The Kennedy tapes, an extensive electronic evocation of a crucial era in American life now come to light a generation later, are certain to become a preeminent historical source--and another political controversy swirling around another president.

Even in their fragmentary form, the logs of John F. Kennedy's secret recordings are riveting both for what they indicate and for what remains unknown.

They list, in stark chronological fashion, the leading personalities and the great issues that were being discussed during Kennedy's fateful last 16 months in office.

What they fail to relate remains even more tantalizing--what was actually being recorded in both phone conversations and personal meetings, many of which dealt with then highly classified subjects.

The first page alone shows that Kennedy taped discussions, unknown to the subjects, with such figures as:

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom JFK historians cite as warning the young president the "chickens were coming home to roost" during his term in office;

Adlai E. Stevenson, his party's previous presidential nominee and JFK political rival whom Kennedy chastised for being too dovish during the Cuban missile crisis;

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who left office as the oldest president to serve up to that time, just as Kennedy, who replaced him, was the youngest elected chief executive. They talked for two hours on Sept. 10, 1962, when both Berlin and Soviet missiles in Cuba were causing grave concern.

The subjects discussed also encompass the great war-and-peace issues of the time: nuclear testing and disarmament, Berlin and the Russians, Cuba and China--then "Red China," America's enemy and the Soviet Union's ally.

Item No. 23, the last on the first page of logs, has an air of tragedy to come.

It shows that a recording was made of a conversation between Kennedy and Gen. Maxwell D. Taylor, a key military adviser to whom the president turned in times of crisis from the Bay of Pigs to the end of his presidency.

The subject was the Far East, and the date was Aug. 29, 1962. Vietnam, then only barely a factor in American life, was still far beyond the horizon.

These topics alone will make scholars, journalists, biographers, and Kennedy political foes and friends drool with anticipation of what the tapes will reveal when full transcripts are made available from the Kennedy Library in Boston.

But the tapes have another dimension, a political one, that will stir fresh controversy about the already controversial Kennedy years. That is the fact the recordings were made at all.

Disclosure that Richard M. Nixon secretly taped his White House and other private conversations was a crucial factor that led to his resignation during the Watergate crisis.

Inevitably, attention that will now be focused on the massive scale of the Kennedy recordings will generate new partisan political debate about abuses of privacy, if not power, of presidents other than Nixon. Recent days brought news, for instance, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt also secretly recorded conversations in the White House during his 1940 third-term campaign period.

In fact, knowledge that the Kennedy tapes existed is not entirely new. A spokesman for the Kennedys said in the aftermath of disclosure about the Nixon tapes that some 193 JFK recordings were being stored with the Kennedy records for eventual release to scholars.

The story never took public root.

Nor was there any awareness of how extensive the Kennedy tapes were, and what a range of potentially historic material they covered.

Logs of the tapes show recordings not only with such major figures as Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Stevenson, but also with a host of other leading players on the national and world scene.

Also recorded are conversations with former President Harry S. Truman and Kennedy's vice president (and successor) Lyndon B. Johnson.

Merely glancing through the pages of logs listing people recorded shows virtually all the names that dominated headlines during the Kennedy years--Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, George Ball and J. William Fulbright, Dean Rusk and Robert Kennedy, George Kennan and Averell Harriman.

The listing of subjects alone reads like a compendium of U.S. and world history of that era: the University of Mississippi and civil rights, the test ban treaty and Andrei Gromyko, steel prices and the "lunar program."

Ambassadors and world statesmen--Haile Selassie, Jean Monnet, Paul Henri Spaak and Canada's Lester Pearson among them--are included.

To scholars, obvious attention will center on recordings of deliberations during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 when the world stood in peril of nuclear war. Numerous meetings on Cuba and that crisis are logged. So are many on the emerging problem of Southeast Asia, specifically Vietnam.

As was true of the Kennedy period, these foreign dramas were interspersed with domestic ones. The theme of civil rights, in that time of freedom marches and confrontation in the South, runs through the logs.

So does politics.

The log is more specific in its description of the phone conversations than of the White House meetings Kennedy recorded. It is a mind-boggling mixture of crises of state and personal items, sure to whet the appetite of historians and very likely to cause some anxiety among those on the other end of the calls.

There is a series of calls to Pentagon officials and to Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett about the admission at gunpoint of James Meredith, the first black to attend the University of Mississippi. There are numerous calls, including one to former president Truman, about the nuclear test ban treaty.

The picture that emerges, even from the log, is one of a president deeply involved in congressional, political and personal matters.

On Aug. 23, 1963, three months before his death, Kennedy was talking with pollster Lou Harris on "polling on various issues, including potential Republican opponents in 1964."

On election night in 1962, he made a series of phone calls to Democratic winners, among them his brother, Edward M. Kennedy, just elected to the Senate in Massachusetts, John B. Connally, reelected as governor of Texas, and Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, who had just handed Richard M. Nixon another loss, this one in the California gubernatorial race.

On June 12, 1963, Kennedy called Carl Albert of Oklahoma, then the House majority leader, to discuss the "defeat in the House due to integration backlash" of an economic aid bill for areas of chronic unemployment.

A few weeks earlier, there was a recorded conversation with Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) covering "the debt limit bill, election prospects for 1964 and Louisiana politics." Another time, Kennedy turned on the tape while discussing with Long "Louisiana compliance with highway job integration."

Among the other legislators and politicians of the time who were recorded, unknowingly, in conversation with the president are: New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., AFL-CIO President George Meany, United Auto Workers President Walter P. Reuther and United Steelworkers President David McDonald; then-senators George Aiken (R-Vt.), Clinton P. Anderson (D-N.M.), Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), Warren Magnuson (D-Wash.), George Smathers (D-Fla.), Clair Engle (D-Calif.), Wayne L. Morse (D-Ore.), Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.), Carl Hayden (D-Ariz.), Barry M. Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Thomas J. Dodd (D-Conn.), James O. Eastland (D-Miss.) and Fulbright (D-Ark.), and then-representatives Wilbur D. Mills (D-Ark.), Martha Griffiths (D-Mich.), Edith Green (D-Ore.) and Wayne Hays (D-Ohio.), as well as House Speaker John W. McCormack (D-Mass.).

There are several dozen conversations with officials of the Kennedy administration, high and low, and members of the White House staff.

But some of the most intriguing items, for the curious if not for the scholars, may be personal items. On March 4, 1963, the president and his brother, Robert, discussed "press reports and press gossip," along with " then CIA director John McCone's testimony on the Cuban missile crisis."

Kennedy made a series of calls about four Arkansas and Alabama fliers who were killed during the Bay of Pigs invasion but whose deaths were kept secret at the time.

He was involved, over the phone, in discussion of the 1963 New York newspaper strike and discussed with Secretary of State Dean Rusk "charges of news management and the use of local currency for congressional travel abroad."

Like other presidents, he worried about press stories, discussing "articles in Time and Newsweek" on one occasion with Robert Kennedy and, at another time, calling Clark Clifford, then in private law practice, about an "impending article in The Washington Post."

He recorded a call to Harold E. Hughes, then governor of Iowa, about a clemency appeal on a pending execution.

Among the memos recorded on the tapes are one on "White House liquor control" and the next, headed: "Make sure he sees all bills."

And there is, on tape, a message that Stanley Tretick, a Look magazine photographer and Kennedy favorite, "is calling Fiddle," the nickname of one of the president's female aides.