Uncertain Greatness: Henry Kissinger and American Foreign Policy
When they returned from lunch on January 20, 1969, senior officials of the State and Defense departments and the CIA found on their desks a top secret paper from the new White House. Entitled National Security Study Memorandum No. 1, it ordered prompt answers to a long list of questions for a review of Vietnam policy. The more perceptive of those who read it that afternoon, Roger Morris says, recognized the memorandum as the signal of a coup d’état—“a seizure of power unprecedented in American foreign policy.”
The change so colorfully characterized was a concentration of the decision-making process in the hands of the new President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger. A plan approved by Richard Nixon before his inauguration reversed the old assumption that the departments develop policy and present it to the White House in final form for approval; instead, Kissinger was to define the alternatives and control the process from beginning to end. In foreign policy as in law, he who frames the questions often determines the answers.
The new decision-making structure was designed by Morton Halperin, a thirty-year-old Pentagon official whom Kissinger asked to the Nixon transition office. Halperin, having experienced the difficulty of getting critical views on Vietnam through to Lyndon Johnson, intended to make sure that the president had a real choice of policy alternatives. But Kissinger dominated the process from the start, the departments were effectively emasculated, and soon the policy reviews became empty formalities. Halperin had helped to create a system more single-minded than ever, more secretive, more hostile to dissent—and, incidentally, one that greatly enlarged the destruction in Indochina.
Halperin’s own fate was as ironic as his plan’s. He went to work for Kissinger in a senior position, but by the summer of 1969 he was not happy and quit. Kissinger urged him to stay, saying that his work had been “extraordinary.” What Halperin did not know then was that Kissinger had supplied his name to the FBI for an investigation of leaks, and that his home telephone had been tapped since May. His own, his wife’s, and his children’s calls were recorded for twenty-one months; Kissinger read at least some of the transcripts. When the tapping became known in 1973, Halperin sued Nixon, Kissinger, and others. Kissinger’s deposition was taken with Halperin in the room; what struck the lawyers present was that Kissinger never took the occasion to go over and say, “I’m sorry, Mort.” In a March 1976 telephone call to Kissinger (a transcript was made by a secretary and obtained by Robert Keatley of the Wall Street Journal), former President Nixon said of Halperin: “He is obviously smart but hung up on this thing. We treated him too well.” Kissinger replied: “Too well. That is the only mistake I made.”
The ruthlessness of Henry Kissinger is one of the less concealed facts of our time. His love…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.