Remembering Henry

A Texas visit from Henry Kissinger brings back fond memories: arrogance, dishonesty, duplicity, barbarism, and genocide.

Austin will soon be visited by Henry Kissinger, whom history will record as the man who helped create widespread cynicism and social unrest in this country, massive chaos and slaughter in Southeast Asia, and helped create an atmosphere of fear and distrust that ruined President Richard Nixon.

He managed to do these things because of an extraordinary talent for duplicity (Israel’s former prime minister Shimon Perez once observed, “With due respect to Kissinger, he is the most devious man I’ve ever met”), a psychotic need for secrecy, and an amazingly bloated vanity.

These character defects are perhaps best illustrated by Kissinger’s contributions to the Cambodian catastrophe.

Shortly after Nixon became president in 1969 and Kissinger took his place on Nixon’s right hand as National Security Advisor, they decided to expand the Vietnam war by bombing “Vietcong sanctuaries” just over the border in Cambodia.

Because this was a neutral country and had never shown any aggression toward the United States, the bombing was an act of international lawlessness and Kissinger and Nixon wanted to keep it a secret from the American public (it was rather difficult, of course, to keep it a secret from the people being bombed). For fourteen months — during which 3,630 B-52 bombing raids were made on that small country — they succeeded. Congress didn’t know about the raids. Not even the Secretary of State knew of them. To maintain the secrecy, military records were falsified and members of the Air Force who did the bombing were ordered to keep quiet.

There had been, however, one slip-up. Only one. Although no further reports of this activity would get into the press for more than a year, the very first bombing run had been reported by William Beecher of The New York Times, and this turned Kissinger into a madman. He was furious. Who was the source of the leak? He suspected all of his aides and his closest friends. He supplied names to the F.B.I. for a massive wiretapping. No villains were uncovered; in fact, the wiretapping was a nasty fiasco. In 1973, looking back on this period, Nixon said the wiretaps “never helped us. Just gobs and gobs of material. Gossip and bullshitting.” He said Kissinger “asked that it be done.”

White House tapes released in 1999 show Nixon saying to his press aide, Ron Ziegler, “Henry ordered the whole Goddamn thing [wiretapping]. He ordered it all, believe you me. He was the one who was in my office jumping up and down about ‘This and this got out,’ and buh, buh, buh got out. I didn’t give a shit about the (unintelligible) but he did. I said, all right, investigate the sons of bitches. And he read every one of those taps until the very last one, every one…. [Shouting] He reveled in it, he groveled in it, he wallowed in it. If he quits, starts playing games, we’re going to let him have the hook.”

The most damaging result of the wiretapping was that it established an atmosphere of intense paranoia in the Nixon administration that would continue until he was driven from office.

The paranoia, based on the belief that “outsiders” were stealing, through leaks, administration secrets, reached such an intensity that Nixon, with Kissinger on hand and giving counsel, actually demanded that the Brookings Institute (a liberal think-tank) be burglarized and its safe blown open to see if it contained classified government documents. White House tapes reveal that on June 17, 1972, Nixon ordered his top aides to “implement” the break-in. Kissinger, who was in the group, chimed in to rationalize the crime: “Brookings has no right to have classified documents.”

When the Cambodian bombings, followed by an invasion of that country, finally came to light in 1971, four members of Kissinger’s staff — who had known nothing about the Cambodian action and considered it immoral — resigned. Kissinger said they represented “the cowardice of the Eastern establishment.” There was overwhelming public condemnation of what some called the “Nixinger” widening of the war. Student demonstrations swept across the country, with some campuses being forced to close, and on two campuses — Kent State in Ohio and Jackson State in Mississippi — there were deadly confrontations between students and armed forces. The Kent State deaths bothered Nixon, who wanted to make some conciliatory gestures toward college demonstrators. But Bob Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, records in his diary that Kissinger, far from sympathizing, “wants to just let the students go for a couple of weeks, then move in and clobber them…. Kissinger very concerned that we not appear to give in in any way.”

Kissinger and Nixon felt their wall of secrecy particularly assaulted in 1971 when The New York Times published the “Pentagon Papers” — top secret documents revealing in detail how the U.S. government became bogged down in the Vietnam War. And when the F.B.I. identified Daniel J. Ellsberg as the “thief,” Kissinger felt personally betrayed because he knew Ellsberg well and had dealt with him more than once on the Vietnam problem.

Actually, the Pentagon documents were so old that their disclosure did no harm to national security or to the government, but the hysterical Nixon-Kissinger response certainly did.

