Eisenhower Secret White House Recordings: Collection Specifications

Eisenhower Secret White House Recordings: Collection Specifications

Vital Statistics

  • Size of Collection: 4.5 hours (Presidential) | 10 hours (Pre-Presidential)
  • Date: 1955 (Presidential) | 1950-51 (Pre-Presidential)
  • Processing Status: Completed

Powers, "The History of Presidential Audio Recordings" (1996)

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

President Dwight D. Eisenhower recorded at least twenty-five meetings he held in the Oval Office between October 12, 1953, and December 9, 1958. [1] Although the tapes apparently no longer exist and little is known about his recording system, there are records at the Eisenhower Library that provide a glimpse of his system. [Editor's note: Since 1996, the Eisenhower Library has found and made available several recordings. See above.]

In March of 1953, Charles Willis asked the White House Communications Agency (WHCA) about the possibility of installing a recording device for President Eisenhower. At the time, Willis was an assistant to Sherman Adams, the Chief of Staff. Willis was responsible for personal and confidential matters.[2] Lieutenant Colonel George McNally, the Commander of WHCA, recommended the Tycoon Soundscriber machine, forwarding the company's literature describing the machine and its costs to Willis. [3]

According to Ann Whitman, Eisenhower's personal secretary, the machine was "a monster" and was located in a cabinet by her desk in her office next to the Oval Office. [4] The microphone was located in the receiver of "a dummy telephone" on the President's desk. [5] The on/off button was located in the kneewell of his desk. [6] There is some dispute as to how the system operated. Whitman recalled that the President would use this switch to signal her to begin recording. [7] However, John Waybrant, who maintained the system, recalled that the President would activate the machine by pressing the "on" button. [8] Editorial comments written on the transcripts as they were being prepared suggest that Eisenhower, in fact, controlled the system. [9]

The Soundscriber machine used circular discs to record conversations with each disc recording up to 30 minutes. [10] The Eisenhower Library does have a small number of discs among their holdings. However, they do not have a machine to play them on, and, as a result, do not know their contents. [11]

The Library does have the transcripts which were prepared by Whitman. [12] They are not verbatim transcripts. Rather, they are summaries of conversations and meetings, which include direct quotations. The transcripts that Whitman prepared show the problems she encountered. First, President Eisenhower often did not activate the machine until a meeting was well underway. The first paragraph of the transcript for a November 7, 1953, meeting states:

First time any adequate use of “gadget” for recording conversations made. It is now fine and a complete verbatim report of the conversation was made—but the work! Anyhow, here are the highlights of the conversation (apparently the President did not turn his switch until conversation was underway). [13]

Second, the voices were often unintelligible. [14] The first sentence of the December 1, 1954, transcript states: “The first approximately half hour of this record was on a tape that was unlistenable.” Whitman concluded this transcript by writing that “the fourth record was also unreadable.” [15] On the transcript of the meeting between Eisenhower and Queen Fredericka of Greece on December 9, 1958, Whitman noted that “the Queen's remarks were inaudible.” [16] Colonel Robert Dalton, a WHCA technician, remembers assisting Whitman with this recording, slowing down the machine's speed and adjusting the volume to try and make the conversation more audible. [17]

Why did Eisenhower opt to selectively record some of his meetings during his Presidency? The transcripts, which Dalton believes are not complete, cover a broad range of issues, both on domestic and foreign policy matters. [18] They document meetings between Eisenhower and members of his staff, including his Vice President, Richard Nixon, politicians, foreign leaders, and members of the press. [19]

Rice University professor Francis Lowenheim researched these transcripts thoroughly in the late 1970s. He wrote that the transcripts deal with what the President probably regarded as politically or potentially sensitive issues ... Eisenhower may well have looked upon these tapes and transcripts as a kind of literary insurance. [20] . . .

[1] Eisenhower Library archivists identified twenty-five documents in the Ann C. Whitman Diary Series that clearly are transcripts of recorded conversations. There are approximately fifty other “Memcons” in this series which possibly could be transcripts from recorded conversations. 
[2] Telephone interview with David Haight, Archivist, Eisenhower Library, on December 6, 1995.
[3] Roger Steffin to Charles Willis, March 4, 1953, Confidential Files: White House Office, Eisenhower Library. 
[4] Ann C. Whitman Oral History, pp. 4-5, Eisenhower Library.
[5] Letter, John A. Waybrant to John Powers, May 15, 1996. Waybrant was a member of WHCA from 1953 to 1966, specializing in crypto-maintenance. He and Al Duffy, another WHCA technician, were responsible for maintaining this recording system.
[6] Ibid. See also: Telephone interview with Waybrant on May 21, 1996.
[7] Whitman Oral History, p. 4. According to Whitman, a red light would light up on her desk and that was her cue to activate the machine and record the meeting. 
[8] Telephone interview with Waybrant on May 21, 1996.
[9] See Ann C. Whitman Diary Series, Eisenhower Library.