Click on the links below to play the Audio clips (.mp3)
The written transcripts provided below are taken from
The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis
Edited by Ernest R. May and Philip D. Zelikow
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)
[All times indicated are approximate]

On the morning of October 16, CIA imagery analysts brief the president on the results of U-2 photo reconnaissance overflights of Cuba on Sunday that had discovered the existence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) in Cuba.  The briefing begins with an interpretation of the images by Arthur Lundahl from CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), who speaks loud and clearly, with supporting analysis from the CIA's Acting Director Marshall Carter, whose voice is low and often difficult to hear.  The president then asks Lundahl several questions about the images.  Lundahl then introduces Sidney Graybeal ("our missile man") who shows the president photos of similar weapons systems taken during Soviet military parades.  Obviously concerned, the president then asks Graybeal when the missiles will be ready to fire.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara then joins the discussion, adding that he doubts that the missiles are yet ready to fire since there is no indication that nuclear warheads are present.
Following the CIA briefing, McNamara and then General Maxwell Taylor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, brief the president on his military alternatives.  Taylor's presentation is followed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk.  Rusk's voice is faint, but he warns the president that an air strike on the missile installations may actually trigger a "general nuclear war" if the event that they are in fact armed and the Soviets decide to launch them before they are destroyed on the ground.  McNamara disagrees.  The president then questions the Soviet motive for establishing the missile sites, with subsequent comments from McNamara and then Taylor.  National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy then asks whether a military strike on Cuba would include all airfields.  McNamara responds.  Rusk is then faintly heard asking again about the Soviet motive, suggesting that Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev may want the U.S. to "live under the fear" of Soviet nuclear weapons the same way the Soviets live with missiles in Turkey.  The clip ends with the president asking how many missiles are in Turkey.
Later in the same meeting the president sums up the military options.  His brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, adds that a full invasion is also an option, but warns that this would probably provoke a response from the Soviets.  A short conversation then ensues in which McNamara and Taylor explain how much time is needed to prepare for a full invasion of Cuba.
At the end of the Tuesday session, the president states that the group should consider the various proposed responses to the situation, adding that photo reconnaissance flights should continue and that preparations for strikes against the missile installations should continue since "that's what we're going to do anyway . . . We're going to take out these missiles."  He is not yet sure, however, whether to proceed with a larger air strike or an invasion.  Bundy then asks whether they have ruled out a political solution, and discussion then ensues about various tracks that could be followed.  Bundy and the president then discuss the importance of keeping the plans secret.  McNamara mentions the importance of careful contact with Khrushchev.  The president then asks how long it will be before preparations for air strikes are complete.  Carter and Lundahl respond that cloud cover makes the reconnaissance mission difficult.  Near the end of the clip, Robert Kennedy inquires as to how long it would take invading U.S. military forces to gain control of Cuba.

By the morning of October 18 CIA analysts had discovered that, in addition to the medium-range missiles spotted two days earlier, the Soviets were also installing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) on the island, with twice the range of the MRBMs.  While this discovery hardened the positions of those advocating a swift military response, others, like Under Secretary of State George Ball, warned about the consequences of such an escalation "without giving Khrushchev some way out."

This clip begins with a discussion between Ball and McNamara about the consequences of an unannounced U.S. air strike on the military installations.  Ball argues that they need to consider the consequences of such an attack and the likely reaction of Khrushchev in Turkey or elsewhere.  Treasury Secretary Douglas Dillon states, "I think they'll take Berlin."  The president replies that Khrushchev will "take Berlin" whether or not the strikes are announced ahead of time.  McNamara echoes this point.  After an unidentified speaker mentions that a blockade might buy some time, the president again asserts that Khrushchev will "grab Berlin" over missiles that do not even threaten the NATO allies.  Soon thereafter, McNamara raises the specter of a Soviet invasion of Berlin which Ball says will lead to "general war."  This prompts the president to ask, "You mean a nuclear exchange?"  After some more discussion the president tries to bring some focus to the discussion suggesting that they try to determine what course of action would most lessen the chance of nuclear war, "which," he notes, "is obviously the final failure."  Discussion then turns to the option of a blockade of Cuba, and the president asks whether this would require a declaration of war.

On the evening of October 22 the president publicly announced that Cuba would be subject to a U.S. naval blockade.  The next evening, shortly after the signing of the blockade order, the president met with his advisers.

