The Kissinger Presidency
Battered by Watergate in 1973, President Nixon was losing his epic power struggle with Henry Kissinger. Then the Middle East exploded. In an excerpt from his new book, using freshly opened archives, the author describes how the secretary of state took control.
by Robert Dallek May 2007
Excerpted from Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power, by Robert Dallek, to be published this month by HarperCollins Publishers; © 2007 by the author.
Henry Kissinger never wanted the 20,000 pages of his telephone transcripts made public—not while he was alive, at any rate. And for good reason. It was Kissinger's practice while he served as Richard M. Nixon's national-security adviser and, later, as his secretary of state to have assistants listen in on dead-key extensions and make verbatim transcripts. The result is a record of conversations and decision-making rivaled only by the Nixon tapes—and a real-time rendering of events often at variance with official portrayals. It is ironic: Nixon and Kissinger presided over an administration that was unsurpassed (until the current one) in its secrecy, and yet produced the richest trove of presidential records in history, making the Nixon White House more transparent in retrospect than any before or since.
During the past four years I have sifted through much of the Nixon administration's recently opened archives: all of those Kissinger telephone transcripts, for instance, along with the unpublished portions of the diaries of Nixon's first chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman; hundreds of hours of newly available Nixon tapes; and the national-security records (which total close to a million pages) that include Kissinger's private office files and the previously unread papers of Alexander M. Haig Jr., who was Kissinger's deputy at the National Security Council and then took Haldeman's place as chief of staff. Put it all together and an intimate picture emerges of the complex relationship between Nixon and Kissinger, men who were allies but also rivals—paranoid and insecure, deceitful and manipulative, ruthless and strangely vulnerable.
Nixon is dead, but Henry Kissinger remains very much a man in public life. In recent years, President George W. Bush has consulted him for advice on the Iraq war, which Kissinger has supported. Since 2001, Kissinger has, according to Bob Woodward's State of Denial, met with the president every other month, and with Vice President Dick Cheney every month, and he has advised President Bush that "victory … is the only meaningful exit strategy" for Iraq. So it is a good moment to visit the newly available documents and transcripts for the fresh detail they provide. They show Kissinger at moments of high drama—for instance, during the Yom Kippur War, when he made decisions of utmost gravity while keeping Nixon at arm's length. They show a man whose growing power derived from Nixon's deepening incapacity. And they reveal Kissinger's troubling personality and methods across a broad front.
The Prima Donna. Nixon did not anticipate the extent to which Kissinger, whom he barely knew when he appointed him national-security adviser, in 1969, would be envious and high-strung—a maintenance project of the first order. Nixon had a running conversation with Haldeman about "the K problem," as Haldeman noted in his diaries. Nixon complained in one taped conversation with the chief of staff: "Henry's personality problem is just too goddamn difficult for us to deal [with].… Goddamn it, Bob, he's psychopathic about trying to screw [Secretary of State William] Rogers." Haldeman feared that if Kissinger "wins the battle with Rogers" he might not be "livable with afterwards." Nixon agreed that he would "be a dictator." "Did you know that Henry worries every time I talk on the phone with anybody?" he told Haldeman and domestic counselor John Ehrlichman in another taped conversation. "His feeling is that he must be present every time I see anybody important."
Vietnam. Using language that has a painfully contemporary echo, Kissinger and Nixon very quickly came to private conclusions about Vietnam that they never revealed publicly and denied entertaining. "In Saigon the tendency is to fight the war to victory," Nixon told Kissinger, according to the transcript of a 1969 phone conversation. "But you and I know it won't happen—it is impossible." Even so, according to Haldeman's unpublished diaries, Nixon later urged that Democratic critics making this same point should be labeled "the party of surrender." When someone told Kissinger that Nixon could not be re-elected, because of Vietnam, he disputed it and added, according to a memo of a conversation, that "anytime we want to get out of Vietnam we can," and that "we will get out of Vietnam before the  election." Nixon wanted to plan the removal of all U.S. troops by the end of 1971, but Kissinger cautioned that, if North Vietnam then de-stabilized Saigon during the following year, events could have an adverse effect on the president's campaign. According to Haldeman's diaries, Kissinger advocated a pullout in the fall of 1972, "so that if any bad results follow they will be too late to affect the election." He apparently had nothing to say about the American lives that would be lost by deliberately prolonging the war. Just before a peace treaty was signed, Kissinger in a phone conversation advised Nixon against stating that this was a "lasting peace or guaranteed peace because this thing is almost certain to blow up sooner or later."
