Daniel Ellsberg was perhaps the first highly placed official (at one time the deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense) to have ever left the inner government and then reveal, with top-secret documents, its closely guarded secret operations. As befits a man who risks his reputation and ruin, to fight a corrupt and unlawful government, he is vain, egocentric and completely convinced of the lightness of his action.
It is a grandiose attitude – one that seems to have especially offended the press. It supposes the power of truth, of the man who speaks it, and the moral example it sets. Ellsberg quotes Madison’s statement that, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and the people who mean to be their own governors must take care to arm themselves with the power that knowledge gives.”
I decided to avoid, as far as possible, discussion of his several years in Vietnam, the Pentagon Papers trial and his personal life. The interview was directed toward an exploration and understanding of his intellectual life, his experiences in the secret decision-making processes inside the Defense Department, and conclusions about the motives and methods of the inner government.
His answers were intricately detailed, with many ideas interwoven and cross-referenced into a dissertation of extraordinary complexity, some 500 typewritten pages long. During a week-long siege, it was roughly organized into two sections and the first part was edited, re-edited, and ultimately reduced in half (by myself, David Felton and Bill Sievert). The organization here is not how the interview was originally conducted. For example, the discussion of Henry Kissinger did not actually begin the interview. As we go to press, Part II remains in the wings, unedited and unorganized. We plan to put it into shape and publish it soon.
“We were facing a massive and urgent threat to our remaining democratic institutions, a coup on the eve of its completion. People who carried out this coup are still in power, starting with the president.”
There is a natural tendency to be suspicious. To some degree, we have all been affected by the notion that no matter how necessary and important Daniel Ellsberg’s act was, to risk a life in prison, vilification as a traitor, and personal slander, there “must have been something else behind it.”
But examine his statement: a dark picture of what has been occurring in American government. He acted on one of the basic democratic beliefs, that “a man can make a difference.”
What was your relationship with Henry Kissinger?
He had been at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard, and before I went to Rand in 1959, I gave a couple of seminars to his group, discussions about strategy and politics. Over the years I would see him occasionally at a conference or at a Rand symposium. It was not a personal relationship, nor even a close professional relationship, but an intermittent business or analytical association.
I had a very negative attitude toward him because he was pushing the idea of limited nuclear war as a substitute not only for all-out war but also for no nuclear war. He thought that if we forewent the possibility of nuclear weapons the world would be taken over by stronger nations; and that if we limited our options to threats of unrestrained nuclear war, the prospect would be so horrendous that we would be paralyzed and unable to use nuclear weapons at all. He thought the proper strategy was to build and threaten to use, as appropriate, small tactical nuclear weapons the size of the Hiroshima bombs and up to 10 times that size.
Kissinger has no originality whatsoever as an intellect. I read all of his writings, since they were within the field that I was working in, and thought of them as extremely derivative. They were well-written, good expositions of other people’s ideas and often contained analytic criticism. He changed his sources from book to book and the quality of the thinking pretty closely reflected the quality of his current sources.
His first book was admired by Nixon who gave it a great boost with a photograph on the front page of The New York Times of him going into a meeting of the National Security Council with it under his arm. This was the limited nuclear war book, strongly influenced by Edward Teller, General Gavin, a few other Air Force exponents of this limited war concept, and a major source was Bernard Brodie, a Rand colleague; another was Bill Kaufman. Later, he wrote a book – one that almost reversed, temporarily, the drift of his thinking on nuclear weapons – which was very strongly influenced by Rand associates of mine, such as Albert Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn and Tom Schelling. Some of his articles on arms control were taken almost verbatim from work by Tom Schelling.
The sources would never be directly acknowledged. And he had a trick of covering himself by including people in his bibliography, but in entirely misleading ways. He’d include references to secondary works by these people, or works from which he had not drawn, but no mention whatever of the works he was paraphrasing. He wanted to be thought of not only as an able intellect – which he is in the sense of an expositor and critic, which alone would have been enough for an academic career – but also as an original person, a creative person. His solution to that problem must have put him under a certain tension over the years.
It’s not unlike what must be Nixon’s own tension, the shame and guilt of having succeeded by major deceits and never wholly on his own ability or worth.
I have a very strong feeling that Nixon and Kissinger are similar personalities and feel a great affinity and attraction on that basis. Each of them may be the other’s best friend, at least during business hours. Kissinger – and surely Nixon, too – has a very strong ideological belief in the efficacy and legitimacy of the threat of violence as a tool of power and as a way of “establishing world order.”
I’ve heard him profess sympathy for revolutionary aims, say of the NLF, combined with a sad judgment on the “tragic” implications of revolutionary efforts – that they are unstabilizing, reckless and lead to world disorder unintended by the revolutionary forces – thus the “necessity” for suppressing them, despite the fact that one can sympathize with some of their motives. I think he really wants to have the tragic function of suppressing violently idealistic movements and sees no limits to the amount of violence that is acceptable for him to use to counter threats to world order.
One can guess – and I’m neither a psychiatrist nor a producer of official psychological profiles – that Nixon and Kissinger are people who have very strong desires not only to threaten, but to inflict violence. Kissinger can’t be a rebel, he couldn’t conceive of taking part in violence directed against “authority”; but by all evidence he wants very much to be a party to violence. There’s no question that he likes to issue threats. I would suspect very strongly that he wants some of his threats to fail, so that they have to be carried out.
This is how they come to associate with persons like G. Gordon Liddy.
Yeah, Liddy again is on the side of counterrevolution, like E. Howard Hunt, outlaws on the side of the police. It’s the psychology of a “bad cop”: To adapt a remark by Garry Wills, with each of these men it’s as if the Sheriff of Nottingham had fantasies not of arresting Robin Hood but of mugging him.
It’s not difficult to move from Liddy up to his supervisors like Ehrlichman and fairly describe Ehrlichman as a thug; but would you say it’s fair to describe Nixon and Kissinger as thugs?
After Cambodia and Laos, I’ve always privately thought of Henry Kissinger as a murderer. We’re not talking of persons who burglarize this or that office, but of persons who dropped four million tons of bombs on Indochina. Words are hardly adequate to define people who took those choices and took them in the years 1969 to 1972. They were not confronting Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler, nor did they act under whatever misconceptions about Ho Chi Minh may have lingered in the late Fifties or early Sixties. They took those decisions after Lyndon Johnson and Robert MacNamara themselves dropped two million tons, failed, and were thrown out of office; they proceeded to drop four million more tons after 1969, having been elected mostly by people who expected them to end the war…
The story that’s not yet been written – perhaps now it will be – is how Nixon came to manage and complete a massive hoax during that four-year period that he was in the process of ending the war without a victory and had every intention of ending it as fast as possible. It was a marvelously contrived deception. In fact, it led me to have a good deal of respect, from a technical point of view, for the manager of that hoax. After reading Joe McGuiness’ book The Selling of the President, people tended to sneer at the competence of advertising men in campaign politics, but they did an almost miraculous job selling the prolongation of the War to the American public from 1969 to 1973, and beyond.
And Henry Kissinger?
He was a major part of that selling campaign.
When did you come in contact with Kissinger after Rand?
