Kissinger, me, and the lies of the master

Dec 11, 2023
Henry Kissinger

‘Off off the record’ with the man who secretly taped our telephone calls.

I left the New York Times in 1979, after many good stories and some not so good times, to write a book, The Price of Power, about Henry Kissinger and his years as a manipulating and dissembling national security adviser and secretary of state.

I interviewed no less than one thousand officials, including scores who had worked for Henry, as he was known to all, and the 698-page book was published in 1983. It was a success in terms of sales, publicity and led to a year’s worth of speeches at colleges and universities throughout America. But the book did little to diminish the mainstream press’s intense love affair with all things Henry.

The obituaries that followed his death last week were as fawning as the coverage when he lied and manipulated his way to fame while in office. The reality is that his role in weaning Russia and China from their support of North Vietnam at the height of that horrific war has often been overstated. He was a facilitator of diplomatic realities that were initially promulgated by President Richard Nixon, whose public awkwardness masked a shrewd insight into the willingness of great powers to betray even the closest of allies. (Forget about my tome if you want the deepest insights into the most deadly of Nixon and Kissinger’s scheming: in 2013, Gary Bass, a professor at Princeton and former reporter for the Economist, published The Blood Telegram, a focused account of the mass murder that Nixon and Kissinger made inevitable in 1971 in what was then known as East Pakistan, with only the slightest of acknowledgement by the international media.)

My dance with Kissinger did not begin until early 1972 when I was asked by Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor of the Times, to join the newspaper’s staff in Washington and write what I wanted as an investigative reporter about the Vietnam War—with the proviso that I had better be damn sure I was right. By then, I had won lots of prizes, including the Pulitzer, for my reporting on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and published two books, enough to land me a job at the best place in the world for a writer: as a reporter for the New Yorker. But Rosenthal’s offer and my hatred for the war led me to leave the magazine for the daily rush of a newspaper.

When I arrived at the Washington bureau in the spring of 1972, my desk was directly across from the paper’s main foreign policy reporter, a skilled journalist who was a master at writing coherent stories for the front page on deadline. I learned that around 5 pm on days when there were stories to be written about the war or disarmament—Kissinger’s wheelhouse—the bureau chief’s secretary would tell my colleague that “Henry” was on the phone with the bureau chief and would soon call him. Sure enough, the call would come and my colleague would frantically take notes and then produce a coherent piece reflecting what he had been told would invariably be the lead story in the next morning’s paper. After a week or two of observing this, I asked the reporter if he ever checked what Kissinger had told him—the stories he turned out never cited Kissinger by name but quoted senior Nixon administration officials—by calling and conferring on background with William Rogers, the secretary of state, or Melvin Laird, the secretary of defense.

“Of course not,” my colleague told me. “If I did that, Henry would no longer deal with us.”

Please understand—I am not making this up.

Kissinger, who had made no public remarks about my writings on the My Lai massacre and its cover-up, suddenly invited me to the White House for a private chat. I had just returned from a reporting trip to North Vietnam for the Times—I was the second mainstream American reporter in six years to be given a visa by Hanoi—and we were to discuss it. I had written about North Vietnam’s view of the secret peace talks Kissinger was conducting with the Vietnamese in Paris, but that was not the issue. He wanted, so I concluded, to stroke me. There was no question that, as a total loose cannon suddenly installed at the Times, I was of special interest.

He asked me about my impressions of the North Vietnamese, as seen in a closely watched three-week visit to Hanoi and elsewhere in the North. I had been taken to areas that were under heavy American bombing attacks and witnessed the North’s amazing ability to repair bombed-out rail lines within a few hours after an attack. Extra rails and the equipment needed to make repairs were hidden every few hundred yards along the tracks from Hanoi to the main harbour in Haiphong.

He asked about the morale of the residents in Hanoi. I told him I had seen no signs of panic, fear, or desperation in my many unguarded (so I believed) walks throughout the city. Every morning, in fact, a group of schoolboys en route to class who had seen me when I first arrived would walk by my hotel in central Hanoi at the same hour—I made a point of being outside then—and cheerfully say ‘Good morning, sir!” in English to me. But I was always aware that I was in enemy territory.