The Pentagon Papers. Kissinger was deeply unsettled by the revelation, in June of 1971, that the Pentagon's secret history of the Vietnam War had been given to The New York Times by a former adviser to Kissinger on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg. Would Kissinger be tarred by association? When he saw Nixon, according to a taped conversation, Kissinger said of Ellsberg, "That son-of-a-bitch. I know him well. He is completely nuts.… He always seemed a little bit unbalanced." As for The New York Times, Nixon and Kissinger were determined to come down hard. "Goddamn newspapers—they're a bunch of sluts," Nixon said. In another taped conversation, two weeks later, he said, "I don't give a goddamn about repression, do you?" "No," Kissinger replied.
Mental Health. Nixon confided to Haldeman, according to the unpublished diaries, that he was "quite shocked" at how Kissinger had "ranted and raved" at Alexander Haig during a 1971 phone conversation, telling Haig that he "had handled everything wrong," and calling U.N. ambassador George H. W. Bush "an idiot." Nixon believed that something more serious was going on, and it is known that he once mused to Ehrlichman that Kissinger might need psychiatric help. The subject of Kissinger's stability came up again in 1972. Having read The Will to Live, by Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, his former psychotherapist, Nixon recommended it to Haldeman as providing a road map to what Nixon, according to Haldeman's unpublished diary notes, called "K's suicidal complex." Haldeman went on: "He also wants to be sure I make extensive memoranda about K's mental processes and so on, for his file."
The Jewish Community. Nixon's deep antipathy toward Jews is well known, and he took a strange satisfaction in having Kissinger in his inner circle, where he could periodically taunt him. Nixon told Haldeman and Ehrlichman, according to the transcript of a conversation, that "anybody who is Jewish cannot handle" Middle Eastern policy. Henry might be "as fair as he can possibly be, [but] he can't help but be affected by it. Put yourself in his position. Good God … his people were crucified over there. Jesus Christ! Five—five million of them popped into big ovens! How the hell's he feel about all this?" Kissinger acquiesced in Nixon's anti-Semitism, and more. He took care not to bring too many Jewish N.S.C. staff members to meetings with the president. On one occasion, speaking with Leonard Garment, a special consultant to the president on such issues as Israel and Jewish affairs, Kissinger asked, according to a transcript of the telephone conversation, "Is there a more self-serving group of people than the Jewish community? … You can't even tell the bastards anything in confidence because they'll leak it."
The Courtier. Flattery was one of Kissinger's principal tools in winning over Nixon, and a tool he employed shamelessly. "It was absolutely spectacular!," Kissinger said to Nixon by phone, according to a transcript, after a 1971 presidential address on the economy. "The thing that's so interesting about your style of leadership is that you never make little news, it is always big news You are a man of tremendous moves." In 1972 he told the president, in a written memo, "It has been an inspiration to see your fortitude in adversity and your willingness to walk alone."
"Don't Want to Toot My Own Horn"
Nixon was simultaneously eager to exploit Kissinger's diplomatic skills and resentful of his emergence as someone who could overshadow the president. The dynamic was tense and never-ending, and at first the balance of power was tilted decisively toward the president. Nixon attempted to keep Kissinger on edge while trying to use him to foster an especially flattering presidential self-image.
In April of 1971, after months of secret exchanges facilitated by Pakistan, the government of Communist China indicated its willingness to receive a special envoy from the United States. Soon after getting this message, Nixon and Kissinger agreed on a positive response. They now went back and forth over which administration official should make the first trip to Beijing. Kissinger badly wanted the assignment, but Nixon wasn't ready to offer it, and seemed to take perverse pleasure in toying with him, raising the names of other people as possible envoys. According to a transcript of an April telephone conversation, Nixon said he was considering David Bruce, a longtime senior diplomat, but was concerned that his involvement in the Paris peace talks might make the Chinese uncomfortable. "How about Nelson [Rockefeller]?," Nixon asked. "Mr. President, he wouldn't be disciplined enough," Kissinger objected, hoping to scuttle the chances of the man who had been his crucial patron for many years. "How about Bush?," Nixon suggested. "Absolutely not," Kissinger replied. "He is too soft and not sophisticated enough." Nixon responded, "I thought of that myself," and returned to the notion of Rockefeller, telling Kissinger to keep Nelson "in the back of your head."
