Rug Time

Jonathan Steinberg

  • Kissinger: The Price of Power by Seymour Hersh
    Faber, 699 pp, £15.00, October 1983, ISBN 0 571 13175 1

Seymour Hersh belongs to that small group of American newspaper reporters who made national reputations during the Vietnam War and Watergate. He won a Pultizer Prize in 1970 for his exposure of the My Lai massacre. He exposed the secret bombing of Cambodia and the role of the CIA in toppling the Allende regime in Chile. He tracked down evidence of CIA spying within the United States and exposed it. Investigation and exposure are his trade, and he does it thoroughly. For years he worked for the New York Times, whose motto is ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, and when the Times says ‘all’, it means all.

The book is, therefore, dense with names, places and dates. Mr Hersh tells us that he carried out more than a thousand interviews and I believe it. In some cases he interviewed the same person four or five times to make sure that he got it right. He went through the memoirs of Nixon and Kissinger with a microscope and compared them with his own findings. He used the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to government documents and had, of course, the huge pile of documents left by the various Watergate investigations, prosecutions and memoirs. His book is not easy reading. Mr Hersh’s prose creaks under the weight of the information he has collected. Here is a typical sentence: ‘The revived interest in the White House wiretaps also prompted William Sullivan, who was then in the midst of a power struggle with J. Edgar Hoover, to visit Robert Mardian, head of the Justice Department’s Internal Security Division, and warn him, as Mardian later testified, that Hoover could not be trusted and might try to blackmail Nixon, as he had blackmailed other Presidents, because of the wiretap material.’ It’s not that he does not write well, but that he seems to have been unable to leave anything out. In addition to 665 pages of text and sources, there are extensive footnotes often running onto the next page. You get a lot of facts for your £15.

How much else you get is less clear. Watergate fans will recognise the old cast of characters, those almost-forgotten names – Charles Colson, David Young, Egil ‘Bud’ Krogh – and there is pleasure in this: a bit like watching an old horror film on late-night TV. Yet on that level Mr Hersh is not exciting. We know the Watergate story from every angle and, by now, from the memoirs of almost every participant. Mr Hersh sticks to his facts. There are no descriptions that cannot be attributed to somebody who saw the events. The tone is restrained and sober.

There is – and this is very odd – no portrait of Kissinger as such. Mr Hersh tells us very little about his background, and nothing about his private life, which was the subject of much speculation and associated with much glamour. When Hersh wrote, ‘By the summer of 1970, the secret life of Henry Kissinger was known throughout the Washington press corps,’ I sat up hopefully in bed, but no, he meant Kissinger’s secret professional life as ‘the senior White House official’ who briefed reporters and gave off-the-record interviews. Mr Hersh does not even allow himself to speculate about Kissinger’s motives or personality. Occasionally he uses a phrase such as ‘his insatiable need for adulation’, but he offers no evidence for the statement and shuns any sort of reflections on the origin of that need.

The time covered by the book is restricted. It begins with the run-up to the election of 1968 and effectively ends in January 1973. Kissinger’s period as Secretary of State under both Nixon and Ford is treated in a few cursory pages. There is no conclusion, no place in which the reader is invited to stand back and reflect on the meaning of the evidence presented, just a low-key epilogue in which Mr Hersh tells us briefly what happened to Mr Nixon, Dr Kissinger and General Haig after the events described in the book.

The Price of Power sticks to foreign affairs, at least as far as the machinations in the Nixon White House permit, and moves more or less chronologically through the four years it covers. So we keep coming back to SALT or Chile and in each case Mr Hersh has to go over some background just to make the story coherent. There is, then, a good deal of repetition and overlapping. Foreign affairs do not easily fit into the neat sub-headings that an author might like.

What do I know now that I did not know 665 pages ago? That Kissinger was unscrupulous, ambitious, vain and deceitful was hardly a state secret; that Nixon ranted and raved and used foul language was known to everybody who read the newspapers. ‘Expletive deleted’ became a joke in its own right. I did not know – and was startled to read – that Moraji Desai, sometime Indian prime minister, was a CIA informant even while serving in Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet. I did not know details of the SALT agreements, nor some of the flamboyant activities of Mossad, the Israeli secret service. I had not taken in how heavily and publicly Nixon drank. These episodes still have power to shock.

