State Dept Offers New Caveat on Nixon Tapes

The transcripts of Nixon White House tape recordings that are published in the State Department’s official Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series are merely “interpretations,” not official records, the State Department acknowledged in the latest FRUS volume that was released this month.  As such, those transcripts are susceptible to revision and correction.

“Readers are advised that the tape recording is the official document, while the transcript represents solely an interpretation of that document,” the new FRUS volume states in the Preface.  The statement goes beyond previous FRUS references to poor tape quality.  It is evidently a response to a simmering scholarly controversy over the accuracy of published FRUS transcriptions of the Nixon tapes, which appear to include clear errors.

Here are some examples of suspect “interpretations” from the Nixon FRUS Volume XIV (Soviet Union, October 1971-May 1972) that was published in December 2006 (with audio clips courtesy of nixontapes.org):

FRUS, as published (p.171):  Kissinger: “On the other hand, you and I know that you were going to go for broke against the North.”
Probable Correction:  Kissinger: “On the other hand, you and I know that you weren’t going to go for broke against the North.” (.mp3).

FRUS, as published (p.172): “What they do is they’re asking for, cuddling for, the things we are going to do anyway. Like troop withdrawal.”
Probable Correction: “What they do is they’re asking toughly for the things they know we’re going to do anyway, like troop withdrawals.” (.mp3)

FRUS, as published (p.743):  Nixon: “You see, that’s the point [South Vietnamese President Nguyen] Thieu made which is tremendously compelling.”
Probable Correction:  Nixon: “You see? That’s the point that you made which is tremendously compelling.” (.mp3)

FRUS, as published (p.746): Nixon: “And, you see, I’m going to lift the blockade as I’ve said. It’s not over yet–the bombing’s not over yet.”
Probable Correction: Nixon: “And, you see, that I’m going to live with the blockade as I’ve said. Well, it’s an ultimatum.” Kissinger: “Yeah.” Nixon: “Bombing is not an ultimatum.” (.mp3)

There is widespread agreement that it is not possible to produce a perfect transcript of the Nixon tapes.  “Audio fidelity was never one of the design considerations of the original, surreptitious taping system,” said one former official.  But by publishing the transcripts alongside other undisputed archival records, the FRUS series has appeared to boast a higher level of transcription accuracy than it has in fact provided.

“It is perfectly possible for two experienced auditors to transcribe two conflicting versions of the same conversation,” said Dr. William B. McAllister, the Acting General Editor of the FRUS series, though he admitted that only one of them could be correct.  He said that the problem of interpreting official records was not altogether new and was also not limited to the Nixon tapes.  The renowned Long Telegram that was sent by George Kennan in 1946 has some garbled text that has been interpreted in different ways.  And with the growing importance for historians of audio, video, and even twitter records, “It’s only going to get more tricky.”

“Readers are urged to consult the recordings themselves for a full appreciation of those aspects of the conversations that cannot be captured in a transcript,” the FRUS volumes recommend, “such as the speakers’ inflections and emphases that may convey nuances of meaning, as well as the larger context of the discussion.”

A growing selection of Nixon audio tapes can be found online at www.nixontapes.org.

The interesting new FRUS volume on “American Republics,” which is the first FRUS publication in 2009, addresses U.S. policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean between 1969 and 1972, including covert action.  The new volume, published online only, excludes materials on Bolivia, which the editors say have not yet been declassified, and it also omits records on Chile, which are to be published separately.  The Preface states that documents on Uruguay are not being published “due to space constraints.”  In fact, however, space is not at a premium in online “e-volumes,” and Secrecy News is told that the Uruguay compilation has not been declassified, which ought to have been noted.

No Responses to “State Dept Offers New Caveat on Nixon Tapes”

  1. Allen Thomson July 20, 2009 at 1:18 PM #

    > only one of them could be correct

    I’d amend that to say, “at most one of them could be correct.”