Kissinger then made an indirect case for himself by implying that no one was more conversant with Nixon's thinking about international affairs than he was. He described distinctions between the Chinese and the Russians in a way he knew would appeal to Nixon: "The difference between them and the Russians is that if [you] drop some loose change, when you go to pick it up the Russians will step on your fingers and the Chinese won't."
When the subject of the China visit came up again the next day, Kissinger made the case for himself more directly. He told the president, according to a taped conversation, "I don't want to toot my own horn, but I happen to be the only one who knows all the negotiations." Nixon now relented: "Oh hell fire, I know that. Nobody else can really handle it." Nixon dismissed Rockefeller as an amateur. "Jesus Christ, I could wrap Rockefeller around my finger and he'll never know it." Again, Kissinger made no attempt to stand up for his former mentor. He simply replied, "That's right."
On the morning of July 1, as Kissinger was about to leave for China, Nixon spent more than an hour with him, giving final instructions on what he should say to the Chinese premier, Chou En-lai. Nixon counseled against any lengthy "philosophical talk," according to a recorded conversation. His own success in dealing with Communist leaders was due to the fact that "I don't fart around I'm very nice to them—then I come right in with the cold steel." Nixon had to be talked into letting Kissinger give a background press briefing after the trip. He was sure "the press will try to give K the credit in order to screw the P," Haldeman recorded in his unpublished diaries. Kissinger persuaded him that he could "shoot that down." Nixon then offered a memorable and effusive autobiographical sketch. In a memo, he instructed Kissinger to tell reporters "how RN is uniquely prepared for this meeting and how ironically in many ways he has similar … characteristics and background to Chou." He went on to list points to emphasize, including: "Strong convictions. Came up through adversity. At his best in a crisis. Cool. Unflappable. A tough bold strong leader. Willing to take chances where necessary. A man who takes the long view, never being concerned about tomorrow's headlines but about how the policy will look years from now. A man with a philosophical turn of mind. A man who works without notes [while] covering many areas. A man who knows Asia.… A man who in terms of his personal style is … steely … subtle and … almost gentle."
Nixon's comparison of himself to Chou was preposterous and Kissinger did not use it in his press briefing. But the next day he gave an interview to Life magazine, and he dutifully mentioned the main points from Nixon's list.
"The President … Was Loaded"
Kissinger's demands for influence and attention incensed Nixon, who occasionally talked about firing him. Watergate made this impossible. Nixon's need to use Kissinger and foreign policy to counter threats of impeachment made Kissinger an indispensable figure in a collapsing administration. The balance of power shifted massively and irrevocably.
Many facets of Kissinger's operating procedure were in full-blown display during the 1973 Yom Kippur War: the secrecy, the subterfuge, and the desire to gather power to himself. The crisis arose just as a convergence of domestic scandals rocked the White House. The president was losing his battle to keep the Watergate tapes under seal. The Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor and accepted the resignations of the attorney general and the deputy attorney general, was merely weeks away. And Vice President Spiro Agnew was on the verge of resigning, in the face of charges of extortion, bribery, and income-tax evasion. The president was deeply preoccupied, and at times incapacitated by self-pity or alcohol.
On the morning of October 6—Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar—Egypt attacked Israeli forces in the Sinai even as Syria struck the Israelis in the Golan Heights. A combination of complete surprise and effective preparation initially gave Egypt and Syria the advantage.
From the outset Kissinger, who was now secretary of state as well as national-security adviser, centered control of the crisis in his own hands. The Israelis had informed him of the attacks at six a.m. that Saturday, but three and a half hours would pass before he felt the need to consult Nixon, who had escaped Washington for his retreat in Key Biscayne, Florida. At 8:35 a.m., Kissinger called Haig, who was with the president, to report on developments. He said, according to a phone transcript, "I want you to know … that we are on top of it here." To ensure that the media not see Nixon as out of the loop, Kissinger urged Haig to say "that the President was kept informed from 6:00 a.m. on." When Kissinger finally called Nixon, at 9:25 a.m., the president left matters in Kissinger's hands. But he asked, according to a transcript, that Kissinger "indicate you talked to me."
At 10:35 a.m., Kissinger again called Haig. They discussed how to work with the Soviets to bring the fighting to a halt. When Haig reported that Nixon was considering returning to Washington, Kissinger discouraged it—part of a recurring pattern to keep Nixon out of the process. Over the next three days, Kissinger oversaw the diplomatic exchanges with the Israelis and Soviets about the war. Israeli prime minister Golda Meir's requests for military supplies, which were beginning to run low, came not to Nixon but to Kissinger. Although he consistently described himself as representing the president's wishes, Kissinger was seen by outsiders as the principal U.S. official through whom business should be conducted. On October 7, for example, a Brezhnev letter to Nixon was a response to "the messages you transmitted to us through Dr. Kissinger." On October 9, a telegram to King Hussein of Jordan urging continued non-involvement in the conflict came not from Nixon but from Kissinger.
