Events aboard Air Force One on November 22, 1963 have long become a matter of both mystery and speculation in regard to the assassination of President Kennedy. That remains true despite the fact that William Manchester documented the personalities and activities on that aircraft, and its flight back to Washington in considerable detail in his classic early work The Death of a President. Towards the end of his writing on that work, he was actually given access to what he knew to be an edited transcript of tape recordings made during the aircraft’s flight. Actually, although that recording is generally described as a transcript of Air Force 1 radio communications, it is much more than that. The recording itself was made by the White House Communications Agency, with equipment placed adjacent to the Special Air Mission (SAM) at Andrews air base. The Special Air Mission supervised all of the aircraft used for White House travel, including VIP travel of senior diplomatic and Joint Chief’s staff. The recordings had begun specifically at the direction of President Kennedy, who wanted a record of all communications related to presidential air travel. Given that Air Force One was expected to function as a command center in the event that a national security incident happened during the president’s travels, such a record was as critical to the history of his presidency as were the White House records of events during the Cuban missile crisis.
On November 22, the tape recordings captured a variety of calls to SAM control as well as its communications with both Air Force One and a Cabinet aircraft on the way to Japan. It was obviously an invaluable historical record, a window into both the personalities and response to the assassination – including the national security activities as the new president took over his responsibility as Commander in Chief. Initially the existence of the tapes was kept from the public, made known apparently to certain individuals including Presidential aide Pierre Salinger. Salinger was actually provided a transcript of the communications to the Cabinet aircraft, which he had himself had been on at the time of the assassination. When Manchester became aware of the tape, he requested a copy and was denied. Ultimately after the better part of a year, he was allowed to listen to a copy he clearly understood to be edited.
Over the course of several decades, an edited version of the tape and a transcript did become available through the Johnson Library. More recently, in 2012, another copy was found in the estate of General Clifford, a military aide to the White House. Interestingly, the Clifford tape has information edited out of the Johnson Library version, but the material removed proves not to be of any particular military security value – which makes sense given that these radio communications were clear channel and could be picked up by everyone from radio hams to Soviet listening posts. So, if the tape was edited (apparently twice at least), what was the motive? Part of the answer to that may lie in the fact that there are independent source records of a variety of radio telephone calls which do not show up in either edited tapes – these include calls by Johnson to Robert Kennedy, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Johnson’s lawyer and at least one other personal friend. Yet very personal calls such as to Rose Kennedy were left on the tape.
The issue also remains as to whether there were any national security calls on the tape, perhaps scrambled but still there (it was later denied that there was secure voice capability on the aircraft; that denial is highly questionable) – or any of the National Command Authority calls that should have been in progress – even basic communications checks from SAC’s command post, its airborne alert command post, and the National Airborne Emergency Command post which was airborne at the time. There are no signs of even routine communications of that nature and no sign of all of any communication from the National Military Command Post at the Pentagon. All this raised the question of what was on the full tape and why it appears to have been heavily edited (even for such things that should be there as routine communications checks).
Was there something on the tape that would have raised concern that a conspiracy had either been discussed – or suppressed – in the earliest hours following the assassination? Were there embarrassing personal calls by the new President (including discussion of stock sales) at a time when he should have assumed his Commander in Chief role? Would the full tape show Johnson to be ignorant or even negligent in assuming that role? Or would the full tape reveal that Johnson had actually lied about certain conversations with Robert Kennedy and his need to stay in Dallas to take the oath of office prior to departure?
It all remains a mystery. What is not a mystery is that a government record was knowingly altered into edited versions and then apparently destroyed. Work continues on a search for possible copies of the full tape, but in the interim the alteration of the Air Force One communications records remains yet another open issue in regard to the true response of President Johnson and the operation of the nation’s command and control system following President Kennedy’s assassination.