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….
On May 29; under further questioning about the taps, Kissinger conceded: “My office supplied the names of some of the individuals who had access to the information that was being investigated.” On September 10, at his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State, he said wiretapping “raises the balance between human liberty and the requirements of national security, and I would say that…the demonstration of national security must be overwhelming.” But the questions continued.
On June 11, 1974, he called a press conference in Salzburg and said he would resign if his “public honor” was put in doubt over the tapping issue. He had tried, he said, to
do what I could to maintain the dignity of American values and to give Americans some pride in the conduct of their affairs…. I have attempted, however inadequate, to set some standards in my public life…. It is impossible and incompatible with the dignity of the United States to have its senior official and to have its Secretary of State under this sort of attack in the face of the dangers we confront and the risks that may have to be run and the opportunities that may have to be seized. This is a fact. This is not a threat.
It is necessary to detail the wiretapping affair at such length because even now, only a few years later, few remember—or can believe—the ripeness of what Kissinger did and said. It was a record of paranoia and mendacity, salted with self-pity. Morris suggests that the “sense of outrage, anguish and victimization” projected in Salzburg was genuine, not put on, and his argument is convincing. Kissinger believed, he says, that statesmen had a droit de seigneur allowing them to use any necessary methods and to shade the truth for higher purposes of the state.
But why would Kissinger have become so agitated in the first place about a leak on bombing already known to those being bombed? Morris says his fervor in pursuing the leaker served to demonstrate his loyalty to Nixon, just as his support of the bombing itself “vouchsafed his toughness for the joint chiefs. Nothing more than principle was sacrificed.”
In reviewing the Kalbs’ book three years ago, Morris said the country needed a study of Kissinger as the quintessential politician, addressed with “the same sense of proportion, healthy skepticism and self-confidence we now apply to local politicians.” What was important about Kissinger was the way he manipulated Congress and the media and the bureaucracy and all his constituencies, foreign and domestic.
Judged by those aims, Uncertain Greatness is a curiously unsatisfactory book. Its judgments are pungent, and I agree with many of them, but it does not provide a coherent analysis of the politics of foreign policy or of the way Kissinger played the game. It is episodic, like a collection of pieces of investigative journalism. When Morris was a participant himself, as for example on policy toward southern Africa, the accounts are compelling. (Who could resist the story of a National Security Council meeting at which Spiro Agnew confused Rhodesia with South Africa and Richard Helms read an intelligence brief, evidently informed by the CIA’s friends in the white security services, so contemptuous of black Africans that even Kissinger was startled? Other times the statements are colorful but the evidence thin. Morris says flatly that the CIA station in Pnompenh informed Washington of the coup “well in advance,” and probably had seen the plans. One wants to know a lot more about that interesting assertion.
Morris does go back to the Halperin plan as the beginning of Kissinger’s grip on the system. But he does not really explain how this extraordinary man proceeded from there. One gets a little peek, now and then, of the Kissinger equivalent of Lyndon Johnson’s hand stroking a senator’s back—a stroke for Jean Mayer, say, or Edward Kennedy. But we do not end up understanding, in the large, how the manipulation worked.
Moreover, Morris seems to have a low opinion of just about everyone who has anything to do with foreign policy: Kissinger’s predecessors and successors, the State Department hierarchy under both Nixon and Carter, the Foreign Service, Congress, journalists, presidents, the public. If there is an unqualified good word for anyone in this book, I missed it. That disdain, combined with an evident belief that American foreign policy could work if only the fools got out of the way, produces a certain air of condescension, like that of a younger Pooh-Bah.
But the oddest feature of this book is its conclusion. After uncovering the inhumanity of Henry Kissinger in this episode and that, and deploring it, Morris seems to revert at the end to the Washington morality of toughness. Foreign policy, he says, is now in the hands of second-rate men, “a provincial, mediocre establishment that has survived its past folly by public amnesia and indifference.” There can be “no American statesmanship worth the name” unless the foreign-policy bureaucracy is sweepingly reformed. And there is only one man to do that: Henry Kissinger. He alone has the power to educate us, and to be heeded. “The zealot for secrecy must become the advocate of openness…, the seducer of the press and Congress the critic of every such seduction, the practitioner of ruthless Realpolitik the champion of a new humanity in American foreign policy.”
Yes, and he will call spirits from the vasty deep. That Morris can end by calling on Super-K to rescue us shows that he has not understood the simplest lesson of our recent history: that the character of our political leaders is as important as their intelligence or political skills.
Looking back at American foreign policy from 1969 to 1977, we can see two notable accomplishments: the opening to China and the beginnings, however fragile, of accommodation between Israel and her Arab neighbors. Beyond those it is a record of disappointment, failure, and shaming disaster. And the misadventures bear the imprint of the flaws in Henry Kissinger’s character.
His belief that American influence in the world depends on the appearance of “strength”—meaning ruthlessness, not the strength of moral integrity—helped to produce four more utterly pointless years of war in Indochina. America must not be seen to lose, he argued, no matter what the cost. He carried the argument so far that, as Saigon crumbled in 1975, he became a self-domino, warning that an American failure to keep the war going with more aid would have “cataclysmic” effects on our credibility.
His fear of seeming weak showed, too, in his otherwise incomprehensible insistence on treating regional conflicts as tests of strength with the Soviet Union. We had to stand up to communism in Angola and East Bengal. Because Cambodia might affect Vietnam, we had to break our official promises and enter her civil war; the result is a monument to Kissinger as Ozymandias.