Although Kissinger spoke to Nixon frequently during these four days, it was usually Kissinger who initiated the calls, kept track of the fighting, and parceled out information as he saw fit. On the night of October 7, according to a telephone transcript, Nixon asked Kissinger if there had been any message from Brezhnev. "Oh, yes, we heard from him," Kissinger replied, volunteering no more. Nixon had to press, asking lamely, "What did he say?"
At 7:55 on the night of October 11, Brent Scowcroft, Haig's replacement as Kissinger's deputy at the N.S.C., called Kissinger to report that the British prime minister, Edward Heath, wanted to speak to the president in the next 30 minutes. According to a telephone transcript, Kissinger replied, "Can we tell them no? When I talked to the President he was loaded." Scowcroft suggested that they describe Nixon as unavailable, but say that the prime minister could speak to Kissinger. "In fact, I would welcome it," Kissinger told Scowcroft.
What is striking is how matter-of-fact Kissinger and Scowcroft were about Nixon's condition, as if it had been nothing out of the ordinary—as if Nixon's drinking to excess was just part of the routine. They showed no concern at having to keep the prime minister of America's principal ally away from the president.
"Very Down, Very Down"
Between October 6 and 19, Washington and Moscow tried to outdo each other in supplying their respective Middle East clients. Initially, with the Egyptians and Syrians doing well in the fighting, the Soviets resisted calls for a cease-fire. But at the end of two weeks, with the conflict turning against them, Brezhnev became insistent on a truce. On October 19, he urgently asked that Kissinger fly to Moscow for discussions on ending the war. With Kissinger and Brezhnev agreeing to put a cease-fire before the U.N. Security Council, Haig, in a message to Kissinger, congratulated the secretary of state on "your Herculean accomplishment." But he warned that "you will be returning to an environment of major national crisis" brought on by the worsening fallout from the Watergate scandal.
The Middle East situation remained dangerous. On the afternoon of October 23, Moscow and Washington began exchanging messages on the hotline about Israeli and Egyptian violations of the cease-fire. The Soviets were particularly concerned about the Egyptian Third Army, which was cut off in the Sinai. The next day Brezhnev complained that Israel was ignoring the cease-fire, and he proposed a joint military intervention to implement the agreement. He warned that if the United States would not agree to this Moscow might decide to act alone. Kissinger cautioned the Soviets against unilateral intervention.
In the midst of these developments, Nixon called Kissinger. But it was not to discuss the Middle East. Nixon was, Kissinger would later write, "as agitated and emotional as I had ever heard him." The call confirmed what Haig had told Kissinger by phone a day earlier. "How is his frame of mind?," Kissinger had asked, according to a transcript. "Very down, very down," Haig replied.
Kissinger and Haig decided to convene a meeting of national-security officials to devise a response to Brezhnev. Kissinger acknowledges in his memoirs that Nixon was by then asleep, and that he and Haig decided not to get him up. "Should I wake up the President?," Kissinger asked Haig during a 9:50 p.m. phone conversation on October 24, according to the transcript. "No," Haig answered. A half-hour later, in another phone conversation, it is Kissinger who has become reluctant. "Have you talked to the President?," Haig asked. "No, I haven't," Kissinger replied. "He would just start charging around I don't think we should bother the President." Haig persuaded Kissinger to at least shift the meeting from the State Department to the White House, as a way to leave the impression that Nixon was "a part of everything you are doing." Was Nixon on sedatives that would not allow him to function effectively? Had he been drinking? Was he simply preoccupied, as Kissinger suggests in his official recollections? For whatever reason, Kissinger did not want the president involved.
