The Story Behind The Tapes

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During a return visit to Hyde Park in the autumn of 1978,1 was able to examine the relevant but sparse documentation in the audiovisual files. It began abruptly with a notation that Fred W. Shipman, the first director of the FDR Library, had made on June 6, 1945, following a telephone conversation with Jack Romagna, an expert stenographer who had been at the White House since 1941. Romagna had told Shipman that “about twenty of President Roosevelt’s press conferences” had been recorded “on film” by an RCA machine built “as an experiment.” The recordings were “confidential,” for “it was not intended that their existence be known….” RCA now wanted to dismantle the machine but first would be glad to have the National Archives make disc records of the film.

A second notation by Shipman, made the next day, revealed that he had just learned that the National Archives had the necessary “facilities.” He thereupon had telephoned Romagna to urge that RCA be told to get in touch with him.

But then nothing further occurred—at least nothing that showed up at Hyde Park. More than nine months were to pass before Romagna told Shipman that someone at the National Archives had suggested that “an official letter” be written to the head of the archives, “asking that the re-recording work be done.” Romagna was sorry that everything had dragged out so but said: “We ought to be getting busy fairly shortly now.” Seven more months went by. What occurred then is summarized in an unsigned memorandum (written by Shipman) dated November 20, 1946: “I obtained a few days ago from the Official [Stenographer] of the White House one roll of scribed acetate sound recordings produced on an experimental machine installed in the White House with the authority of President Roosevelt. Several press conferences and other meetings were recorded without the knowledge of the participants. President Roosevelt stated that he permitted these recordings to be made for historical purposes only, in order that in future years an actual voice recording of a press conference could be made available to historians.”

I was eager to learn more, but it was not until two years later, during a visit to Washington, D. C., that I was able to. I went to the National Archives with great expectations that quickly evaporated; I was told that the least accessible of the historical records there are those pertaining to the archives itself.

Despite this, helping hands directed me to the legislative and natural resources branch—an apparently unlikely place to begin my search but in reality the very branch that had custody of the papers of the photographic records office covering the period when the re-recording work had been done. When I explained my mission, heads began to shake, but then a member of the staff remembered that he recently had come upon an uncatalogued box of papers containing a folder pertaining to the FDR Library from 1940 to 1946. Luckily for me, it happened to include a few more pieces of the puzzle. Among them was a copy of the memorandum I had already seen at Hyde Park, some extracts from the daily log of the photographic records office for November, 1946, and the “PH” log itself.

From the log I learned that on November 20 Fred Shipman had delivered to the archives “one roll of acetate sound scribed material, originating in the White House.” He had dictated his explanatory memorandum while sitting in the photographic records office. An entry in the PH log, briefly summarizing a telephone conversation that took place on November 25, 1946, told the rest of the story: “… R.C.A. Machine ready to come over. Pick up at 9:30 tomorrow, 1625 K St.” The re-recording work was duly undertaken, but the sixteen 16-inch discs it produced did not reach the FDR Library until December, 1947.

The arrival of these disc recordings was scarcely unusual. Research materials of all kinds had been pouring into Hyde Park ever since 1940, when the building was completed that would house America’s first presidential library in the National Archives system. Some items simply had to be set aside, and so it was not until March, 1963, that the discs finally were evaluated.

At that time, J. V. Deyo, then the head of the audiovisual unit, noted that the sequence of the dubbings was “rather confused” and that the sound quality was “hollow and boomy.” And yet these recordings were “unique—the only ones [ever] made of the President at work.” Mr. Deyo assigned them a qualitative value: “poor” ones were “nearly unintelligible”; “good” ones could be understood if the listener paid “careful attention.” As soon as this appraisal was completed, the sixteen fragile discs were once again stored away. Only after a master tape had been made in 1973 could the material finally be opened to researchers.

During the early stages of my work with the tapes, I only occasionally knew to whom the “Boss” was speaking. He might preface a remark by saying “Cordell” or “Grace,” and this would mean that he was talking to Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State, or to Grace Tully, who often took his dictation. In many instances, however, I could only guess who might be in the room with him, and sometimes I had no idea at all. Later on I was able to determine that he was generally with people he knew and trusted: with members of his staff—“Missy” LeHand, Steve Early, “Pa” Watson—or with other friends and associates. Even establishing who was who on the basis of a given name was risky. To whom, for instance, was FDR speaking when he said “Harry”? Two alternatives sprang immediately to mind: White House trouble shooter Harry Hopkins or the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson.