Miller Center

The Lyndon B. Johnson White House Recordings: Overview

Between 1963 and 1969 Lyndon B. Johnson secretly recorded roughly 800 hours of conversations. The collection primarily consists of telephone recordings that Johnson made during his time in office. In 1968, Johnson began recording meeting conversations.

Transcripts

Editorial Note: Many of these transcripts are presented in draft form. Users are strongly encouraged to listen to the original sound file in tandem with reading the transcript. If you come across what you believe to be a significant error, please let us know atwhitehousetapes@virginia.edu (please be as specific as you can) so that we can investigate further and update as necessary.

Editors: David Coleman, Kent Germany, Guian McKee, and Marc Selverstone

Associate Editor: Pat Dunn

Assistant Editor: Keri Matthews

Recordings Overview

Table of contents 

  1. Telephone Recording Systems
  2. The Cabinet Room and Lounge Recording Systems
  3. Johnson's Reasons for Recording Conversations and Meetings
  4. Conclusion
  5. Notes
  6. Research Note: Revealing the Existence of LBJ's Taping System, by David Coleman

 

Vital Statistics

  • Collection size: 800 hours approx.
  • Begin Date: November 22, 1963
  • End Date: January 1969
  • Processing Status: The Telephone series has now been completely processed. Latest release (12/2008) included tapes up to January 1969. Processing of the Meetings (Cabinet) series not yet started.

Provenance & Description

Extract from John Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996). Used with permission.

One week after President Johnson's death on January 22, 1973, his longtime personal assistant Mildred Stegall transferred to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library custody of eight sealed Federal Records Center (FRC) boxes. She stated that Johnson considered the materials contained in the FRC boxes to be very sensitive and that he had instructed they were to remain sealed for fifty years after his death. The boxes contained recordings of some of Johnson's telephone conversations from November 22, 1963, through January 2, 1969. Stegall also transferred custody of reel-to-reel analog tapes of many meetings held in the Cabinet Room in 1968. [1]

Lyndon B. Johnson actually began "recording" his telephone conversations while in the Senate. He had his chief aide, Walter Jenkins, listen in on the conversation and take shorthand notes. [2] He began mechanically recording his telephone conversations while Vice President, using an Edison Voicewriter Recorder which used small, plastic circular discs. [3] Following President Kennedy's assassination, he began recording his telephone conversations in his Old Executive Office Building (EOB) office using an IBM system. Apparently, when he moved into the Oval Office four days later on November 26, 1963, he initially used Kennedy's Dictaphone system. [4] Gradually, President Johnson expanded his use of the Dictaphone system. He began recording his telephone conversations from other locations, such as in the master bedroom in the residence section of the White House and at the LBJ Ranch in Stonewall, Texas. While President, Johnson recorded approximately 9420 telephone conversations, totaling over 643 hours. [5]

Beginning in early 1968, Johnson had the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) install a conventional reel-to-reel analog recording system in the Cabinet Room and in his small private office next to the Oval Office. In this series, there are 143 analog tapes, documenting seventy-seven different meetings.

The recorded telephone conversations cover a variety of topics. They include: foreign policy, the Vietnam War and peace negotiations, legislation, civil rights, the economy, politics, labor issues, appointments, and press relations. [6] The 1968 Cabinet Room recordings primarily pertain to the Vietnam War peace negotiations and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, although there are a few recordings of meetings dealing with legislative matters, such as the 1968 Tax Bill. [7]

Telephone Recording Systems

IBM System

President Johnson experimented briefly with an IBM magnetic belt system for the first two days of his administration, recording twenty-four conversations onto seven belts. [8] For unknown reasons, the Edison Voicewriter system he used while vice President was removed. The new IBM system was apparently set up in his vice Presidential office in the Old Executive Office Building (EOB) around the time of his return to the White House after President Kennedy's assassination. [9] The IBM machine used magnetic belts and, like Dictabelts, recorded conversations as the belt spun in the machine. The few magnetic belts that the Johnson Library has are largely unintelligible, containing machine hiss and static that obscure the conversations. [10]

Dictaphone System

President Johnson only used the IBM system for two days, replacing it with a Dictaphone system. Johnson Library archivists believe that President Johnson initially used a Dictaphone machine which could record up to 30 minutes worth of conversations on a single belt. The archivists believe that, early in 1964, he switched to a machine that used 15-minute long belts. [11]

Physically, all the Dictabelts are made out of a transparent plastic material. The earliest Dictabelts were red in color, the same color as the Dictabelts used to record Kennedy's conversations. However, most of Johnson's Dictabelts are blue. Each Dictaphone machine held two Dictabelts, and the machine would automatically switch to the second belt and begin recording before the first belt ended, resulting in an overlap. This way, there was no interruption in the recording of a conversation. [12]

When he moved into the Oval Office on November 26, 1963, the one Dictaphone machine used by Evelyn Lincoln to record President Kennedy's conversations was still in place. [13] Marie Fehmer occupied Lincoln's desk and used her machine. [14] Apparently, Johnson had the WHCA technicians install a new machine on each of his other three secretaries' desks. [15] The machines were physically located inside the kneewells of each secretary's typing desk. From their office next to the Oval Office, the President's secretaries could record the President's conversations on the telephone lines that went into the Oval Office and the Little Lounge next to the Oval Office. [16]

Gradually, Johnson had WHCA install Dictaphones in several locations because he desired “complete coverage.” [17] Dictaphone recorders were installed in his bedroom in the residence section of the White House, at Camp David, and in two locations in Texas: in his office and bedroom on his ranch in Stonewal1. [18] The President himself controlled the switch on the machines attached to the telephones in his bedrooms while his secretaries controlled the switches to all the other Dictaphone machines. [19]

In addition, WHCA installed Dictabelt machines in the White House Situation Room and on the desk of the Duty Officer in the Communications Center. [20] Johnson also wanted a portable system that he could use when he traveled outside of Washington, D .C. [21] Although this machine was not used regularly, there are some recordings of the President speaking on the telephone while he traveled.

With one exception, President Johnson ordered all traces of the Dictaphone systems removed in mid-December 1968. WHCA removed the machines in the White House and at Camp David over the weekend of December 28, 1968. However, they left the machines at 
the President's ranch in place. [22]

When he was in the Oval Office or Little Lounge and wanted a telephone conversation recorded, Johnson would tell whichever one of his secretaries he was speaking with at the time to "take this." [23] Other times, if the conversation was already in progress, and he only then decided he wanted the conversation recorded, he apparently would press a button on his telephone signaling his secretary. The secretary would look in the Oval Office at Johnson and he would motion to her to record the conversation by twirling his finger in the air. She would then return to her desk and begin recording the conversation. [24] The secretary would activate her machine, and it would begin recording the minute the telephone line became active and go into pause mode the minute the line was no longer in use. If the secretary did not de-activate the machine, it would begin recording again as soon as that phone line became active. [25] As a result, some conversations were accidentally recorded, including conversations in which the President was not a participant. In addition, President Johnson recorded many telephone conversations while using his speakerphone. While the party Johnson was speaking to hung up the phone, on occasion, Johnson did not turn off his speakerphone. As a result, portions of some office conversations were recorded onto the Dictabelts. [26]

When a Dictabelt was full, the secretary would note the date, times, and the names of the participants on a slip and attach it to the Dictabelt. [27] Not all conversations were logged on the slip. Office conversations and all other accidentally recorded conversations as well as those conversations with the secretaries were not logged. For the most part, the secretaries logged the conversations that they were aware of, or that the President had asked them to record. [28] The first Dictabelt of each day was assigned the number “1.” As the day progressed, and more and more Dictabelts were recorded, these Dictabelts were assigned sequential numbers. Often there is only one recorded Dictabelt for a single day. Many days there are no recordings. However, on occasion, there are as many as eight or nine Dictabelts. These would be labeled “1” through “8” or “9.”

In addition, the secretaries would often note on the President's Daily Diary that a conversation was recorded. In these cases, the entries for telephone calls have a “b” with the appropriate Dictabelt number following the person's name, as in “b.1.” Sometimes secretaries placed a “nr” or “n/r,” for “not recorded,” after the person's name when a conversation was not recorded. [29]

There are many instances in which the secretaries did not enter this information in the Diary. Yolanda Boozer, one of President Johnson's personal secretaries, stated that often there was too much other work to be done, and they did not have the chance to go back later and add the information to the Diary. [30] At some point during Johnson's second term, the secretaries stopped writing this information in the Diary completely.

For the last five weeks of 1963, President Johnson used his telephone recording systems extensively, recording over 800 telephone conversations in only 39 days. [31] In 1964, he continued to use the Dictabelt system heavily, recording over 4,600 conversations throughout the year. However, in 1965 and subsequent years, the number of Dictabelt recordings dropped sharply. In 1965, Johnson recorded approximately 1,780 conversations; in 1966, this number decreased to around 1240; and in 1967, Johnson recorded only about 350 conversations. The number of recorded conversations increased slightly in 1968, to around 560. [32]

Johnson Library archivists do not fully understand why the number of recordings dropped so dramatically. Yolanda Boozer stated that the secretaries not only disliked transcribing the Dictabelt recordings, they disliked recording the conversations altogether. Boozer said that the Dictabelt recordings not only took up a tremendous amount of their time, but they also interfered with their work through constant interruptions. [33] Jack Albright and other members of the white House staff suggested that Johnson, in constant fear of leaks during his second term, was afraid that the existence of the Dictaphone system would become known. Therefore, he used the system infrequently and carefully. [34] Paul Glynn, the Presidents military aide from 1960-1971, also noticed a drop in the number of recordings. He suggested that Johnson recorded more often in the first fourteen months of his administration because he dealt “with so many different issues. He was trying to do everything and by recording, he could have that information right there in front of him.” [35]

Although most of the recorded conversations from November 1963, and early December 1963, discuss the assassination and transition of government, most of the December 1963, and remaining conversations from 1964 through 1969, cover a wide variety of topics. When asked if President Johnson specifically recorded certain topics or individuals, Dictabelt Project Archivist Regina Greenwell stated that there does not appear to be any discernible pattern to the recordings and “the conversations cover the entire gamut of presidential possibilities.” [36] Johnson recorded conversations discussing foreign policy, legislation, congressional relations, domestic initiatives, public relations, and a host of other presidential topics and issues. However, he occasionally recorded conversations discussing politics, including Texas politics, and personal business. Johnson recorded conversations with congressmen, governors, department and agency officials, members of the white House staff, and foreign leaders, but he also recorded personal conversations with friends and family. [37]

On occasion, the President asked that transcripts be prepared of some of the conversations he had recorded. Often “he wanted to know what he said, right after he said it.” [38] Either the President or Juanita Roberts, the most senior of the President's secretaries, would ask that a certain conversation be transcribed. [39] With the exception of Roberts, all of the President's secretaries participated in preparing transcripts. The secretaries typed the transcripts in standard manifold sets consisting of an original and four carbon copies. The secretaries generally transcribed the conversations in the evenings. The office was more secure, there was less work to do, and they could concentrate on transcription. [40]

Transcription was difficult "and tough to keep up with," according to Boozer. For the first few months following the assassination, Boozer stated that she did little else but transcribe telephone conversations. [41] A much higher percentage of transcripts exists from recordings from 1963 and 1964 than for recordings from the second term. Although Johnson used the Dictaphone system less after 1964, far fewer conversations were transcribed. Boozer recalled that not only was there simply too much other work to do but they also did not like transcribing conversations.

Transcribing was not easy. Although many recordings are clear and easy to understand, many others are not. Often, there was substantial machine noise; other times the telephone connection was poor. In addition to mechanical problems, there were speech problems too. People frequently spoke in sentence fragments, adding “uh's” and “ah's.” Other times, people extended sentences by adding “and” after “and.” People mumbled, slurred words, spoke fast, and spoke with difficult to understand accents. Boozer recalled that conversations between the President and Senator Everett Dirksen were especially "tough to understand." [42]

According to James R. Jones, Marvin Watson's chief aide from 1965 to 1967 and Deputy Assistant to the President in 1968, the President occasionally used the transcripts while in office. He used them “to refresh his memory and find out exactly what was said.” [43] When speaking with the same individual again, he would use them to refer back to their previous conversation. [44] Occasionally, these transcripts would be included in the President's Night Reading. According to Boozer, Johnson occasionally would edit and make corrections to transcripts. [45] She also stated that many transcripts and summaries of conversations were prepared after Johnson left the White House and that they were used in writing The Vantage Point. [46]

The secretaries gave the recorded Dictabelts and their identifying belt slips and any transcripts to Roberts who later gave them to Mildred Stegall, who was responsible for maintaining these files. The transcripts, apparently, were stored separately from the Dictabelts and filed in two series: a white carbon copy in an alphabetical name file, filed according to the last name of the person speaking with the President, and a yellow carbon copy in a chronological file, filed according to the date that the conversation took place. [47]

The Dictabelt collection is not complete: at least one Dictabelt recording is missing. According to the Presidents Daily Diary for Thanksgiving Day 1966, Johnson spoke to Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas from his Ranch in Texas. The Diary entry for that telephone call noted that the “belt [was] destroyed on President's instruction.” [48]

Johnson, according to Stegall, considered these records to be extremely sensitive, stating: "on an average of once every six months from 1964 until his death he would ask me for my assurance that this material was in a secure vault. He repeatedly stressed that no one was to have access to it." [49]

Stegall kept these recordings locked in a large safe in her office in the West Wing of the White House. Later, after Johnson left the white House and returned to Austin, Texas, Stegall was the custodian of these Dictabelts, and these materials were not specifically identified in President Johnson's original Letter of Intent of August 13, 1965. [50]

The Cabinet Room and Lounge Recording Systems

On December 16, 1967, President Johnson's special assistant Marvin Watson instructed Jack Albright, the Commanding General of the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) to install a recording system in the Cabinet Room and in the President's private lounge next to the Oval Office. [51] The two systems that were installed required the President to flip a switch to begin recording. Of the 143 analog tapes in this series, only five document meetings held in the small lounge. The remaining 138 are recordings of meetings held in the Cabinet Room between February 2, 1968, and December 9, 1968. In addition to the recordings, the series also contained many transcripts of the meetings, prepared by Mildred Stegall. [52]

Both the Cabinet Room and lounge recording systems were installed over the weekend of January 19, 1968, by Sergeant First Class Joseph B. Wilson and Navy Yeoman Gordon Olson under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel James Adams. [53] Adams was responsible for the white House Residence Branch of WHCA. He was responsible for maintaining the White House switchboard, the telephone systems, the "triple" television sets and news wire machines throughout the White House, and the pager buzzers to aides and secretaries. [54]

The Lounge System

The lounge was located adjacent to the Oval Office. It was originally designed for President Eisenhower following one of his heart attacks. He could rest there without having to walk all the way back to the mansion. People in the Johnson administration called this the "Little Lounge.” [55] Johnson felt that the lounge provided an informal and intimate setting to conduct business , [56] using this small office to conduct one-on-one meetings with individuals who were more susceptible to the "Johnson treatment" in a personal setting. [57] He also used the little lounge for privacy and to relax. It was equipped with three small television sets, the Fresca and coffee buttons, and direct telephone lines and pager buzzers to his chief aides. [58] Johnson preferred informal settings and this office provided a relaxed atmosphere, placing everyone at ease. There, he could dictate memos, have informal conversations and meetings, read his Night Reading materials, and place telephone calls while relaxing. [59]

Olson and Wilson installed two small microphones in the lounge. [60] The control switch was located on the President's writing table below the "triple" television sets. [61] The activation switch was attached to the control box containing the Fresca and coffee switches and pager buzzers to his aides. The system was removed over the weekend of December 28, 1968. [62]

The Tandberg recording machine for the lounge was located in the basement of the West Wing of the White House in Adams’ office along with the two recording machines for the Cabinet Room. They were kept in a locked cabinet, hidden from view. [63] The recorded tapes were delivered to Mildred Stegall by WHCA technicians. [64] She labeled the Little Lounge recordings "little," and filed them in her safe.

Albright recalled that the Little Lounge system was rarely used, although he believes that it was used on more than five occasions. [65] There are only five recordings from this location, and none of those tapes were transcribed. The few recordings that do exist are difficult to understand. There is significant background noise and voices are barely audible, possibly because of the distance between the speakers and the microphones. In addition, it appears as though the President simply decided to flip the switch at random times: none of the five tapes are of recorded meetings. Rather, they appear to contain general conversation interspersed with long periods of room noise. Most of the recorded tapes in this "Little Lounge" series contain nothing but recorded room noise, suggesting that the President flipped the recording switch for an unknown reason and forgot to turn it off. Quite possibly, he also could have flipped the recording switch mistakenly. [66]

The Cabinet Room System

President Johnson used the Cabinet Room for many different types of activities. In addition to holding Cabinet meetings there, Johnson used this room for holding national security meetings, foreign and domestic policy meetings, and for meeting with large groups of individuals, such as congressional leaders. Many Vietnam briefings were conducted in the Cabinet Room. In addition, the Cabinet Room was large enough to accommodate more people than the Oval Office and yet provided the same formal, business-like atmosphere.

The Cabinet Room system was also installed on January 19, 1968. During installation, Wilson and Olson drilled eight holes into the underneath portion of the Cabinet Room table. [67] Microphones the size of a lapel pin were then inserted and connected to a central mixer in the middle of the underneath portion of the table. [68]

The switch controlling the recording system was located on the table by the President's chair. Like the lounge system, the control box also contained buttons to summon his aides and secretaries as well as buttons for refreshments. [69] Wires leading from the mixer were drilled through the floor of the Cabinet Room to the basement of the West Wing, and led to Adams' office. As with the Little Lounge system, the recording machines were located in the locked cabinet in his office. [70]

The President had to manually press a switch to begin recording a meeting. [71] Often, he activated the recording system while the meeting was already in progress. Usually, from comparing the meeting times on the President's Daily Diary to the running time of the recorded meeting, only the first few minutes were not recorded. However, there are a few recordings which begin in the middle of the meeting. On one occasion, he turned the system on just as the meeting was ending. [72] Other times, the President turned the machine off before the meeting ended.

More often than not, the President forgot to turn the machine off as the meeting ended. As a result, much general conversation was recorded. Conversations immediately following the meeting were usually unintelligible because everyone spoke at once. There were long periods of recorded room "silence," broken by short periods of noise and conversation when a cleaning crew entered the room to remove the glasses from the table and vacuum the floor. On rare occasions, other meetings which often did not include the President were unintentionally recorded. [73]

A second system was installed in the Cabinet Room in the early part of April 1968. [74] Olson recalled that the second system was installed for two reasons. First, it was “standard operating procedure to have a back-up for all electronic machines, just in case one failed.” He believed that this second system was a “back-up system which would record along with the other machine, just in case the first one failed.” [75] Second, both he and Albright recalled that the President was not happy with the recording system because the recordings were too difficult to understand. Some voices were faint while others were too loud and, as a result, distorted. Albright remembered that WHCA “experimented” to see if they could solve the intelligibility problem by installing a second system. The one switch on the control box by the President's chair would automatically operate both machines. [76]

Tape reels from the original system were labeled “1” by WHCA technicians, and tape reels from the second system were labeled “2.” [77] Completed tapes were brought to Mildred Stegall. She inscribed "big" on these tapes. "Big" denoted that these tapes were recordings of meetings held in the Cabinet Room. Stegall was the only individual who transcribed these meeting tapes. [78] As with the Dictabelt transcripts, some of the meeting transcripts were apparently included in the President's Night Reading material. On occasion, he would annotate or make corrections on the transcripts. The transcripts were then returned to Stegall who filed them with the analog tapes in her safe. [79]

It is possible that some of the Cabinet Room tapes were erased and used a second time. There are two transcripts in the series for which there are no tapes. There are many tapes which "click" on and begin recording, only to quickly "click" off and go blank. Almost immediately following the second "click," the machine "clicks" on again and the recording of the meeting begins. Albright recalled that, on a few occasions, WHCA did re-use some of the tapes once they had been transcribed. He believed that Johnson was primarily interested in having the transcript of what was said. [80]

As stated earlier, the recordings proved difficult to understand. The installation of the second system was not successful in improving the quality of the recorded sound. There are many reasons for the poor sound quality on these recordings. The recording system that was used was cheap and inadequate. The microphones were not suited for this type of recording. [81] They picked up a tremendous amount of background noise, such as people coughing or having side conversations. On occasion, they also recorded the sound of helicopter blades whirling on the White House lawn or the sounds of sirens of emergency vehicles passing the White House. [82]

One recording appeared to have been "jammed." On April 3, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy and Ted Sorensen met with the President in the Cabinet Room. Although Johnson's recording system was a closely held secret, Albright and Juanita Roberts believed that Robert Kennedy knew about Johnson's system. [83] Roberts mentioned an earlier Oval Office meeting between Robert Kennedy and Johnson in 1964. Johnson had a speakerphone on his desk with a button that glowed red when activated. Roberts believed that when Kennedy saw this button glowing red, he assumed it was recording their conversation. [84] Apparently, for their April 3, 1968, meeting, Kennedy brought a briefcase with him and kept it at his feet during the entire meeting. The recording of this meeting is completely unintelligible. There is a constant "buzz" sound for the duration of the meeting. After listening to the tape, Albright told the President that Kennedy must have jammed the recording of the meeting “with an electronic buzzer.” [85]

The placement of the microphones on the Cabinet Room table caused intelligibility problems. They recorded table noise such as people setting their glasses down on the table or emptying their pipes in the ashtrays. They recorded knees knocking against the underside of the table." In addition, wires were unprotected and not insulated, resulting in interference. [86] Olson recalled that, in fact, the air conditioning system did cause interference. [87] Johnson was also constantly worried about costs. In this case, WHCA probably installed a cheaper system that was "adequate" for the job, while keeping costs down. [89]

Johnson's Reasons for Recording Conversations and Meetings

President Johnson, according to a former White House aide, was determined to end much of the wiretapping done by the Kennedy administration. He issued orders to federal agencies prohibiting wiretapping except in national security cases, specifically mentioning this prohibition in the 1967 State of the Union Address. [90] Johnson did not believe his recording systems were “wiretapping” or eavesdropping systems. Rather, he believed that they were to be used to create a record of a conversation or meeting.

President Johnson “was always collecting information,” according to his Press Secretary, George Reedy, and he “was always concerned about the present.” [91] He insisted on having as much information as possible on an issue before making a decision. [92] According to Albright, Johnson was “the type of person who wanted to know exactly what he said to someone, one minute after he said it.” [93] James R. Jones, President Johnson's Appointments Secretary in 1968, recalled that the Cabinet Room recording system was installed primarily to record meetings concerning the Vietnam War peace negotiations: “many peace feelers [were] being explored and the nuance of words meant very much.” According to Jones, “President Johnson wanted an accurate record of what was said so that he could refer to those conversations.” [94]

Many believe it was for this reason that he would tell his chief aide, Walter Jenkins, and later Marvin Watson and James Jones, which conversations he wanted transcribed. Jenkins (and later Watson) would have the President's secretaries transcribe those conversations. Johnson used many of the transcripts to collect precise information on an issue. The transcripts were filed in Stegall's safe and could be retrieved on a moments notice to provide additional information. [95]

Secondly, as President, Johnson was concerned that his statements and wishes were accurately reported and carried out. The recording systems were a means of "protection," a way to ensure this was done. [96] The President met with many people each day, issuing orders and providing and receiving advice. Sometimes, people meeting with the President would honestly misinterpret what had been said. Other times, people would purposefully misinterpret Johnson's orders for their own benefit. In addition, a person meeting with the President might tell him one thing in private and then publicly tell the press the opposite. [97]

Lastly, President Johnson used transcripts and summaries of the recordings in writing his memoirs, The Vantage Point. According to Richard Nixon, Johnson told him in late 1970 that it had been a mistake to remove the recording system because Johnson's “tapes were invaluable in preparing his memoirs.” [98] Yolanda Boozer stated that Johnson did, in fact, use many of his meeting and telephone conversation transcripts in writing The Vantage Point. [99] In the preface of the book, Johnson wrote that he “had drawn heavily on the printed record—public papers, memoranda, notes from meetings and from phone calls, diaries, letters, Secret Service logs, and so on.” [100] In fact, portions of many transcripts were used verbatim throughout the book.

 

Conclusion

Although the letter of transfer donating the recordings specified that they were to remain sealed for fifty years, the Library staff was concerned about the potential deterioration of the collection should they remain sealed for fifty years. Harry Middleton, the Director of the Johnson Library, felt that the Library had the obligation to ensure that the collection was preserved. As a result, the archivists began initial preservation efforts in the mid-1970s. [101]

In 1990, after conferring with Don Wilson, the Archivist of the United States, Gary Brooks, the NARA General Counsel, and Larry Temple, a member of the LBJ Foundation Board of Directors who also served in the Johnson White House as Special Counsel, Middleton decided he had the legal authority to break the seal and begin processing the collection for public release, believing that it was “historically very important.” [102] After informing Mrs. Johnson of his decision, archivists began taking necessary steps to preserve and duplicate this collection. Later, in response to the John F. Kennedy Assassinations Records Collection Act of 1992, all known recorded telephone conversations identified as relating to the assassination of President Kennedy were released to the public on November 30, 1993. [103] These released conversations have been included in several books and television programs about the assassination. They have provided the public with new historical information on the Kennedy assassination and the beginning period of the Johnson presidency.

The recordings provide a unique insight on the Johnson presidency. They show President Johnson negotiating, persuading, collecting information, and making decisions. They detail how he dealt with foreign policy crises, the Vietnam War, and the Paris Peace Talks. The recordings detail his legislative efforts and the strategies used in passing landmark legislation. Like few other primary sources, the recordings show how the Johnson White House and how Lyndon Johnson operated during his terms of office. In discussing the importance of the recordings to historians, Middleton, himself a former Johnson administration speechwriter, said “so much of the essence of the man came across in personal conversations and was not committed to paper.” [104] As the archivists process these materials for public release, historians, members of the press, and the general public will benefit from a new understanding of Lyndon Johnson and his presidency.

