Washington, D.C., December 23, 2008 - Amidst a massive bombing campaign over North Vietnam, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon candidly shared their evident satisfaction at the "shock treatment" of American B 52s, according to a declassified transcript of their telephone conversation published for the first time today by the National Security Archive. "They dropped a million pounds of bombs," Kissinger briefed Nixon. "A million pounds of bombs," Nixon exclaimed. "Goddamn, that must have been a good strike." The conversation, secretly recorded by both Kissinger and Nixon without the other's knowledge, reveals that the President and his national security advisor shared a belief in 1972 that the war could still be won. "That shock treatment [is] cracking them," Nixon declared. "I tell you the thing to do is pour it in there every place we can…just bomb the hell out of them." Kissinger optimistically predicted that, if the South Vietnamese government didn't collapse, the U.S. would eventually prevail: "I mean if as a country we keep our nerves, we are going to make it."
The transcript of the April 15, 1972, phone conversation is one of over 15,500 documents in a unique, comprehensively-indexed set of the telephone conversations (telcons) of Henry A. Kissinger—perhaps the most famous and controversial U.S. official of the second half of the 20th century. Unbeknownst to the rest of the U.S. government, Kissinger secretly taped his incoming and outgoing phone conversations and had his secretary transcribe them. After destroying the tapes, Kissinger took the transcripts with him when he left office in January 1977, claiming they were "private papers." In 2001, the National Security Archive initiated legal proceedings to force the government to recover the telcons, and used the freedom of information act to obtain the declassification of most of them. After a three year project to catalogue and index the transcripts, which total over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection was published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest) this week.
Kissinger never intended these papers to be made public, according to William Burr, senior analyst at the National Security Archive, who edited the collection, Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977. "Kissinger's conversations with the most influential personalities of the world rank right up there with the Nixon tapes as the most candid, revealing and valuable trove of records on the exercise of executive power in Washington," Burr stated. For reporters, scholars, and students, Burr noted, "Kissinger created a gift to history that will be a tremendous primary source for generations to come." He called on the State Department to declassify over 800 additional telcons that it continues to withhold on the grounds of executive privilege.
The documents shed light on every aspect of Nixon-Ford diplomacy, including U.S.-Soviet détente, the wars in Southeast Asia, the 1969 Biafra crisis, the 1971 South Asian crisis, the October 1973 Middle East War, and the 1974 Cyprus Crisis, among many other developments. Kissinger's dozens of interlocutors include political and policy figures, such as Presidents Nixon and Ford, Secretary of State William Rogers, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, Robert S. McNamara, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin; journalists and publishers, such as Ted Koppel, James Reston, and Katherine Graham; and such show business friends as Frank Sinatra. Besides the telcons, the Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977 includes audio tape of Kissinger's telephone conversations with Richard Nixon that were recorded automatically by the secret White House taping system, some of which Kissinger's aides were unable to transcribe.
A series of unforgettable moments are captured in the transcripts, not least involving Kissinger's complex and difficult relationship with Richard Nixon. Repeatedly, the national security adviser used his skills in flattery and connivance to help build up the president's image and stay in his good graces. During the Jordan crisis in September 1970, Kissinger told the media that he had awakened the President to brief him on King Hussein's military actions against Palestinian guerillas. But a transcript of his call to the President the next day recorded him as informing Nixon: "in light of the fact that there was nothing you could do, we thought it best not to waken you."
The telcons also illustrate other Kissinger's efforts to spin the media, monitor and control the process of decision-making, disparage rivals, keep important associates, such as his patron Nelson Rockefeller, in the loop, and win over critics:
- After Gerald Ford shuffled his cabinet in November 1975, removing Kissinger as national security adviser and shifting Donald Rumsfeld from his chief-of-staff position to be Secretary of Defense, Kissinger spoke to Secretary of the Treasury William Simon. "The guy who cut me up inside this building isn't going to cut me up any less in Defense," he noted.
- In an August 13, 1974, conversation with Elliott Richardson after Nixon resigned, Kissinger disparaged George H.W. Bush as a candidate to replace Gerald Ford as Vice President. "I am not as high on George Bush, as some others are, partly because of his lack of experience."
- In a conversation with President Nixon on the illegal wiretap scandal in June 1973, Nixon threatened to go to political war with Democrats if they pressed the issue. "Lets get away from the bullshit," Nixon stated angrily. "Bobby Kennedy was the greatest tapper." The President even suspected his own phone had been wiretapped in the early 1960s. "[J.Edgar Hoover] said Bobby Kennedy had [the FBI] tapping everybody. I think that even I'm on that list," President Nixon told Kissinger. When Nixon noted that the wiretap scandal would "catch some of your friends," Kissinger responded: "Well, I wouldn't be a bit unhappy."
