The Story Behind The Tapes

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FDR : What shall I say? Shall I be polite or call it by the right name?

REPORTER : Call it by the right name.

FDR : Deliberate lie.

Four days later, on February 7, the President was asked whether there was a stenographic record of the meeting.

FDR : I don’t think there was.

REPORTER : You do not?

FDR : I don’t think there was. I think there may have been notes taken. I took some myself.

REPORTER : Did Mr. Kannee take any?

FDR : I do not know. I have not asked him.

REPORTERS : Will you ask him now? Mr. Kannee is sitting right there, will you ask him?

FDR : He does not know either.

The transcript shows that this remark was followed by laughter, but the ruckus caused by the earlier press stories did not quickly subside.

Despite the President’s refusal to be pinned down at his press conference, Henry Kannee had in fact been kept very busy during the visit of the Military Affairs Committee. His stenographic notes later produced a typewritten transcript twenty-seven pages long. The Rhine is not mentioned once.

The President might joke and laugh during a press conference but in private he was not amused. Henry Kannee, who felt that FDR was casting about for some solution, eventually suggested to Steve Early, the press secretary, that the only way to protect the President from deliberate distortions of this nature—the only way “to nail the lie”—was to find some means of mechanically recording what was said at sensitive meetings. Even if this material could not be released immediately, the accuracy of the President’s version of what had occurred would ultimately be established.

When the matter was taken up with FDR, he not only expressed interest but also made arrangements, through the ‘Department of Justice, the FBI, or possibly the Secret Service, to do a little experimenting. A microphone, concealed in the Oval Office, was hooked up to a Dictaphone in Mr. Kannee’s nearby office. It didn’t work. Henry Kannee kept trying to think of an alternative. He felt that some sort of modern adaptation of the ancient “scroll concept” would be more sensible than further experimentation with machines that employed discs or cylinders. Then, later in the year, he went to see a movie; while in the theater he suddenly recalled that motion picture sound tracks ran along the edge of the film. Perhaps the problem could be solved if a reel of film were filled with nothing but one sound track after another, side by side. He took this idea to his friend Harry Payne, an inventor who had been involved in the development of the four-wheel drive that helped to make the Jeep such a success. Payne personally toyed with the problem for a while before handing it to David Sarnoff of RCA, where—as we already know—just such an experimental recording device was subsequently developed.

The main feature, as Mr. Kannee remembered it not long before his death last September, was that the recording needle moved back and forth across “six ribbons of motion-picture film” that ran over a metal mandrel. The film was fed from reels in a compartment beneath the machine to corresponding reels above it. When he and Harry Payne tested the contraption, it worked perfectly. Steve Early was told of this development and of Sarnoff’s desire to present the machine to the President as a gift from RCA. Early asked Kannee to tell FDR. An appointment was set up for Sarnoff on June 14, 1940, and soon thereafter—the exact date remains unknown—the RCA Continuous-film Recording Machine was installed in the basement under the Oval Office, with enough film on hand to last “a couple of years.”

Mr. Kannee recalled that the microphone was concealed in the President’s desk lamp, and turned on and off by a switch hidden in the double-drawer on the left-hand side of the desk. A yellowed clipping from the Washington Star of April 13, 1945—the day after FDR’s death—seems to confirm at least part of this account: reporters were evidently allowed to examine the late President’s desk and noted the presence of “buttons” in the drawer which they supposed were used to summon aides. But the Star story mentions an “elaborate radio” in the same drawer, and a recent examination of the bottom of the drawer revealed an oblong hole about one inch long, through which wires may have passed. It is possible that this radio also included a microphone; Professor Mark Weiss, the acoustics expert who re-recorded the discs for AMERICAN HERITAGE , has speculated that the microphone’s presence in the interior of the drawer could account for the muffled quality of many of the recordings.

More often than not it was Henry Kannee, rather than FDR, who started and stopped the “thing.” The President had put him in charge of it as soon as it had arrived. When the presence of visitors prevented the use of the switch in the drawer, Mr. Kannee would go down to the basement, where a second switch was mounted on the machine itself. If neither man turned it off, the machine would go right on running, which may explain why some of the Oval Office conversations came to be recorded in the first place.