He came to Vietnam in 1966 as a consultant to Henry Cabot Lodge. I was very impressed that he took my advice – which I gave to nearly every visitor but which few of them took – to avoid official briefings and talking to anyone in the presence of his boss or agency head; instead, seek out people who had been around, who were known to know a lot about Vietnam, talk to them privately and separately, and get from them the names of other people and talk to those other people separately. And to talk to the Vietnamese as much as possible. MacNamara never did any of these things in all the trips he made, but always talked to district advisers in the presence of the general in charge and never seemed to realize how much he was being fooled.
Kissinger did see the people I suggested. He is a talented and incisive questioner; he takes notes, listens carefully, and learns very well. In a couple of brief visits he did learn an unusual amount. He became appropriately skeptical and pessimistic and compared to Walt Rostow or others in Washington, he had a pretty realistic picture of the unlikelihood of much improvement. So, that was promising.
I was with him in a couple of conferences during 1967, and he was expressing a view far in advance of any mainstream political figure at that point, namely that our only objective in Vietnam should be an assurance of what he called the decent interval before the Communists took over so that we would not be humiliated at home or in our foreign affairs by an abrupt, naked failure.
McCarthy and Robert Kennedy still felt called on to talk about a negotiated solution with, at most, a coalition government. They were not willing to talk about unilateral withdrawal or acceptance of Communist takeover anytime. Kissinger’s dovish description was exceeded only by people like Abbie Hoffman or Dave Dellinger, who were calling for immediate withdrawal.
Finally, by the way, Kissinger expressed thoroughly and openly a total contempt for Richard Nixon. He worked for Rockefeller and was willing to say things about Nixon, such as his famous statement at the 1968 Republican convention, “Richard Nixon is not fit to be president.” That seemed a little indiscrete for someone in politics.
And a few months later he was appointed foreign policy adviser to the president-elect…
He’d been appointed Special Assistant for National Security Affairs and, in readiness for the first National Security Council meeting, he asked for a study of options on Vietnam. The president of Rand, Harry Rowen, suggested me for the job.
Kissinger accepted me with the first reservation ever expressed during my career as to my discretion. He did not want it known that he had turned to Rand for advice, an outside group, known to be relatively dovish within the defense community. And particularly he did not want it known that I was associated with the study since by that time I was a critic of our involvement. I was surprised to have that question raised; my career had been based on handling secrets and using discretion. He told an official at Rand that he had benefited greatly from our discussions in Vietnam, but was “on the other side of the fence,” and “saw things differently.”
Did you speak personally before you undertook the study?
No. I worked for several weeks putting together the options paper [National Security Memorandum One] and flew with it to his offices, a set of apartments they were using with Xerox machines and typewriters in the Hotel Pierre, on Christmas Day, 1968. We spent a couple of days going over the memorandum.
I suggested that he put a bunch of questions to the various parts of the bureaucracy and ask for parallel, rather than coordinated, answers so that he could compare the discrepancies and get a sense of what the uncertainties and conflicts were – the contradictions. I worked on these questions for him. I wanted him to see how much argument there was.
Did you find yourself liking him?
He tends to be fairly ingratiating, and has a habit of being quite flattering to a person in the presence of associates. Just after the election he gave several talks at Rand, and at one point said to the group, in my presence, “I learned more from Dan Ellsberg in Vietnam than from any other person.” It might have been true, but it was also characteristic of him to say something like that in your presence.
So he is a flatterer…
It’s, let’s say, a nice habit, which, however, is counteracted by certain other traits.
I believed Kissinger was well clued-in on the realistic, pessimistic prospects in Vietnam and that he would be a good adviser to Nixon. However, there was one ominous signal that I didn’t pay too much attention to at the time: He felt that escalation of the war had not been spelled out enough in our discussion of options.
I did take the occasion in my three days there to try to ‘inoculate’ him against the effects of the secret information he was about to start receiving. I had often thought of having a chance to warn somebody new to government, just about to receive a lot of high clearances, and to pass on one of the lessons I had learned not only by participating in the government, but also by studying a lot of the earlier crisis decision-making. I doubt he would remember the conversation.
“Henry, there’s something I would like to tell you, for what it’s worth, something good for a person that’s entering a job like this to know. You’ve been a consultant for a long time and you’ve dealt a great deal with top-secret information. But you are about to receive a whole slew of clearances, maybe 15 or 20 of them higher than top secret.
“I’ve had these myself, as you know, and I’ve known people who’ve acquired them, and I have a pretty good sense of what the effects of receiving these clearances are on a person who didn’t previously know they even existed, and of reading the information that will now become available to you.
“First, you will feel like a fool for having studied, written and talked about these subjects – for having criticized and analyzed decisions made by presidents – for years without having known of the existence of all this inside information. In particular, you’ll feel foolish for having rubbed shoulders for over a decade with officials and consultants who had access to all this information that you didn’t even know they had, and that they kept that secret from you.
“You will feel like a fool, and it will last for about two weeks. Then, after you read all this daily intelligence input – estimates, analyses and so forth, and become used to using what amounts to whole libraries of hidden information which is much more closely held than mere top-secret data – you will forget there was ever a time when you didn’t have it, and you’ll be aware only of the fact that you have it now and others don’t… and that all those other people are fools.
“Over a longer period of time – not too long, but a matter of two or three years – you will eventually become aware of the limitations of this information: There is a great deal that it doesn’t tell you, it is often inaccurate and it can lead you astray just as much as The New York Times can. But that takes quite a while…
“In the meantime, it will become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn’t have these clearances, because you’ll be thinking to yourself as you listen to them: ‘What would this man be telling me if in fact he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his recommendations?’ And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and you just stop listening. I’ve seen this with my superiors, my colleagues and myself.
“You will deal with a person who doesn’t have those clearances – since you must carefully lie to him about what you know – from the point of view of what do you want him to believe and what impression do you want him to go away with. In effect, how to manipulate him. You’ll give up trying to assess what he has to say, and the danger is you’ll become something like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience or knowledge they may have of their particular area and which may be much greater than yours.”
He thanked me and said it was interesting. It was hard for him to fully appreciate because he didn’t yet have these clearances and their effect on you is quite spectacular, learning about operations that the president can call into being at his will that you didn’t imagine were permitted to any human being.
I said to Henry that I thought of this secret information as something like the potion Circe gave to the wanderers who happened on her island that turned men into swine.
And your feeling after this talk?
As a staff person or consultant, you always feel you’ve gotten your reward if a person has listened to what you had to say and seemed to pay attention – that’s as much as you hope for, and that it will some day have some effect.
What was the fate of your study?
National Security Memorandum One went through one more draft. At the request of Kissinger, the one option for unilateral withdrawal was deleted, which meant that all the alternatives had the property of keeping us in Vietnam. I was, meanwhile, working on this set of questions and answers on Vietnam from various agencies of the bureaucracy.
The answers which amounted to about 1,000 pages showed the range of disagreement and pessimistic attitudes about the performance of the Vietnamese army, and the possibility of stopping infiltration by mining Haiphong or bombing the North. They came from agencies like the CIA, the intelligence branch of the State Department and the civilians in the Defense Department, who would not normally be called on to give direct opinions on these subjects to the president. By this device of asking for parallel reports, I had ensured that the new president got the most realistic estimates any president had ever gotten on these subjects.
