In his 99th year and with his 19th book, Henry A. Kissinger repeats the same deceitful accounts regarding his dangerous use of military power, including nuclear threats. In the 1970s as the national security adviser and secretary of state for presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger occupied an unusually powerful position in the national security arena. His newest book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy,” is valuable because of his experiences in the political and academic communities, but it must be read carefully in view of the self-aggrandizing nature of his self-promotion.
Kissinger, who believed in the possibility of limited nuclear war in the 1950s, favored the use of a nuclear card in the war between India and Pakistan in 1971, and the October War in the Middle East in 1973. On an earlier occasion, in 1970, when the Nixon administration was faced with a threat about the Soviet construction of a submarine repair facility in Cuba, Kissinger wanted to send a strong military signal to the Soviets. Nixon wisely said, “I think we can resolve this with diplomacy.” Nixon was right.
The following year, during the Indian-Pakistan War, Kissinger feared that the Soviet Union would use the war to “move against” the Chinese and that if “we don’t do anything, we’ll be finished.” Nixon wanted to know if Kissinger meant that we should “start lobbing nuclear weapons in, is that what you mean?” Kissinger made it clear that he meant must just that, referring to it as the “final showdown.” (I was an intelligence analyst at the Department of State in the early 1970s, a period when Kissinger and his director of the Bureau of Intelligence, William Hyland, were convinced that the Soviets were prepared to go to war against China. There was no intelligence to support their obsession.)
The White House tapes reveal both Nixon and Kissinger at their worst during the crisis in South Asia. In addition to Nixon’s typical vulgarity and his contempt for Indian President Indira Gandhi, the president told Kissinger that the Indians needed a “mass famine.” Kissinger sneered at people who “bleed” for the Bengalis of East Pakistan. Nixon and Kissinger moved to gratuitously deploy an aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal, which angered the Pentagon because of the danger of escalation and caused a great deal of nervousness throughout the military chain of command. They also approved a covert supply of sophisticated U.S. fighter aircraft via Jordan and Iran, despite explicit warnings from the Department of State and the Department of Defense that such arms transfers to Pakistan were illegal under U.S. law.
Like his earlier memoirs, Kissinger says almost nothing about the slaughter of Bengalis in East Pakistan, insisting that Pakistan’s atrocities were “clearly under its domestic jurisdiction.” He also sanitizes Nixon’s racial animus toward Indians, and makes no mention of the unusual “dissent cable” that was signed by 20 foreign service officers who condemned Kissinger’s willingness to ignore the “selective genocide” that was taking place in East Pakistan. Kissinger mocked the cable’s author, Archer Blood, the U.S. Consul General in Dacca, as a “coward.”
It is noteworthy that in a conversation with Nixon regarding Soviet Jews, Kissinger displayed a similar lack of concern about the plight of Soviet Jews and remarked that “if the Soviets put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” Nixon agreed: “I know. We can’t blow up the world because of it.” Nixon and Kissinger catered to the world’s dictators in Brazil, Greece, Portugal, Indonesia, Iran, Spain, and South Korea, and in the case of Pakistan, they catered to that country’s murderous generals.
The October War found Kissinger essentially in charge of national security policy. These were the worst days of the Watergate crisis for Richard Nixon, and his use of anti-depressants and alcohol often placed him hors de combatin the fall of 1973. This was certainly true on the evening of October 24, when Kissinger illegally called a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) and elevated the nuclear alert system to DefCon III, signifying a serious crisis short of preparing for nuclear war. The National Security Act of 1947 explicitly states that only the president or the vice president could run an NSC meeting, although the president could provide written authorization for another individual to chair the meeting. Nixon was not at the meeting just before midnight, and General Al Haig refused Kissinger’s request to awaken the president. Gerald Ford had not been confirmed as vice president; he was not at the meeting. There is no record of any written authorization.
In his book, Kissinger claimed that the nuclear alert was needed because “intelligence informed us that Soviet airborne divisions were being readied and that Soviet high-tech weapons were entering the Mediterranean by ship.” I was serving on the CIA’s task force for the October War; we knew from intelligence sources that the Soviets had alerted eight AN-22s, which was very typical behavior for the Soviets in any crisis. More importantly, the airborne troops were not palletized, and there were no supplies on the runway. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s note to Nixon to emphasize the importance of maintaining the cease-fire, was no different from his note to President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 during the Six-Day War. Kissinger wrongly argues that the Soviet leader “threatened intervention” at the end of the war. There were no high-tech weapons entering the Mediterranean.
The other key members at the NSC meeting the night of October 24 were Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger; CIA Director William Colby; and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Thomas Moorer. I interviewed all three; all three believed that Moscow was bluffing, and that there was no need for a heightened nuclear alert. In his book, Kissinger claimed that “Nixon’s strategic purposes were carried out.” No, only Kissinger’s strategic purposes were carried out. He takes credit in the book for “Brezhnev’s retreat.” There was no retreat from Moscow. It was Kissinger who realized he overreached, and ended the nuclear alert the following morning.
Just as Kissinger designed DefCon III in 1973 in part to convince the Israelis that he was serious about dominating the diplomatic process in the Middle East, the unnecessary Christmas bombing of North Vietnam was designed to convince the South Vietnamese they they could trust the Nixon administration. Kissinger resorted to the bombing, although the Nixon administration had every intention of pursuing a diplomatic solution to end the war.
In 1975, not long after the confirmation of President Gerald Ford, the Cambodian Khmer Rouge hijacked a U.S. merchant marine ship, the Mayaguez, and held its crew hostage. Kissinger convinced Ford to conduct a rescue operation of the crew, although the crew had already been released. Forty-one Marines died in the operation, more marines than there were crew members on the Mayaguez. Previously, Kissinger justified the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia as a means to force the Vietnamese to negotiate. This tactic was no more successful than the bombing of the Khmer Rouge.
Kissinger’s machinations as secretary of state and national security adviser point to the dangers of relying on the use of military signals in diplomatic confrontations. In the case of DefCon III, we were fortunate that the Soviet Politburo had no interest in deploying military power to the Middle East on behalf of Egypt or Syria, and had far too much interest in detente to worsen relations with the United States. Kissinger’s writings consistently exaggerate the value of military force.
The lesson for today’s challenge is that the intense efforts of China, Russia, and the United States to modernize their military arsenals, particularly their nuclear components, are particularly dangerous, and that diplomacy and institutionalized dialogue should be the key component for reaching some international equilibrium. With a global community that appears to be spinning out of control, perhaps the Biden administration needs to apply this lesson to its dealings with China, and even signal Russia that a diplomatic dialogue is required.