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The Story Behind The FDR Tapes

July 2024
20min read

This country is … ready to pull the trigger if the Japs do anything. I mean we won’t stand any nonsense, public opinion won’t… if they do some fool thing.”

This is Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking in the privacy of the Oval Office in the fall of 1940; the President is running for an unprecedented third term while, overseas, Japan has entered into an Axis alliance linking Tokyo with Berlin and Rome.

Rapping on his desk for emphasis, Roosevelt summarizes the latest news from Japan: “There will be no war with the United States… on one condition, and one condition only…. The United States [must] demilitarize all of its naval and air and army bases in Wake, Midway, and Pearl Harbor.”

FDR pauses—then reacts: “God! That’s the first time that any damn Jap has told us to get out of Hawaii!”

The President would never have said this in public. No one living today can bear witness to the occasion; nor can FDR’s remarks be found in some lost memo of the conversation that has only now come to light. Spoken more than forty years ago but only recently discovered, his unforgettable words have been plucked from an extraordinary body of material: hitherto untapped recordings of the President’s voice, made secretly by an experimental “Continuous-film Recording Machine” hidden away in a small enclosure directly under the Oval Office.

I first became aware of these recordings in the spring of 1978, while pursuing an entirely different topic. Since then, I have been thoroughly immersed in trying to find, and fit together, the many missing pieces of what quickly proved to be a baffling historical jigsaw puzzle.

For me, the story began during a research visit to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York—a visit prompted largely by my desire to explore the origins of FDR’s interest in the Far East. One day, while talking to William R. Emerson, the director of the library, and to Raymond Teichman, the archivist in charge of the audio-visual unit, I complained about having to plod through endless boxes of documents. I was tired of doing that, I said; when were they going to let me listen to the FDR tapes?


I was joking, but they responded seriously. They said they did not have “tapes,” in the current sense of the term, but that the audiovisual collection did contain some unusual recordings about which very little was known.

Naturally my curiosity was aroused, and so I began to poke around. I soon learned that these unusual recordings covered fourteen of the twenty-one press conferences the President had held between August 23 and November 8, 1940. Of greater interest to me, however, was the news that a number of conversations in the Oval Office during those eleven weeks also had been recorded. All this treasure was now stored at the library on sixteen discs upon which the original sound-film had been re-recorded by the National Archives two years after the President’s death. To guard against accidental destruction, and to protect these “dubbings” from wear and tear, the authorities at the library eventually had re-recorded everything—this time onto a master tape.

So I found myself listening, in 1978, to tape-recorded copies of a master tape, itself taken from the discs onto which the original 1940 film had been dubbed in 1947. The sound quality was far from clear.

Why not listen to the original? Impossible: the film had so deteriorated by 1947 that it was destroyed as soon as the discs were made. Even if it still had been available, it could have been played only on the machine FDR had used—a prototype that never went into production. It had been dismantled years ago, thus becoming as much of a mystery as the “continuous-film” it used.

And so I had to be content with copies of copies. Knowing that complete typewritten texts, prepared from shorthand notes, could be consulted for all the press conferences, I decided to concentrate on the private conversations. I quickly discovered that I had undertaken quite a job. FDR’s voice had been picked up reasonably well by the hidden microphone but not the voices of others in the room. Scratching sounds (some made by FDR’s pen), background noise, and echoes made sections of the tape incomprehensible. And then two people would start to speak at the same moment, drowning each other out. The President himself was the worst offender in this regard; he usually went right on talking until the other person took the hint and relinquished the floor. Flaws in the original sound track, film deterioration, and perhaps some needle-skipping during the re-recording process had produced garbled passages. Some tapes began or ended in the middle of a sentence, while others seemed to contain portions of things I had heard on different reels.

Nevertheless, I could not let go of the matter, for here I was—nearly forty years later—eagerly eavesdropping on an American President candidly expressing himself on a variety of topics at a time of great national significance. As soon as I heard FDR say that some “damn Jap” had just told us “to get out of Hawaii,” I knew I not only must stick to the task I had begun but also must try to find out how and why these recordings had been made in the first place.

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.

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.

