The Secretary

excerpted from the book


Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia

by William Shawcross

Simon and Schuster, 1979

The Secretary


Kissinger had succeeded in creating a wide constituency outside the White House, even while he strengthened his relations with the President. At the same time Nixon apparently now believed that his adviser was not always to be depended on. In his memoirs, the former President claimed that he had installed his secret taping system in part to provide a record, because "any President feels vulnerable to revisionist histories-whether from within or without his administration-and particularly so when the issues are as controversial and the personalities as volatile as they were in my first term." Haldeman was more explicit in his own book about the reasons for the taping system.

"One of the prime focal points of Nixon's concern was the unpredictable Henry Kissinger. Nixon realized rather early in the relationship that he badly needed a complete account of all that they discussed in their many long and wide-ranging sessions. He knew that Henry was keeping a log of these talks, a luxury which the President didn't have time to indulge. And he knew that Henry's view on a given subject was sometimes subject to change without notice. He was frequently given to second thoughts on vital matters that the President assumed had been settled."

Nixon quoted in his memoirs a letter Kissinger had sent him on Election Day 1972, thanking him for the privilege of serving the last four years and praising his "historic achievement-to take a divided nation, mired in war, losing its confidence, wracked by intellectuals without conviction, and give it a new purpose and overcome its hesitations." Yet only a few weeks later, after Kissinger had encouraged Nixon to embark on the Christmas bombing of Hanoi, he carefully suggested to James Reston of The New York Times that he was opposed to the decision. Reston reported this. According to Haldeman, Kissinger then denied he had given Reston an interview. It transpired that he had talked to the columnist on the telephone. Nixon was not pleased.

When the taping system was revealed in 1973 Kissinger was, by all accounts, dismayed. Haldeman maintained that it was Kissinger who had most to lose if the conversations between him and Nixon were ever published and that he had urged Nixon to destroy them. They would presumably show Kissinger as much more aggressively hawkish than he cared to suggest to the public and would be filled with unflattering comments on those who considered themselves to be his friends. Ray Price, a Presidential speechwriter who remained consistently loyal to Nixon, wrote that one of Kissinger's traits, "which he seemed to carry to compulsive extremes, always particularly irritated me and contributed to my feeling of distrust: his incessant backbiting of anyone who in any way might be perceived as his rival for power or influence. While cordial enough to their faces, he was ruthless behind their backs." Price said that whenever he met Kissinger to discuss papers for the President "the entire meeting would be punctuated with Henry's put-downs of those in State or Defense or one of the other agencies, who had anything to do with the project. The constant theme of these animadversions was that unless checked (implicitly by Henry himself) these others would undermine all that the President was trying to do. I had to assume that as soon as my own back was turned I was subject to the same treatment." Nixon's tapes would reveal similar performances in the Oval Office...

Kissinger's confirmation hearings-the first public testimony he had ever given before Congress-did provide an opportunity to examine the foreign policy of the last four and a half years, but many of the Senators were restricted either by their regard for Kissinger, by their wish to identify with, rather than criticize, the statesman before them, or by their imperfect knowledge of the facts. In some cases this was not important; there were considerable achievements for which Kissinger deserved praise and which might alone justify his elevation to the Secretaryship. Poor young Americans were, at last, no longer dying in Indochina, Nixon had visited Peking and ended more than twenty years of destructive hostility toward China. He had visited Moscow as well, and although both he and Kissinger had oversold the process they called "détente," American-Soviet relations were certainly now conducted more rationally than ever before. It was hard to quarrel with Kissinger's basic premise that the peace of the world and the lives of hundreds of millions of people depended on the stability of that relationship. The first SALT treaty that he had negotiated with considerable skill undoubtedly helped secure those lives.

Some of the changes were more cosmetic than real, and others-indeed, the visit to China-had been overdue, principally because of long years of opposition by men like Nixon. Nonetheless, the new civility between Washington and Moscow and Peking did seem a stunning success, one which tended, not unnaturally, to overshadow other aspects of the past four and a half years of stewardship.

First, of course, there was the continuing, extended war in Indochina, where no real peace had ever been sought, and where détente had failed to produce real benefits. There was the fundamentally careless acquiescence in General Yahya Khan's attrition of East Pakistan and the "tilt" away from India in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. There was the deliberate attempt to "destabilize" the government of Salvador Allende in Chile. "I don't see why a country should be allowed to go Communist through the irresponsibility of its own people," Kissinger had remarked at the time of Allende's election in 1970. Most of the American attempts to disrupt the Chilean economy and arm, not merely encourage, Allende's opponents were still undiscovered. But they helped-ironically, as Kissinger's nomination was being considered by the Senate-to secure Allende's death and his replacement by a brutal right-wing junta. When Kissinger was asked about CIA involvement in the coup, he denied that there was any such thing; this was a fundamentally misleading answer.

