The Story Behind The Tapes

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Determining exactly when a conversation took place was also sometimes impossible. The press conference recordings can be dated by matching them with the typewritten transcripts, but the conversations can be pinpointed only when something is mentioned that can be tied to a clearly datable event. The President’s desk diaries and appointment books are helpful but they cannot tell us when the switch that activated the machine was turned on or when it was turned off. Thus a tape that appears to be a recording of a single meeting with the President may possibly cover several different sessions held hours or even days apart.

The total listening time of the recordings is estimated to be about eight hours, but anyone who wishes to understand the material must stop the tape frequently to listen to the same segment over and over again. Not simply hours but days, weeks, and even months could be devoted to the task.

But however obscure certain passages may be, the President’s grave concern with issues of the day is always evident.

On October 8, 1940, for example, the,President discussed Japanese demands. It is not clear to whom he was talking, but he began by saying, “Look, here’s one thing I wanted to ask—ah—my old friend, the Scripps-Howard papers, about.” But he got no further, for he burst out laughing, apparently deeply amused that his sometime supporters had turned sour on him. And when FDR laughed, he laughed , producing a boisterous, rolling, infectious sound that has to be heard to be believed. “Now, look, before you read that, I want to ask you this … Roy, the other day, received—Roy Howard [of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain]—a telegram apparently, which was published, I think, I think U.P. carried it—all of U.P. did—a telegram, as I remember it, from this chief of the Japanese press association … an old friend of Roy’s, in which… [he] said the damndest thing that ever happened…. It may stir up bad feeling in this country, and this country is—ah—ready to pull the trigger if the Japs do anything. I mean we won’t stand any nonsense, public opinion won’t, in this country, from the Japs, if they do some fool thing. Now, this … fella wires to Roy and says… there will be no war with the United States—I’m quoting from memory—on one condition, and one condition only [FDR rapped on his desk for emphasis], and that is that the United States will recognize the new era in—not the Far East but—the East, meaning the whole of the East. Furthermore, that this recognition—there must be evidence of it, and the only evidence of this recognition the United States can give is to demilitarize all of its naval and air and army bases in Wake, Midway, and Pearl Harbor. God! That’s the first time that any damn Jap has told us to get out of Hawaii! And that has me more worried than any other thing in the world that a responsible….”

Here the voices of two men can be heard speaking to the President. Much is indistinct, but they seem to have been anxious to suggest that this “fella” in Tokyo was not a responsible spokesman. FDR may or may not have been persuaded: his responses consisted of “Yeah’p” and “I see,” habitual affirmatives which did not necessarily mean he agreed with the speaker but signified he was at least listening. Ultimately he re-entered the conversation: “The only thing that worries me is that the Germans and the Japs have gone along, and the Italians, for—oh, gosh—five, six years without their foot slipping—without their misjudging foreign opinion…. And the time may be coming when the Germans and the Japs will do some fool thing that would put us in. That’s the only real danger of our getting in—is that their foot will slip.”

And right here, just as my interest was quickening and my mind, flying ahead of the tape, was impatiently speculating about what the President would say next, the recording disintegrated into sounds that defied comprehension. I felt frustrated. I still had no answer to the same crystal-ball question I had asked myself in the beginning: Why had FDR secretly employed a recording machine and how had the whole operation been handled? I had never been able to find any written record of a transaction, in regard to the machine, nor had I been able to obtain even so much as a hint of a memo authorizing its installation.

And there were other questions. Where had Fred Shipman gotten the idea, for instance, that the President had permitted some of his press conferences to be recorded “for historical purposes only”? Were these FDR’s own words or someone else’s? Why did the recordings suddenly begin in late August, 1940, and then end, just as abruptly, in early November?

I had been thinking, off and on, about Jack Romagna; if I could somehow learn his whereabouts, perhaps he would be able to help. At the same time, I remembered something else that needed checking—a rumor someone on the library staff had once mentioned to me to the effect that there had been “a secret recording booth” under the Oval Office in FDR’s day. During a visit to Hyde Park in the autumn of 1980,1 took the rumor and my question about Mr. Romagna to Joseph Marshall, the supervisory librarian at the Roosevelt Library. An hour or so later he handed me a book, published in 1949, and told me about a recently completed index to the “vertical file,” a library term for miscellaneous materials relevant to the President and his circle that have been gathered since FDR’s death. Mr. Marshall said this was the place to look for post-1945 information about Jack Romagna.