On occasion Nixon himself would telephone with a request and Kissinger would go. One night when he did go, Nixon stopped an attractive woman as he left a Miami restaurant – after having a few drinks too many – and offered her a job in the White House. ‘She looks like she’s built for you, Henry,’ the President said. The Kissinger aide heard about the encounter, not from Kissinger but from a Secret Service man. This kind of thing made my veins hurt,’ the aide remembers. ‘The President of the United States, drunk in a restaurant, making crude remarks and engaging in familiarity with a strange woman in a public place – all clearly attributable to martinis.’ Nonetheless, ‘I didn’t think of his drinking as a real problem – although you sort of wondered what would happen if there was ever a nuclear threat.’

Indeed.

Mr Hersh draws no conclusions from such evidence but conclusions are there to be drawn. The first, though Hersh never quite says it, is that the Presidency itself may have a flaw, a flaw made worse when the incumbent is a Nixon: its power is monarchical. The President of the United States is the executive. His power rests on a piece of parchment drawn up when Catherine the Great was Empress of All the Russias and George III King of England. The Founding Fathers, wise in their generation, could not foresee Hot Lines, B52s and the social security system, but they knew that they had created an office that might be dangerous to liberty. Hence they hedged it round as best they could with counter-balancing powers and bits and pieces of 18th-century political machinery to keep rampant ambition under control. Yet it was, and remains, a one-man executive. As Truman said, ‘the buck stops here.’

In this respect, Kissinger stood to Nixon as Bismarck had stood to Kaiser Wilhelm I or Metternich to the Emperor Francis. They served at the pleasure of their sovereigns and not a minute longer. After all, it only took the young Kaiser Wilhelm II a stroke of the pen to dismiss the great Bismarck who had served his grandfather for 26 years. Hersh is right to say that Kissinger understood the terms of his employment: ‘Henry Kissinger entered the White House on Inauguration Day with immense power and no illusions about its source. He understood that his authority would never be disputed as long as he kept his sole client – Richard Nixon – pleased. Kissinger knew that as an outsider he would never be totally trusted by Haldeman, Ehrlichman and other Nixon loyalists on the White House staff. But he also realised that he was an oasis of intellect and of knowledge about foreign policy in the Nixon White House.’ Yet the insiders, the Haldemans, Ehrlichmans and Mitchells, also served at pleasure. In short, they were courtiers or favourites, like Bebe Rebozo, Nixon’s drinking crony, or the Holmes Tuttles and Justin Darts of Reagan’s entourage.

The American Cabinet, like the great peers at Louis XIV’s court, has power in name but in fact only if the President wills it. He may consult his Secretary of State on foreign affairs or, as Woodrow Wilson did during the First World War, ignore him utterly. Cabinet officers serve their Presidents. They meet as a group if he wants them to: they see him when he calls them. Nixon said to Haldeman, ‘Keep’ em out of here, Bob,’ and Bob did just that.

Between the White House staff and the Cabinet officers and their departments, there is constant struggle. Among the departments and among the members of the White House staff there is constant struggle. In short, the US executive functions – I would say necessarily – as a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all. The battle Kissinger waged against William Rogers, Nixon’s Secretary of State, is now being waged by William Clark, Reagan’s special assistant for National Security Affairs, against George Shultz, the present Secretary of State. Hersh seems to me to have got it exactly the wrong way round when he writes: ‘ever the apt pupil, Haig had learned well how to manipulate great-power issues for personal aggrandisement.’ In such a system personal aggrandisement is the way to manipulate great issues. The key question is what in the Kaiser’s court was called Immediatstellung, or who has direct access to the monarch. In his memoirs Admiral von Tirpitz, head of the German Admiralty, complained bitterly about the way relatively junior court officials, like the much younger Admiral Müller, used their daily conferences with the Kaiser to subvert his policies. Secretary of Defence Melvin Laird should have been given a copy of Tirpitz’s memoirs on assuming office. He and his military assistant, Colonel, later General, Pursley, were treated as the enemy by Nixon’s White House staff; Pursley even had to suffer the indignity of having his phone tapped.