It was an extraordinary turn of events. None of the seven officials who met for more than three hours, until two a.m., had been elected to office. Yet they were setting policy in a dangerous international crisis, and coming to a decision that should have rested with the president: directing U.S. forces to raise America's worldwide level of military readiness from Defense Conditions 4 and 5 to Def Con 3, a level reached only once before, during the Cuban missile crisis. (U.S. readiness would be raised on only two subsequent occasions, during the 1991 Gulf War and on September 11, 2001.) The worldwide alert was coupled with a message delivered to the Soviet Embassy at 5:40 a.m. It described "your suggestion of unilateral action as a matter of the gravest concern involving incalculable consequences." Although the White House issued a statement attributing to Nixon the decision to put the nation on high alert, and Kissinger repeated this assertion at a press briefing, it was Kissinger and the six other national-security officials in the early-morning hours who actually chose to do it, though presumably confident that they reflected Nixon's wishes. But how confident could they really have been? As Kissinger would remind Haig the next day, according to the transcript of a phone call, "You and I were the only ones for it. These other guys were wailing all over the place this morning."
The alert became worldwide news, and it also achieved its objective. The Soviets agreed to stay out. When Kissinger received word that the Soviets had backed down, he spoke with Haig, not Nixon, and in that 2:35 p.m. phone conversation he expressed concern about how the decision-making process would be viewed if it ever became public. According to a transcript of the call, Kissinger told Haig, "I think I did some good for the President." Haig replied, "More than you know." They agreed that, as Kissinger put it, without the alert "we would have had a Soviet paratroop division in there this morning." "You know it, and I know it," Haig responded. "Have you talked to the Boss," he asked. "No," Kissinger said. "I will call him. Let's not broadcast this all over the place otherwise it looks like we (cooked) it up." (The parentheses are in the original transcript.) Only afterward did Kissinger, at 3:05 p.m., place a call to Nixon, greeting him fulsomely with the words "Mr. President, you have won again."
Aware that the events of that night, if made public, would be controversial, Kissinger maintained that putting the country on alert was Nixon's order as commander in chief. According to a transcript of a phone conversation between Kissinger and Nixon, a reporter asked Kissinger at the press briefing, "Was this [alert] a rational decision by the President?" Kissinger told Nixon that in reply he had "said it was [a] combination of the advice of all of his advisors … that the President decided to do this." It is a careful formulation. But I have found no document or transcript showing or suggesting that the president signed off on the action. And there is a moment, at once haunting and pathetic, when Nixon seems to underscore his own passive role in a fait accompli, wanting to be seen as in the loop. Immediately after the 3:05 conversation, Nixon called Kissinger back, hoping to lure him to the White House for a display of public consultation: "I think it would be well for semantics, no semantics, I mean, if you could come over here, make an appearance, dash over to say hello. You know, to sort of, what are you doing now?"
The extent to which Kissinger had come to believe that decision-making should rightfully rest in his own hands rather than the president's can hardly be exaggerated. As he prepared to travel to the Middle East on November 5, Kissinger wanted Haig and Scowcroft to assure him that Nixon was under control. Specifically he worried that the Soviet ambassador, Anatoly Dobrynin, might get in to see the president and extract unwise commitments. "I have to talk with you about how to conduct yourself while I am gone," he told Scowcroft, according to the transcript of a telephone call. "I am sure the Russians will try something … to get hold of the President. It is essential they don't get anything I didn't give them."
"My Moral Authority"
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were symbiotic rivals—men who shared many similarities, including cynicism and insecurity, and who desperately needed each other despite their often poisonous antagonism and mutual suspicion. Nixon distrusted Kissinger, doubting his professions of admiration. Kissinger's eagerness for the spotlight and his self-serving ambition put Nixon on edge. Nixon rightly believed that Kissinger saw himself as a superior intellect manipulating a malleable president. Nixon called him "my Jew boy" behind his back and occasionally to his face as a way to humiliate him and keep him in his place. Kissinger reciprocated, according to a raft of transcripts and other documents. He despised Nixon's top aides. "I have never met such a gang of self-seeking bastards in my life," Kissinger told the British ambassador in 1970, in a remark preserved in an ambassadorial memo in the National Archives in London. "I used to find the Kennedy group unattractively narcissistic, but they were idealists. These people are real heels." The president himself fared little better. Kissinger privately referred to Nixon as "that madman," "our drunken friend," and "the meatball mind."
By the spring of 1974, public attitudes toward Nixon and Kissinger were heading in opposite directions. The president's political survival seemed more uncertain with every passing day, while Kissinger's public standing reached new heights. Kissinger remained publicly supportive of Nixon, but in his own mind he viewed America's well-being as inextricably linked to his own.
After returning from the Middle East in June of 1974, Kissinger spoke by phone with Jacob Javits and told the New York senator, "You know, what really worries me, Jack, [is that,] with the President facing impeachment, what's been holding things together is my moral authority abroad and to some extent at home. If that's lost we may be really in trouble."