The Nixon-era White House was notoriously riddled with intrigue, behind-the-scenes machinations, and paranoia. This combination would ultimately lead to the Watergate scandals, which brought down many in the Administration, including Nixon himself. But others—including some who were avid participants in the White House's culture of rampant wiretaps, leaks, and double dealing—escaped unscathed. One such man was Henry Kissinger, Nixon's brilliant but complicated and famously self-serving national security adviser and secretary of state.
To this day, Kissinger's legacy remains a matter of controversy. Some see him as an unscrupulous operator who would stop at nothing to amass and retain power. Others hail him as a foreign-policy genius whose diplomatic triumphs include softening U.S.-Soviet relations, masterminding the U.S. disengagement from Vietnam, facilitating an Arab-Israeli truce, and initiating talks with China. Over the years, a number of Atlantic writers have contributed to the discourse on Kissinger and his legacy.
In the June 2005 Atlantic, Chicago Tribune editor James Warren presents a selection of transcripts from Kissinger's telephone conversations. As it turns out, Kissinger made a point of having his secretaries eavesdrop on his official telephone calls and transcribe them for posterity. In 1977 he donated them to the National Archives and Records Administration on the condition that the records remain sealed until after his death. But last year, under pressure from researchers, the government reversed itself and released all 20,000 pages. In "The Kissinger Transcripts," Warren offers an array of less-than-flattering excerpts. We see Kissinger, among other things, castigating a Women's Wear Daily columnist for making unsubstantiated innuendos, promising not to reveal polling data which he then immediately discloses to someone else, and instructing the head of the joint chiefs of staff to "just fire somebody" over a Pentagon leak.
More than two decades ago, just a few years after Kissinger left the White House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Seymour M. Hersh commented in-depth on what he perceived as Kissinger's unsavory approach to carrying out his job. Maintaining his own authority within the White House, Hersh explained in "Kissinger and Nixon in the White House," was of paramount importance to Kissinger, and achieving this primarily translated into "keeping his sole client—Richard Nixon—pleased."
One problem, however, was that when Kissinger first came on board, he brought several colleagues from his academic life with him. As tensions over Vietnam escalated, the loyalty of these men—some of whom were liberal—began to come into question. And when concerns arose that certain people within the Administration may have been leaking classified information, Kissinger authorized FBI investigations and wiretaps against members of his staff. His motives in this, Hersh speculated, probably had less to do with a desire to plug leaks than with his own desperation to prove his loyalty:
Four of those tapped ... were Jewish; tapping them not only played into the anti-Semitism in the Oval Office but also demonstrated that Kissinger [who was himself Jewish] was able to rise above his religious background... If his staff was too Jewish and too liberal for Nixon and his chief aides, Kissinger made the necessary adjustments.
Hersh also made note of a distasteful tendency on Kissinger's part to employ vicious rumor to discredit those around him.
The backbiting grew intense by the end of . Secretary of State Rogers was a "fag" who had some strange hold over the President; Mel Laird was a megalomaniac who constantly leaked anti-Kissinger stories to the press; and Richard Nixon was a secret drunk of dubious intelligence.
In his desire to retain as much control within the White House as possible, Kissinger also made a point of excluding others from the flow of information. This meant hoarding large amounts of data within his own office and—with ever-increasing paranoia—fending off efforts by others to access it. Given that he had ordered the wiretapping of so many people himself, it should not be surprising that Kissinger was worried that someone might be doing the same thing to him. He routinely had his office phones checked for taps, and made sure that the inspection was carried out by a different agency each time, lest one of those agencies plant a wiretap itself.
Special teams from the Secret Service, CIA, FBI, or National Security Agency would be summoned to his office at random and on short notice to inspect... One aide, asked why Kissinger did not simply permanently assign the FBI to monitor his phones, responded: "Who trusted Hoover?"
As for the Watergate scandal, Hersh suggests that Kissinger was as deeply implicated as those who ended up taking the blame.
Kissinger escaped any serious investigation during Watergate, as those attorneys who had some doubts soon found themselves immersed in various other matters. One prosecution official, discussing that White House tape recording years later, recalled a quality of Kissinger's conduct in front of Nixon, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman that made him wish he could have listened to more of Kissinger's Oval Office meetings. "He was like one of the boys, talking tough. One says, 'Let's bring knives.' Another says, 'Let's bring bats.' And Henry pipes up, 'Let's bring zip-guns.'" The prosecutor recalled his surprise at hearing Kissinger: "I thought he might have been classier."