_____________________________

Notes

[1] Memo of Transfer, Mildred Stegall to Harry Middleton, January 29, 1973, LBJ Library; and attachment dated July 17, 1973, LBJ Library.
[2] Interview with Claudia Anderson, Dictabelt Project Archivist at the LBJ Library on September 21, 1995. Johnson may have also used other trusted staff, like Mildred Stegall, to take shorthand notes. See also: Historical Materials in the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, LBJ Library (Austin: 1988) p. 11. This series is titled "Notes and Transcripts of Johnson Conversations, 1951 1963," and includes transcripts from both the Senate and Vice Presidential years.
[3] The Johnson Library has approximately 160 of these discs, but does not have any in-house means to play them.
[4]Telephone interview with Wilson, April 15, 1996. 
[5] Mary Knill, Dictabelt Project Archivist at the LBJ Library, to John Powers, February 26, 1996, LBJ Library. See Appendix A for a copy of this table. The Dictabelt Project archivists at the Johnson Library are continuing to process this collection. It is possible that additional conversations will be identified. The figures used in this paper are accurate as of February 26, 1996.
[6] Interview with Regina Greenwell, Dictabelt Project Archivist, Lyndon B. Johnson Library, January 10, 1996.
[7] I interviewed several former Johnson administration officials. They all believed that the Cabinet Room system was installed strictly to record all of the White House deliberations of the Vietnam War peace negotiations.
[8] Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations: JFK Assassination-Related Conversations finding aid, LBJ Library. 
[9] Ibid. I have been unable to determine why and when the Edison Voicewriter system was replaced, or how many IBM machines were installed. Johnson Library archivists believe that the IBM system was used for only two days because there are no IBM magnetic belts of telephone conversations dated before November 22, 1963, or after November 23, 1963. All recorded telephone conversations from November 24, 1963, onward are on Dictabelts.
[10] Ibid. Although the conversations are unintelligible, there are transcripts for these conversations.
[11] Ibid. Johnson Library archivists have found only one memo noting the existence of a 30-minute machine. The Dictaphone machines used by the archivists were not the same machines used during the Johnson administration. The later models used by the archivists to process the collection have a manual speed variance control. The archivists found it difficult to replicate the original playing speed.
[12] Telephone interview with Wilson, April 15, 1996.
[13] Ibid. See also: Presidential Recordings finding aid, Kennedy Library.
[14] Interview with Boozer, November 30, 1995, LBJ Library. 
[15] Telephone interview with Wilson, April 15, 1996.
[16] Ibid. See also: Telephone interview with Jack Albright, Commanding General, White House Communications Agency, 1965-1973, on December 12, 1995. Wilson recalled that the Dictaphones were not tied to certain telephones. Rather, they were tied to phone lines going into the Oval Office and lounge. 
[17] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. The Dictaphone recorders were code-named "Charlie Brown's" by WHCA personnel.
[18] Bill Gulley with Mary Ellen Reese, Breaking Cover, Simon and Schuster (New York: 1980) pp. 77-85. See also: Telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995; interview with Boozer, November 30, 1995; "Memo for the Record: Meeting with Yolanda Boozer and Mildred Stegall," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library.
[19] Telephone interview with Paul Glynn, Military Aide to the President, 1960-1971, February 28, 1996.
[20] Breaking Cover, p. 83. See also: telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995. These machines were controlled by Communications Center personnel. On occasion, they would
record the President speaking to an individual, but more often than not, they would record the Duty officer speaking with another individual. Archivists have filed these recordings in a separate series titled "Situation Room Recordings."
[21] Ibid, p. 82. See also: Telephone interview with Wilson, April 15, 1996; telephone interview with Glynn, February 28, 1996. Glynn recalled that LBJ primarily used this system for dictation.
[22] Breaking Cover, p. 84. See also: Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995.
[23] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995, LBJ Library. In some cases, Johnson's orders to "take this" were accidentally recorded when the Dictaphone machine was left on.
[24] Juanita Roberts Oral History, AC 84-20, p. 8.
[25] The President and his secretaries used the same phone lines. Thus, if a secretary forgot to de-activate the Dictaphone machine, it would begin recording the minute either the Secretary or the President picked up the phone attached to that line. 
[26] Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations: JFK Assassination-Related Conversations finding aid, LBJ Library.
[27] Not all Dictabelts had slips attached to them. Some had notations in grease pencil written directly on the belts. Still others had no notes at all.
[28] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995. Johnson Library archivists found these slips to be very accurate and used them to compile an initial inventory of the collection.
[29] Diaries and Logs, finding aid, LBJ Library, p. 3.
[30] Interview with Boozer, November 30, 1995, LBJ Library. 
[31] Mary Knill to John Powers, February 26, 1996, LBJ Library. See Appendix A for a table detailing the year-by-year breakdown of the number of conversations recorded and the approximate number of hours, and the definition of the term "conversation" as used in this paper and as used by Johnson Library archivists. For 1963, just under 700 unique conversations have been processed under the special circumstances of the JFK Assassination Records Collection Act of 1993.
[32] James R. Jones, President Johnson's appointments secretary in 1968, attributes this slight increase in 1968 to Johnson's efforts to end the Vietnam War.
[33] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995.
[34] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. 
[35] Telephone interview with Glynn, February 28, 1996.
[36] Memo, Regina Greenwell to John Powers, January 10, 1996, LBJ Library.
[37] Interview with Claudia Anderson at the LBJ Library, January 4, 1996. Possibly, conversations with family members may have been recorded accidentally.
[38] Telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995. 
[39] "Memo for the Record: Meeting with Mildred Stegall and Yolanda Boozer," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library. The LBJ Library Archives staff estimates that roughly 40% of the conversations recorded on the Dictabelts have either been transcribed or summarized.
[40] Interview with Boozer, November 30, 1993, LBJ Library. See also: "Memo for the Record: Meeting with Mildred Stegall and Yolanda Boozer," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Interview with James R. Jones, March 19, 1996, LBJ Library.
[44] Telephone interview with Glynn, February 28, 1996.
[45] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995.
[46] Ibid. From their research, Johnson Library archivists believe that the conversation summaries were prepared during the post-presidential period.
[47] Copies from one file are not always in the other. In the post-presidential period, Stegall continued to add transcripts and summaries to the files as they were prepared. These files were used extensively in preparing The Vantage Point. 
[48] November 24, 1966, The President's Daily Diary, Box 8, LBJ Library.
[49] Memo of Transfer, Stegall to Middleton, January 29, 1973, and attachment dated July 17, 1973, LBJ Library.
