American Foreign Policy
No member of the Administration seems to outrank Dr. Henry Kissinger in the esteem of Richard Nixon. The President wholeheartedly shares the common view that the choice of the former Harvard professor as the chief White House Adviser on National Security Affairs is his most inspired appointment. Contrary to general supposition though, the President’s gratitude is probably not so much for Kissinger’s ideas on policy formulations, as for his unexpected virtuosity in expounding Nixon’s own involved formulations to the press and thus, by indirection, to the public.
How could anybody familiar with Kissinger’s style have guessed that almost overnight he would become Washington’s most celebrated exegete? An elaborately anonymous one, to be sure, but all the more effective because of that. There is little in American Foreign Policy or other Kissinger books to suggest this potential, but then his new success is not based on the clarity and precision of his private briefings, but, consciously or not, on almost the reverse. His natural style is marvelously, if momentarily, suited to the ambiguities of Nixon’s Vietnam policies. The result must have surprised the President as much as it has the rest of Washington. And it has altered the arrangement that was contemplated when Kissinger was first appointed last December.
The original offer was for the scholar to play a self-effacing role as a behind-the-scenes adviser, with the new Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, a lawyer and talented advocate, acting as the front man on foreign policy. This entirely suited Kissinger, it is said, because he neither desired nor intended to deal with the press, but that is not the way it worked out. Rogers was handicapped by inexperience and the heavy burden of getting the State Department reorganized. Kissinger, on the other hand, was on top of the situation from the beginning.
He brought to the White House not only his own professionalism, but a large hand-picked staff of assistants who are specialists in almost every field of foreign policy. The Kissinger operation was already functioning before the inauguration. It was inevitable that the President would rely on it during those first months in office when State was still being reorganized.
There were pressing publicity problems from the beginning, notably Vietnam, which called for expert exposition, and the responsibility automatically fell on Kissinger. He was there in the White House; he saw the President constantly; he knew better than anybody else what Nixon was thinking; he had an authoritative but not too explicit way of stating things that Nixon admired; he was respected by the top politicians and members of the press who need and expect regular off-the-record background briefings on the real aims of the Administration. So, almost accidentally, Kissinger began to assume this delicate, highly sensitive responsibility. In foreign policy today, it is not what the President says that counts so much as what Kissinger (at the direction of his Patron, of course) says he meant.
Under the rules of the game, Kissinger cannot be personally quoted, nor can anything be attributed to him. The synonym for him and his operation is “White House sources” or some variation of that. This anonymity has unique advantages. Since Kissinger can’t be quoted, his normal style is an advantage instead of a handicap, for his studied opacities and obliquities, his discursive rather than precise musings, his guarded adumbrations of things to come, put the burden of public interpretation on the press. Many of the leading diplomatic correspondents, as well as influential columnists and other opinion-makers, seem to enjoy this experience. They find it stimulating to try to penetrate the somewhat Delphic hints of the agreeable professor.
Kissinger’s role and his extraordinary value to the President can be illustrated by his private exposition of President Nixon’s famous Vietnam television speech on the night of May 14. To the ordinary citizen listening without benefit of briefing by “White House sources,” most of it seemed like the mixture as before. In spite of this, Nixon got good mileage out of the speech after Kissinger gave the press a privately conducted tour of it. The ensuing interpretation prompted two prominent Senatorial doves, Frank Church and Albert Gore, to applaud “the President’s initiative,” whereas on the opposing side there were no complaints from hawks like Senators Goldwater and Dirksen. There was a similar dual reaction (also helpful to Nixon) among some of the leading and most sophisticated Washington correspondents, all of whom have regular access to the White House.
In the Washington Post, Chalmers Roberts, who has a good ear for nuances, was as impressed with what Nixon did not say as with what he did say. He concluded that the President had retreated from his resistance to coalition government, and was no longer necessarily wedded to President Thieu. When “all these components, some fully clear, some still shadowy, are added together,” he said, “they represent an immense change from past American policy…one is struck by how far the Nixon Administration has moved.” Conversely, Richard Wilson, a knowledgeable columnist with good Administration connections, said, “Those who have taken their time in measuring Nixon’s television speech, along with the explanations of it at the White House and the public reaction to it, tend toward the conclusion that its main emphasis was on not quitting in Vietnam.”
