. Technology, however, has limits and depends on people to make it meaningful. One example of the ways that technology promises to improve our scholarship, particularly on the presidency and the American government, is the cache of presidential recordings from Franklin D. Roosevelt through Richard Nixon. They have the potential to alter our understanding of postwar America, but, without careful exploration, they also might be another well advertised revolution that comes up short. Having witnessed the debates about the presidential tapes over the past several years, I would argue that the key to their future may well depend on the communities of knowledge that are emerging to serve their ends. How should scholars and students go about building those communities? Where is the human capital for such programs?

Among the most recent advances in research on the presidency and recent U.S. history is the public unveiling of the presidential recordings. The first major publication deriving from such tapes arrived in 1997 with Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow’s The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. That important book gained notice in the media and became the most discussed study of the Cuban crisis. Whether it answered all the critics’ questions is still being debated. Did it, for example, tell us everything about the role of each of the key players in the drama? I remember Secretary of State Dean Rusk telling close friends that only when all the records were available would we know what role he and others played. Because of the focus on presidents, one relevant question is whether the tapes tell us everything we want to know about associates and Cabinet members. Michael Beschloss’ two volumes of highlights of Lyndon Johnson’s telephone conversations published in 1997 and 2001, though only a small percentage of the total conversations, have supplied important new information about how Johnson worked on foreign and domestic issues. It does so, however, without answering many questions left over from the enormous literature about our 36th president. For Johnson and Kennedy, Nixon and others, when and how do the recordings carry us further than the work of the foremost presidential scholars?

Two other questions appear and have reappeared about the new technology. How should we assess some of the claims made regarding the results of the new approach and the transformations wrought by the new technology? On both counts, the final answers are not yet in. Little more than half a decade has passed since publication of the best of the new studies, hardly enough time to judge them. Who can say that we have gained access to basic questions such as whether President Kennedy was influenced in the choice he made for accommodation or military action against Cuba by his belief that Moscow would move against West Berlin if the United States attacked Cuba? Was a policy process set in place after the Vienna summit with Khrushchev that determined how hard or soft the President would be on the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or did his failure in the Bay of Pigs make him more or less willing to bargain and compromise on Laos or in dealing with a new military junta in Peru? How does the theory that he should avoid appearing soft or weak reconcile with his bold call for negotiations with the Soviets in his American University speech? To what extent have we realized the prophecy that through tapes political education is being transformed by bringing the student into the Oval Office as first hand witness to all the great decisions in public policy? Or more modestly put have the presidential tapes given us some interesting new material on lesser world issues such as General Maxwell Taylor’s briefing of President Kennedy after a tour of the Far East, or JFK’s appeals to Governor Ross Barnett to restore law and order at the University of Mississippi or his discomfort in dealing with right-wing military officers in Peru and Brazil because of his preference for civilian leadership without providing new and far-reaching findings on larger issues of war and peace? Having rehearsed these and other examples, one reviewer, Mark Lawrence, diplomatic historian at the University of Texas, concludes, “None of these discussions of foreign and domestic policy . . . qualify as blockbuster revelations.” Neither the results nor the transforming effects of the new technology, so far, has dramatically changed the world of international relations education. Instead, the importance of the new approaches in this as in other fields is inevitably debated.

Far-reaching changes almost never occur overnight, and our understanding of the tapes is still in the earliest stages. Almost one-half of the Johnson and Kennedy tapes are still classified, and a majority of the conversations that have been released by the presidential libraries are difficult for scholars to use and remain only lightly explored. By emphasizing and sometimes reemphasizing the transforming effects of the new technology, proponents may have overreached in the short-term. The real value in the tapes very likely lies not in auditory smoking guns uncovered from the tapes, but in the patient, long-term scholarly process required to make these valuable resources available to scholars and students. I would ask if an overlooked development in the evolution of the public appraisal of the presidential recordings results from a change some of us have witnessed close at hand: the mobilization of a handful of extraordinary younger scholars who have gathered in their own laboratory and are working doggedly to demonstrate what use can be made of presidential recordings? I see a parallel between this group and the agricultural scientists at work around the world for the Rockefeller Foundation. For each the task at hand proves all-consuming. They each constitute a community addressed to understanding the history of the modern presidency. They have committed themselves unreservedly. They speak the same language, follow the same demanding schedule and share one another’s findings. Each can lay claim to what all have accomplished. They have all the attributes of a true community.

