THE FOURTEENTH DAY: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. By David G. Coleman. W.W. Norton & Co. 256 pages. $25.95.
LISTENING IN: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy. By Ted Widmer. Hyperion. 320 pages. $40.
In July 1962, President John F. Kennedy had a secret tape system installed in the Oval Office and Cabinet Room of the White House.
The purpose of recording was most likely that Kennedy wanted an accurate record of events for his personal reference and possibly for his memoirs.
The result is a fly-on-the-wall view of some important moments of Kennedy’s abbreviated first term. There are about 265 hours of meetings, dictation and conversations, all of which have been released.
Both David G. Coleman’s “The Fourteenth Day” and Ted Widmer’s “Listening In” make extensive use of the secret White House tapes.
This past October marked the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest that the world has come to an all-out nuclear war.
In “The Fourteenth Day,” Coleman begins his story where many leave off: at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis (i.e. those “Thirteen Days” about which Robert F. Kennedy wrote in his book of that name).
In a sense, this is not unfamiliar territory. Ernest May and Philip Zelikow gave this period a substantial concluding chapter in their fine 1997 book, “The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis.” Michael Beschloss also covered much of it in his popular book, “The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev, 1960-1963.”
Coleman’s focus on the post-Cuban Missile Crisis period, after Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles and all offensive weapons and troops, is thorough and engaging. It is a story worth telling because, although by the 14th day we may have averted the greatest possibility for nuclear war, we were by no means out of the woods; there were still land mines, metaphorically speaking, that posed potential danger.
How could we verify that the Russians would be true to their word? What was the definition of “all offensive” weapons? Soviet troops would be removed in “due course,” but there was no end date. Were the Russians using Cuba as a smokescreen to move on West Berlin? How would this affect the 1962 midterm elections?
These issues continued throughout Kennedy’s time in office and promised to be front and center for the 1964 presidential election as well. Coleman examines an ever more hostile press that felt the administration had held back information from them and that JFK was trying to manage them.
The political tenor of the time will seem familiar as partisanship and divisiveness was profound. Kennedy had to deal with a military that was eager to flex its muscle and an intelligence community that often had its own agenda.
The height of the Cold War cast a constant dark cloud over the daily lives of everyone everywhere. This all makes for fascinating reading.
“Listening In” is a very different book. It includes two CDs with more than 2.5 hours of audio. The book is divided into subject areas, including Civil Rights, Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The introduction provides a background for how the tapes came into being and the historical context. Every chapter contains numerous transcripts introduced by the author.
The overall effect is a pastiche of JFK’s time in office, and as the title puts it, we’re listening in. This is an enjoyable book, but not an in-depth historical recounting.
Kennedy continues to fascinate Americans. He has constantly maintained the highest favorable rating for any president in the 20th century. His short presidency already has been written about more than any in history save Lincoln’s.
As we continue to mark the 50th anniversary of his presidency and as new material is made available, we will have the opportunity to get further inside this exciting and turbulent era.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor based in Charleston.