- In a bizarre conversation with anti-war activist/poet Alan Ginsburg on April 23, 1971, Kissinger discussed meeting with ardent opponents of the Nixon administration. Ginsburg suggested the meeting, joking that "It would be even more useful if we could do it naked on television. "I gather you don't know how to get out of the war," Ginsburg is recorded as stating. "I thought we did," Kissinger responded, "but we are always interested in hearing other views."
In the April 15, 1972, conversation about bombing North Vietnam, Nixon recalled that bombing had failed to defeat Ho Chi Mhin's forces in the past.
Nixon: "Of course, you want to remember that Johnson bombed them for years and it didn't do any good."
Kissinger: But Mr. President, Johnson never had a strategy; he was sort of picking away at them. He would go in with 50 planes; 20 planes; I bet you we will have had more planes over there in one day than Johnson had in a month.
The Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts
Today the National Security Archive announces the publication of a comprehensively unique, thoroughly-indexed set of the telephone conversation (telcon) transcripts of Henry A. Kissinger, one of the most famous and controversial U.S. diplomats of the second half of the 20th century. Consisting of 15,502 documents and over 30,000 pages, this on-line collection, published by the Digital National Security Archive (ProQuest), is the result of a protracted effort by the National Security Archive to secure this critically important record of U.S. diplomacy during the administrations of Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, when Kissinger served as National Security Adviser and Secretary of State. Collectively, the documents include the telcons released at the Nixon Presidential Library as well as those declassified by the State Department as a result of the Archive's Freedom of Information Act request. The set sheds light on every aspect of Nixon-Ford diplomacy, including U.S.-Soviet détente, the wars in Southeast Asia, the 1971 South Asia crisis, and the October 1973 Middle East War, among many other developments. Kissinger's many interlocutors include political and policy figures, such as Presidents Nixon and Ford, Secretary of State William Rogers, Governor Nelson Rockefeller, former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, and Soviet Ambassador Anatoli Dobrynin; journalists and publishers, such as Ted Koppel, James Reston, and Katherine Graham; and such show business friends as Frank Sinatra.
Besides the paper records of Kissinger's telcons, the Archive's publication includes unique audio material from the Nixon White House tapes. Apparently the tapes used by Kissinger's staff to prepare the telcons no longer exist. While Nixon and White House staffers eventually learned that this was Kissinger's practice, no one except Nixon and a few aides realized until the summer of 1973 that Nixon was secretly taping his phone conversations as well as meetings with Kissinger and other officials. Thus, audio and paper records exist for some of the same conversations. Moreover, some of Nixon's White House tapes are the only source for some Nixon-Kissinger telephone conversations. As a special feature in this collection, the Archive includes as many of the audios of Nixon-Kissinger telephone conversations as possible.
That these documents are available in the first place is the result of the protracted efforts of the National Security Archive. Once Henry Kissinger left the State Department in early 1977, he transferred the telcons and other material to the Library of Congress as "private papers." Soon journalists had tried to force the release of the telcons through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, but the Supreme Court ruled that they had no standing to sue. There the matter lay until 1999 when the National Security Archive wrote to the State Department and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) questioning whether Kissinger had the right to keep these documents, which were public records produced by White House and State Department staffers. The National Security Archive had the option of filing a law suit to ensure that these agencies observed federal records laws, but neither the State Department nor NARA were interested in litigation; instead, they asked Kissinger to return the records. He complied by returning sets of copies to those agencies in 2002. Two years later, the Nixon Presidential Materials Project (now the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum) opened for research the telcons covering the January 1969-August 8, 1974 period. The State Department kept a slightly overlapping set covering the period September 1973 through December 1976, when Kissinger was Secretary of State.
While most of the telcons from the Nixon years were available at the National Archives, significant numbers were still classified and the National Security Archive has begun filing mandatory review requests for them. For the telcons held by the State Department, it took a Freedom of Information Act request, filed in by the National Security Archive in 2001, to begin opening them up. From 2002 to 2008, the Department declassified or released in excised form over 6,000 telcons. A number of telcons were denied, in whole or in part, on privacy or national security grounds; while some were released under appeal, some material remains unavailable. Moreover, in a June 2007 decision, the State Department withheld over 800 telcons, many of them conversations with the late Gerald R. Ford. Those telcons are under appeal.
The State Department's decision to withhold over 800 telcons is extraordinary. The Department's decision letter invoked the (b) (5) exemption of the Freedom of Information Act, which federal agencies interpret to permit the exemption of "inter-agency or intra-agency communications containing deliberative process, attorney-client, attorney work product information or privileged presidential communications." That the Department used (b) (5) exemption and the claim of "privileged presidential communications" to exempt thirty year old documents may make this one of the biggest abuses of (b) (5) and privilege claims the history of the FOIA. As federal courts have ruled, such privileges erode over time, and as time passes the public interest in open historical records has far greater weight. In the soon-to-depart Bush administration, such considerations have little influence and it is no surprise that the hands of the White House are behind the executive privilege claims. Henry Kissinger has been an adviser to President Bush and Vice President Cheney and, according to government sources, he influenced the declassification review process to ensure that his telephone discussions with President Ford remain classified for as long as possible.