There had been the refusal to apply United Nations sanctions against Rhodesian chrome. With it had gone a tolerance for the white minority regimes of southern Africa, based on accepting the option in National Security Study Memorandum 39 that argued that "the whites are here to stay, and the only way that constructive change can come about is through them." This judgment led to years of neglect, which were to have extremely serious consequences when it was inevitably proven wrong. Coinciding with it was Kissinger's proclaimed ignorance of economic affairs and his early lack of interest in the "Third World" in general. As so often, his attitudes were to change, but not before considerable damage had been done.

Then there was the Middle East, the area of the world where Kissinger was later to win so much credit. In the first Nixon administration United States policy had failed there. It had been the one topic for which William Rogers was allowed some responsibility, but he was never given proper support. In 1970 Kissinger and Nixon had given no backing to the Rogers' Plan for a comprehensive settlement; it had been dismissed by the Israelis even before the Jordanian crisis destroyed it. After that, Nixon and Kissinger insisted that United States policy must be a full alliance with Israel against the Soviet Union. Three times in 1971 and 1972 Sadat's overtures to the United States and his declared readiness to accept a peace agreement were rejected. Kissinger saw Sadat's expulsion of his Soviet advisers not as an opportunity for settlement but as a vindication of American support for Israel. He considered Israel had no need of a settlement then. Such errors of judgment helped lead to the Yom Kippur war.

There were other mistakes, and underlying many of them was a state of mind that was itself perhaps more troubling than any specific decision. Kissinger had a fundamentally pessimistic vision of Western society. He seemed inspired by the notion that the Soviet Union was ultimately invincible and that his task was to negotiate the best possible deal for the West in the meantime. While the West was filled with "intellectuals without conviction," the USSR was run by men of iron will. He was therefore impatient with Western democracies and tended to undervalue their achievements. On one occasion he would claim that scarcely any of them had been legitimate since 1914. Not surprisingly, his "Year of Europe" in 1973 was a fiasco.

Kissinger has often been described (and, rightly or wrongly, his experience of the chaos of Weimar has been cited as an explanation) as placing order before justice. Years before, in his book on Castlereagh, Metternich and the Congress of Vienna, he wrote that a stable international order required a sense of legitimacy that had less to do with justice than with "an international agreement about the nature of workable arrangements and about the permissible aims and methods of foreign policy." The record of the first Nixon administration demonstrates that even when the existing order was manifestly unjust, he felt an impatience with demands for change, especially when the consequences of change could only partly be predicted. Inevitably this led to a confusion of status quo and stability: Greece, Iran, and South Africa are just three examples. When the Shah of Iran asked in 1972 for secret American military aid to be given to the Kurdish rebels in Iraq, Kissinger agreed over the opposition of the CIA station in Teheran. When the Shah later embarked on a policy of conciliation with Iraq the Kurds were abruptly cut off; at least 35,000 were killed and more than 200,000 refugees were created. On another occasion the White House ignored CIA protests and channeled funds to a neo-fascist group in Italy in the hope that this would harm the Italian Communist Party. These policies were unkind; they were also foolish.

In one sense his very successes contributed to his failures. His overriding interest in détente prevented him from considering the characters, priorities, incentives, imperatives of countries in their own rights. Nations could not be seen as untidy groups of disparate people with complicated lives and inconvenient histories. Instead they had to be regarded as subordinate parts of a seamless strategic design. This notion, which Kissinger called linkage, was not original. But he did seem to apply it more rigorously than his predecessors. Thus, Allende had to be "destabilized" much less for the threat he posed to United States' commercial interests than for the fact that the emergence of a Marxist state in the hemisphere would itself "destabilize" United States-Soviet relations. Each side recognized spheres of influence, and those spheres had to be preserved, however painful that might be for those within them.

A few months before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Kissinger (still a private citizen then) talked with Alexander Dubcek's foreign minister, Jiri Hajek. According to Hajek, Kissinger "confirmed that the existing division of the world was regarded by both sides as an element of stability based on peaceful coexistence. And that every disruption of the equilibrium would have to lead to unfathomable consequences." Four and a half years in office had strengthened this view. Once again, it was not exceptional, but his critics argued that he took the practice of 'real politik' to an unacceptable extreme, and that in his schemes the concept of individual rights had no place.

This may be unfair. It seems likely, for example, that the record will show that Kissinger argued with the Soviet leaders on behalf of individual dissidents and others persecuted in the USSR more frequently than has yet been revealed. But, as he himself frequently maintained, the appearance of American attitudes is often as important as any hidden reality. He extended approval to regimes like the Portuguese, Spanish, Greek and post-Allende Chilean, which were most obviously intent on denying the ideals on which European civilization and American government are based. Such support had obvious strategic purpose, but it meant that the United States appeared to care little for human suffering and democratic rights. This policy comforted dictators and discouraged democrats everywhere. It was shortsighted.

