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Talking History

July 2024
1min read

One day last October I drove up the Hudson through corridors of brilliant foliage to Hyde Park, New York, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was born a century ago, and where the memory of his personality and his Presidency is preserved in the vast holdings of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. There I asked to see Dr. William Emerson, the director—and in less than half an hour I was sitting beneath the low ceiling of a soundproof room while Raymond Teichman, the curator of the audiovisual department, played me a private presidential conversation secretly recorded in the Oval Office of the White House more than forty years ago.

The remarkable story of how the FDR recordings were first discovered, why they were made, and what they reveal is told in the special section beginning on page 8. Rut what is perhaps most remarkable about them is what they have to say about the openness and integrity of American scholarship. It would have been entirely understandable if Dr. Emerson and his staff had dragged their feet in getting out this story in an effort to protect “their” President. After all, no one knew what the recordings might reveal when the project began. Instead, they could not have been more cooperative: they were as interested as we were in obtaining the most precise possible transcripts and in providing the correct historical context for them.

Dealing with archives in totalitarian countries is a very different proposition; if secret recordings of Soviet leaders, for example, were stored within the Kremlin walls, it seems at best unlikely that any objective journalist would be permitted anywhere near them. Such archives are little more than “mortuaries,” the historian Herbert Feis has written, “which only licensed embalmers are allowed to enter.”

But American scholarship remains free and full of life, and nothing could better underscore its fundamental strength than the canny, powerful lilt of Franklin Roosevelt’s voice.

Deciphering what that voice has to say has been an extraordinary experience. Bit by bit, repeated listening has begun to restore its meaning: a phrase that has sounded like “dear God’s own sake” through twenty repetitions suddenly becomes “as Jack Garner would say”; a half-heard reference to “Daugherty” turns a gossipy anecdote into a potential political scandal.

This is history at its most immediate—literally in the making—and we take special pleasure in being able to share it now with you.

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