  2. Angry Sam July 20, 2009 at 3:30 PM #

    Oceania is at war with Eurasia. Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

  3. Kristina Bobe July 20, 2009 at 5:05 PM #

    Cuddling for troop withdrawal? Is Hillary Clinton considering those kind of foreign relations?

  4. Former Archivist July 20, 2009 at 8:46 PM #

    The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has been saying for 30 years that the Nixon tapes, rather than transcripts, constitute the record. NARA is the official custodian of the tapes. Its archivists have screened the estimated 3,700 hours of Nixon tapes since the late 1970s to see which portions scholars and other members of the public would hear and which segments required restriction. (I once was one of those NARA Nixon tapes archivists). We only transcribed a few hours of tapes for court cases, a process which in the late 1970s required 300 staff hours per one hour of taped conversation. Here’s how NARA’s officials explained why we chose to do finding aids in the form of tape subject logs instead of transcripts.

    On September 6, 1984, the Washington Post reported that James J. Hastings, NARA’s Acting Director of the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, said the agency would not be making systematic transcripts of the Nixon tapes. “Hastings said . . .that the Archives has ‘no intention of doing a transcript.’ ‘It is improper and unethical for an archivist to interpret a document,’ he said. ‘With all the checking and double-checking involved, it takes about 250 hours to transcribe one hour of tape and you end up with a questionable document. The first 80 percent of a tape is easy, but the last 20 percent takes a long, long time to get right.’”

    The writer also noted that “recordings made in the Old Executive Office Building have a lot of background noise from faulty air conditioning and heating units. Recordings of conversations in the Oval Office are often hard to decipher because the microphones were located in the leg well of Nixon’s desk and in a lamp, Hastings said.

    ‘Only the telephone tapes are very good because they were direct recordings’ he said.

    . . . The tape review also involves eliminating personal materials, which the archivists remove simply by snipping away sections of tape. The archivists discuss whether the contents are personal and then, with the approval of supervisor Frederick Graboske, make the cuts.”

    Four years later, Ed Cohen again quoted Jim Hastings when a group of students from the University of Maryland (Baltimore Campus) visited the National Archives’ Nixon Project, then located in Alexandria, Virginia: “Archivists hope to open the remainder of the tapes to the public in a phased schedule, starting in 1989 with 80 hours of material the Watergate special prosecutors requested during their investigations. No researcher may ever be able to digest all the tapes. The Archivist’s Finding Aid, an index to people and subjects in the recordings, is itself 27,000 pages long. And there are no plans to transcribe the tapes, which according to project director James J. Hastings, would take 75 years. ‘Two years of eight-hour days would be required to listen to all of the tapes,’ Hastings warns researchers, ‘with no time for lunch allowed and no time permitted for turning the machine back to listen to particularly tricky bit of conversation over again.’” (Ed Cohen, “Richard Nixon: UMBC Students Explore the Papers Behind the Persona,” Maryland Today, 1988)

    See also Joan Hoff, “Studying the Nixon Presidency,” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Winter 1996, 270:

    “I originally believed that opening more tapes without official NARA transcripts would only compound an already endlessly litigious battle among scholars and Nixon lawyers over Watergate. But [Maarja] Krusten and Frederick J. Graboske, both archivists who worked on processing the tapes, convinced me that – however desirable to avoid multiple versions of the same tapes – this would involve too much time and money. Even with computers, it requires 100 archival hours to transcribe one hour of one tape to obtain 99 percent accurate transcripts. (Back in 1979 it took nearly 300 hours per hour of conversation.) The task of transcribing these tapes is tantamount to transcribing a document from an ancient language. Moreover, the thousands of pages of log material will provide cross references and antecedents to help researchers. . . . ”

    A number of people outside NARA have done transcripts of portions of the Nixon tapes since NARA began systematic releases of the tapes in 1996. That release still is ongoing. (It’s too complicated to explain here why NARA’s original schedule of releasing all the tapes between 1989 and 1995 — a plan revealed in court documents around 1992 — fell by the wayside. Suffice it to say that nothing about working with the Nixon tapes has been easy.) The Nixontapes.org web site is a valuable source to study what has been released. NARA continues to state, as it has for decades, that the audio segments on the tapes are the record.

