What happened to the original Air Force One tape from November 22, 1963?

Here’s a JFK story I come back to time and again: the audio recording of communications to and from Air Force One on the afternoon of November 22, 1963. The original tape has never surfaced. If it does, watch out. It is a foundational piece of JFK evidence–if it exists.

Let me explain.

The recording was made in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. The presidential jet carried the coffin of JFK, his blood-spattered widow and VIce President Johnson who was sworn in as the 36th president in mid-flight. As the plane flew back to Washington, different components of the U.S. government communicated with the presidential party as the news from Dallas spread.

These conversations, coming in over multiple radio channels, were recorded in real time by the White House Communications office. They include communications with the Joint Chiefs of Staff who had to respond to the attack in Dallas. This is a record of the U.S. government’s real-time reaction to JFK”s assassination.

Two edited versions of the tape are publicly available. The LBJ Library in Austin Texas has a version, first publicly released in 1980. It revealed a conversation between President Johnson and JFK’s mother. That story was well-known so the tape was not particularly revelatory

A longer version of the Air Force One tape surfaced in 2013, in the estate of the late General Chester Clifton, who had served as JFK’s military aide. The Clifton tape is longer than the LBJ Library tape and the differences are revealing, as Bill Kelly was the first to point out.

The additional conversations on the Clifton tape revealed a chilling story: how Gen. Curtis LeMay, Air Force Chief of Staff and bitter critics of JFK, flew back to Washington and raced to Bethesda Naval Hospital to witness JFK’s autopsy where he smoked a cigar, perhaps in celebration of the murder of a president he despised.

(You can listen to the Clifton tape here. If you prefer to read, Bill Kelly has the transcript here.)

The LeMay story had been edited out of the publicly released LBJ Library version of the Air Force One tape and it was easy to see why. The idea that a top general raced to JFK’s autopsy was not something the LBJ Library or the Joint Chiefs of Staff wanted in the public record.

I interviewed audio engineer Ed Primeau about the tape (see above). Primeau pointed out that General Clifton’s tape shows clear signs of being edited in five places. So what else was edited out of the tape?

Bill Kelly points out that journalist Theodore White heard the Air Force One tape while writing his book The Making of a President 1964.

“There is a tape recording in the archives of the government which best recaptures the sound of the hours as it waited for leadership,” White wrote. “It is a recording of all the conversations in the air, monitored by the Signal Corps Midwestern center ‘Liberty,’ between Air Force One in Dallas, the Cabinet plane over the Pacific, and the Joint Chiefs’ Communications Center in Washington….On the flight the party learned that there was no conspiracy [emphasis added], learned the identity of Oswald and his arrest; and the President’s mind turned to the duties of consoling the stricken and guiding the quick.”

Since there is no mention of the conspiracy question on the LBJ Library or the Clifton tape, White must have heard a more complete recording. How did the Cabinet plane learn there was no conspiracy so quickly? Who told them?

The original Air Force One tape would answer that question. I have made inquiries at the LBJ Library, which says it cannot find a copy but has offered some helpful suggestions for finding it.

If you knows anything about the Air Force One tape or General Clifton, please DM me on Twitter @jeffersonmorley.

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