They showed clearly, despite some disagreements, that the Vietnamese army would never be capable of withstanding North Vietnamese assault without U.S. bombing and U.S. ground troops. And Nixon was told very flatly by most of the responses, except for the Air Force of course, that bombing of Laos was having no effect whatever, and that the mining of Haiphong would likewise have no effect. We now know that the same month the questions were finished, March 1969, the secret bombing of Cambodia began.
I left town with this satisfied consultant’s feeling of having done all I could to bring realistic information to the attention of the new president and to Henry Kissinger, and with considerable expectation that they would act on this and get us out.
It was the kind of job I would have done for any president, even George Wallace. It seemed that one couldn’t go wrong in improving the understanding the president had of Vietnam politics. Later I came to question the usefulness of even this kind of relationship.
When I left the White House, I made a number of recommendations for new studies. One of them had to do with a study of what the word “accommodations” might mean as used by different agencies, and why that would be bad for the United States. Another one was to conduct an urgent and intensive study of the impact of our artillery and bombing operations on the Vietnamese people with an eye to the possibility of greatly reducing these operations or cutting them out entirely. Another was the adequacy of our information on civilian casualties. No one had ever tried to collect it.
Kissinger sent the word back to me through Morton Halperin that these were very useful suggestions but we had asked enough questions for now. And they were all set aside; they never did get around to asking or answering them. There are some things that these officials know they don’t want to know.
I left Washington without any expectation of working again for the administration. Or desire. They sent me a bunch of forms at Rand to fill out for a White House clearance, since I had been working there without a specific White House clearance, but I never filled them out.
I saw Halperin in Washington in June shortly after Nixon’s most conciliatory speech on the war, and he told me, “For the first time, I’m satisfied with the Vietnam policy of the United States.” Although Nixon had not committed himself to total withdrawal, Halperin was very confident that by the end of the year he would have accepted that idea.
But in June or July, the Russians recognized the Provisional Revolutionary Government, making it clear they would not cooperate with the U.S. in bringing pressure on the North to negotiate a mutual withdrawal. It was then that Kissinger began his secret talks with Hanoi, more or less having given up with the Russians.
The policy that they had come into office with went bankrupt at that point. In Richard Whalen’s book, Catch the Falling Flag, Whalen describes conversations in late ’67 with Nixon – for whom he was the main speechwriter on Vietnam – where he proposed to Nixon that he threaten the mining of Haiphong. This would supposedly present the Russians with a crisis like the Cuban missile crisis, because of their shipping, and encourage them to bring pressure on Hanoi for a settlement. Nixon bought that strategy, but it failed. Still Nixon and Kissinger didn’t believe it; they went ahead with their strategy.
I called Halperin in late June of ’69 with a question that was new to me: “What’s your estimate of the number of Vietnamese who would rather see peace even under a Communist government than see the war continue?”
“Oh, 90%,” he said.
“Do you think your boss thinks that?” I asked.
“I’ve never discussed that with him precisely, but I would guess that he did.”
“Then how can we justify continuing this a day longer, whether to get mutual withdrawal or graceful ending or anything else? I don’t discount some usefulness in papering over our defeat and so forth, but how can we justify killing another Vietnamese when our own guess is that nearly all of them want the war over?”
“Well,” he said, “that’s a good question… let me think about that.”
That was the moment I began to see the need to end the war most urgently. From mid ’67 on, I had been for ending the war “as soon as possible,” but I still had a willingness to see it prolonged by weeks or months in the course of negotiations, in hopes of a somewhat better solution that would leave us with a less controversial ending and perhaps less of a domestic backlash. But by mid-1969 I began to see that domestic politics couldn’t excuse it. I finally saw continuation as immoral, not just mistaken.
In September ’69 I learned from Halperin that the policy had not gone as he had hoped in June; that Nixon and Kissinger had chosen one of the options we had laid out earlier – not the excluded option for unilateral withdrawal – but the option to win the war. A disastrous choice. But not yet public; they were not yet fully committed.
I went to some people at Rand who had been for unilateral withdrawal all along, and said, “I’m with you now; what shall we do about it?” They proposed a letter to The New York Times, calling for unilateral withdrawal which, by the way, no one in mainstream politics had publicly proposed at that point.
I said what we needed was a study that would lay out the facts more exhaustively than a letter, but they said a study would never get cleared out of the Defense Department. The only way we could get past the clearance process was in a letter.
In the course of our drafting the letter, former New York Senator Charles Goodell proposed a Congressional cutoff of funds by the end of 1970. It was the first proposal of that kind by a politician. We went ahead with our plan because Goodell wasn’t recognized as an expert, and our letter would add some authoritative support to his position.
The publication of that letter was as controversial at Rand and in the Defense community probably as my leak of the Pentagon Papers was later. It was a bombshell among our associates – and was very widely quoted in the Moratorium. Meanwhile, without telling anyone at Rand, I started to copy the Pentagon Papers to give them to the Senate.
What was your next contact with Kissinger?
Just after my second marriage in September, 1970, I cut my honeymoon in half to return for an appointment with him. He didn’t keep it although I did see him about 10 days later. I thought it was a good chance to lay several things on him.
He was as bad as I’d ever imagined he was. My earlier feelings were based on his attitude toward a fairly hypothetical situation toward nuclear war. But now we were confronting a man who was managing the actual destruction of Cambodia.
I hadn’t yet heard a great deal about what his own personal role was in all this. It wasn’t completely clear how much of this was Nixon, and how much Kissinger; only that he was implementing a disastrous policy. At that point, I didn’t have the sense of revulsion at the thought of meeting him, which I did acquire later.
When a mutual friend who had an appointment with Kissinger proposed bringing me along, I agreed. It was worth encouraging him to read the Pentagon Papers so that he might discover that pursuing escalation had been talked through before in just as conspiratorial terms, and that it hadn’t worked. Maybe he could learn from that.
Also, I knew that his policy depended on its outlines being invisible to the American public. So I wanted to warn him, in effect, that the trend of policy was visible, at least to some people, including me, who were telling other people about it.
In other words, I thought of leaking information into the White House about what was actually visible from the outside to try to make them understand that their policy was foreseeable. The more foreseeable it was the less viable it might appear to him.
What is San Clemente like?
We went in through a gateway and a voice came out of nowhere like the voice of God from a loudspeaker on top of the guardhouse, telling us where to park. I may be confusing this with parking lots when I would visit friends in prison, but maybe they just borrowed the technology for the White House. It’s my memory that this unseen eye was controlling your movements.
You go into an outer waiting office just like a dentist’s waiting room, but with large color photographs of Nixon lining the wall. In fact, the official photographer stopped in the lobby and chatted with us until he dashed out the door as a pink golf cart went by. There was one person aboard driving it like a little electric Disneyland car about seven and a half miles per hour. It was Nixon, scowling, and looking very grim. His shoulders were hunched over and he was piloting this thing like the engineer of a toy train. Right behind him was another pink golf cart being driven by Bebe Rebozo, and behind that, a third pink cart with two Secret Service men. A convoy.