I began with the book “ Dear Mr. President … ,” an account of the half-century that Ira R. T. Smith had spent in the White House mail room. He had joined the clerical staff during the McKinley administration and was chief of mails when Harry S. Truman arrived in 1945. Among the tales told by Smith was an experience he had once had in the basement under the West Wing of the White House during the FDR years. According to Smith, part of the Oval Office was directly over an underground room that was divided in the middle by a wire partition. This formed a cage—always locked—that served as a storage, area for many of the gifts people endlessly mailed to the President.

One day Smith was visited by some members of the White House Secret Service detail who were concerned about a ventilator in the cage that carried fresh air from outside the building through a duct that terminated in the Oval Office. The Secret Service men had decided, they said, to make some modifications so that no one would be able to kill the President by placing a bomb in the duct.

“They took a key to the cage,” Smith recalled, “and in the next day or so workmen arrived and began making changes. The next time I went into the cage I took a look at what they had done. A wooden partition about five feet by four had been constructed from floor to ceiling. It had a door that was securely padlocked. I was curious about it, because it was the strangest bomb-prevention device I could imagine.

“One of the President’s most skillful stenographers did his work in the basement offices near my desk and had a key to the wire cage. I noticed that he frequently went to the cage, and one day when I was there he came out of the little room. The door was open and I saw a small desk and a chair inside. I nodded to the stenographer.

“‘Oh,’ I said, ‘got a machine in there, eh?’

“He laughed. ‘I was just getting some reports from upstairs,’ he said.

“I didn’t say anything more, but I noticed that the stenographer frequently went to the little room, where he obviously took down whatever conversation went on in the President’s office. We never discussed it, and I guess my staff kept on believing [what they had originally been told].”

Well, there it was. The rumor had grown out of this story.

I then went to the index to the vertical file, which produced several very dated clippings about Jack Romagna. One of them contained a home address in a Maryland community close to the nation’s capital—an address that was eighteen years old when I saw it. Soon thereafter I was talking to Mr. Romagna on the telephone!

Jack Romagna led me to Henry M. Kannee, his predecessor in the job of official White House stenographer. Here at last was a man who had been deeply involved in the conception and operation of the RCA machine—more deeply than any other person, living or dead, including even FDR himself.

Mr. Kannee recalled that the idea of using a recording device sprang from an incident that had made FDR very angry. On the last day of January, 1939, the President had conferred at the White House with some seventeen members of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. The main subject on FDR’s mind was “the first line of defense” for the United States. In the Pacific it was “a series of islands” that must be safeguarded so that the Japanese would not be able to dominate the entire Ocean and thus “prevent us from having access to the west coast of South America…. It is all a question of defending against Japan. We cannot say it out loud; it may be considered unfriendly.”

In the Atlantic our first line of defense was “the continued independent existence of a very large group of nations” threatened by Hitler and Mussolini. The major potential victims were England and France, but many other European countries were also in danger. If Europe were dominated by the Axis Powers, Africa—“95 per cent colonial”—would fall. “Brother Hitler” would then turn his attention to Central and South America. “Those are the simple facts…. Those are things you ought to regard. How far is it from Yucatan to New Orleans or Houston? How far from Tampico to St. Louis or Kansas City? How far? … I will do everything I can [do] to maintain the independence of these other nations by sending them all they can pay for on the barrelhead…. Now, that is the foreign policy of the United States.”

Some of the members of the committee spontaneously applauded, but then a senator asked: “Did you intend to leave the impression that it was the duty of this Government to help protect and maintain the independence of these nations… by whatever efforts may be necessary to do it?”

“No, no,” the President replied. “Listen: I probably saw more of the war in Europe [in the summer of 1918] than any living person…. Therefore you may be quite sure that about the last thing that this country should do is ever to send an army to Europe again.”

The President’s Senate supporters found this reassuring, but his opponents did not. The members of the Military Affairs Committee had barely taken their leave before someone began leaking to the press the confidential things the President had said. The New York Times , the next day, came out with a front-page story: “ ROOSEVELT TO HELP DEMOCRACIES ARM; PUTS OUR DEFENSE FRONTIER IN FRANCE; TELLS SENATORS OF DANGERS ABROAD .”

At a press conference held on February 3, 1939, the President faced the inevitable question: Had he in fact told the Senators “that the Rhine was our frontier in the battle of the democracies versus fascism?”

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.

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.

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