The Kissinger technique


Walter Stewart February 23 1976

The Kissinger technique


Walter Stewart February 23 1976

The Kissinger technique


Walter Stewart

One day in May, 1973, when Henry Kissinger of Washington and Le Due Tho of Hanoi were negotiating a Vietnam ceasefire at a villa in Paris, Tho leaned across the bargaining table and said, “You know, Dr. Kissinger, I want to speak to you this time openly, sincerely and honestly: you are a liar.”

History does not record Kissinger’s reply. If it was as forthright as Tho’s statement, he should have said: “Not at all, I am a publicist, that’s all. Lying goes with the territory.” He might even, with a burst of candor, have drawn on the negotiations then in motion to prove his point. Kissinger had approved the bombing of Cambodia and the “double entry bookkeeping” in which the raids were ascribed to attacks inside Vietnam; he approved the invasions of Laos and Cambodia, promoted the bombing raids on North Vietnam and the mining of North Vietnamese ports; on the eve of the 1972 Presidential election, he helpfully announced that “Peace is at hand” when, in fact, he knew that talks had broken down and months of fighting lay ahead. In private, he was a consistent hawk, not merely a supporter of President Nixon’s war offensives but usually their initial advocate. In public, he appeared a tireless seeker after peace, never too busy to drop his martini glass and hors d’oeuvre and dash halfway around the world to talk armistice. As a result, he was named Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for 1973—surely one of the slickest bits of public fraud since the last sale of the Brooklyn Bridge. Tho, named a co-recipient with Kissinger, had the grace to turn down the honor. “When guns are silenced and peace is really restored in South Vietnam,” he said, “I will consider acceptance of this prize.”

It is instructive to note how Henry conned us all. Whatever happens to him— and, at the moment, the U.S. Secretary of State is in one of his temporary down spells, the aftermath of some trifling untruths that backfired on him during recent investigations into the CIA—there are lessons to be learned from his modus operandi. It is important to know, for example, that what Kissinger is really good at is not so much diplomacy as public relations; that his strength lies not in his grasp of world affairs but in his explanation of the American View; that his most important contacts are not with foreign leaders but

with journalists in the United States.


It is also important to know that one of the results of his skill has been to focus attention almost exclusively on those areas where his interest lies, to the neglect of all others. When Kissinger cares about China, we hear nothing but China; when he considers the Middle East, we are dominated by the Middle East; when, briefly, he turns his thoughts to Europe, all U.S. foreign policy turns with him, as if it were a buckle attached to his ample belt.

In his personalization of policy, he resembles one of his prototypes, Prince Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar Von Metternich of Austria, the subject of his Harvard doctoral thesis. However, the stakes are a great deal higher than they were in Metternich’s day. For example, Kissinger has shown little enthusiasm for the problems of world population growth and food shortages: the United States, strong in rhetoric, has, in fact, played a confused and contradictory role in the search for solutions and is currently in the grip of a vogue for “deregulation” in which food production is to be left to “the discipline of the marketplace” and to hell with the starving millions. Kissinger has not yet turned his attention to Latin America (he said recently that he hoped to visit there ... someday). And he is not much concerned with Canada—which is probably a blessing—with the demonstrable result that our relations with the United States take place in a policy vacuum. In fact, Kissinger’s personal inclinations so dominate foreign policy that his admiring biographers, the brothers Marvin and Bernard Kalb, argue that a major reason for the magnitude of the India-Pakistan war in 1971 was that “for a good part of the year, Kissinger simply did not have time to deal with it.”

Angola provided another disastrous example. The United States stepped into the civil war there largely on the say-so of Kissinger and against the advice of African experts in the state department, who felt that if the Russians wanted to get mired in Angola, let them. The involvement was concealed until a combination of leaks and statements before congressional committees showed that U.S. arms and money were already in place, and more millions had been earmarked to go. By that time Kissinger was arguing that America’s vital interests were at stake, and God only knew what mischief would flow from a

Senate move to cut off the military aid. President Ford was drawn in and was soon alternately threatening the Russians and entreating them, and trying to sort out the mess. Angola had been blown into a major confrontation. Kissinger’s enthusiasm had become America’s policy, even if it made no sense.

A curious way to conduct foreign policy (although there are precedents: John Foster Dulles, like Kissinger, dominated a President—Eisenhower—by the force of his personality and dominated foreign policy by his personal tastes). And, in theory at least, Kissinger disapproves. He is always telling us at press conferences and briefings that policy decisions are based on “the national interest,” not personality. But since it is he who decides what is in the national interest, it works out about the same. In any event, he has never shied away from taking credit where he felt it was due. At a Washington dinner party, a man came up and said: “Dr. Kissinger, I want to thank you for saving the world.” Kissinger was gracious. “You’re welcome,” he replied. On another occasion, he described for Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci how he worked his wonders: “The main point. . . in the mechanics of my success comes from the fact that I have acted alone. The Americans love this immensely. The Americans love the cowboy, who leads the convoy, alone on his horse, the cowboy who comes into town all alone on his horse, and nothing else. Perhaps not even with a gun, because he does not shoot. He acts, and that is enough, being in the right place at the right time. In sum, a Western. This romantic and surprising character suits me because being alone has always been part of my style, or, if you wish, of my technique.”

But remember that one of the fundamental characteristics of the Western Hero was that he could turn up on either side of a range war. The good guys became the bad guys by virtue of his presence—and vice versa. So, too, with Kissinger: he has changed his stance time after time on major issues, and it is a measure of his success that the new Kissinger stance has often become the new U.S. foreign policy.

In 1957 Kissinger wrote a whole book, Nuclear Weapons And Foreign Policy, to argue that if it came to a showdown with the Russians, the United States could and should drop nuclear bombs. In fact, he advocated “limited” nuclear warfare even in


certain “brush-fire” situations. At a recent dinner meeting in Pittsburgh, however, he was intoning: “It is difficult for the average person to understand the enormity of the dangers of a nuclear war, the casualties involved, the extent of the devastation . . .” He once opposed, bitterly and at length, any move to détente with the Russians— until détente became central to his policy. And when Defense Secretary James Schlesinger used some of Kissinger’s own discarded arguments to attack détente, he was fired out of the cabinet, a firing Kissinger had vigorously sought. (In fact, when Kissinger’s aides learned of the impending dismissal, word was leaked to the press in advance of the official notification so President Ford would have no chance to change his mind.)

Kissinger linked himself (irrevocably, it seemed) with the personality and policies of Richard Nixon, and then won new plaudits for his hints that he had opposed the man all along. He told Washington columnist Nick Thimmesch in January, 1972:“If anyone would ever say I didn’t believe in what Nixon is doing, I would publicly dispute him. I like the President. I agree with him, we’ve gone through all this for three years, like two men in a foxhole ... no disagreement over policy. We’re too close for that.” For a propaganda film boosting Nixon at the 1972 Republican convention, he chimed: “There’s a certain, you know, it’s a big word, but it’s a certain heroic quality about the way he [Nixon] conducts his business.” But after the fall Nixon’s policies became magically and retroactively “disastrous,” and even his personal mannerisms offensive. In an off-the-record briefing to journalists after Ford became President, Kissinger allowed that détente with the Russians had been slowed because Nixon would never look Brezhnev in the eye. At a state banquet in Ottawa, talking to External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen and into what he thought was a dead microphone, he described Nixon as “a very odd man... an unpleasant man... an artificial man.” After all the foxholes they’d shared ...

His triumph has been to have himself identified in the public eye with successful missions of peace and dumping the responsibility for wars, failures and weapons proliferation on others. When, for example, he was announcing “peace is at hand” in October, 1972, he made it sound like a Kissinger-made product: Nixon got three references during the whole press conference. Then, when the bombing began anew and someone had to break the news, he suggested Nixon take on the task. The President demurred and

tossed the potato back to Henry. This time, the name and actions of the President were front and centre in Kissinger’s briefing, with 14 mentions. When the successful conclusion of the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks were to be announced in Moscow, Kissinger and U.S. Ambassador Gerald Smith, who had been working on the project for years, got into a bitter, 25-minute argument in the embassy kitchen over who would break the glad tidings. Finally, a compromise was reached: both would talk to the press. But Kissinger got to the microphone first, and dominated both the briefing and subsequent press coverage.