The schoolboys and other anecdotes prompted Kissinger to summon a prominent former ambassador who was his senior aide for matters related to the war and say to him, in front of me, in obvious mock anger: “This fellow is giving me more information about the morale in the North than I get from the CIA.” I remember thinking “Is this it? Is this all he’s got? Does the guy really think this kind of obvious flattery is going to win me over?”

Over the next few years Kissinger continued to take my calls, with the proviso that all of our conversations must be, as he once said, “off off the record.” I was not allowed to quote him by name and learned years later that I was the only one on our phone calls who played by the rules. An academic doing research on Kissinger told me that my allegedly private chats with the man were transcribed within hours—he had obtained copies through the Freedom of Information Act—and made available to Kissinger or his longtime aide, Army General Alexander Haig.

I was pulled off the Vietnam beat by Rosenthal in late 1972, despite my heated objections, when the Watergate scandal broke and the Times was being pummeled by the reporting of the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Once again I found myself reporting on Kissinger, whose willingness to do anything to stay in Nixon’s good graces knew no limit.

In the spring of 1973, a soon-to-retire high-level FBI official, who clearly shared my obvious distaste for Kissinger, invited me to lunch at a joint near the FBI headquarters that was a haunt for senior bureau honchos. It was a truly astonishing invitation but those were days of nothing but such moments as the Nixon administration unraveled, and so off I went. We had a pleasant talk about the vagaries of Washington and as lunch ended, he asked me to pause for a moment or two before leaving the restaurant: I would find a packet on his chair.

It contained sixteen highly classified FBI wiretap authorisations, all but two signed by Kissinger. Those taps included a few reporters, ten or so members of Kissinger’s own national security staff, and the senior aides to the secretary of state and the secretary of defense. The documents specified that the wiretaps were to be installed on the targets’ home telephones, and they included the names of the FBI technicians who would install the taps.

It took me a day or two to track down a few of the installers and corroborate that the documents were real. I knew I had to do so before telling the senior editors at the Times what I had. With Nixon on the ropes, Kissinger was the go-to guy on all foreign policy issues, including a crisis then emerging in the Middle East.

First came a call to Kissinger. The immediate response was a total denial and anger at being accused of such police-state tactics. Then came a not unexpected second call saying that he had had it with constantly being maligned by the press and was going to resign. A half hour later James Reston, known to all as Scotty, the wonderful Times columnist who was close to Kissinger, although aware of his shortcomings, padded up to my desk in the slipper-like shoes he sometimes wore in the office and asked if I realized that Henry was serious about resigning.

It was impossible not to like Scotty, but he clearly was not sure that my kind of reporting belonged in the Times. Being Jewish, I had volunteered the winter before to work a double shift in the Washington bureaus on Christmas Eve, which usually meant I only had to write a weather story or something equally trivial. Just me, a good book, and a teletypist from morning to late at night. At one point Scotty, dressed in black tie, with his wife and a prominent Washington diplomat and his wife in tow, swooped into the bureau. My guess was the liquor stores in the city were closed and Scotty, who was clearly a bit tipsy, was there to retrieve a bottle or two from his office. Reston gave me a very cool look and said—I still laugh recalling it—“Hey Hersh, aren’t you going to get that exclusive interview with Jesus for the second edition?”

Maybe you had to be there to appreciate the story, but Scotty was the real thing. He was where he was—as the most respected columnist for the Times — because presidents and their minions knew he could be counted on to relay their point of view in a crisis. And I was writing stories, especially about Kissinger’s possible link to Nixon’s wrongdoing, that Scotty did not think the paper needed to publish.

I mumbled something to Scotty—about how whether or not Kissinger quit was none of my business—and continued filing the story to New York. The deadline for the front page was around 7 pm and close to that time Al Haig telephoned me. “Seymour,” he said, which got my attention—those who knew me, including Al, called me Sy—and said the following words, which I will never forget: “Do you believe that Henry Kissinger, a Jewish refugee from Germany who lost thirteen members of his family to the Nazis, could engage in police state tactics such as wiretapping his own aides? If there is any doubt, you owe it to yourself and your beliefs and your nation to give us one day to prove your story is wrong.”