The lessons of court life are quickly learned. As Roger Morris, one of Kissinger’s original bright young men, put it, in describing the irresistible rise of Al Haig: ‘ “Al was the ultimate special assistant,” he says. “There’s a whole culture in the Defence Department and in the White House. The special assistant sits in front of the door and, like the priest telling the villagers what the gods did that day, he’d tell us the gods are venal and woman-crazed. The essence of all this was betrayal.” ’ But also service. Haig came to occupy for Kissinger the place that Kissinger occupied for Nixon. The offices of the National Security Council staff mirrored on a small scale the Hobbesian battles of the Oval Office. Haig made himself invaluable:

None of the NSC members, in scores of interviews many years later, was quite sure how Haig did it, but within months he had managed to become indispensable to Henry Kissinger. His loyalty was astonishing; he worked seemingly all the time – every day, every night, every weekend – ensuring that the flow of documents in and out of Kissinger’s chaotic office was uninterrupted. He had access to the vast flow of backchannel messages from Kissinger’s office to American officials throughout the world. He saw, as few other NSC staff people could, the dimensions of the takeover that Kissinger and Nixon were trying to accomplish. As an adroit bureaucrat, he knew that more power for Kissinger meant more power for him. Along with his institutional loyalty, there was a personal one: he understood that his relationship to Kissinger was as important to his career as Kissinger’s relationship to the President was to his. Haig was no minor-league courtier himself; he had learned from his days as an aide-de-camp and in the Pentagon the art of flattering a superior.

In time Haig outplayed Kissinger and ended up in the White House outer office, unfortunately for him, dependent on a dying emperor. Nevertheless everybody present in the Kissinger offices recognised the importance of an incident Hersh describes:

  David Halperin recalls with a visible shudder the first time the President directly telephoned Haig: ‘There was more tension than I can ever recall in that office,’ he said. Kissinger was in his outer office, conferring with his secretary, Julie Pineau, when Nixon’s direct line rang. ‘Julie picked it up,’ Halperin says, ‘and Henry started walking back to his office [Kissinger always took the President’s calls in privacy]. Julie said, “It’s for you, General Haig.” Haig went to his office and Henry stood by the door [of Haig’s office] as Haig and Nixon talked.’ After a moment or two, Kissinger resignedly ‘walked into his office and shut the door. He stayed in there for hours.’ Haig, meanwhile, was ‘drenched in sweat’ by the time he hung up. Halperin is convinced that neither Haig nor Kissinger discussed the call that day. ‘From Henry’s point of view, someone else now had access to the President,’ Halperin says – and thus Kissinger had suffered a loss of personal power.

There is nothing in that episode which would have surprised the Earl of Clarendon or the Duc de Saint-Simon. They would, unlike Mr Hersh, have seen that NSC staffers were right to compete for what they called ‘rug time’ (i.e. time on Kissinger’s private office rug), for an office on the right corridor, for a car of the right size and importance. These tokens of delegated power signify to insiders who really matters and who does not. Craig Fuller and Richard Darman who prepare agenda for two of Reagan’stop advisers put it neatly in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in October 1981: ‘We can phone anybody who is at a certain level and get them called out of any meeting. Below that level they don’t know who we are.’

The late John Osborne, who for years wrote a column for the New Republic called ‘White House Watch’, was one of the few American journalists who took the court and its behaviour seriously. He saw that personality and place in the White House yielded power to carry out policy. He traced staff changes with the attentiveness of a court chronicler. Losers in the struggle for power and place at court lost their capacity to influence policy, no matter how good their ideas. Mr Hersh catalogues this reality in a melancholy list of NSC staff members, disarmament experts, State Department specialists and serving soldiers who had ideas but no hearers. The Secretary of State himself, Mr William Rogers, refused to play the game of intrigue and hence ceased to play the part of Secretary of State. Dr Kissinger did not intend to lose, and did not lose.

Yet the queerest omission in Mr Hersh’s book is his unwillingness to discuss foreign policy. By that I mean, not what Kissinger may or may not have said to Le Due Tho in Paris in October 1972, but the general set of relations known as international affairs. He mentions in passing that Nixon and Kissinger had a concept of a world based on triangular diplomacy – that is, the USA, Russia, China – but he makes no attempt to think about that. Was it wrong or right? How did Kissinger conceive the balance of power? What were his views on the vital interests of the United States? How close did his policy come to achieving its aims? He says that Nixon and Kissinger thought that their success in opening relations with China ‘had permanently tipped the balance of power to their advantage’. Can Kissinger really have thought that the realities of power, economic, military, geographical, are so easily tipped?