Finally we saw Kissinger for lunch on a little patio. General Haig was at the table. As we all said hello, Kissinger, in his usual fashion, turned to my friend and said, “You know, I have learned more from Dan Ellsberg…” and I thought he was going to repeat his statement about Vietnam, but he seemed to hesitate, and then said, “about bargaining than from any other person.”
I was taken aback. I didn’t know what he was referring to, although my academic specialty had been “bargaining theory.” And suddenly I remembered that 11 years earlier when I had given a series of talks on “The Art of Coercion,” I had also given a couple of those lectures to Kissinger’s seminar at Harvard. “You have a very good memory,” I said. And he replied, “They were good lectures.”
When I rethought that incident later, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The lectures I had given had to do with Hitler’s blackmail of Austria and Czechoslovakia in the late Thirties, which had allowed him to take over those countries just by threatening their destruction. One of those lectures was “The Theory and Practice of Blackmail.” And another was called, “The Political Uses of Madness.”
News leaks about the Cambodian invasion, obviously coming from off-the-record backgrounders by Kissinger, had revealed a major motive of the invasion was to convince the Russians and the Chinese that our decision-making was unpredictable, and that since we could do something so apparently unpredictable and crazy as invade Cambodia, they could not count on our reasonableness or prudence in a crisis.
That was Hitler’s conscious policy: the threat of unpredictability. I had described it in my lectures as being a possibly effective, but extremely dangerous strategy. It was a commitment to madness. To realize – not that Kissinger had learned this tactic from me, which is very doubtful, but that such a thought truly was in his mind, enough so that he remembered the analogous thesis that I had presented 10 years earlier – this was chilling. It confirmed the nature of his policy and where it might go.
We talked for just a moment before lunch was served. My friend immediately got him into Vietnam, but Kissinger said, “Well, we are not here to talk about Vietnam.” He looked at me quite nervously and made it clear he didn’t want to talk in front of me. I assumed that it was because he wanted to lie to my friend in ways that wouldn’t have been easy in my presence. Kissinger began drumming on the table with his fingertips and then suddenly said, “Tell you what, Dan, why don’t you and General Haig have lunch together while we talk on other matters, then we will all get together.” So, he actually did, after all, pass me off to Haig, with whom I went off to the other side of the house and had lunch.
Haig was very pleasant and relatively forthcoming. I decided that I would try my strategy on him of “leaking in” the Kissinger strategy. We talked about an hour when Kissinger joined us. He said he wanted to talk with me and we should set up a meeting for his next trip out.
You went to San Clemente in the middle of your honeymoon and he evaded you…
The night before I went, a bunch of Rand people came to my house, including some of the people who had written the letter to The New York Times. One of them was an expert on the Vietcong. It was his thesis that the Vietcong, and I’m speaking in particular of the Southerners but also of the North Vietnamese, simply were not susceptible to coercion. He said, “The Hanoi government may be the most popular government in the world,” and that the people were unique in that you couldn’t get them to criticize their regime. The Vietcong defectors, and even the few North Vietnamese defectors, might criticize their immediate superiors or might be mad that they hadn’t gotten a promotion, but none of them, even under probing, would say anything critical about the way the system worked. They regarded their cause as just. Their main reason for leaving was problems in their family or the general hardness of their life; and they felt ashamed for having defected. He said I should tell Kissinger that.
Kissinger himself mentioned at one point in our brief conversation that he had not been able to talk to any real experts on Vietnam – “there were none” – and I gave him this man’s name, and urged him to get him down from Rand. But he never called him.
I went to San Clemente again, and again wasn’t able to see him. But on one last visit I did see him. I was kept waiting, and when I finally got in he said he could only see me for half an hour. He started out by saying, “I’m very worried about the Middle East situation,” which was very much in the news. Kissinger had been leaking a lot of his critical thoughts about [Secretary of State William P.] Rogers’ handling of those negotiations, which Kissinger was not then allowed into. “I’m afraid that that situation may blow up.”
“Well, Henry,” I said, “I want to talk to you about your Indochina policy… I think that may blow up.”
I had in mind possibly handing him a sheet of paper with the Nixon strategy written on it. The night before I had worked to reduce it to a single page, which was fairly complex, and I laid it all down: the slow reduction of forces, threats, demonstrative actions like Cambodia, the likelihood of future invasions, the ultimate mining of Haiphong, and the deliberate deception of the public.
As I recited the policy, he looked at me with very narrowed eyes, in a way that assured me I was not on the wrong track, but he made no response. He drummed his fingers on the table and said, “I do not want to discuss our policy; let us turn to another subject.”
We went on to a discussion of the Pentagon Papers. I asked if he knew about the MacNamara study on Vietnam and he said he did. [I didn’t know then that he had actually been a consultant in the first month of the study.] “Do you have a copy of it in the White House?” He said he did.
“Have you read it?”
“No, should I?”
“Well, I very strongly think that you should. I want to urge you, as a practical matter at least, to read the summaries, which are only a few pages at the start of each volume. Together they add up to 60 pages, which make a very readable story. You really should make the effort.”
“But do we really have anything to learn from this study?”
My heart sank. The major lesson of the study was that each person repeated the same patterns in decision-making and pretty much the same policy as his predecessor, without even knowing it. I thought, My God! He’s in the same state of mind as all the other makers of decisions in this long process, each of whom thought that history had started with his administration, and had nothing to learn from earlier ones.
I was quite depressed, but I went on to say, “Well, I certainly do think so; it is 20 years of history and there’s a great deal to be learned from it.”
“But after all,” he said, “we make decisions very differently now.” And that capped my depression.
“Cambodia didn’t seem all that different.” And he looked uncomfortable and sort of fidgeted in his chair.
“You must understand, Cambodia was undertaken for very complicated reasons.”
“Henry, there hasn’t been a rotten decision in this area for 20 years which was not undertaken for very complicated reasons. And they were usually the same complicated reasons.” Each of these people thought that, unlike their predecessors, they had very special considerations that called for this particular judgment and escalation – reasons that they were hiding from the public, reasons that their predecessors had hidden from them as members of the public. Each person in that office thought his predecessors had made wrong decisions for stupid ideological and geopolitical reasons, whereas he was making the same decisions for quite different, very clever, domestic political reasons. And so, year after year, the war went on.
As he said goodbye he told me, “Now… this has not been long enough for us to talk. I’m very anxious to see you again. Can you come to Washington?”
“Next week, next Thursday.”
Well, that day we were due to be moving from our house to Cambridge, and I said, “Not Thursday because my wife would have to do all the moving by herself.”
“But it’s very important, I must see you then…”
I never did learn why he put so much urgency on seeing me that week. We talked about it a minute and finally I said, “Well, Henry, it can’t make that much of a difference. You know, we’ve waited a year and a half for this discussion. But I could see you the following week after I move, and I’m at your disposal from that time on.” And he said, “We would pay for your travel… you could not be officially a consultant of course…” – Kissinger is very jealous of the use of the word “consultant” – “but we could pay your transportation east.” So I said that I would call him as soon as I got east.