Now the wiretapping was widened in scope. And in a step that would ultimately bring down the Nixon administration, members of the President’s circle set up the infamous “Plumbers” gang to plug the leaks and to smear all the suspected leakers. The Plumbers first burglarized the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, to see if they could get some dirt, and then burglarized the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate complex in Washington.

Kissinger did not organize the Plumbers, but it is generally thought that he goaded Nixon into doing so. Charles Colson, the White House’s master of dirty tricks, has said, “Without any question … Kissinger’s great alarm over the Pentagon Papers was the primary motivating influence in the formation of the Plumbers.” Chief of Staff Haldeman also blames Kissinger: “Henry got Nixon cranked up, and then they started cranking each other up until they both were in a frenzy.”

When the Watergate burglars were caught and the press feasted on the scandal, President Nixon had Kissinger’s phone logs checked because Haldeman complained that Kissinger was trying to distance himself from the news stories about White House wiretapping by pretending to be “so deeply concerned about the morality of this and all that. That’s a lot of baloney.”

To which Nixon replied: “If Henry — Henry wants to be — talk about morality, I mean we’ve got him nailed six ways to one.”

Haldeman: “Right.”

Nixon: “Who the hell was pushing this stuff?”

Haldeman: “Absolutely.”

Nixon: “Who was squealing the most about the leaks?”

As mentioned earlier, Kissinger was at least partly responsible for massive social chaos and slaughter overseas. From our military’s earliest engagements in Vietnam, Kissinger wholeheartedly supported the conflict and adamantly opposed pulling out of that country for any reason. Since this was the position he pushed both as National Security Advisor and later as Secretary of State, he must share of least part of the blame for the 25,000 U.S. servicemen and the tens of thousands of Vietnamese who died during Nixon’s presidency.

But he is covered with much more blood from his role in the destruction of Cambodia. Kissinger helped construct the scheme that in 1970 deposed Prince Sihanouk, who had managed to keep Cambodia neutral for a quarter of a century. Sihanouk’s replacement, Lon Nol, was a U.S. puppet, but he did not last. Then the incredibly brutal Pol Pot, and the Khmer Rouge, came to power; and three million Cambodians, nearly half the nation’s population, were slaughtered in the world’s worst bloodbath since Hitler purged the Jews.

Kissinger’s meddling in the affairs of President Carter in 1979 cannot be blamed for Carter’s defeat in 1980, but it certainly contributed to that defeat.

The disaster started in January 1979 when the Shah of Iran fled his country, leaving a thirty-seven-year monarchy in rubble. Fed up with what they considered the Shah’s boot-licking subservience to U.S. oil companies and U.S. banks, fanatical followers of Ayatollah Khomeini seized the government. Where could the Shah take refuge? Most countries, either because they sympathized with the Ayatollah’s religious beliefs or because they didn’t want to offend Iran as an oil source, wanted nothing to do with the Shah.

Why not let him into the U.S.? President Carter had been warned by the C.I.A. that if the Shah were allowed into this country, Iranian militants might storm the American embassy in Teheran. Nervous embassy officials passed word to the State Department that they feared that reaction too. So Carter made up his mind: no Shah.

It was a smart decision, but it hadn’t been cleared with the right people, among whom were David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank; Henry Kissinger, a protégé of the Rockefeller family and a Chase consultant; and John J. McCly, a former chairman of Chase who for years had been godfather and chief counselor to the world’s largest oil companies. Rockefeller’s desire to help the Shah was understandable. Chase Manhattan’s London branch had always held the largest share of Iran’s deposits and the Shah’s personal fortune, estimated at around $20 billion, was managed by Chase.

So the Chase trio put on the pressure — the loudest and most public complaints coming from Kissinger — and Carter caved in. The results were as he feared: twelve days after the Shah arrived in the U.S., our embassy in Teheran was seized and its employees taken hostage. They were not released until Reagan was sworn in as president more than a year later. Many believe the hostage embarrassment cost Carter a second term.

Kissinger’s skill at duplicity was evident even before his Washington career began. To see it in full flower, let’s go back to the 1968 election and his service as a political spy for the Republicans.

President Johnson’s disastrous conduct of the Vietnam War had made it impossible for him to run for re-election, so the Democrats were running his vice president, Hubert Humphrey. Richard Nixon was the Republican candidate.