How does he get away with these things? There are two explanations, one having to do with Kissinger himself and the other with the way information reaches the public. First things first: Kissinger is a skilled, persistent and convincing liar. Item: During the Daniel Ellsberg trial it was revealed that wiretaps had been placed on the phones of Kissinger’s aides. Asked about this at a press briefing on May, 12,1973, he replied: “My office has not handled or been aware of any activities that were conducted by other processes [meaning wiretaps].” Later it turned out that not only was Kissinger aware of the taps, he had furnished the names of those to be tapped. Item: He denied as “totally inaccurate” reports that the United States was anti-India in the India-Pakistan War. Later, leaked White House minutes showed Kissinger instructing the state department to “tilt in favor of Pakistan.” Item : He made a much publicized trip to Damascus to receive a list of Israeli prisoners of war in the hands of the Syrians. Later, it turned out that he had the list in his hands before he ever left for the Middle East. Item: In September, 1970, the United States made a key switch in its Vietnam negotiations tactics. Previously it had insisted that before there could be a cease-fire the North Vietnamese would have to withdraw all their troops. That demand was dropped. A journalist asked Kissinger: “Are we abandoning the previous requirement for mutual withdrawal?” He replied “No” twice to the same question. Later, it became a matter of public record that just such a change had been made. Item: During his confirmation hearings as Secretary of State, he was asked if he had any knowledge of the Watergate plumbers and said no. Later, it developed that he had listened to tapes on which one of the plumbers, David Young, was interrogating Admiral Robert O. Welander. Item: Kissinger denied repeatedly that he or the CIA or the Forty Committee (which he chaired) had played any substantive role in the Chilean coup. Later, it turned out that he, the agency and the committee were up to their necks in plots against the Allende regime.

It is also interesting how the man reacts when caught in one of his lies. First, there is a heated, personal denial, and, if necessary, an offer to resign, “to clear his good name.” When the wiretapping story broke,

Kissinger almost wept as he charged that he could not do his job if people were going to go around saying he was a liar. So he was given a clean bill of health. Recently, when his connection with the Chilean coup was raised again, he took exactly the same tack. “How long are we going to go on tormenting ourselves?” he asked. By striking the high note, Kissinger disarms his opponents. If you attack him, you attack the United States. If you besmirch his good name, you imperil peace. If you call him to account, you tie his hands, allowing God only knows what calamities to descend on “The National Purpose.” So, by silent agreement, no one calls Henry a liar, even when he is caught. The brothers Kalb say he “fibs,” “shades the truth,” “practises psychological warfare,” “indulges in ambiguity,” or “issues a denial no one takes seriously.” His lie about the switch in U.S. bargaining over Vietnam caused the good brothers to credit him with “deftly camouflaging this major U.S. concession from the American people.” When you deftly camouflage major policy shifts from your own people, you are telling a dangerous lie, but as long as no one says so it’s apparently okay. In fact, when Kissinger is caught out, the press tends to turn and rend whoever blew the whistle. When the White House minutes that showed him to be lying about India were leaked, columnist Joseph Kraft called the affair “a vulgar bureaucratic row aimed at . . . Kissinger.” John Osborne of the New Republic asserted that “the high-ranking rat . . .” who had been shooting at Kissinger “should be dug out of his hole and fired.” Kissinger’s lie had been laid down on behalf of the President, Osborne explained, and “the administration lie was never an effective lie.” Lies are okay, apparently, as long as they aren’t effective.

The second part of the explanation for Kissinger’s success is the way news of his doings gets out to the world. On June 26, 1970, Kissinger held a background briefing for Washington reporters and complained that the Russians had become so meddlesome in the Middle East that “we are trying to expel them.” Murrey Marder, a diplomatic reporter, wrote a story quoting “high administration officials wanting to expel the Russians.” Editorial reaction was immediate and furious: such sabrerattling would only exacerbate the Middle East situation. So Kissinger refused to talk to Marder for almost a year. On December 13, 1972, the New York Times ran a story from Paris describing how well the Vietnam peace talks were going. It was based on an interview Kissinger gave James Restan, the Times'’biggest byline. At the same time, William Beecher, the Times’ Pentagon correspondent, filed a story in Washington suggesting that the talks were in fact not going well and that American bombing raids were about to be resumed. Beecher’s story was not run. On December 18, a cutdown version finally appeared, but by that time the bombing had already been re-

sumed. Reston was wrong and Beecher was right, but Reston’s story was run.