I did call him – a date was set to see him and then, just an hour or so before I was due to go to Washington, I got a call from his secretary that it was postponed and she set another date, and that, in turn, was postponed, and then they set a third date. So I said to his secretary, “Look, I don’t want to come down when it’s obvious he doesn’t have time to see me,” and she said, “No, he wants to see you.” I called half an hour before I left and it was postponed.
They asked me to set another date, and I never called again. The only reason he wanted to see me was so he could say he listened to “everyone – a whole range of opinion – for example, Dan Ellsberg, among others,” and I decided I would just let it drop.
Did you see him again?
Yes, one more time. But in between came the Son Tay raid, and the renewal of bombing raids on the North. I had now been back east for a couple of months and had happily plunged myself into reading for the book I was supposed to do at MIT.
The general feeling about was that, having learned the lesson on Cambodia, they would change their policy and really couldn’t do that again. I remember a meeting I attended at which Bill Bundy spoke and told us that he’d learned his lesson. And I asked Bundy what would stop him from doing it again, and he said, “The kids wouldn’t allow it,” which was a common attitude. The kids would save us without the parents having to do anything. And it was kind of a willingness on the part of dove parents to see their children be the cannon fodder on the demonstration barricades, just as the hawk parents were willing to see their sons inducted for Vietnam. I’d been going around campuses quite a bit at that point, and I just wasn’t sure if Bundy was right.
So, on the day of the 1970 Yale game, the first football game I’d been to in 15 years or so, a day our letter came out in The New York Times – Bill Bundy was at the same game, representing Yale – I was on my way to the Crimson for a post-game party. And on my way there was a sign spray-painted on one of the buildings… “Hanoi bombed.”
Pat [Ellsberg’s wife] and I were due to go to Newport but instead I began calling everyone I knew to see what could be organized as a protest. I’d known from Cambodia that it was likely to go all the way, and now the final chapter was on us.
So, I called and called all over the coast, and, of course, got the attitude of “Saturday evening, forget it.” It was clear that even rallies were not possible. So at this point, in late November, I went into full-time activity.
One opportunity that came for me to speak was an invitation to testify at a trial of the so-called Minnesota Eight, who had been caught in a draft-board raid in Minneapolis. Noam Chomsky, who had been invited, wasn’t able to go, so he recommended me. I immediately flew out with a bunch of the Pentagon Papers in my suitcase, in hopes that I would be able to give a kind of testimony that would make it appropriate to offer these Papers as evidence in a trial. Then the defense could subpoena the Papers from me and get them into the court record. At least, the judge would read them. He might or might not release them to the public, but at least they would be part of the court record and would be seen by an appeals court, and might, somehow, get judicial reaction on the war.
The night before the trial, the lawyer defending the Minnesota Eight questioned me on my background to establish me as an expert in court. He asked if I had ever worked for this administration. I said I had, but I couldn’t talk about that because for two years I had kept my mouth shut at the request of Henry Kissinger, and it would embarrass Rand if it came out. I just couldn’t mention it, even though it would add greatly to my authority in court.
The next morning I phoned my wife, and she mentioned that I’d received a call from Don Oberdorfer of The Washington Post. I had an hour to kill, so I decided to call Oberdorfer. Incidentally, the FBI later turned up and questioned the guy I was staying with about this call. Oberdorfer said he was doing a two-year wrap-up on the Nixon policies, including Vietnam, and he had asked Kissinger what the origin of the current policy in Vietnam had been. Kissinger had told him, he said, that, “Ironically, certain people who are now great critics of the administration had been crucial in the development of the policy,” in particular a guy named Ellsberg.
“Kissinger mentioned me?” I asked.
“Yes, definitely,” he said, “that’s where I got it. He also mentioned Halperin and Schelling,” who by now also were public critics of the policy. “But he said you had been involved in the study of alternative policies and questions.”
I was absolutely amazed by this. I asked, “What did Kissinger say the policy was?” Oberdorfer said, “It’s the policy of negotiating in Hanoi while withdrawing the troops from Vietnam.” I said, “Look, if that were the policy, I would still be at Rand, and Mort Halperin would still be in the White House. This guy is trying to smear me as being implicated in his rotten policy.” I then explained to him what I thought the policy was, including the threat of escalation, the residual force and so forth, and Oberdorfer was very surprised. (After talking to a lot of other people, he concluded that I was right, that he had been misled by Kissinger.)
I went into court a couple hours later, and when I was asked, I said I had just learned that Henry Kissinger had revealed it on the record, and that I did work as a consultant for the Nixon administration. It was the first time I’d ever mentioned that.
As it was, I didn’t get to offer my documents as evidence; when I said I had participated in official lies, the judge cut me off and turned very angrily to the lawyer and said, “I told you that I would not allow any testimony on this stand critical of the government.” This was in front of the jury. Since they were trying defendants charged with taking actions based on a fairly critical attitude of government policy, this was a rather bizarre constraint on the testimony.
About a month later, I had the chance to go to a conference of MIT students and businessmen who were critical of the war, which was going to lead off with a backgrounder by Henry Kissinger. I’d heard so much, indirectly, of these famous backgrounders, that I wanted to hear for myself how he described his policy. After dinner Kissinger gave his talk, which revealed to me what an enormously effective PR man he is – extremely smooth.
Did he know you were there?
As we went into the meeting, he saw me and came across the room to shake hands. He said, “I must apologize if I embarrassed you at all with Don Oberdorfer.”
“Oh, no, Henry, no problem at all.”
We then went into the meeting of about 60 people. These were businessmen who were not quite as committed as the Business Executives Move for Peace, but were critical of the war. A lot of them were relatively liberal Republicans. The idea of the conference was to bridge the generation gap between students and businessmen. It had the very interesting name, Runnymede – the place where the barons met to present demands to the king. It would not have attracted me except for the opportunity of hearing Kissinger.
He spoke about the “tragedy” of revolutionary movements having these unfortunate unstabilizing consequences, and the “tragic” need to sit on them forcibly. In the question period, one student asked why the rate of withdrawal was not faster and Henry burst out after a couple of these questions and said, “You’re questioning me as if our policy was to stay in Vietnam. But our policy is to get out of Vietnam. We are trending down the war in Vietnam, and I assure you that the war will continue to trend down.”
After quite a bit more questioning, which he handled very convincingly and with great poise, I got up. I had decided on a very careful phrasing of one question to ask him. I figured it was the last time I would be speaking to him.
“I have one question, but I want to make a comment first. You have said that the White House is not a place for moral philosophizing, but in fact, the White House does educate the people by everything that it does and everything it says and doesn’t say. Specifically, tonight you are expressing values when you tell us that the war is trending down and will continue to trend down, and then mention in that connection U.S. casualties and U.S. troop presence. You failed to mention Indochinese casualties, or refugees, or bombing tonnages, which in fact are trending up. You tell the American people that they need not and ought not care about our impact on the Indochinese people, and encourage them to support decisions that ignore that impact.
“So, I have one question for you: What is your best estimate of the number of Indochinese that we will kill, pursuing your policy in the next 12 months?”
He was completely stunned. It was very startling to the audience because it was the first time he’d shown any break in his poise at all. He almost turned around and paced for a second, then looked at me very penetratingly and said, accusingly, “That is a very cleverly worded question.”