The big issue was the very unpopular war. Nixon was claiming that he had “a plan” for ending it. He gave no details, but that promise alone had given him the lead in polls. However, Humphrey was beginning to distance himself from the hawks and was gaining ground. It would be a very tight race.

Late in the summer of 1968, Kissinger — who had gained some attention as a professor of political science at Harvard and as a foreign affairs adviser to Nelson Rockefeller — made contact with members of Humphrey’s inner circle, assured them that he very much wanted Humphrey to win (“Look, I’ve hated Nixon for years,” he told Zbigniew Brzezinski), and asked if they would like to have the extensive Nixon files the Rockefeller camp had accumulated over the years. Yes, yes, yes, said the Humphreyites. Kissinger never came through on the offer, but it was enough to give him an intimate relationship with Democratic officials at the Paris peace talks, where U.S. and Vietnam negotiators were arguing behind closed doors over how to end the war.

Meanwhile, Kissinger had approached the Nixon camp and offered his services as a spy within the Humphrey circle. The offer was of course accepted. Richard Holbrooke, who was on President Johnson’s negotiating team in Paris, says, “Henry was the only person outside the government we were authorized to discuss the negotiations with. We trusted him. It is not stretching the truth to say that the Nixon campaign had a secret source within the U.S. negotiating team.”

A few days before the election, Vietnamese negotiators indicated a willingness to make concessions in order to get a bombing halt, and President Johnson prepared to give it to them. Kissinger learned about it early enough to give Nixon several hours warning — enough time to let Nixon announce that the Democrats were about to “play politics with the war.” It blunted the positive effects of the bombing halt, and Nixon squeaked into office with a plurality of only 42 percent.

Kissinger got what he wanted, the job as National Security Advisor in Nixon’s cabinet. But, ironically, Nixon never forgot Kissinger’s treacherous conduct toward the Democrats, and he always harbored doubts about Kissinger. Four years later, when Nixon was preparing for the 1972 election, he worried that if Kissinger quit the administration he might start divulging some of Nixon’s dirty tricks. He said to his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, “Remember, he came to us in ’68 with tales.”

Although Nixon was profoundly influenced by Kissinger’s advice throughout his time in office Nixon seems never to have really trusted him, and with good reason. Kissinger had a minimum of loyalty to the President. He was constantly schmoozing with the press in such a way as to downplay Nixon’s role in foreign affairs and embellish his own role. There were times when Kissinger took credit for the entire foreign policy of the Nixon years.

Of Nixon’s achievements, the one he was proudest of was in opening relations with China. He was left “white-lipped with anger” on reading Kissinger’s interview with the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, in which he ignored Nixon’s paramount role and boasted, “Yes, China has been a very important element in the mechanics of my success. And yet that’s not the main point. The main point, well, yes, I’ll tell you. The main point arises from the fact that I’ve always acted alone. Americans like that immensely. Americans like the cowboy who leads the wagon train by riding ahead alone on his horse…. This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style.”

When the interview was published, first in Italy and then in The New Republic, Kissinger denied saying any of it. But Fallaci had interviewed him with a tape recorder.

In his off-the-record talks with the press, Kissinger regularly implied that Nixon was somewhat kooky. Nixon, who had his own back channels to the press, knew what was going on, and by 1971 was privately vowing, “I’m going to fire the son of a bitch.” Of course, Kissinger denied having these self-serving chats with the press. On one occasion he denied having talked to New York Times columnist James Reston, and when he was proved to be lying, he responded in a typically Kissingerish way, “Yes, but that was only on the telephone.”

Such is Kissinger’s reputation for deviousness and duplicity of the most elaborate sort that some who have observed him over the years actually believe that he helped destroy Nixon in order to achieve one of his own treasured foreign policy objectives in the Middle East — the supremacy of Israel.

The plot as they imagine it is that (1) Kissinger opposed any peace plan that in any way compromised the Israelis; (2) Nixon — who had armed Israel to the teeth in his first term — in his second term wanted to force Israel to make peace with its Arab neighbors; (3) so Kissinger, whose own Middle East agenda differed sharply from Nixon’s, helped drive the President from office by secretly stoking the fires of the Watergate scandal. A realistic plot? Some Arab leaders thought so.

Richard H. Curtiss, a foreign service official for three decades who has written extensively about the Israeli-Arab conflict, lets the question hang, with this conclusion: “Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that Nixon suspected his fall was connected to Jewish or pro-Jewish insiders seeking to thwart his Middle East peace plans. Kissinger notes in his memoirs that Nixon’s last order before his resignation in 1974 enjoined his secretary of state [Kissinger] for a complete cutoff of U.S. aid for Israel…. Kissinger put the Nixon memorandum aside and did nothing about it during the two more years he remained as secretary of state under President Gerald Ford.”

