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The FDR Tapes

July 2024
4min read

Secret recordings made in the Oval Office of the President in the autumn of 1940


What an astonishing discovery! Rumors had long circulated about a recording device in Franklin Roosevelt’s White House. But these rumors were denied for years by archivists who had custody of the Roosevelt papers. This denial was understandable. Shortly after Roosevelt’s death, his stenographer Jack Romagna confidentially informed National Archives officials of the existence of such recordings, and arrangements were made to send them to the FDR Library at Hyde Park. This was done in December, 1947. The overworked archivists at Hyde Park quickly established that the recordings were of certain press conferences in 1940, apparently made as an experiment but of such poor quality as to be practically indecipherable. But they contained other material that the archivists were never able to puzzle out. Regarding the matter as an experiment that had not worked, the library staff accessioned the recordings and duly opened them to researchers, but the recordings were little remarked among the mass of other audiovisual materials at Hyde Park until Professor R.J. C. Butow came on them in 1978.

Professor Butow faced two problems: to decipher the recordings and to establish their provenance. This account of his quest deserves to become a new chapter in Robin W. Winks’s enjoyable anthology Historian as Detective .

The first problem, even with the later assistance of Geoffrey Ward, the editor of AMERICAN HERITAGE , and Professor Mark Weiss of Queens College, the acoustical expert, has not been entirely solved. But a substantial number of the forty-year-old words have been recovered. Future technological advances may bring back still more from the vaults of the past.

In his search, Professor Butow had the good fortune to track down the two men who knew most about the tapes—the late Henry Kannee and Jack Romagna, the official White House stenographers in the Roosevelt years. The Kannee-Romagna account is persuasive. FDR was angered when he was quoted after a meeting with the Senate Military Affairs Committee in 1939 as having said that America’s frontier was on the Rhine. In fact, Kannee’s transcript showed that the word “Rhine” had not been uttered; and to protect the President against future misquotation, Kannee cast about for some means of what we would now call taping such meetings. The White House recording machine was in use for eleven weeks during the tense 1940 campaign—from late August to early November. Its function was to record press conferences. At the same time, a number of private conversations were also recorded. Kannee told Professor Butow that he was never instructed to turn on the machine for this purpose, and he could not explain the informal talks. Their stop-and-go mode as well as their generally inconsequential character suggests that they may have been recorded by accident. Someone just forgot to turn the machine off.

With all their technical imperfections, the tapes add a fascinating dimension to our sense of the Roosevelt Presidency. They offer the historian the excitement of immediacy: FDR in casual, unbuttoned exchange with members of his personal staff. One is struck by how little the private voice differs from the public voice we know so well from the speeches. The tone is a rich and resonant tenor. The enunciation is clear, the timing is impeccable. The voice’s range is remarkable, from high to low in register and from insinuatingly soft to emphatically loud in decibel level. One appreciates more than ever FDR’s histrionic gifts, his relish, for example, in acting out imagined dialogues, as between Wendell Willkie and J. P. Morgan.

One understands, too, both FDR’s easy authority and the frustration of his visitors when they have messages of their own to impart. To a considerable degree, the tapes (apart from the press conferences) consist of FDR monologues. The listener almost feels the anxiety with which Sam Rayburn and John McCormack, the House Democratic leaders, wait for an opening so that they can slip in their own points. The President, imperturbable, deliberately oblivious, always in command, turning aside interruptions with his enigmatic “Yeah’p,” talks everyone else down; while at the same time, one feels, he absorbs through mysterious antennae the points they are trying to make.

Since FDR himself consumes most of the tapes and since the private chat—with the exception of one meeting that included black leaders—is with intimates, one must agree with Professor Butow that the conversations were probably recorded inadvertently and plainly not for purposes of entrapment.

Professor Butow’s evidence suggests that Roosevelt himself, despite his interest in history, disliked the machine. He would not even use it for such a historic occasion as the Cabinet meeting after Pearl Harbor. Further evidence sustains Professor Butow’s conclusion.

In 1943 Roosevelt learned that the State Department was about to publish in its historical series the notes of the meetings that Wilson, Lloyd George, Clemenceau, and Orlando held in Paris in 1919. On September 7 he asked his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to speak to him about this. “I have a distinct hesitation… because notes of these conversations ought not to have been taken down.”

Nine days later, after thinking it over some more, FDR sent Hull a second and still more forceful memorandum: “In those meetings of the Big Four in Paris no notes should have been kept. Four people cannot be conversationally frank with each other if somebody is taking down notes for future publication. I feel very strongly about this….”

Editor’s Note

Professor Butow is altogether too modest about the size of the task he set himself three years ago, as we here at AMERICAN HERITAGE learned when he allowed us to listen to his copies of the tapes. The recordings are difficult to understand at first: Roosevelt’s voice is usually fairly distinct but those of his visitors are murky at best; whole passages are indistinct or broken into fragments that are actually painful to the ear. To see if more might be retrieved from them, we turned to Professor Mark Weiss of Queens College, a pioneer in the technology of enhancing recorded speech who served on Judge John J. Sirica’s panel of technical experts during the Watergate grand jury investigation. With the kind help of Dr. William R. Emerson, the director of the FDR Library, and of Raymond Teichman, the curator of its audio-visual archive, Professor Weiss was permitted to re-record all of Roosevelt’s private conversations from the discs; he then processed them through a machine of his own devising to eliminate distracting sounds. The results were dramatic: gone is the incessant crackling; adjustments in the speed at which the re-recording was done have rendered Roosevelt’s words more distinct and made his voice seem much more familiar. Listening to them confirmed for us the almost uncanny accuracy of Professor Butow’s ear and also allowed us to decipher other conversations that time had not permitted him to attempt. On the following pages the transcripts for which Professor Butow was responsible bear his initials; those we made bear our own.

The Story Behind the Tapes FDR Talks Frankly — FDR Defends His Son — FDR discusses the uses of Political Scandal FDR and the Errant Publisher Fragments on Back-Room Politics and Civil Rights

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