Equally disturbing could be the lengths to which he was prepared to go to effect his plans. He never really concealed his irritation with conventional procedures and restraints of the law. "The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer," he once said. It was a joke, but Kissinger often attempted to mask his real attitudes in humor. (When asked about the exacting way he treated State Department officials, he once replied, "Why, Thomas Jefferson was a fine Secretary of State, and he had slaves." At his last meeting with the press as Secretary of State in January 1977 he asked "What makes you think this is going to be my last press conference?" Speaking at the historic first meeting of the Washington ambassadors of Egypt and Israel, he said "I have not addressed such a distinguished audience since dining alone in the hall of mirrors.") He seemed convinced that there should be few restraints on espionage, counter-intelligence paramilitary operations, wiretapping or any other covert activity that he thought might serve higher purposes. When William Colby, the Director of the CIA, began to tell Congress the truth about some of the CIA's abuses of power in 1975, Kissinger attempted to stop him. He complained that Colby, a Catholic, was simply "going to confession" on Capitol Hill. He himself did all he could to frustrate Congress' inquiries.

Kissinger argued that the new triangular relationship between Moscow, Washington and Peking which he and Nixon helped create would itself promote a new international order or legitimacy. He believed, in particular, that the Soviet bear could be enmeshed in such a thick net of agreements that its own self-interest would force it to behave more cautiously abroad. Stanley Hoffmann has described the notion "The bear would be treated like one of B.F. Skinner's pigeons: there would be incentives for good behavior, rewards if such behavior occurred, and punishments if not. It may have been a bit pedantic, or a bit arrogant; it certainly was rather theoretical."

Events showed the limits of the theory. The Russians had, it could be argued, applied some pressure on North Vietnam in 1972, but only for a tactical change. The conduct of the war through 1973, 1974 and 1975 showed that they scarcely altered their support for Hanoi's unchanging strategic aims. In July 1973 Kissinger proclaimed after Leonid Brezhnev's visit to Washington that "it is safe to say that the Soviet Union and the USA agree on the evolution of the Middle East and how it should be resolved." The outbreak, just 103 days later, of the Yom Kippur war and Soviet threats to introduce their own troops into the conflict, showed just how unrealistic that belief actually was. After the collapse of the Caetano regime in Portugal, Moscow lent considerable support to the wild demands of Alvaro Cunhal's Communist Party there. Later still, the Angolan adventure showed again that for both parties the net of détente was, in fact, rather loose. What had not been appreciated adequately was that linkage works both ways. The agreements that the USSR signed-on SALT, European security, sales of American grain and technology- were binding on the U. S. government (and American corporations) as well. They could not easily be reneged on if Moscow subsequently refused to play by rules that Washington laid down. Indeed, in one sense the very structure of détente and its concessions to Soviet needs and Soviet power actually liberated the USSR and gave it more freedom for an adventurist foreign policy.

Kissinger's confirmation hearings did not fully reflect it, but by summer 1973 his attitudes, personality and priorities had excited some criticism. They would excite more. William Colby later complained that Kissinger's obsession with secrecy and his refusal to disclose his actions to his colleagues made proper intelligence gathering, and hence sensible policy formation, very difficult. Charges of insincerity abounded. Daniel Moynihan later claimed that Helmut Sonnenfeldt, one of Kissinger's principal aides, once told him, "Henry does not lie because it is in his interest. He lies because it is in his nature." Sonnenfeldt denies having made this remark. To Kissinger many of the critics must often have seemed superficial or naive. In a study of Bismarck he had once written: "Sincerity has meaning only in reference to a standard of truth or conduct. The root fact of Bismarck's personality, however, was his incapacity to comprehend any such standard outside his will.... It accounts for his mastery in adapting to the requirements of the moment. It was not that Bismarck lied . . . this is much too self-conscious an act-but that he was finely attuned to the subtlest currents of any environment and produced measures precisely adjusted to the need to prevail. The key to Bismarck's success was that he was always sincere." Similarly, Kissinger had said of himself, "Conviction. I am always convinced of the necessity of whatever I'm doing. And people that feel that, believe in it."

Whether or not it would prove true in the long run, most people certainly wished to believe in Kissinger when he was confirmed. As Nixon sank, Kissinger not only became indispensable to his employer, he seemed to become invaluable to the Republic. Now that he was Secretary of State as well as the President's Assistant for National Security Affairs, almost all the reins of the nation's foreign policy were in his hands. The years to come would reflect his priorities even more than the years gone by.


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