Robert Sherrill’s last piece for the
Observer was an essay on Larry L. King. He keeps his wry eye on things political from Florida.


1969: March. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, had assumed office determined to impose their “peace plan” on Vietnam. Ignoring agreements already concluded by the previous administration, as well as the U.S. moratorium on the bombing of North Vietnam (although bombing of South Vietnam had been intensified), Nixon and Kissinger resume massive bombing attacks, including the so-called “secret” bombing of Cambodia.

1969: Outraged by a published report of the Cambodia bombings, Kissinger asks F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover to authorize illegal wiretaps of New York Times reporter William Beecher. Kissinger hoped to find out which officials (other than himself) were talking to the press.

1970: April. The U.S. invades Cambodia (a neutral country) in search of alleged North Vietnamese “supply routes.” Saturation bombings — later explained by Kissinger as necessary to maintain U.S. “credibility” — continue for several years. In one six-month period in 1973, U.S. planes drop a greater tonnage of bombs on Cambodia than the total dropped on Japan during World War II. Cambodian society is devastated, creating the conditions that allowed the ascension of the murderous dictatorship of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. The Great Negotiator Kissinger would later settle for peace terms, the Paris Accords, that on paper were little different from those agreed to prior to the Nixon administration — with no intention, in either case, of adhering to those terms.

1970: Kissinger assumes direction of Middle East policy, and abandons the so-called Rogers Plan, which called for Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab lands in the context of a peace settlement. Kissinger turns to de facto support for Israeli annexation, and the administration openly supports increased Israeli armament and militarization, in the belief that Israeli dominance of the region is inevitable and unchallengeable by its neighbors. Israeli intransigence, with U.S. encouragement, leads to war in October, 1973.

1970: September. Salvador Allende elected president of Chile in a democratic election, on a platform calling for some redistribution of wealth, a free milk program for malnourished children, and nationalization of major industries (e.g., copper mining). Kissinger coordinates the Nixon administration’s response, which begins by (in Nixon’s words) “making the Chilean economy scream,” through a massive destabilization and disinformation campaign, and then directly organizing and supporting a military coup.

1973: September. The Nixon/Kissinger economic sanctions, propaganda, and covert military action culminate in a coup against the Allende government. On September 11, the presidential palace is stormed and Allende is assassinated. The new military junta under General Augusto Pinochet kills 30,000 people in its first few months of power, most of them arrested, tortured, and disappeared. Asked about the U.S. opposition to a democratically elected government, Kissinger said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

1973: Kissinger awarded Nobel Peace Prize. Terry Southern (author of Dr. Strangelove) declares the death of satire as a literary form.

1975: December 6. U.S. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, pay a visit to Indonesian President Suharto, to discuss matters of mutual interest. The next day, Indonesia — amply supplied by U.S. weapons and supported by U.S. intelligence — invades East Timor, beginning one of the greatest massacres and most brutal occupations in modern history, during which a third of the Timorese population will be killed, and another third forced into “resettlement” camps. Kissinger told reporters that the United States “understands Indonesia’s position.”

1976: June 8. Kissinger meets with General Augusto Pinochet of Chile, leader of the coup that overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed a brutal dictatorship. In public Kissinger had pretended to keep his distance from the Pinochet regime, because of widespread rumors of strong U.S. support for the coup. According to his own (recently declassified) memorandum of his meeting with the dictator, Kissinger assured Pinochet, “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here. I think that the previous government was headed toward communism. We wish your government well…. My evaluation is that you are a victim of all left-wing groups around the world, and that your greatest sin was that you overthrew a government which was going Communist.” Kissinger promised Pinochet that the [Nixon] administration would do everything it could to prevent Congressional limitations on arms shipments to Chile, and warned him that while he would mention “human rights” in his public address later that day, it was only to appease U.S. criticism of the regime. Pinochet twice complained bitterly of Orlando Letelier, Allende’s former foreign minister, in exile in the U.S. and in contact with Pinochet’s critics. Kissinger offered no response, and no defense of Letelier’s rights. September 21, 1976, three months after Kissinger’s cordial meeting with the dictator, Pinochet’s secret police assassinated Letelier and an American colleague, Ronni Moffit, in Washington, D.C., with a car bomb.-Michael King

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Published at 12:00 am CST