The Story Behind The Tapes

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Mr. Kannee did not remember ever having deliberately recorded private conversations anyone had with FDR; in fact, he was convinced that he never did so. On the other hand, he did record the press conferences, with the full approval of the President, as a means of testing the apparatus.

FDR may have been thinking of adding these experimental recordings to the archives of his administration—the point emphasized by Fred Shipman. Nineteen forty was not just another presidential election year; by running for a third term, the incumbent was doing what no other Chief Executive had ever attempted. Even FDR himself did not know whether he would win or lose, and this may have prompted him to think of using the RCA machine to record, for posterity, what might prove to be the last of his hundreds of press conferences. Henry Kannee believed (and Jack Romagna believes) that FDR was not at all eager to use the machine on a regular basis—indeed, he disliked the idea.

Mr. Kannee could not explain why the machine was used for only eleven weeks and thereafter allowed to stand idle. Mr. Romagna was shown how to operate it when he joined the White House staff in the spring of 1941, but he does not remember ever having recorded anything on it for FDR. Only one roll of sound-scribed film has ever been found—the one that ended up in Shipman’s hands.

My own view is that the machine, which had at first seemed to be a good idea, did not prove to be very satisfactory in the special circumstances in which it was employed. And so the President, who may have had some second thoughts about the political risks involved in using such a device, preferred not to bother with it. If this is correct, FDR presumably decided against further recording soon after his re-election in November, 1940; his victory at the polls thus proved as decisive as his defeat would have been in bringing down the curtain on the whole recording operation.

He may never have known that some of his conversations had in the meantime been caught by the machine. Once Mr. Kannee had been put in charge, the President may not have given the matter any further thought. He may not have realized that the machine was generally running not only before the reporters trooped into his office for a press conference but also after they had left. If FDR personally switched it on or off at times, he apparently did so at random, without any pattern or design. There is no evidence to suggest that FDR was pursuing malevolent or Machiavellian designs; the RCA machine was never used to entrap anyone.

In a book published in 1957, Rexford G. Tugwell, a charter member of the “brains trust,” commented on the difficulty that historians were likely to encounter in writing about a man who had “put every possible obstacle” in their way. There were “carloads of papers, records galore, correspondence in reams” but “remarkably little of it” would be of much use in accounting for important decisions or in tracing the origin of crucial policies. Roosevelt had played his cards so close to his chest that no one had ever seen his hand. “There is hardly a dependable record of a conversation in Franklin Roosevelt’s whole life,” Tugwell wrote. “There is no actual recording of any one of several hundred cabinet meetings, and there are very few full transcripts of high-level conferences. This seems so incredible that stories have been invented to explain the lack of materials. There was a persistent one, met with often at the Hyde Park library, that there was a secret recording booth in the White House basement below the presidential office and that conversations were taken down and put away for future reference. Alas, it is not so. There never were any recordings.”

How fortunate we are that this has proved to be incorrect. By drawing on the unique materials preserved at Hyde Park, we are now able to listen, for the first time, to the authentic private voice of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By playing the “FDR Tapes,” we can quietly slip into the Oval Office while the President is joshing with reporters, conferring with important visitors, or talking to members of his staff; we can hear him as they did—jaunty one moment, serious the next, shrewd, confident, imperturbable under pressure, always in command. We are able to witness all of this now only because, in the autumn of 1940, an experimental recording machine was secretly given a trial run, in a small enclosure directly under the Oval Office of the President, during a crucial moment in the history of the American people.