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.