A. Selected Telcons with Audio Versions from Nixon's White House Tapes
Document 1: "How Do I know You are Not Stealing Papers All over the Place"
With President Nixon, June 17, 1971, 7:40 P.M. (Conversation 005-117 - MP3)
The ongoing publication by The New York Times and the imminent publication by The Washington Post of the "Pentagon Papers" (officially titled , United States–Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense), leaked by RAND Corporation staffers Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony Russo, created a crisis in the Nixon administration. As this telcon suggest, Nixon wanted to deflect any controversy over the war to his predecessors by getting former President Johnson and his national security adviser Walt Rostow to make statements about the leak. The typed telcon conveys the thrust of the conversation, but one hearing of the very clear White House audiotape shows that Kissinger's aides missed quite a few details. Like many, this telcon is not close to verbatim. For example, on page 2 of the document it is evident that the transcriber did not hear that Kissinger said, to the effect that "These people are undermining confidence in government. You [Nixon] are resisting the flouting of law and the idea that the end justifies the means." Moreover, Kissinger recounts his conversation with Time magazine correspondent Jerrold Schechter, who, allegedly said, "how do I know you are not doing the same thing?" with respect to Vietnam. Kissinger told Nixon that he replied: "how do I know you are not stealing documents all over the place." Worried about the impact of the publication of the top secret study of Vietnam War decision-making, Nixon wanted legal action against those newspapers but the Supreme Court rejected the Justice Department request for an injunction against the Times and the Post.
Document 2: "We Can Bomb the Bejesus Out of Them"
With President Nixon, 15 April 1972, 11:30 P.M. (Conversation 022-131 )
In the weeks after North Vietnam's 1972 Spring Offensive, Nixon and Kissinger ordered heavier bombing of the North, although withholding attacks on Hanoi or mining Haiphong Harbor, two actions which they held out for the next decision to escalate. This conversation, which took place when Kissinger was at home, was fully recorded on the White House tape system, but apparently Kissinger's tape player did not begin recording it for transcription purposes until about 10 and a half minutes into the conversation. The Nixon tape, which is at a low volume and not easy to follow, begins with a discussion of diplomatic strategy, including Kissinger's talks with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin that day (which are reported in detail in the State Department historical volume, Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years). (Note 1) In light of Hanoi's decision to postpone private talks with Kissinger scheduled for 24 April), Kissinger told Dobrynin that "such behavior by Hanoi [was] clear evidence of an unwillingness to conduct serious negotiation and as reflecting a basic desire of the North Vietnamese 'to bring down a second American president.'" While the White House was willing to hold back on attacks on Hanoi or Haiphong, Nixon believed that such threats were a "hold card" in the negotiations: "It either got to be [a] settlement or we blockade." Besides discussing details of military strategy, which is accurately recorded in the telcon (at least the discussion in the second half of the conversation), they discussed the schedule of Kissinger's forthcoming secret trip to Moscow, which was to occur in a few days.
Document 3: "The Fellow Has got to be Out of His Mind After the Letter That I Wrote"
With President Nixon, 18 November 1972, 12:18 P.M. (Conversation 033-092 - MP3)
With the Vietnam War peace negotiations in their end-game, the Nixon administration was baffled by problems with its South Vietnamese ally, President Nguyen Van Thieu. As listening to the audio confirms, this telcon is a highly accurate rendition of the conversation. Furious with the draft peace agreement that Kissinger had negotiated with North Vietnamese diplomat Le Duc Tho, Thieu and his advisers kept suggesting changes to favor Saigon's position. Having already written Thieu to the effect that the "bargaining [was] over," Nixon suggested that Thieu "has got to be out of his mind" to keep pushing for changes. Nixon insisted that "we will not be subjected to harassment" and rejected the idea of a South Vietnamese emissary coming to Washington; as it turned out, however, the harassment continued and South Vietnamese diplomats were in the Oval Office within a few weeks. The most difficult point, and one on which Nixon and Kissinger refused to give ground, was Thieu's insistence that North Vietnamese forces leave the South at the same that U.S. forces exited South Vietnam. As Nixon observed during this conversation, "withdrawal has to be handled on the basis that we already suggested." That the North would keep its forces in pockets of South Vietnam was a condition for the January 1973 Paris Peace Agreement, but one which could only raise doubts about the Saigon regime's future. Listening to the audio confirms that this telcon is a highly accurate rendition of the conversation.
B. Selected Telcons
I. The White House Years: As National Security Adviser