Mr Hersh offers one explanation and one only: that Kissinger was ambitious, unscrupulous and self-serving. Everything he did was to gain power for himself. If that were the whole story, Dr Kissinger would have been unmasked years ago. From time to time Mr Hersh is forced to admit that Kissinger was brilliant, that he dazzled the press corps, that he astonished the other participants at the Azores economic summit by his capacity to analyse and sum up formidable and complex subjects, that he was ‘fun to be with’, ‘witty’ and so on. The man must have been more than the monster of ambition here portrayed. Mr Hersh never even considers the possibility that the good servant of a bad king has a problem: quit and achieve nothing with a clear conscience, or stay, get mucky and accomplish a little?

I am no fan of Dr Kissinger but there is a case to be made for his type of foreign policy, a case he made himself in his little book on Metternich called A World Restored. It is the case of the conservative statesman, and it runs roughly like this ... We know that mankind if left to its own devices will soon engage in killing and disorder. As Hobbes put it in that grand manual of conservative statesmanship, The Leviathan, ‘yet in all times, Kings, and Persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns, upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.’ The main object of statesmanship is to keep order. The greater the power of a state, the greater its responsibility for the maintenance of order. If the Greek Colonels keep order in Greece, so be it. If General Yahya Khan keeps order in his state, so be it. ‘Why is it our business how they govern themselves?’ Henry Kissinger burst out when taxed about the way the Pakistani Army massacred the people of Bangladesh. Prince Bismarck would have nodded. He thought Gladstone a dangerous madman for getting worked up about the plight of a few Bulgarians when it was obvious to any thinking statesman that the Ottoman Empire had to be preserved. Liberals with a small ‘1’ want to make the world better; conservatives with a small ‘c’ hope to prevent it from getting worse. ‘A statesman’s task is not to take revenge for what has happened,’ wrote Bismarck, ‘but to take care that it does not happen again.’

It may seem paradoxical to put Kissinger, the collaborator in the secret bombing of Cambodia, the adviser who extended and prolonged the Vietnam War, among those who keep international order, but that is certainly how he would see himself. And there is something in it. After all, we do not know what Kissinger would have done, had he been master and not servant, or had he, at least, enjoyed that confidence of his sovereign which gave Bismarck his freedom.

I remember vividly the one occasion when I saw Kissinger in action. A group of visiting West German deputies had come to Harvard in December 1968 and those of us who spoke German were invited to a lunch in their honour. They were an amiable lot, drawn from all three main parties, eager to hear the views of the recently appointed special assistant for National Security Affairs, Dr Henry Kissinger. After lunch, Kissinger showed up and talked to them about Europe and the German problem. He spoke in German but in that curious toneless way he has in English, as if there were no language in which he did not sound foreign. He was very funny and self-deprecating. The Germans were uneasy, not sure whether they were meant to laugh. He talked about the limits of power, the little that the USA could do, the need for the Germans to run their own show and for Europe in general to look after its problems and not to depend on the USA. I cannot say that I liked the man but I am quite ready to use the word ‘brilliant’ to describe the performance.

The Price of Power has perplexed me more than any book I have read for a long time. The story Mr Hersh has to tell is unrelieved and nasty. He attacks Kissinger less by invective than by weight of evidence. Super-K is to be buried under the thousand interviews and the mountains of notes. Yet the man himself slips through, almost unscathed. I tried to log the number of times Mr Hersh uses strong language, words like ‘betray’ or ‘fawn’ or ‘lie’, but gave it up for he does so sparingly. The facts, it would appear, are to speak for themselves. But they don’t. I know that the first law of reviewing is to talk about the book and not to complain about the one that the reviewer might have wanted. I have to break the rule in this case. Here we have a work by one of America’s most famous journalists, a work which he evidently felt was so important that he left the New York Times to complete it: and yet he gave me no deeper understanding of Kissinger the man or Kissinger the statesman than I had before I started. Perhaps the rigorous traditions of New York Times journalism with its non-committal tone and taste for factual accounts unfit a writer for the flights of imagination or sweep of judgment that seem to me to be lacking here. Perhaps Mr Hersh hates Dr Kissinger and has to restrain himself lest it show. I don’t know. What I do know is that nobody will ever be in a better position to write the definitive study of Kissinger’s foreign policy and I am sorry that, for whatever reason, Seymour Hersh has not done so.