I got somewhat angry at that. “I am not trying to be clever at all. That is a very fundamental issue. Can you answer it?”
He thought for a minute, there was silence, and he said, “You are accusing us of a racist policy.”
“Race is not the issue here. Let me put it – how many human beings will we kill under our policy, in the next 12 months?”
He paused again, and then burst out, “What are your alternatives?”
“Dr. Kissinger,” I said, very firmly, “I know the language of alternatives and options very well, and it has nothing to do with this question. I’m asking you how you estimate the consequences of your policy in the next 12 months, if you have an answer. Do you have an estimate, or not?”
There was another long silence, and the student who was hosting the evening got up and said, “Well it’s been a long evening, and I think we’ve had enough questions now. Perhaps we should let Dr. Kissinger go back to Washington.”
The businessmen there were pretty angered by this episode – not so much because they opposed the war, but because they wanted to get on good terms with the people of their children’s generation. They wrote quite a heavy anti-bombing resolution, describing it as murderous and criminal – it was amazing for these people to write.
At the very end, when they were voting on this resolution, I suggested that since these people were fairly wealthy men who were big political contributors to both parties, they should make a resolution that they would donate no money to the political campaign of anyone who was not willing to make a public commitment to ending the bombing and the war.
This absolutely tore the meeting to pieces. They were all furious, Republicans and Democrats alike, because, as they read it, I was challenging them to put themselves on the line in front of these students and friends of their children. I was surprised; it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t be willing to make such a commitment.
The next morning we were having a session in which I described the Nixon policy to a small working group that included Osborne Elliott, the editor of Newsweek. And I talked about the likelihood that the next move, at best, would be the invasion of Laos, and at worst, the invasion of North Vietnam. And Elliott was extremely skeptical of what I said. He said they had no indication of any such threat of escalation.
After a break, Elliott came back and said, “Ellsberg, apparently there is something in what you were saying. I have talked to my New York office, who just heard from our Saigon office that a total embargo has been put on news from South Vietnam.” It turned out that at the moment Henry Kissinger was telling us that “the war is trending down,” the pre-invasion bombardment of Laos had begun.
Anyway, that, of course, was the last time I was ever inclined to see Kissinger.
What role do you think that Kissinger played in your prosecution?
There was a frequent story at that time that Kissinger had been the pusher of the prosecution, because he was worried about the China negotiations. I could never take that seriously at all. For one thing, the China trip was announced only a month after the Papers started coming up. Besides, the secrecy of those negotiations was, as far as we can tell, entirely our desire, not the Chinese desire. But that didn’t rule out that he might have been the pusher for some other reason.
Did Kissinger ask for the psychiatric profile on you?
CIA Director Richard Helms has testified it was Kissinger’s request that a psychiatric profile be done on me. That came to Helms directly from David Young, who was Kissinger’s assistant and who remained formally on his staff even though he was working with the Plumbers. If Kissinger did ask for the psychiatric profile, it means that he read it, and that would confirm what I felt sure of anyway: I’m sure the president read it. [Bernard Melloy, the CIA psychiatrist who supervised the psychological profile of Ellsberg, has also testified it was his understanding, from Young, that the request came from Kissinger and Ehrlichman. Kissinger has flatly denied any role.]
There is certainly a dramatic circumstantial case to be made that Kissinger was aware of the burglary prior to its taking place.
Given that he asked for that profile, read it and was dissatisfied with it. The burglary was a direct response to his dissatisfaction. There’s every reason to think that Young reported everything to his former and future boss; that’s the way the system works.
Would you say it’s fair to see Kissinger and Ehrlichman as relatively equivalent figures in the administration?
You mean Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Kissinger.
Haldeman’s sort of a staff man, in the middle, but Ehrlichman and Kissinger…
I think Haldeman wasn’t just staff. I see more policy. Haldeman on domestic politics, which is the heart, the central problem, is certainly a key person.
As key as Kissinger in foreign affairs?
Would it be fair to say the way they all operate is the same? How about Kissinger’s phone taps?
Look, Kissinger lied when it came out about those taps. His first reaction was to say he had had nothing to do with it. Then it came out that he had been the one who specified who was to be tapped. Likewise, the story that Kissinger was concerned with leaks is absurd when you look at the people, especially the newsmen, who he had tapped. These were people to whom stories were leaked almost entirely by Kissinger: Marvin Kalb, Henry Brandon, Joe Kraft.
What are we to make of that? Part of his thinking was given by a White House aide who said Kissinger wanted to see whether, behind his back, these journalists and his own White House assistants were loyal to him. And he wanted to find out if these people had other sources that were contradicting what he was saying.
Nobody has made this inference: Imagine the ability Kissinger acquired to manipulate those individuals with whom he was working and talking to daily or weekly, when he secretly knew all they were saying to their other sources and associates. In other words, Kissinger knew by these wiretap logs whether he was getting through to those guys, what to emphasize, how to change his pitch, how to counter a position credibly, and very persuasively, in a way the newsmen would never recognize was based on secret knowledge. And it was precisely the people who were most friendly to him that he had a great desire to be able to control.
In fact, the leaks from the FBI indicated that he had asked directly for those taps and that they had insisted on presidential authority for such taps. That was when he turned to the president and got him involved.
So Kissinger may have been the man who instigated the Plumber program, far more than Ehrlichman.
Definitely, yes. Ehrlichman was not involved in initiating those tasks. And the monitoring of them was first done by Haig and Kissinger for the president, with copies to Haldeman, then later directly for Haldeman. And Young, the head Plumber, came right from Kissinger’s personal staff.
Kissinger got into domestic policy more than has yet come out, and he may well have been involved in far more tapping. At a certain point, they became worried about Hoover’s knowledge of these wiretaps and shifted them away from the FBI. They say the FBI stopped its wiretaps in February of ’71, but they never have explained why. I suspect that they shifted wiretapping to a different agency – the Army Signal Corps, the White House communications center, local police or some other agency.
I’m virtually sure that they were directly wiretapping me either by that point, or after June, when the Papers came out. There have been stories in The Washington Post that I was personally wiretapped from May on, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.
Nevertheless, they always did deny it, and that’s one of the things that remains to come out. I also suspect that they tapped a lot of other people they wouldn’t want to admit to – probably every Senator who potentially was running for the presidency, and the Senate’s anti-war leadership. And that is something like 15 percent of the senators.
How has Kissinger managed to escape the curse of Watergate?
He puts out to everybody that he wasn’t involved, and nothing much has come out directly. He runs the best public relations operation in this administration and possibly in any administration.
How does that make you feel?
It confirms a lot of what I know about media people: A lot of them aspire to be part of the executive branch, rather than a fourth, independent branch of government. Kissinger offers them that role, very seductively. He does it, in particular, with publishers and editors, and the influence trickles down to managing editors and writers.
So, he’s been pretty immune. And, the man who, with his boss, has dropped more bombs than any human being in history, bugging and lying as necessary, is perceived as a peacemaker, as a lovable wit, a charming fellow, as anything but the murderous creep that he obviously is.
How would you evaluate Kissinger’s role in this administration in foreign policy?
My impression is that he deserves no serious credit – nothing but very modest thanks – for the best of the policy events he’s been associated with; and he deserves the deepest condemnation for much of his work.
