- Historic Sites
The FDR Tapes
Secret recordings made in the Oval Office of the President in the autumn of 1940
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
Nine days later, after thinking it over some more, FDR sent Hull a second and still more forceful memorandum: “In those meetings of the Big Four in Paris no notes should have been kept. Four people cannot be conversationally frank with each other if somebody is taking down notes for future publication. I feel very strongly about this….”
Professor Butow is altogether too modest about the size of the task he set himself three years ago, as we here at AMERICAN HERITAGE learned when he allowed us to listen to his copies of the tapes. The recordings are difficult to understand at first: Roosevelt’s voice is usually fairly distinct but those of his visitors are murky at best; whole passages are indistinct or broken into fragments that are actually painful to the ear. To see if more might be retrieved from them, we turned to Professor Mark Weiss of Queens College, a pioneer in the technology of enhancing recorded speech who served on Judge John J. Sirica’s panel of technical experts during the Watergate grand jury investigation. With the kind help of Dr. William R. Emerson, the director of the FDR Library, and of Raymond Teichman, the curator of its audio-visual archive, Professor Weiss was permitted to re-record all of Roosevelt’s private conversations from the discs; he then processed them through a machine of his own devising to eliminate distracting sounds. The results were dramatic: gone is the incessant crackling; adjustments in the speed at which the re-recording was done have rendered Roosevelt’s words more distinct and made his voice seem much more familiar. Listening to them confirmed for us the almost uncanny accuracy of Professor Butow’s ear and also allowed us to decipher other conversations that time had not permitted him to attempt. On the following pages the transcripts for which Professor Butow was responsible bear his initials; those we made bear our own.