Over the past five years, at the University of Virginia, the Miller Center of Public Affairs has put together an impressive team of scholars dedicated to that task. If the debate over results and the transforming effects of presidential tapes has focused mainly on the power of the new technology, some overlooked aspects have been the communities that develop to investigate the new sources. What is happening at the University of Virginia is that the human capital invested in analyzing the presidential recordings is as impressive as the new technology. A collection of outstanding younger scholars interacting with several non-resident senior scholars has launched and carried forward a major scholarly program that is having to grapple with the dilemmas of historical scholarship in an increasingly multimedia world. They are “the quiet young Americans.” If the defenders of newest approaches in any field are criticized for their defensiveness, the new group seems almost to prefer anonymity. They know they have much to learn and habits of mind to relearn. One perspective on that process comes from Kent Germany, a native of the remarkably diverse world of rural Louisiana who holds a Ph.D. in history from Tulane University. His ongoing work on his own book, Seeking the Great Society: A Southern City After Jim Crow, 1964— 1980, and on four volumes of Kennedy and Johnson recordings has required seeing the 1960’s from multiple perspectives. “Historians usually stand outside of events and collect bits and pieces to tell stories about a relatively long period of time,” Germany observed in my kitchen one evening. “But, in analyzing the tapes, you have to stand on the inside and do the best you can to understand how the long trails of history flowed through brief, but important, moments in time.” In that way, Germany remarked, “the tapes create challenges regarding how we deconstruct the past and how we think about narrative history.”

What stands out for me is the ability of a small group of five or six recent Ph.D’s from respected colleges and universities pursuing long days (often of 10—14 hours) of teaching, researching, and writing—in addition to transcribing, annotating, and editing secret White House tape recordings of six American presidents. Such tapes present significant challenges that are both a blessing and a curse for scholars. On the positive side, they enabled them to eavesdrop on the policy-making process as it unfolds. Too often, however, the tapes defy understanding. As Mark Lawrence has pointed out: “recordings can be maddeningly difficult to use. The sound quality is often poor, and many passages defy comprehension. Policymakers frequently wander from their agenda, making obscure references to names and events unfamiliar to researchers lacking encyclopedic knowledge . . . [and] individuals speak in broken or incoherent sentences, making the flow of conversation difficult to grasp.” David Coleman, the coordinator of the Miller Center’s Kennedy project who joined the Miller Center faculty in the fall of 1999 after earning a Ph.D. in history from the University of Queensland (Australia), is a seasoned veteran at recognizing what lies beneath the clicks and pops and coughs and simultaneous talking on the Kennedy tapes. “To understand conversations on most of the tapes, you have to forget about where you are and sit yourself at the table with Kennedy,” Coleman explained. “It’s extraordinarily difficult to figure out some of the discussions without having already pored through the secondary literature and the mounds of memoranda and diaries and newspapers. Some of the tapes’ most important contributions to our understanding come in bits and pieces, in the nuances. You really have to be prepared intellectually to catch the meaning of those nuances.”

If there is ongoing debate about presidential recordings, it centers more on the potentialities of the new technology than on those who use and manage it. When reviewers speak of the positive side of recordings, they mention the new state-of-the-art sound equipment to improve the tape’s clarity and helpful introductory and explanatory material; a CD-ROM containing all of the audiotape material transcribed in the books; a keyword search to find information about specific issues; computer scrolls for displaying and highlighting each line in the text and, for example, discussion of how to defend West Berlin without initiating nuclear war. Vietnam, Laos, U.S.-Latin American relations, test ban treaty negotiations, and international monetary and trade policy all come to light in a context not possible earlier. The major and minor architects receive notice highlighting the importance of the latest technology.

The director of the Miller Center, Philip Zelikow, speaks admiringly of the team and forthrightly about the process: “With Tim Naftali managing a terrific team, this research is starting, slowly but pervasively, to change the way experts understand the history and political life of our country, as stereotypes and theoretical models bend before increasingly available, authoritative comprehension of the human realities—more complex yet also more interesting.” Obviously, for anyone who knows Timothy Naftali, the director of the Presidential Recordings Program, his intellectual and literary virtuosity assure high quality and the completion of the work on schedule. Marc Selverstone, the fourth of the young historians to arrive at the Miller Center, attributes his presence at Virginia to Naftali, saying: “I heard that Tim and the Miller Center were creating a vibrant intellectual community here and, aside from my interest in working on the tapes, that’s the kind of work environment I was hoping to find.” After finishing graduate school under John Lewis Gaddis at Ohio University in June 2000, Marc set out for Virginia convinced he had found a challenging and interesting job. Before long he was managing editor of American, a website designed to help students and scholars situate the presidency for themselves.

