The Story Behind The Tapes

PrintPrintEmailEmail

This country is … ready to pull the trigger if the Japs do anything. I mean we won’t stand any nonsense, public opinion won’t… if they do some fool thing.”

This is Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking in the privacy of the Oval Office in the fall of 1940; the President is running for an unprecedented third term while, overseas, Japan has entered into an Axis alliance linking Tokyo with Berlin and Rome.

Rapping on his desk for emphasis, Roosevelt summarizes the latest news from Japan: “There will be no war with the United States… on one condition, and one condition only…. The United States [must] demilitarize all of its naval and air and army bases in Wake, Midway, and Pearl Harbor.”

FDR pauses—then reacts: “God! That’s the first time that any damn Jap has told us to get out of Hawaii!”

The President would never have said this in public. No one living today can bear witness to the occasion; nor can FDR’s remarks be found in some lost memo of the conversation that has only now come to light. Spoken more than forty years ago but only recently discovered, his unforgettable words have been plucked from an extraordinary body of material: hitherto untapped recordings of the President’s voice, made secretly by an experimental “Continuous-film Recording Machine” hidden away in a small enclosure directly under the Oval Office.

I first became aware of these recordings in the spring of 1978, while pursuing an entirely different topic. Since then, I have been thoroughly immersed in trying to find, and fit together, the many missing pieces of what quickly proved to be a baffling historical jigsaw puzzle.

For me, the story began during a research visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York—a visit prompted largely by my desire to explore the origins of FDR’s interest in the Far East. One day, while talking to William R. Emerson, the director of the library, and to Raymond Teichman, the archivist in charge of the audio-visual unit, I complained about having to plod through endless boxes of documents. I was tired of doing that, I said; when were they going to let me listen to the FDR tapes?

I was joking, but they responded seriously. They said they did not have “tapes,” in the current sense of the term, but that the audiovisual collection did contain some unusual recordings about which very little was known.

Naturally my curiosity was aroused, and so I began to poke around. I soon learned that these unusual recordings covered fourteen of the twenty-one press conferences the President had held between August 23 and November 8, 1940. Of greater interest to me, however, was the news that a number of conversations in the Oval Office during those eleven weeks also had been recorded. All this treasure was now stored at the library on sixteen discs upon which the original sound-film had been re-recorded by the National Archives two years after the President’s death. To guard against accidental destruction, and to protect these “dubbings” from wear and tear, the authorities at the library eventually had re-recorded everything—this time onto a master tape.

So I found myself listening, in 1978, to tape-recorded copies of a master tape, itself taken from the discs onto which the original 1940 film had been dubbed in 1947. The sound quality was far from clear.

Why not listen to the original? Impossible: the film had so deteriorated by 1947 that it was destroyed as soon as the discs were made. Even if it still had been available, it could have been played only on the machine FDR had used—a prototype that never went into production. It had been dismantled years ago, thus becoming as much of a mystery as the “continuous-film” it used.

And so I had to be content with copies of copies. Knowing that complete typewritten texts, prepared from shorthand notes, could be consulted for all the press conferences, I decided to concentrate on the private conversations. I quickly discovered that I had undertaken quite a job. FDR’s voice had been picked up reasonably well by the hidden microphone but not the voices of others in the room. Scratching sounds (some made by FDR’s pen), background noise, and echoes made sections of the tape incomprehensible. And then two people would start to speak at the same moment, drowning each other out. The President himself was the worst offender in this regard; he usually went right on talking until the other person took the hint and relinquished the floor. Flaws in the original sound track, film deterioration, and perhaps some needle-skipping during the re-recording process had produced garbled passages. Some tapes began or ended in the middle of a sentence, while others seemed to contain portions of things I had heard on different reels.

Nevertheless, I could not let go of the matter, for here I was—nearly forty years later—eagerly eavesdropping on an American President candidly expressing himself on a variety of topics at a time of great national significance. As soon as I heard FDR say that some “damn Jap” had just told us “to get out of Hawaii,” I knew I not only must stick to the task I had begun but also must try to find out how and why these recordings had been made in the first place.