Kissinger strokes the worthy and strikes the unworthy, and the difference is crucial for any correspondent covering foreign affairs. Access makes the heart grow fonder, and any reporter who crosses Henry loses his most important contact. Rogis Morris, a former Kissinger aide, noted in The Columbia Journalism Review that “the diplomatic press corps travels in a world of glamour and power. The price of their passage is often crippling dependence on government for stories, and an awesome government power over the minds of editors sufficient to discredit or kill a story like the invasion of Cambodia or the resumption of the bombing.” (The Times had both stories and killed both.) Morris tells the story of an investigative reporter working on Watergate who was asked by a diplomatic reporter covering Kissinger: “Have you got anything coming up that’ll embarrass us?”

The diplomatic press corps is not largeonly a dozen to a score of reporters normally tramp around in Kissinger’s wake— and its relations with the man himself are social as well as professional. Kissinger is a coveted guest at dinner parties thrown by Washington’s most influential columnists—Joseph Kraft, Marquis Childs, Clayton Fritchey and the like. It must be a heady experience to hear, in privileged private, Henry tell with his very own lips what a nasty little man some hitherto revered diplomat really is. Few journalists are willing to give up their places in the inner ring for the trifling pleasure of doing their jobs. Sometimes, they even turn the

editing over to Kissinger. In December, 1970, while flying back to Washington from a trip to India during the Pakistan war, Kissinger briefed three reporters to the effect that if the Russians didn’t intervene to restrain India the President might have to review his plans for an upcoming summit meeting. The reporters wrote a pool report and then, realizing they had momentous news here, dutifully took their joint effort back to Kissinger. He edited it to make the threat even stronger: not only the summit, but the entire U.S.-Soviet relationship might have to be reexamined. The reporters filed the story, quoting no one. The White House promptly denied the report in public and confirmed it in private.

In Washington, the background briefing provides a vehicle for manipulation by both sides. (There are some cynical enough to believe the same sort of thing takes place in Ottawa.) For reporters who behave, there are plaudits, dinner invitations, private phone calls and in-jokes with the Secretary of State. For those who don’t, there are overhead complaints to the editors. The result is a system in which the government can place a special version of events before the public and then, depending on reactions, either deny or embrace it. In April, 1972, the United States decided to pressure the Russians by charging that they were aiding North Vietnam with arms (as they were). But to avoid imperiling an upcoming summit, it was decided the charges would come from the Pentagon, not the White House. Unfortunately, the military briefers overdid it, with the result that stories went out indicating the administration was so mad at the Russians that the summit

was threatened. Kissinger then called in James Reston to say that he, personally, had not wanted to finger the Russians. He blamed the Pentagon. Reston wrote a column based on that interview, and when the column produced a fuss Kissinger simply denied ever having seen Reston.

Kissinger is at his best in background briefings. He is succinct, witty and informed and he has an instinctive flair for what the media wants—colorful phrases and reportably eccentric behavior. His reputation as a “swinger,” for example, was manufactured out of whole cloth for media consumption. The press lapped it up. They also loved his Clark Kent act: he would appear at a cocktail party in Georgetown, exchange a few quips with the boys, then duck out the back door and fly away across the world to wrestle with the forces of darkness; then he would come home and leak out the news of what a terrific job he was doing. When he returned from Russia with the beginnings of detente, an awed Reston wrote: “How he performs this delicate and dangerous role is a miracle which defies physical and intellectual endurance.” How did Reston know that? The information had to come from the hero himself. Kissinger shrugged off his cloak of glory with a manly quip: “I’d do anything for caviar.”

The act of creation is an awesome thing, and the fact that Henry Kissinger, starting with such unpromising material, has been able to turn-himself into the Lone Ranger of Peace is a tribute to his own ability to con, but no more so than to the pliability of the American press and the credulity of the American people. ^