Later, James Reston of the New York Times got “the clear impression that Mr. Nixon’s first priority is to get out of the war, with the agreement of the South Vietnamese if possible, without it if necessary….” Joseph Alsop, on the other hand, thought the President was merely conning the doves. He said, “Nixon’s strategy is, of course, a bit like the strategy of the Russian lady in the old story, who threw the wolves a child from time to time in order to keep the wolf pack from catching up with her troika.” Alsop and his brother Stewart, a columnist for Newsweek, probably see as much of Kissinger, informally as well as formally, as any other journalists in Washington, if not more. Yet Stewart’s reading of the Nixon-Kissinger Vietnam scenario indicates he is skeptical about Nixon’s pledge never to accept a “disguised defeat” in Vietnam. “For strongly to denounce a disguised defeat,” he wrote, “is one way to disguise a defeat.”
After yet another White House briefing, it was reported that the withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam is “irreversible,” but this didn’t inflame the hawks because, as NEA columnist Bruce Biossat wrote, “Nixon intends to retain strong options to be considered in the event Hanoi, at any stage of the withdrawal process, tries to take military advantage of this on a major scale…. They include a resumption of heavy bombing,…stronger naval support…even some blockading.”
Besides privately tutoring the VIPs of politics and journalism, Kissinger has taken on the thankless task of seeing and talking with anti-war callers, such as college students and the Quakers. Some time ago, seven young campus leaders, who have vowed to refuse military induction as long as the war in Vietnam continues, went to the White House at the invitation of the President. They talked at length with Kissinger, who pleaded for patience. “He talked about the need for an honorable settlement,” said Roger Black, editor of the University of Chicago’s Maroon, “but we don’t believe that a war which started off as a dishonorable one can have an honorable end.” Kissinger was quoted as saying to them, “Come back here in a year…if nothing has happened, then I can’t argue for patience.”
This incident later prompted Kissinger to make a revealing statement to Gerald Astor, an editor of Look. “I can understand the anguish of the younger generation,” he said. “They lack models, they have no heroes, they see no great purpose in the world. But conscientious objection is destructive of a society. The imperatives of the individual are always in conflict with the organization of society. Conscientious objection must be reserved for only the greatest moral issues, and Vietnam is not of this magnitude.”
From this, it would seem that Kissinger, far from understanding the “anguish” of the young, was wholly insensitive to it. It would be helpful if he were to enumerate the societies that have been destroyed by conscientious objection. Most troubling of all is his dismissal of the moral issue on the grounds that this must be reserved for wars of greater “magnitude” than Vietnam. More than a million human beings have been killed and wounded in Vietnam; millions more have been made homeless; the country, both north and south, has been wrecked by bombing far exceeding that of World War II. America’s own casualties are greater than those of the Korean War. What “magnitude” qualifies as a moral issue?
In spite of his intimacy with the President, Kissinger remains something of an enigma to others in the Administration. They are in awe of his reputation and his standing with the President, and it still isn’t clear to them just how Nixon happened to choose for an intimate adviser a man he had never known before. Some also wonder why Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, to say nothing of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, also took him on as a foreign policy consultant. How could one man serve Presidents seemingly so different? Last year when Nixon was campaigning as a Vietnam hawk and Rockefeller was running as a putative dove, Kissinger was the governor’s top foreign policy adviser, just as he had been when Rockefeller was openly pursuing a hard line. Later, when Nixon invited him to join his staff, he must have sensed in Kissinger the qualities that also appealed to other Presidents he has advised—the coldness and belief in Realpolitik that are reassuring to the White House.
Kissinger has published several books, but he has written singularly little about Vietnam. American Foreign Policy was not published until long after the author had gone to Nixon’s White House. This small book is really a collection of three essays that were previously published in magazines, and only one of the three is on Vietnam. It was written last September for Foreign Affairs, but did not appear until after the announcement of Kissinger’s appointment. Hence Nixon had little to go on in studying Kissinger’s writings for a clue to his real feelings about Vietnam. In having kept most of his thoughts on the war to himself all these years, Kissinger is almost alone among the nation’s prominent students of foreign policy. On his own campus at Harvard, there is hardly a leading professor who has not declared himself. It is still not clear why Kissinger refrained from publishing anything on the subject until after the election last year, and even then his thinking about the war emerged only in a cowled way.
In Washington, American Foreign Policy was hailed as “must reading” because it is supposed to be the key to Nixon’s war policy. In fact, few of the recommendations in the book have been put into effect and the rhetoric of the Administration flatly contradicts some of them. But the gap between Kissinger’s views and Nixon’s public policies is instructive. Kissinger’s most widely publicized recommendation called for converting the Paris peace talks into “two track” negotiations, with Hanoi and the US negotiating on one track, and South Vietnam and the National Liberation Front on the other, but little is heard of this plan any longer. The minuet in Paris is not much different from what it was in the Johnson days. There is scant negotiation of any kind, but such as there is takes place on any track that is handy. There are hints of secret talks with Hanoi, the NLF, the new Revolutionary Provisional Government, but nobody takes them very seriously.