[50]Stegall also controlled access to the Cabinet Room recordings series, and these recordings were not specifically included in the 1965 Letter of Intent.
[51] Breaking Cover, p. 79. See also: telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995. See Appendix B for a 1968 diagram of the West Wing of the White House.
[52] "Memo for the Record: Meeting with Mildred Stegall and Yolanda Boozer," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library.
[53] Telephone interview with Wilson on April 15, 1996. See also: Telephone interview with Gordon Olson, April 15, 1996; telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995; Breaking Cover, pp. 78-79.
[54] Telephone interview with Wilson, April 15, 1996.See also: telephone interview with Robert Dalton, Executive Officer of WHCA, 1965-1969, December 1, 1995. President Johnson also had several direct lines to aides' offices and houses which were installed by Adams' branch. Adams was also responsible for installing and maintaining the Fresca and coffee buzzers in the White House. If any problems with the Dictaphone machines developed, they called Adams' office.
[55] See Appendix C for a diagram of the lounge.
[56] Interview with Jones, March 19, 1996, LBJ Library. See also: interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995, LBJ Library. 
[57] Interview with Jones, March 19, 1996, LBJ Library.
[58] President Johnson had control boxes installed in his White House offices. Typically, the control boxes were equipped with two buzzers to page his secretary and Chief of Staff, and
two buttons to page the military valet who was stationed in a small office next to the Oval Office. The valet would bring him either a Fresca soft drink or coffee, depending on which button the President pushed.
[59] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995. See also: interview with Jones, March 19, 1996.
[60] Telephone interviews with Wilson and Olson, April 15,
1996.
[61] Ibid.
[62] Breaking Cover, p. 84. In my telephone interview with Albright, he mistakenly believed that the two analog recording systems were removed in either late Summer of early Fall of 1968 because the systems were not satisfactory.
[63] Telephone interviews with Olson and Wilson, April 15, 1996. See also: Breaking Cover, p. 79; telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. Although Albright mistakenly believed that the Little Lounge recording machine was kept in the lounge itself, he recalled that the Cabinet Room system was located in the basement.
[64] “Memo for the Record: Meeting with Mildred Stegall and Yolanda Boozer," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library.
[65] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. 
[66] As with the Cabinet Room system, the recording switch was on a control panel with the Fresca and coffee switches as well as aides buzzers.
[67] Breaking Cover, p. 80. See Appendix D for a schematic drawing of the placement of the microphones in the Cabinet Room table.
[68] Telephone interviews with Olson and Wilson, April 15, 1996. See also: telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995.
[69] Breaking Cover, pp. 79-80. See also: telephone interview with Bill Gulley on October 17, 1995.
[70] Ibid. See also: telephone interviews with Olson and Wilson, April 15, 1996.
[71] With isolated exceptions, the machines recorded at a speed of 1 7/8 inches per second, allowing for up to three hours of recording time per reel. Although most of the recordings end well before three hours, there are tapes that have been entirely recorded.
[72]It is possible that he intended to press another switch on the control box but accidentally pressed the recording system switch.
[73] Interview with Regina Greenwell, Archivist, LBJ Library.
[74]Johnson Library archivists have not located any records indicating when this second system was installed. Albright does not recall the date other than it was in the spring. The meeting recorded on April 2, 1968, only has one recording. The recording of the meeting on the next day, April 3, 1968, is the first meeting of the series to have dual recordings. For the most part, a vast majority of the meetings recorded after this date have "concurrent" recordings.
[75] Telephone interview with Olson, April, 15, 1996. 
[76] Ibid. and telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995.
[77] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. Johnson Library archivists call these twin recordings "concurrent" recordings: there are subtle differences between the two recordings. Depending on the location of the speaker, the voice will differ on concurrent tape "1" from concurrent tape “2.”
[78] "Memo for the Record: Meeting with Mildred Stegall and Yolanda Boozer," August 25, 1993, LBJ Library.
[79] Ibid. and Memo of Transfer, Stegall to Middleton, January 29, 1973, and attachment, July 17, 1973, LBJ Library. 
[80] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. 
[81] Ibid. See also: telephone interview with Olson, April 15, 1996.
[82] Telephone interview with Albright, December 12, 1995. 54
[83] Ibid. See also: Juanita Roberts Oral History, AC 84-20, LBJ Library, p. 8.
[84] Juanita Roberts Oral History, AC 84-20, p. 8. The Dictabelt collection does, in fact, contain a recording of part of an office meeting between Robert Kennedy and President Johnson in 1964.
[85] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. See also: Telephone interview with Gulley on October 17, 1995. Gulley recalled that Kennedy aides "bragged about jamming the meeting." Gulley mistakenly thought that the second system was installed immediately following this meeting to prevent any future jamming incidents. When asked about the possibility of Kennedy "jamming" the meeting, both Olson and Wilson thought it unlikely.
[86] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. 
[87] Telephone interview with Charles Mayn, Audio Specialist, Special Media Preservation Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, on December 21, 1995. There are instances where a second conversation breaks in and blocks the recording of the meeting. Quite likely these conversations are between individuals using radios to communicate to each other (Marine 1 helicopter pilots, Secret Service agents, or other WHCA personnel).
[88] Telephone interview with Olson, April 15, 1996. 
[89] Ibid.
[90] Joseph A. Califano, The Triumph and Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, Simon and Schuster (New York: 1991) p. 183 and 187. 
[91] Telephone interview with George Reedy on August 16, 1995.
[92] Interview with Jones, March 19, 1996, LBJ Library.
[93] Telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995. 
[94] Letter from James R. Jones to John Powers, December 26, 1995, LBJ Library.
[95] It is interesting to note that Johnson was the only President to actively "use" his recordings while in office which certainly suggests that these recordings were, for him, an important means of gathering information.
[96] Telephone interview with Reedy on August 16, 1995.
[97] Ibid. See also: telephone interview with Albright on December 12, 1995.
[98] Richard Nixon, RN: Memoirs of Richard Nixon, Grosset and Dunlap (New York: 1978) p. 501.
[99] Interview with Boozer on November 30, 1995, LBJ Library. 
[100] Lyndon B. Johnson, The Vantage Point, Holt, Reinhart and Winston (New York: 1971) p. x.
[101] Interview with Harry Middleton, Director of the Johnson Library, May 22, 1996. The initial efforts mainly consisted of identification and some description. Although the reel-to-reel collection was partially duplicated at this time, none of the Dictabelts were duplicated.
[102] Ibid.
[103] Recordings and Transcripts of Conversations, JFK Assassination Related Conversations finding aid, LBJ Library, p. 4. Portions of a few of these telephone conversations remain closed due to national security or privacy concerns.
[104] "Johnson Tapes Provide Rich Historical Treasure," Washington Post, February 5, 1982, p. A-22.