His instinctive preference for right-wing dictatorships involved the United States in their repression and corruption and helped make America the arsenal not of democracy but of authoritarianism. His performance on Chile was symbolized by the note he scrawled on a cable from a US ambassador saying that he had raised the issue of human rights with the junta: “Tell Popper to cut out the political-science lectures.” His infatuation with the Greek colonels kept him from moving when they tried to install a thug in Arch-bishop Makarios’s place in Cyprus; his failure to act against the coup—indeed, the hint that the United States was satisfied with it—led inevitably to the Turkish invasion, a human and political disaster.
His ego was so involved in the conduct of American policy that successes had to be proclaimed even when the price was distortion of reality. In the case of “détente” with the Soviet Union, the price was high. That glamorous concept led to Nixon’s empty talk of “a structure of peace.” It led to flawed agreements with the Soviets. It led Americans to expect too much, and then in dangerous numbers to turn against the whole idea of accommodation on arms control and other issues.
His secretiveness and love of solitary power—his image of himself as “the cowboy who comes into town all alone on his horse,” as he put it to Oriana Fallaci—caused painful mistakes. Because the State Department had to be excluded from knowledge of the approach to China, the Japanese Government was shocked by the lack of notice. Because Kissinger had no interest in the new world issues of resources and finance, the power of OPEC took the United States government by surprise. Alastair Buchan, the late British student of international security, commented: “A cabal system of government has no early warning system.”
His disdain for law kept him fatally out of touch with American ideals, and hence unable to use in the world what has been a unique American influence. When he spoke to the press just before leaving office and was asked what his greatest disappointment had been, he answered: “The disintegration of Executive authority that resulted from Watergate…. It consumed too much of our energies on procedural and peripheral issues.”
His compulsion to deceive left stains on the reputation of the United States. When he finally conceded North Vietnam’s right to keep troops in the South, in the secret negotiations in 1972, he did not inform President Thieu. He went to Saigon and told Thieu that Nixon would have to look peaceful because of the election but afterward would support an invasion of the North. When the peace terms were published and Thieu denounced them, Kissinger told journalist friends that they would have to be forced down Thieu’s throat. Then he joined in the decision to bomb Hanoi over Christmas—as a way of showing Thieu that America would be tough on the North. He said in 1974 that the US had “no bilateral written commitment” to Saigon, knowing when he said it that a 1973 letter from Nixon to Thieu had given “assurance…that we will respond with full force should the settlement be violated by North Vietnam.”
His cold-bloodedness left him seemingly untouched by the human disasters in Cambodia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. Many American officials were changed by Vietnam: by the moral responsibility. But he agonized only on the outside. In 1974 Richard Holbrooke, then managing editor of Foreign Policy, now Assistant Secretary of State, wrote that in his actions on Vietnam Kissinger had been “wholly free of any constraint based on a set of moral beliefs.” Holbrooke added that his attitudes in such tragedies as those in Biafra and Bangladesh “seem to indicate that he does not consider the factor of human suffering the overriding one. That, in fact, is putting it gently: Some of his former associates…consider him wholly without feeling for human suffering.”
His self-pity was grossly unattractive in a statesman. He never said a word of regret about the wiretapping of men who had been close to him and of their families; but when someone went through his garbage, he said his wife had suffered “grave anguish.” After the Salzburg press conference, Philip Geyelin of the Washington Post wrote: “Other Secretaries of State have had their bad moments—and borne them with fortitude. Can we imagine George Marshall having a public tantrum and threatening to resign unless Senator Joseph McCarthy stopped calling him a Communist?”
Daniel Davidson, one of the former assistants who was wiretapped, wrote after Salzburg: “For Kissinger the price of power was to function in an immoral atmosphere—and there is no indication that he has paid reluctantly.” Roger Morris seems to understand that. He speaks of Kissinger sharing Nixon’s “evil and malice.” He writes, in connection with the tapping affair, that Kissinger “shared too much the goals of the regime, their venomous style. For him as for Nixon, principle and legal nicety and the national interest were ultimately a matter of their private vision, a vision which included a defiance of democracy.” How can one take seriously a foreign-policy expert who writes that, and then argues that we can be saved by a man free to act boldly—because he is not constrained by conviction?
“Kissinger is a man of first-rate intellect and third-rate temperament. The effect is disastrous.” That was said, while he was in office, by one of his wisest subordinates.
The importance of character in public men is not to be underestimated. Consider an ironic speculation. Suppose that in March 1969, when Richard Nixon was planning the secret bombing of Cambodia, he had a man of character at his side—say George Marshall, if one can imagine him with Nixon. That person would have told the President that the United States should not act in such a way: that the risk of a self-inflicted wound was too great. There would have been no secret bombing, no Beecher story, no pledge to “destroy” the leaker, no taps, no “White House horrors” to conceal later…. It is of course idle speculation, because the character of Richard Nixon would probably have told one way or another. The point is that the character of Henry Kissinger told.
We still wait, then, for an adequate book on the Kissinger phenomenon. It would have to be in considerable part a study of ourselves: of what it was in Americans that made them a foil for such a person. But having said that, I am bound to add that the enterprise of still another Kissinger book seems a dubious one. Without power, Henry Kissinger has become uninteresting. He lacks the redeeming fascination of Richard Nixon, the talent to amuse.