All of the Recordings Program scholars pursue their own research and teaching made possible through the good offices of the University of Virginia’s History Department and by the Miller Center. Their teaching complements one of the nation’s leading history departments and provides students with more opportunities to study 20th-century topics. These scholars hail from around the world, and their research reflects a wide range of interests. If Kent Germany is a Southerner and David Coleman an Australian, Marc Selverstone is a Connecticut native who earned a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University and a doctorate from Ohio University, where he studied under Professor Gaddis and also held his first teaching assignment. Coleman researches post-World War II international relations and nuclear history. He is also the creator and webmaster for a tapes-centered website, Selverstone works on Kennedy foreign policy issues for the Miller Center and researches the cultural and intellectual history of the Cold War with a book manuscript on the idea of the Soviet monolith after World War II. Germany, coordinator of the Lyndon Johnson project, writes about race relations, social welfare, the Civil Rights movement, and Southern culture. David Shreve, who was first on the scene in 1998 as a member of the team, has roots in West Virginia and a Ph.D. and two other degrees from Louisiana State University, focuses his scholarship on the economic policy of the 1960’s and 1970’s and is completing a book on the economic policies of Kennedy and Johnson. Guian McKee joined the Presidential Recordings Program in August 2002 after earning a Ph.D. in American history from the University of California, Berkeley, and serving as a visiting scholar in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina. His expertise is on urban development, urban politics, social policy, race, and deindustrialization. Rounding out the group of scholars in residence is W. Taylor Fain, an Ohio native who holds a graduate degree in International Relations from Georgetown University, worked as a historian for the State Department, and earned a Ph.D. in American foreign relations from the University of Virginia. At the Center, he studies the Nixon administration and writes about the history of Anglo-American diplomacy, U.S. relations in the Persian Gulf region, and the decline of European Imperialism.

The group’s diversity of backgrounds and Ph.D.’s are noteworthy: Ohio University, Louisiana State University, Harvard, Columbia, Tulane, University of California, Berkeley, University of Queensland, University of Virginia, and Yale are all represented in this uniquely talented team. Their ability to work together testifies to a seriousness of purpose remarkable by any standard. More remarkable still is their commitment to appointments that involve at least some elements of self-sacrifice given the usual requirements for tenure at most universities and colleges. Several of the Center’s faculty make the point that they fully expect to use their new skills and approach wherever they go in their future careers. Shreve who has been a budget analyst, an economist, and a healthcare policy expert writes that he expects to be using his Miller Center research experience the rest of his professional career. He sees the “creative energy” of the Center as one of the major benefits of his work. “We have what I think is a unique collegial environment where we are able to debate and analyze critical public policy questions through immersing ourselves in a large body of provocative primary materials while having ready access to policymakers, journalists, and scholars.” Taylor Fain, who studied with Melvyn Leffler at Virginia, explains. “Studying the White House tapes, in particular, has given me a new appreciation for the complexities of policymaking at the highest levels of government. It’s the land of learning experience that is making us better scholars and teachers.” Guian McKee has a similar reaction when he talks about the fusion of his own research agenda and the recordings scholarship he pursues for the Center. “My current manuscript,” McKee observes, “explores the interaction between people at the grassroots level and people in powerful bureaucratic and political positions, and my examination of the Johnson and Nixon tapes have given me an invaluable sense of the complicated ways that the leaders at the top viewed that relationship.” Kent Germany adds, “If nothing else, it’s fun to see students’ faces light up when I’ve used tape clips to stir discussion in class. The tapes have changed the way I teach the 1960’s.”

In a Washington Post column entitled “Listen to Kennedy on Cuba for Clues about Bush on Iraq,” Michael Dobbs writes about finding helpful insights on current affairs from the tapes. Focusing on the transcripts of tape-recorded conversations between President Kennedy and his advisors as they argued about how to respond to the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, Dobbs concludes that “The transcripts are the closest most of us will get to being a fly on the wall of the Oval Office at a moment of great natural drama.” The young scholars must have this feeling as they throw a powerful spotlight on the segments of a particular transcript which may at first defy comprehension but with tireless review and analysis can yield to new methods that have opened promising new worlds of understanding. This little band of scholars in the search for meaning in texts of momentous importance in our history is bringing significant new sources of understanding both to fellow scholars and writers and to students of international relations. Although, generally, the contributions of scholars to the public sphere are too often hidden, these young scholars seem eager to build a larger community of knowledge to make sure that the history of a crucial decade is explored as carefully as humanly possible. Their efforts require that others join the inquiry because, although most Americans may not see the existence of these communities of knowledge as central to American democracy, they are, in fact, invaluable for helping define the civic culture in which we all live. With each passing day, the fate of the world hangs in the balance on understanding the deep roots of that complex definition.


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