 

Research Note: Revealing the Existence of LBJ's Taping System

by David Coleman

The notion that the President might be secretly recording his telephone calls and meetings did not become the topic of widespread public attention until Alexander Butterfield first revealed the existence of Richard Nixon's recording system during the course of the Watergate investigations. When the Nixon White House claimed that previous administrations had also taped, Harry Middleton, the director of the LBJ Library, confirmed that Johnson had done so even as several former LBJ aides and the Secret Service professed ignorance. [1] But there were at least some public mentions of LBJ's recording system almost a decade before the Watergate investigations.

In general, knowledge of the taping system was closely kept to only a few aides and some White House secretaries who were assigned the task of creating transcripts for Johnson's use. Nevertheless, some in Washington knew privately of LBJ's taping system. One source was President Kennedy's long-time personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln. In his memoirs, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., wrote of his learning of the system from Lincoln in March 1964.

Evelyn Lincoln told me at luncheon that all LBJ's phone talks are taken down on tape. They are immediately transcribed by the girls in her old office and then given to the President the first thing in the morning, so he can see what he said. What a treasure trove for the historian! and what a threat to the rational and uninhibited conduct of government! [2]

 

Theodore White's The Making of the President, 1964

At some point, Robert Kennedy also learned of the recording system, perhaps from Schlesinger or Lincoln. That, in turn, was disclosed to journalist and historian Theodore White. In his 1965 book, The Making of the President, 1964, White described the July 1964 meeting in which Johnson told Kennedy that despite pressure on him to do so, he would not be naming Kennedy as his running mate in the upcoming election.

Thereafter, since the story [of LBJ's cutting RFK from the ticket] was out, friends of the Attorney General began to make available Robert F.
Kennedy's version of the story.

He had indeed come at one o'clock to the Oval Office and the President had sat behind his desk. The business part of the conversation had
taken only a few minutes of the forty-five minute session. The President had looked at the wall, then looked at the floor, then said
that he'd been thinking about the Vice-presidency in terms of who'd be the biggest help to the country and the Party--and of help to him,
personally. And that person wasn't Bobby.

The Attorney General had said fine, and offered to help and support him. The Attorney General had been restrained during the entire conversation--he knew that the President had taken to the habit of recording conversations in his office on tape, and he could see that the buttons were down and the tape recorder was on. [3]

 

Leak to the Washington Post's Chalmers Roberts

But there was an even earlier public disclosure that LBJ had a taping system connected to his telephone. Coming at the height of the 1964 election campaign, it was the product of a politically motivated leak.

A key part of the Johnson campaign's strategy was to paint the Republican candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as trigger-happy and reckless, charges that found their ultimate expression in the famous "Daisy" TV advertisement, in which the Johnson campaign implied that Goldwater might lead the country into a nuclear war. But even before that commercial aired, the charge that Goldwater was reckless was starting to stick. 

At a press conference on August 12 in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Goldwater lashed out in frustration. Asked by a reporter to answer the Johnson campaign's accusation that he was "impulsive and imprudent and trigger-happy," Goldwater accused Johnson of hypocrisy, claiming that just over a week earlier Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had themselves authorized the use of nuclear weapons in response to the Tonkin Gulf attacks on August 3-4. Goldwater was apparently misinterpreting a statement McNamara had made at a press conference on the afternoon of August 5. McNamara had been asked what orders he had issued to the Seventh Fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin and he responded that the Fleet had been told to protect themselves with "whatever force is necessary." By focusing on that phrase, Goldwater overlooked public assurances given the previous night (August 4) by McNamara and the State Department that no nuclear weapons would be used. Nevertheless, as the story played out in the press in following days, Goldwater stuck to the accusation. On August 14, in direct response to Goldwater's charge, the Pentagon declassified and released a section of the original orders to the Seventh Fleet. Those orders specified that the military response was to utilize "conventional ordnance only." [4]

But as the campaign heated up, the issue of nuclear [im]prudence lingered and was thrust into the center of the campaign with the September 7 broadcast of the "Daisy" commercial. As Goldwater found himself on the defensive, he continued to charge that Johnson himself had already proved his own recklessness with the response to the Tonkin attacks in early August. Evidently, Johnson, or someone very close to him, decided to answer the accusation by leaking to Washington Postreporter Chalmers Roberts some information that that could only come from the inner sanctum of the White House. In an October 4 article on the election campaign, under the subheading "Orders Now Taped," Roberts wrote:

After Sen. Goldwater implied that Mr. Johnson had permitted the possible use of nuclear weapons in the Aug. 4 incidents, the Administration was able to say that orders for the use of "conventional ordnance only" had been issued. Now the President has taken the precaution of adding a recording device to his telephone so that his orders, and he has given some tactical orders to the Navy, are on tape for the record. [5]

The source of Roberts' information is unclear, but it is possible--perhaps even likely--that it came from Johnson himself. It was not unusual for Johnson to call reporters to suggest material for columns; indeed, at least one such call with Roberts was recorded, an August 15 call in which Johnson had addressed directly and at length Goldwater's "nuclear" charge. No mention of the recording system is made in the open part of that conversation, but one minute of the recording, at a point in the conversation when Roberts asks about "the technical control situation," remains closed by the LBJ Library. [6]  The type of information in Roberts' October 4 article, characterized as "the word at the White House," was also consistent with the type of information he would have gleaned from talking personally with the President. The information does not seem to have appeared elsewhere, which would also seem to indicate a private conversation between Roberts and Johnson or someone close to him rather than a public press statement provided to multiple reporters.

Although the Roberts article implied that LBJ's telephone recording system was designed for specific and limited use, it nevertheless amounts to the first known public disclosure of the existence of White House tapes.

Recommendations for further reading:

David Shreve, Preface, The Presidential Recordings: Lyndon B. Johnson: The Kennedy Assassination and the Transfer of Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), pp.xxiii-xl.

John Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings and the Archival Issues Surrounding Their Use" (1996)

Footnotes

  • 1. Jules Witcover, "LBJ Aides Disavow System," Washington Post, 17 July 1973, p.A1.
  • 2. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Diary entry for March 25, 1964.
  • 3. Theodore White, The Making of the President, 1964 (New York: Atheneum, 1965), p.278.
  • 4. Tom Wicker, "Navy Order Cited in A-Bomb Dispute," New York Times, 15 August 1964, p.1; Chalmers M. Roberts and Murrey Marder, "'Conventional Ordnance' Specified in Viet Action," Washington Post, 15 August 1964, p.A1
  • 5. Chalmers M. Roberts, "Johnson Expects to Win With Rating Shift," Washington Post, 4 October 1964, pA2.
  • 6. See Conversation WH6408-22-4962, 4963.