Kennedy Presidential Library Releases White House Recording of
JFK Reflecting on His Hopes for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
BOSTON– The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum announced today that it has declassified and made available for research a presidential recording of a meeting between President Kennedy and four high level government scientists that took place in the Cabinet Room of the White House on July 31, 1963 during which President Kennedy expresses optimism that the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty could lead to a détente with the Soviet Union. Though the President is clearly interested in signing the treaty, he also expresses concern that other nations, like China, will conduct their own tests thus forcing the United States to return to testing.
“It is fascinating to hear President Kennedy speak of the Test Ban Treaty as a possible political olive branch between the United States and Soviet Union,” said Kennedy Library Presidential Recordings Archivist Maura Porter. “But his hopefulness is also tempered with his realism that the treaty may not be successful in easing any tensions between the two countries.”
At this July meeting, President Kennedy met with Dr. John Foster, Director of Livermore Laboratories, Dr. Norris Bradbury, Director of Los Alamos Laboratory, Dr. Glenn Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission and John Palfrey, Commissioner of Atomic Energy Commission, to discuss the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The President appears to be attempting to gauge their level of support for the Treaty since they will likely be asked to testify to the U.S. Senate about the Treaty as US Government scientific nuclear experts. During the early part of the meeting, the President speaks, without interruption, on his own hopes for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
As the recording begins, the President states:
“ (Whatever) the arguments are, we have felt that we ought to try to – if it does represent a possibility of avoiding the kind of collision that we had last fall in Cuba, which was quite close – and Berlin in 1961 – we should seize the chance.”
He goes on to state:
And it may be that the Chinese test in the next year, 18 months, 2 years and we would then make the judgment to see if we should go back to testing. As I understood it, we’re not going to test ‘til 1964 anyway, in the atmosphere, so this gives us a year to, at least a year and a half, to explore the possibility of a détente with the Soviet Union – which may not come to anything but which quite possibly could come to something.”
The President concludes:
“…and I would think in the next 12 months, 18 months, 2 years a lot of things may happen in the world and we may decide to start to test again, but if we do, at least we made this effort…in the summer of 1963 given the kind of agreement we’ve got, given the withdrawal features we have, given the underground testing program we’re going to carry out – it seems to me that this is the thing for us to do.”
[Editors Please Note:] An MP3 containing a four minute excerpt of President Kennedy discussing the Treaty is attached to this email press release as is a transcript of that excerpt. Members of the media are cautioned against making historical conclusions based on the sound clips and transcript alone. They are provided as a professional courtesy to facilitate the reporting of the release of these presidential recordings. Kennedy Library Archivist Maura Porter is available to answer questions from the media concerning this newly released tape or the Kennedy Library Presidential tapes in general. She can be reached by contacting the Communications Department at 617-514-1656.
Today’s complete release incorporates tape numbers 101, 102 and 103 and includes recordings of other White House meetings on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, a meeting with an Ethiopian Parliamentary Delegation and meetings on the economy and the tax cut and on Germany. Please note that the majority of Tape 102 had been opened in 1997. This release totals 9 hours, 14 minutes of recordings of which 43 minutes, 6 seconds remain classified. Approximately 65 hours of meeting tapes remain to be reviewed for declassification prior to release. Processing of the presidential recordings will continue to be conducted in the chronological order of the tapes.
The first items from the presidential recordings were opened to public research in June of 1983. Over the past 20 years, the Library staff has reviewed and opened all of the telephone conversations and a large portion of the meeting tapes. The latter are predominantly meetings with President Kennedy in either the Oval Office or the Cabinet Room. While the recordings were deliberate in the sense that the recording equipment required manual operation to start and stop the recording, it was not, based on the material recorded, used with daily regularity nor was there a set pattern for recording White House meetings. The tapes represent raw historical material. The sound quality of the recordings varies widely. Although most of the recorded conversation is understandable, the tapes include passages of extremely poor sound quality with considerable background noise and periods where the identity of the speakers is unclear.
Today’s release of these White House meetings is available for research use in the Library’s Research Room. The hours of operation are Monday – Friday from 8:30 am - 4:30 pm and appointments may be made by calling (617) 514-1629. The recordings and finding guide are available for purchase at the John F. Kennedy Library, Columbia Point, Boston, MA 02125, or by calling the Audiovisual Department (617) 514-1617.
The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is a presidential library administered by the National Archives and Records Administration and supported, in part, by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Kennedy Presidential Library and the Kennedy Library Foundation seek to promote, through educational and community programs, a greater appreciation and understanding of American politics, history, and culture, the process of governing and the importance of public service. More information is available at www.jfklibrary.org.
TAPE 103, TRANSCRIPTION OF EXCERPT ON TEST BAN TREATY
Well I want to, just want to, say a word or two about this treaty and about how we ought to function under it and what we expect from it and what we don’t expect from it. There are a good many theories as to why the Soviet Union is willing to try this. I don’t think anybody can say with any precision but there isn’t any doubt that the dispute with China is certainly a factor, I think their domestic, internal economic problems are a factor. I think that they may feel that (events) in the world are moving in their direction and over a period of time they - there are enough contradictions in the free world that they would be successful and they don’t want to – they want to avoid a nuclear struggle or that they want to lessen the chances of conflict with us. (Whatever) the arguments are, we have felt that we ought to try to – if it does represent a possibility of avoiding the kind of collision that we had last fall in Cuba, which was quite close – and Berlin in 1961 – we should seize the chance. We felt that we’ve minimized the risks – our detection system is pretty good and in addition to doing underground testing which we will continue, therefore—and we have a withdrawal clause.
And it may be that the Chinese test in the next year, 18 months, 2 years and we would then make the judgment to see if we should go back to testing. As I understood it, we’re not going to test ‘til 1964 anyway, in the atmosphere, so this gives us a year to, at least a year and a half, to explore the possibility of a détente with the Soviet Union – which may not come to anything but which quite possibly could come to something.
Obviously if we could understand the Soviet Union and the Chinese to a degree, it would be in our interest. But I don’t think we – I don’t think that we – knowing all the concern that a good many scientists have felt with the comprehensive test ban that the detection system is not good enough and that we – which would make our laboratories sterile, it seems to me that we’ve avoided most of that. I know there’s some problem about outer space - maybe some problem about other detection, but I think generally we can keep the laboratories, I would think, growing at a pretty good force, underground testing which we will pursue as scheduled. And we will see what our situation looks like as the Chinese come close to developing a bomb. In addition, our detection systems will make it possible for us to determine if the Soviet Union has made any particular breakthroughs which result in their deploying anti missile systems – which we gotta expect we can or will do and there’s no evidence that they (have) – which might change the strategic balance, and therefore might cause us to test again. We can prepare Johnson Island so that we can move ahead in a relatively short time. So I don’t think – I’m not sure we’re taking – I think we’re - the risks are well in hand and I would think in the next 12 months, 18 months, 2 years a lot of things may happen in the world and we may decide to start to test again, but if we do, at least we made this effort.
That’s the reason – those are the reasons – I want to do this. I know Dr. Teller and others are concerned and feel we ought to be going ahead – and (that said) time may prove that’s the wisest course, but I don’t think in the summer of 1963 given the kind of agreement we’ve got, given the withdrawal features we have, given the underground testing program we’re going to carry out – it seems to me that this is the thing for us to do.
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