Of course, I understood that Kissinger had begged Haig to make the foolish call, but he had done it. The story ran on the front page the next morning, and Kissinger survived, as I was sure he would. He’d have to be caught with a knife in his hand, blood dripping from it, and the body still twitching to ever suffer consequences for his actions.

But he did hurt the careers of some of those who did dirty work for him inside the bureaucracy, as I learned a few months after joining the Times. There was a scandal involving a four-star Air Force general named John Lavelle who had been publicly sacked and demoted after acknowledging that he had secretly authorized his Air Force crews in Thailand to conduct bombing missions on unauthorized targets in North Vietnam. Lavelle’s disgrace had become public, which was unusual, and he was nowhere to be found.

At an early point in the ongoing Lavelle mystery, I was called by Otis Pike, a New York Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Pike had been a Marine Corps bomber pilot in the Pacific during World War II, and he urged me to get into the story. He told me he could not say all that he knew but that I had to find Lavelle and get him to talk.

I had learned during years covering the Pentagon for the Associated Press in the mid-1960s of the value of the Pentagon telephone directories. I also knew that Lavelle, who had been assigned to the Pentagon years earlier as a two- or three-star general, undoubtedly had a very bright Air Force captain or two assigned as his personal aides. Odds were that one of his hotshot aides was back in the Pentagon as a major or lieutenant colonel.

Sure enough, I found one who was living in a suburb. I called him at home that night and made sure to tell him who I was and what I wanted: to find out where Lavelle was living and just what in hell was going on. He gave me the information I needed. I tracked down Lavelle the next day playing golf with his two sons at a course in rural Maryland. I always loved golf, and I hit a few irons with him and the boys—reporters will do anything to get someone to talk. Lavelle, who knew nothing about me other than the fact that I could hit a five-iron, told his boys to wait in the car and walked me to a bar in the clubhouse.

It was very warm, I remember, and we both had cold bottles of Miller High Life. I took a swig, and I asked Lavelle to tell me what the hell happened. He was cool, like fighter pilots are, and he told me that for six months or so he had indeed authorised bombing raids inside the North that were off limits. He protected his deputies, he said, by not telling them that he did not have specific authorisation from Washington to do so.

I remember the next exchange well. I said: “C’mon general, if you did what you said you and I both know you would have been court-martialed.”

Lavelle gave me a cool look and said: “Tell me when was the last time a four-star Air Force general or admiral has ever been court-martialed?”

I didn’t know the answer.

At that point, I really began to like the guy. I sensed—just knew it—that he had been given backchannel orders to do the illegal bombing and that those orders had to have come from Kissinger and Nixon. I told him so, and he said nothing.

I told the general I was going to report his explanation but would suggest that he had taken the fall for the White House because the president and his national security adviser wanted to expand the war against the North without officially doing so.

And so I did. I kept on writing about the Lavelle mess in the Times for weeks. Eventually, there were hearings organised by Senator John Stennis, the conservative Democrat from Mississippi who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Stennis was a hawk on the Vietnam War and a bigot when it came to African Americans, but he suspected that Kissinger was behind the Lavelle disgrace and was all for me doing what I could. He and I continued to talk—I could reach him anytime I wished via a private phone line in his office—until Nixon was out of office. We were another odd couple.

I wrote a series of stories about Lavelle that were full of insinuations that the general did what he did for Kissinger and Nixon, but the general chose to honor his commitment to the men in the White House. A decade later, when Nixon and Kissinger’s White House tapes became public—Lavelle died in 1979—there were a few chats between Nixon and Kissinger about Lavelle’s plight as my first stories on him were being published in the Times.

To his credit, Nixon felt guilty about the railroading of the general, as I noted in a memoir I wrote a few years ago. “I don’t want him to be made a goat,” he told Kissinger. A few days later, when there were newspaper reports about possible Senate hearings into Lavelle’s dismissal, Nixon again told Kissinger: “I just do not feel right about pushing him into this thing and then he takes a bad rap.” Kissinger urged him to stay out of it. Nixon agreed to do so, but again said, almost plaintively: “I do not want to hurt an innocent man.”

It was as if the president believed, or chose to believe, that he had no power to intervene. He was, in that moment of duplicity, in Kissinger’s hands.

Republished from Seymour Hersh on December 7, 2023.

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