That Kissinger had lied about his role ... was widely assumed in the Washington press corps, and even inside the Watergate Special Prosecution Force, but Kissinger was permitted to slide by with his half-truths and misstatements. Only Richard Nixon, Alexander Haig, some of the men around them, and a few Watergate prosecutors fortunate enough to have learned what was on the White House tapes understood the truth: Kissinger was involved.
Two years earlier, in "The Craft and Craftiness of Henry Kissinger," Washington Post editor Philip Geyelin had likewise criticized Kissinger's operating style. Geyelin noted that Kissinger deserved credit for his foreign-policy successes. But, in his view, both Kissinger and Nixon had displayed a dismaying disregard for proper governing procedures and for the will of the American people. Their approach was simply to do as they saw fit, withholding crucial information from others and circumventing protocol that might have kept them in check. Indeed, "the Nixon-Kissinger strategy," Geyelin wrote, "was not designed for an open society."
While Kissinger was perhaps a little less outraged or driven to less frenzy than Nixon by the exercise of the right to free speech by American citizens who did not agree with one or another policy, he ... had a hand in inciting—and in executing—at least some of the President's more draconian efforts to suppress dissenting voices, close down government leaks, and crush the protest movement.
Ultimately, Geyelin suggested, the seeds of the Nixon Administration's demise may have lain within Nixon's and Kissinger's anti-democratic attitude. "So repressive of dissent" was their approach, he wrote, "that it strained the American system of government beyond tolerable limits."
More recently, in "Kissinger, Metternich, and Realism" (June 1999), Atlantic correspondent Robert D. Kaplan defended Kissinger. In some contexts, he suggested, imperviousness to public pressures can be seen as commendable.
Isn't what angers so many people about President Bill Clinton and other current politicians the fact that they make policy according to the results of public-opinion polls rather than to their own conviction? ... It is likely that in prolonging the [Vietnam] war [over the objections of protestors], Kissinger and Nixon demonstrated more real character than do many of our present leaders.
Kaplan also sought to explain two of Kissinger's more reviled foreign-policy moves—his decision (after having opted not to end the Vietnam War when he had the opportunity in 1969) to heavily bomb North Vietnam in 1972 and Cambodia in 1973. Many observers have construed those bombings as gratuitously brutal and unnecessary. But Kaplan suggested that they represented a strategic move; it was too late to save face in Vietnam, but such a display of "cold-bloodedness," by demonstrating that the Nixon White House was not to be trifled with, "actually improved America's geopolitical position vis-à-vis China, the Soviet Union and the Arab world."
The suggestion that leaders in China, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere would respond to Kissinger and Nixon based on their recent behavior in Vietnam is eminently reasonable. What strains credulity is the idea that our Cold War adversaries would not take into consideration Kissinger's and Nixon's bloodthirstiness in Indochina in the face of fierce criticism from the American public.
Given Kissinger's unpopularity in many circles, Kaplan's decision to defend him in the pages of The Atlantic required a certain degree of fortitude. "It is not easy for me to put forward this argument," he wrote. "Many people I know professionally in the journalistic and policy communities, and whom I respect, despise Kissinger." But Kaplan also argued that, popular or not, Kissinger has done more to shape the debate in this country than any who have succeeded him in the State Department.
Though he has been gone from office for more than two decades, Kissinger hovers over many foreign-policy discussions to a degree that more likable and recent Secretaries of State, such as Shultz and Cyrus Vance, do not.
Perhaps, then, loath as we may be to admit it, Kissinger's legacy is one that we would be wise to continue to engage with and learn from as we chart a course forward in uncertain times.
Despite his grave German accent, his dire view of humanity, and his preoccupation with European history, Kissinger—who negotiated with rather than confronted the Soviet Union, who helped Nixon to withdraw from Vietnam 550,000 soldiers in three years under combat conditions, and who generally supported interventions that were popular while expressing skepticism about those that weren't—may have understood his adopted nation better than most people think he did.