To start with the best: I base this on conversations with people who were in the administration, on columnists’ leaks, and backgrounders. It seems probable that the credit for the change in our China relations, which is certainly a very good event, goes to the Chinese – particularly to Chou En Lai – and to the pressure put on them by their conflict with the Russians. They made the policy choice to change their relationship with the U.S. as a counterbalance to Russia.
Secondly, credit goes to Richard Nixon. There’s a lot of indications that Nixon conceived the possibility of a change in our relations with China long before he was associated with Kissinger and before he became president. As early as 1967 or 1968, he spoke about it and hinted at it in his Foreign Affairs article. So my suspicion is that on the U.S. side, it was primarily Richard Nixon, and that Kissinger just went along.
Did Kissinger bring anything to it?
I would think essentially nothing. What is there to it, once both sides have made the decision? There was nothing involved that called for any particular amount of negotiations. Essentially the agreement was for a change in atmosphere to have a willingness to talk to each other. The content was far less important. As far as we are aware, there was no deal that came out of it respecting Vietnam. The only real complexity would have been managing the impact of our changed relationships with Taiwan and Japan, and that was handled miserably.
What about his actions in relation to Russia?
His major achievement was to delay the SALT [Strategic Arms Limitations] agreement by about three years. He could have had, in 1969, the basic achievement in terms of an agreement that had been hammered out internally in the U.S. government in 1968. The impression was that he was unwilling to go with that agreement in 1969 because it was a Johnson agreement, and had to be reworked. The crucial effect of the delay was to encourage the Russians to proceed with the development of MIRV [Multiple Independent Re-Entry Vehicles], which is very bad for humanity, indeed. It could possibly have been averted if we had been willing to make an agreement in 1969. I wouldn’t put all the blame on this administration, for Johnson did not focus on MIRV either. But still, the crucial time was 1969, when we insisted on going ahead with our own testing. Kissinger never had any particular appetite for Arms Limitation agreements of any kind. He was not an enthusiast for them, nor had he any confidence in them. So, I think his effect there is terrible, absolutely terrible.
On Vietnam, Kissinger’s effect has been not only disastrous but criminal in every respect. The judgments involved were stupid, blind, arrogant, criminal and murderous, and the murderous implications of the policy were all realized. We’re talking about men who loosed four million tons of bombs on Indochina.
In the Vietnam talks you had some role for a skillful negotiator and I would assume that, in terms of talent and ability, Kissinger is a capable negotiator; but how much leeway was there? The basic objectives, the constraints set by both the president and himself, precluded any real deal for the first three years; so his talent counted for nothing during that period.
In the end, when they were willing to settle on both sides, it’s very doubtful that his skill counted for anything to speak of. As we can see, all the fancy flourishes in the negotiations seemed to have been totally facade. As a “diplomat,” it was only in the administration’s domestic diplomacy with newspaper publishers and columnists and with congressmen that Kissinger’s conman talents were indispensable and totally successful in mobilizing support, buying time, dissembling the true nature of the policy: “selling” an endless, escalating war.
What were your feelings when the bombing of Hanoi was announced, after the “peace is at hand” statement and the election?
Despair. Horror. I found that I had reserves of naivete left in me after all the years in Vietnam: I really concluded after Kissinger’s announcement on October 26th that it was close to impossible they could toy with the beliefs of a nation to the extent of announcing just before an election that peace was at hand without being ready to back it up.
When the bombing came at Christmas, it took me completely by surprise. In retrospect, I think the bombing had an extremely cynical purpose which was largely achieved: to make it appear that Nixon’s four-year strategy of reliance on bombing and threat of bombing had, in fact, been effective in bringing about the settlement.
In October, there had been no escalation for some time. In fact, the rate of bombing had dropped, and there was no indication that a settlement represented anything but a lowering of aims on both sides – which is what it did represent. It was very widely understood that the mining of Haiphong had accomplished literally nothing, nor had four years of bombing. So Nixon finally prepared to accept a settlement in which the North Vietnamese did not withdraw their troops, which had been his essential demand ever since 1969. But he felt uneasy at signing a settlement that quite obviously came from having lowered his demands.
So you think they bombed Hanoi and killed all those people to make a failed policy look like a success – and not even facing an election?
By design. With the assumption that Nixon would later sign a settlement – essentially the same that had been available before the bombing – that he could then attribute to the bombing and count on a public presumption that not only had this bombing helped, but all earlier bombing had helped as well. Unfortunately, I think his tactical judgment was right; it did teach a “lesson” that’s both mistaken and evil.
The Hanoi bombing was one of the worst acts in the history of civilization. And I don’t say that rhetorically. I wouldn’t bother to argue whether it was precisely worse than one or another act of mass murder in our history. It’s not a matter of body counts or scale. In terms of the exact political and cultural context, above all in terms of a war that had been essentially settled in October, by a country whose public not only accepted such a settlement but had just given the man who had announced that settlement the largest election landslide in our history – that B-52 bombing in highly populated areas was one of the coldest, most murderous acts that any ruler has ever undertaken.
I couldn’t help remembering this when I watched Nixon in front of the POWs, in the midst of their entertainment, proposing a toast to the brave fliers of the B-52s. He encouraged these men, who thought they owed him their freedom when they really owed him their imprisonment, to stand up in front of television cameras, in the eyes of the nation, and toast the agents who had carried out his orders for possibly the worst thing that this country has ever done.
When did Nixon conceive this act?
Just after he first took office. What hasn’t come out yet in any of the Watergate discussions is the connection between what he was doing domestically and what he was doing in Indochina. I think they’re very intimately related.
I believe that Nixon’s aim was to go into the election of 1972 having achieved a victory in Indochina – not the kind of settlement he did achieve, but something much more ambitious. I believe he had a plan for doing this, some parts of which he had on his mind as early as 1967 and ’68. Perhaps he had the whole plan. He began to put this into effect from the moment he took office, even as he carried out the parts of the plan to confuse and deceive the American public as to what he was up to.
How did you learn this?
From half a dozen people, but the major source was Mort Halperin, whom I’ve known for a number of years. Mort had followed me as a special assistant to Assistant Secretary of Defense John McNaughton at the Pentagon. Later he’d gone on to work for Henry Kissinger. When I worked for him just after he’d been named by Nixon, and I knew the kind of information that Mort had available to him. I was able to judge it pretty well. Mort told me Nixon did have a plan, that he had in effect chosen one or a combination of the long-range options we had drafted for Kissinger and him just after he was elected.
The plan Nixon announced, on November 3rd, 1969, was “Vietnamization.” He described it as having two parts: negotiation for a just settlement with the North Vietnamese, and withdrawal of our troops to be replaced by Vietnamese forces. He implied that we would totally withdraw our troops within a very short time. Most media editors and owners were led to believe, by Kissinger, that we would be out of Vietnam within 12 months, even though the president had talked about assuring that South Vietnam had a chance to survive and so forth.
Mort and several others, in particular John Vann who had very close contacts with the Department of the Army, first told me one part was being deceptively presented: Total withdrawal was not in mind, but a very slow reduction of troops, as slow as Nixon could get away with, politically, down to a large residual force that would stay indefinitely.