At the end of this meeting the president and his brother are left alone for a private discussion.  The recording is of very poor quality, but the conversation is notable for its intimacy and candor.  The president, after telling Robert about a dinner date, discusses the blockade order:

JFK:  It looks really mean, doesn't it?  But on the other hand there wasn't any choice.  If he's going to get this mean on this one, in our part of the world [unclear], no choice.  I don't think there was a choice
RFK:  Well, there isn't any choice.  I mean, you would have been, you would have been impeached.
JFK:  Well, I think I would have been impeached.
[Unclear exchange]
If there had been a move to impeach, I would have been under [unclear], on the grounds that I said they wouldn't do it, and . . .
RFK:  [Unclear] something else.  They'd think up some other step that wasn't necessary.  You'd be . . . But now, the fact is, you couldn't have done any less.

Shortly thereafter, the president asks his brother about Georgi Bolshakov, a Soviet defense attaché who had until recently been an important channel for passing messages to Moscow:

JFK:  [Unclear] Georgi?
RFK:  We had lunch today.
JFK:  What did he say?
RFK:  He said they are going to go through [the quarantine].
JFK:  The ships are going to go?
RFK:  He said this is, this is a defensive base for the Russians.  It's got nothing to do with the Cubans.
JFK:  Why are . . . They're lying [unclear] that.  Khrushchev's horseshit about the election.  Anyway, the sickening thing that's so very bad is what this revealed about . . . This horror about embarrassing me in the election.  Who said [unclear]?
RFK:  Well, you know, he [Bolshakov] probably heard it.  I hadn't seen him.  Then he came back to see me, and he said Khrushchev had a message for you.  And I followed it up.  The [Soviet] ambassador kept telling me: "Don't pay attention to Georgi."
JFK:  But they didn't tell you that there were missiles there.
RFK:  No. Remember, I told you that.

On the early afternoon of Saturday, October 27, as the Soviet freighter Grozny approached Cuba toward the now inevitable confrontation with the blockade force, an American U-2 spy plane was reported overdue from a reconnaissance flight over Cuba.  With these issues impending, the president and his advisers grappled with how to respond to conflicting messages from Khrushchev; one received the night before and another received that morning.  The first indicated that Khrushchev would be willing to remove the missiles in exchange for Kennedy's pledge not to invade Cuba.  The second, however, proposed that the removal be contingent upon the removal of similarly placed U.S. Jupiter missiles in Turkey.

The president begins with a discussion of NATO and concerns that European allies might have with the removal of the Jupiters from Turkey.  Rusk is hopeful that NATO solidarity might shake Khrushchev "off his pony."  Ball then proposes that they simply ignore Khrushchev's second letter [regarding the exchange] and simply respond to the first.  As guidance for Thomas Finletter, U.S. ambassador to NATO, the president suggests that he tell them, if they don't support the removal of the Jupiters, to prepare for some retaliatory action from the Soviets in Berlin or Turkey.  Rusk raises the possibility that the missiles (both U.S. and Soviet) be turned over to the United Nations for destruction.  The president is most concerned with the reaction of the Turks to which McNamara responds.

Several more issues are raised, and Bundy at one point suggests an enlargement of the blockade.  At the end of the clip, in response to a point raised by Ambassador Llewellyn Thompson, the president warns of what might happen if an invasion takes place.  "We all know how quickly everybody's courage goes when the blood starts to flow," he notes, adding that, the removal of the Jupiters might later seem like "a pretty good proposition" after the Soviets take Berlin.

On Saturday evening, October 27, with the Soviet freighter Grozny rapidly approaching the blockade, the president sent off a letter to Moscow accepting the terms of the October 26 letter, the removal of the missiles in Cuba in exchange for a U.S. non-invasion pledge.  At the same time, the president instructed his brother to privately assure Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin that the Jupiter missiles in Turkey would be removed but that this pledge could not be made publicly.

Just before he left for his meeting with Dobrynin, Robert Kennedy had this exchange with McNamara:

RFK:  How are you doing Bob?
McNamara:  Well.  How about yourself?
RFK:  All right.
McNamara:  You got any doubts?
RFK:  Well, no.  I think that we're doing the only thing we can do, and well, you know.
McNamara:  I think the one thing, Bobby, we ought to seriously do before we act is be damned sure they understand the consequences.  In other words, we need to really show them where we are now, because we need to have two things ready: a government for Cuba, because we're going to need one--we go in with bombing aircraft; and, secondly, plans for how to respond to the Soviet Union in Europe, because sure as hell they're going to do something there.

The conversation continues as Dillon rejoins the discussion:

Dillon:  You have to pick out the things they might--
McNamara:  Well, I think, that's right.
McNamara:  I would suggest that it will be an eye for an eye.
Dillon:  That's the mission.
Unidentified:  I'd take Cuba back.
Unidentified:  I'd take Cuba away from Castro.
Unidentified:  Suppose we make Bobby mayor of Havana.