Kissinger and Nixon in the White House

Seymour M. Hersh, a former correspondent for The New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting in 1970, for his revelation of the massacre at My Lai, in South Vietnam. He is the winner of virtually every major journalism award, including the George Polk Award, which he has received four times—more than any other reporter in the history of the Polk Awards. His new book, which will be published early next year by Summit, is a history of Henry Kissinger's service as national security adviser to Richard Nixon, during Nixon's first term. The article below is drawn from that book; it deals with White House wiretapping activities and with the White House internal-security unit known as the Plumbers. A second Atlantic article by Mr. Hersh, to be published later this year, will be concerned with one aspect of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy during Nixon's first term.  
More

I. The Wiretaps

Roger Morris quickly won Henry A. Kissinger's trust in the early months of the Nixon presidency. Not only was he a good friend of Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who had emerged, after Colonel Alexander M. Haig, Jr., as Kissinger's closest confidant among the staff members of the National Security Council, but he was also bright, articulate, and appropriately caustic for a thirty-one-year-old Harvard Ph.D. at work in the White House. Morris's responsibility was primarily for African affairs, and his memos on the situation in Nigeria—where the federal government was waging a bitter civil war with Biafran separatists—had impressed both Kissinger and Nixon.

It was not surprising, then, that Morris was asked by Eagleburger to sit in Kissinger's office and "cover" it one weekend day sometime in the late spring of 1969. Haig, who usually worked seven days a week, had rare time off, and Eagleburger had an appointment outside the White House and needed relief. Kissinger was spending the weekend in New York at his parents' home—a trip that, in those early days, he often made.

Morris literally moved into Kissinger's office that day. At one point during the quiet morning, a courier from the Federal Bureau of Investigation came in and left a sealed envelope for Kissinger. Morris brooded about the highly classified document. The courier had explained that the letter contained "very urgent" material. Should he call Henry? Morris could imagine Kissinger's angry impatience at his caution: "Idiot! Of course open it." And so he opened it.

The envelope was from J. Edgar Hoover—for Kissinger's, "Eyes Only." "It was this long, detailed account of Martin Luther King's sex life," Morris says. "There were transcripts"—obviously from wiretaps—"and indications that photographs were available." Some of the women with Dr. King had apparently been FBI informants. Morris was appalled.

A few hours later—sometime after lunch—Morris was joined by Larry Eagleburger, and Morris quickly showed him the FBI documents. "I was speaking as an old friend and as a Foreign Service colleague and I said, 'This is absolutely scurrilous stuff.'"

"Larry just glanced at the first page or two, with the ho-hum attitude of an aide reading a telephone directory, and said, 'Oh, yeah, we get these all the time.'" Eagleburger then went to a nearby file cabinet, opened it, and pulled out Hoover files on members of the NSC staff, including Morton H. Halperin, who had worked in the Pentagon in the Johnson Administration. Files were being kept on Martin Luther King (who had been slain the previous year), Eagleburger told his distressed colleague, "to blunt the black anti-war movement." Morris was not reassured, but kept his peace.



In the beginning, morale was high among the newly recruited members of Henry Kissinger's National Security Council staff, who felt themselves to be a hand-picked elite assembled not as a result of post-election patronage but solely on the basis of their expertise. Many, such as Roger Morris, were Democrats and former members of the Johnson Administration's National Security Council who viscerally disliked Richard Nixon, but Kissinger had been persuasive in insisting that his staff would be above politics. Bureaucratic life in the last years of the Johnson Administration had been stifling—the White House's foreign policy had been intertwined with the Vietnam War to the exclusion of nearly all other issues. This would change, Kissinger assured his staff. There would be an open system, in which all foreign-policy issues would be analyzed and reviewed and then presented to the President, with options, for his decision. There would be a fresh approach to resolving the Vietnam War and—so Nixon and Kissinger assured their aides—settlement of that exhausting and divisive issue within the year. In fact, nothing would change, because Nixon and Kissinger were obsessed not with opening the system to new ideas but with seizing control of it.

Henry Kissinger had entered the White House on Inauguration Day with immense power and no illusions about its source. He understood that his authority would never be disputed as long as he kept his sole client—Richard Nixon—pleased. Kissinger had loyally supported and endorsed Nixon's decision in late February to begin secretly bombing Cambodia with B-52 aircraft from the Strategic Air Command. The bombs were to be reported, even inside the military chain of command, as having fallen in South Vietnam. In April, Kissinger had been among those advocating extreme measures against North Korea when a North Korean aircraft shot down an unarmed Navy electronic-intelligence plane, known as an EC-121, ninety miles off the Korean coast, killing all thirty-one crew members aboard. His loyalty and his toughness in those incidents had strengthened his position, but by the end of April, 1969, the President still seemed unwilling, or unable, to isolate Melvin R. Laird, the secretary of defense, and William P. Rogers, the secretary of state, from White House decision-making.

Sharing his foreign-policy authority with Laird and Rogers inevitably made Kissinger insecure—and this insecurity never really went away while he was in the White House. Being Jewish didn't help. There is no evidence that Kissinger was an anti-Semitic Jew or was in any way ashamed of his Jewishness. But being Jewish was a chink in his armor—a vulnerability that could threaten his position. Nixon clearly viewed Kissinger's Jewishness as a drawback, at least during the early years of his presidency. Immediately after taking office, he assigned all responsibility for the Middle East to William Rogers. It would be the only area of such responsibility for Rogers.

There were days when Nixon would directly castigate liberal Jews in front of Kissinger. "Nixon would talk about Jewish traitors, and the eastern Jewish establishment—Jews at Harvard," senior presidential aide John D. Ehrlichman recalls. "And he'd play off Kissinger. 'Isn't that right, Henry? Don't you agree?' And Henry would respond: 'Well, Mr. President—there are Jews and Jews.'" When Jerome B. Wiesner, former science adviser to the Kennedy Administration, criticized Nixon's decision, in March of 1969, to deploy a limited antiballistic-missile system, Ehrlichman says, Nixon angrily denounced Wiesner in front of Kissinger as "another one of those Jews."

That spring, Morton Halperin quickly became a dominant concern in the White House. During the last years of the Johnson Administration, Halperin had been a marked man to senior military men in the Pentagon—most notably to Earle Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—for his role in turning around the government's policy on Vietnam. Wheeler was later among the first to complain to Kissinger after Halperin joined the NSC staff. Senator Barry Goldwater also complained, in a letter sent April 22, 1969, to John Mitchell, the attorney general. Goldwater described Halperin as among those who "made it so hard for the military to operate in the Pentagon by their strategic papers which were forced down the throats of the Joint Chiefs and Commanders."

Hoover, too, repeatedly expressed doubts about Halperin's loyalty; among other things, he told the White House, Halperin had once sponsored a Vietnam War teach-in at Harvard. Kissinger knew better, of course. Halperin had sponsored the teach-in as a supporter of the war. He had been among those advocating a strong military response to the North Korean attack on the Navy spy plane; he had helped set up a newly revised National Security Council system that had provided Nixon and Kissinger with immense personal control over the bureaucracy; his advice on issues ranging from strategic-disarmament talks to the Vietnam War was superb; he was a tireless worker who believed that the Nixon Administration was committed to getting out of Vietnam. Throughout the spring of 1969, Halperin repeatedly praised the Nixon-Kissinger team to his friends in Washington and Boston. He was not disloyal.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

How have stories changed in the age of social media? The minds behind House of Cards, This American Life, and The Moth discuss.


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In