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 of power, his vanity, his secretiveness, his insecurity he made the subject of his own jokes. He treated subordinates with contempt. His word was good until sunset.
Yet the world, or much of it, hailed him as a foreign-policy genius. Americans, or most of them, treated him as a super-hero. The press, or most of it, fawned on him as it has on no other public figure in memory. At the press conference following his promotion to Secretary of State, a reporter asked whether he would like henceforth to be addressed as “Mr. Secretary or Dr. Secretary.” Kissinger topped that servile jest by replying that “Excellency” would do. But my favorite example of star-struck journalism was a column by Tom Braden in the Washington Post of September 15, 1975:
There is a certain boyish quality about our Secretary of State which makes him intensely likable and also makes one wonder whether boyishness is not a necessary ingredient in the personalities of first-rate men.
Roger Morris was one of Kissinger’s young men in the White House until he and two others resigned in May 1970, over the invasion of Cambodia. During the last several years, in frequent magazine articles, he has argued for deeper and more critical public understanding of foreign policy and its makers. Reviewing Kissinger, by Marvin and Bernard Kalb, in The Washington Monthly, he deplored “superficial, misleading books” and said that what was needed was “an investigative report” on Kissinger. That is what he has set out to supply: a book penetrating appearances to give us the reality of the policy-making process in general and Kissinger’s in particular.
The book does provide significant new glimpses of the authentic Kissinger. During the Nigerian war there was much compassionate official talk of relief for the starving Ibos in Biafra, for example, but because of concern for US interests in Nigeria nothing much was done. Kissinger worried about appearances: his own especially. Late one night at the critical time of Biafra’s collapse, he telephoned Senator Edward Kennedy to assure the senator that he, at least, was doing all he could for the starving. He added, “You remember, Ted, that I worked for your brother.” In a meeting Jean Mayer, the Harvard nutritionist, demolished a report by Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson playing down the need for relief; Kissinger took Mayer aside and said, “You see what I’m up against. The State Department is incompetent.” On January 20, 1970, Nixon had a State Department briefing on relief efforts. Afterward he telephoned Kissinger. “They’re going to let them starve, aren’t they, Henry?” he asked. Kissinger replied: “Yes.” They went on to discuss the State of the Union speech.
Racism was in the air of the White House. When African matters were discussed in Kissinger staff meetings, Alexander Haig amused the boss by pretending to beat drums. Once Kissinger asked how the Ibos could be distinguished from Nigeria’s northern tribes. The latter were more Semitic in appearance, he was told, the Ibos more Negroid. Visibly surprised, he said, “But you have always told me the Ibos were more gifted and accomplished than the others. What do you mean ‘more Negroid’?” In February 1970, as Kissinger was working on a foreign policy message, Nixon telephoned him and said: “Make sure there’s something in it for the jigs, Henry.” Kissinger said there was. Morris comments, surely correctly, that attitudes of “such casual bigotry” must have affected American policy toward the non-white world in the Kissinger-Nixon period.
Any lingering notion that Kissinger was a dove on Vietnam should be dispelled by this book. In September 1969, he formed a study group to prepare detailed plans for what he called a “savage punishing” blow at North Vietnam, including widespread bombing, mining of Haiphong and inland waterways, and a naval blockade. He also instructed the group to consider the option of bombing the Red River dikes. “I can’t believe,” he said at the first meeting, “that a fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.” The group produced a complete “package,” going so far as to draft a presidential speech terming the escalation necessary to correct Hanoi’s “intransigence” and stop “the senseless attrition of American lives.” The proposals were argued before Nixon in October 1969, with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird in heated opposition to them and Kissinger “equivocal.” In the end they were put aside, to be revived and carried out in April 1972.
There is much new material here on Washington’s shameful silence in 1971 as the Pakistan military slaughtered the Bengalis in what was then East Pakistan. In cables quoted by Morris, American diplomats in Dacca said they were “mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror” and called for at least some words of regret. But Kissinger was intent then on using the Pakistan regime as a channel in his secret approach to China, and US policy was expressed in the instruction recorded in the famous leaked minutes: to “tilt in favor of Pakistan.” Morris observes that the minutes as published said much about the supposed group process of policy-formulation: “Dr. Kissinger instructed…ordered…requested….”
Sprinkled here and there are vignettes that might have shocked us if we had not been hardened by White House tapes and successive memoirs. A few months after taking office Nixon agreed to meet the members of Kissinger’s staff. They met in the Cabinet room, and Nixon began by commiserating with the staff for having to deal with those “impossible fags” at the State Department. (Most of the staff were in fact Foreign Service Officers.) After the rightist coup in Cambodia in March 1970, Morris says, Nixon sent down a flood of memos that “will make extraordinary reading for historians if they survive. Now stream-of-consciousness excursions into courage and aggression, now terse orders or questions, their thrust…was that the United States should aggressively support the new regime….” The result was the invasion, designed to show that the United States was not “a pitiful, helpless giant.” The “bizarre, almost manic decision-making” was Nixon’s, Morris says, but the root logic of mixing negotiations on Vietnam with brutal applications of force was Kissinger’s.
Morris discusses, shrewdly though with no new facts, the episode that I think revealed the most about Henry Kissinger while he was in office: the wiretapping of seventeen of his assistants, other officials, and journalists. On May 9, 1969, The New York Times carried a story by William Beecher saying that US planes were secretly bombing Cambodia. Kissinger, who was in Key Biscayne with Nixon, telephoned J. Edgar Hoover to say that the story was “extraordinarily damaging.” There were three other telephone conversations between them that day, and Hoover’s notes of the calls said “they will destroy whoever did this if we can find him.” The next day Kissinger sent Haig to the FBI with the names of four people to be investigated, including Halperin. Others followed. Kissinger later called his role “passive,” but there can no longer be any doubt that he picked many of the targets, knew they were to be wire-tapped, and got summaries of the transcripts of the taps.
On May 12, 1973, after knowledge of the Halperin tap had become public, Kissinger was asked at a press conference whether he had been “aware at the time it was taking place that the home of one of your staff members was being wiretapped.” A truthful answer would have been Yes. What Kissinger said was, in relevant part:
The CIA and the FBI submit reports through my office when they concern national security. In the overwhelming majority of cases, these reports are always at the direction of the Director of the Agency…and follow duly constituted processes. My office has not handled or been aware of any activities that were conducted by other processes. The overwhelming majority of reports that come through my office from both of these agencies concern matters of foreign intelligence. In a very few cases where it concerns allegations of the mishandling of classified information that was within the purview of the NSC, I would receive summaries of reports from agency heads concerning these activities….