  5. Former Archivist July 21, 2009 at 9:14 AM #

    Here are the most recent observations by a former NARA official on the challenges of transcribing the Nixon tapes. They come up in a essay by Frederick J. Graboske in 2009 about a book about Nixon. Here is what Mr. Graboske wrote earlier this year:

    “Preparing transcripts of the Nixon tapes is a difficult task. My staff at the National Archives and I did a number of them. With experience we got our transcription time down from 400 hours per hour of conversation to 100 hours. The results were good, but not perfect. In addition to the relatively poor quality of most of the recordings, we were faced with rendering ‘natural conversation,’ with its repetitions, stuttering, and slurred words. The key phrase in one transcript was ‘ . . . so Harlow didn’st shustem/shust ’sim (rendered phonetically).”; Everyone who listened heard that meaningless word/phrase. The participants had a shared knowledge of the subject, and no one questioned the speaker about what he meant.

    On another occasion we had prepared a transcript for Judge Gesell to review in camera. I took the transcript and a copy of the tape to his chambers to play for the Government lawyers and for Nixon’ss counsel, R. Stan Mortenson. At one point Stan interrupted the proceeding and said he had an alternate rendering of one of the sentences: same cadence, different words, different meaning. The Government’ss lawyers agreed, only to have Stan say that this incident proved the suggestibility to the written word of people listening to the tapes. In fact, he said, that was not at all what he had heard and he presented a third version: same cadence, different words, different meaning. It was then that I realized that transcriptions of the Nixon tapes never would be wholly acceptable to men of good will – someone always would hear some word or phrase differently. These criticisms would cast a pall over the entire transcription and, therefore, I decided against producing a Government sponsored set of transcripts.”

  6. Former Archivist July 22, 2009 at 9:12 AM #

    The Washington Post covers this story in its In The Loop column today at
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/21/AR2009072103263_2.html?referrer=emailarticle

    My advice to any person or group attempting transcripts, be it an individual scholar or a group such as the State team or the Miller Center team, is to state the challenges at the outset. As noted above, there is an ample public record on the difficulties of transcribing the Nixon tapes from NARA officials dating back to 1984. Certainly enough for anyone starting a transcription project to see that there are red flags and to consider putting in some caveats at the outset.

    More historians have worked with oral history transcripts than with real time conversations of the Kennedy, Johnson or Nixon White House. In real time conversation, people often stop and start, change course in the middle of sentences, talk over each other, or mumble asides during conversation with others. Transcribing natural conversation is very different from transcribing oral history. Obviously, transcribing conversations for court cases requires extra care. See Maarja Krusten, “The Nixon Presidency: Real-time and Stuctured Conversations,” Society of American Archivists, oral history section, newsletter, May 2009, pages 7-8 at
    http://www.archivists.org/saagroups/oralhist/May%2009%20newsletter.pdf

    Scholars have gotten into disputes with each other not just over Nixon’s conversations, but also over transcripts of Kennedy White House tapes. The best position from which to start is one which acknowledges that no one can guarantee 100% accuracy. Explaining methodologies and internal controls is useful, too. I don’t know what internal controls the FRUS team may have applied. I have a sense that State uses a mix of permanent employees and retired annuitants to work on FRUS.

    When we at NARA transcribed tapes for court cases, we used permanent staff, some of whom spent 10 years doing nothing but working on description and disclosure review of the Nixon tapes. For the few transcripts we did during the late 1970s, we worked in teams, with at least 3 people sitting together and listening to the same conversation. When necessary, we listened to segments over and over and over again. We also looked up contextual information in related documents, also in NARA custody, of course, when available and appropriate. At that time, we were the only people who had access to these materials. NARA first began release of Nixon WH documents around 1986-1987. The collection numbers in the millions of pages and archival releases of documents, as also tapes, still is ongoing.

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