So what was the real Vietnamization policy?
In fact, Nixon people didn’t expect ARVN to improve all that much; they did not intend to withdraw all American forces. And of course they weren’t seriously negotiating.
But there were about five or six other dimensions to the program which were concealed from the American public. At various times, one or another part became overt, but even then, the remaining pattern was to be concealed. This pattern included the bombing of Cambodia, heavy bombing of Laos, ground operations into Cambodia and Laos, renewal of the bombing of the North – which, you remember, had been discontinued in late October ’68 – the mining of Haiphong harbor, and the total unrestricted bombing of North Vietnam.
On several of these, the commitment was first to a threat, and then a commitment to carrying them out if the threat failed. But since these threats, realistically, were almost certain to fail, one could predict very well that they would be carried out.
So what I’m asserting is that all of the things that we have seen, including the bombing of Hanoi in December of last year, were all explicit in private plannings going back as early as 1969.
In May of 1969 – and this I was told by Halperin in September – on the same day Nixon delivered his most conciliatory speech on Vietnam, looking toward a settlement [a speech largely drafted by Halperin], Kissinger had Dobrynin, the Soviet Ambassador, come to the White House. He showed him the speech and emphasized the passage which said, in effect, that “no one has anything to gain by waiting.” And Kissinger made clear to Dobrynin that meant Nixon was prepared to escalate if the Russians did not bring about a settlement acceptable to Nixon.
To make that threat credible, there already had been some escalation, including bombing Cambodia. Halperin referred me to a nearly unnoticed piece by William Beecher in The New York Times in May of ’69 that reported the secret B-52 bombing of Cambodia. (We now know that story was at least the catalyst for Kissinger’s bugging of 17 newsmen and officials.) Later we learned there had been a ground operation into Laos in the spring of ’69. The Veterans Against the War brought this out, including Marines who had participated. There were also probes by Special Forces troops into Laos and Cambodia. And, I was told, just before the Republican convention, frogmen had been sent into the harbor of Haiphong in early 1969 to check it for mining and were given instructions to leave evidence that they had been there.
So, before the threat was given directly to Dobrynin in May, we had escalated in all three French Indochina countries outside of South Vietnam and with all three services.
It fit with a statement Kissinger had made to me at the Hotel Pierre in December of ’68. I had argued with him that the threat of escalation was close to worthless since the North Vietnamese had withstood years of bombardment. He complained that “without the threat of escalation, how could one seek to negotiate.” I thought his point of view was casual at that point. Last month, four years and four million tons of bombs later, he was still pleading with Congressmen not to cut off his bombing of Cambodia because that would leave him naked of bargaining power.
By September, 1969, I knew we were going to remain in South Vietnam much longer, and on a much larger scale, than people realized, and that it would mean continued bombing in South Vietnam and the prospect of escalation. That month Halperin predicted to me, “The President will not go into the 1972 election without having mined Haiphong.” I took this to mean that Nixon did not want to face charges from his rightwing critics – like Reagan or Wallace – that he failed to use a tactic the military considered for long to be a winning tactic; whatever deal he might reach with the North Vietnamese, he would want to say he had tried it.
When I worked for Nixon early in January 1969, it was on the assumption that almost anybody coming into office would take advantage of his new slate to write off the Vietnam War. Looking back now, it’s clear what he had in mind was winning it: The other side was to be blackmailed into accepting an indefinite stay of American troops or of the Thieu regime by the threat of far greater violence than had ever, even by Johnson, been visited upon them. That was going to bring about, he thought, a victory-type settlement – at least a mutual withdrawal of the troops. That’s of course what he did not get in ’72, never has, and never will.
Has there been, even now, a change in the basic United States commitment to the Thieu regime?
No. On the contrary, I think Nixon definitely has in mind maintaining it – not a commitment to Thieu himself, but a commitment to maintaining a U.S. regime in Saigon. It would be somewhat unstabilizing to our policy to have another switch in Vietnamese leadership, but the basic policy could easily survive with different leadership. The idea that General Thieu is indispensable is not true.
Why do you think you failed to judge that situation correctly in late 1968? You were expecting a new president to approach the situation fresh, yet knowing well what Kissinger’s theory of world power was, knowing the type of man Nixon was…
Oh well, nearly everybody made that mistake. It was perfectly plausible. Frankly, once I had changed my perception late in 1969, I was never able to convince anybody. Everyone was shocked by Cambodia, but they quickly accepted the notion that he had made one mistake, and he wouldn’t repeat it. They wanted to believe he was getting out.
You see, with all the power the president has to contradict and retaliate against a critic, to disprove him you need a document. And great resources of the system are mobilized against the leak of documents.
People who wrote memoirs – and who hoped to be employed by some future president – would tell all the substance of the information, but they would be careful not to disclose that they were directly quoting from a document. It’s not necessarily because they were partisans of a particular president, but there are certain things an insider doesn’t disclose about a president, even one from whom he has resigned. Not only can the president still retaliate, but if you plan to stay in the market for future executive service, you have to show discipline in your discretion; you have to make it quite clear that no matter what the provocation, there are some things you won’t tell about a boss – above all, you won’t hit him with documents.
It’s fundamentally like the situation in Orwell’s 1984, where no one strictly believed what the regime said. They were not surprised when word changed from day to day, because there were lots of contrary rumors and hearsay. But one thing the Party was extremely careful about was not to allow any incriminating documents – anything that would show the current line was not what it had always been – to survive. Whenever they changed the line, they destroyed or changed all documents.
Orwell was pretty close. We found out in 1972 General Lavelle had a couple of hundred officers and men at work in the evening, after a hard day of bombing, writing false reports of their missions. And we’ve just found out that as early as ’69 the records of bombings in Cambodia and Laos were also being systematically falsified.
It must have been a peculiar arrogance of the Nixon administration to so politely document everything they did at home.
That’s true, but remember the documents coming out now were written within the White House and were never meant to be seen by more than three or four people.
We find the fewest memos by Haldeman, who had good access to the president. But people who can’t just wander into the president’s office have to attract his attention with eye-catching written material expressed in extremely tough and cynical terms, to establish “here’s a guy who will stop at nothing” – or to put it another way – “a very useful person with a very colorful imagination” – a great “idea man,” i.e., a person who allows himself to think of subjects which, for other people, are taboo. They are all competing in this way. It’s only this strange set of circumstances that has allowed us to look at their memos.
But the Pentagon Papers… well, that brings me back to why I thought they were relevant in 1969. What I lacked then was documentary evidence of what I had just been told by Halperin, Vann and three or four others who are still with the government and who I don’t want to identify. But I did have something unusual. I had the Pentagon Papers. Unfortunately they ended in March of 1968. But the promise they held was that the pattern of 1964-65 was close to what was now a prospect; and if I could show that at least once in the past an administration had acted in a conspiratorial fashion, people should at least consider the possibility that it was happening again.
Moreover, since it was a story about a Democratic administration – several of them, really, including Truman’s – releasing these documents would make it tempting for Nixon to throw the responsibility for the war on Democrats, where it mainly belonged, and bring it to a quick halt. It was the only way I could imagine he would