The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. By Seymour Hersh. Summit Books, 698 pages, $19.95.

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In ‘Lives of the Emperors” Suetonius records Nero’s obsession with artistic pre-eminence:

“His jealousy of rivals, and his dread of those who were to sit in judgment on his performance, could scarcely be believed. Though outwardly gracious and charming to his colleagues, he abused them behind their backs and sometimes even insulted them to their faces.... He divided his attendants into claques to learn various methods of applause and provide it liberally whenever he sang, [and] whether he offered people his friendship or showed them his displeasure depended on how vigorously or how feebly they had applauded him.... After every performance he would address his auditors politely, saying that he had done his best and the decision was now up to them and to Fortune. But they, being sensible people, knew better than to let Fortune have anything to do with it.”

That was in 68 AD. Mutatis mutandis, it sounds remarkably like the meeting room of the National Security Council circa 1969 AD, if one may believe Seymour Hersh’s “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House” (Summit Books, 698 pages, $19.95).

Like his patrician predecessor, ace investigative reporter Hersh has fashioned, from the palace intrigues of a mighty empire, an epic of personal squalor. The theme of this epic — the price of Kissinger’s vast bureaucratic power — is subservience: our hero’s utter, abject subservience to a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, paranoid megalomaniac, i.e., the 37th president of the United States; and the demeaning subservience that Kissinger in turn required of his subordinates. The payoff for all this subservience was Kissinger’s unprecedented dominance of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. To rule, says an ancient maxim, one must know how to obey. In the Nixon White House, this apparently became “To bully, one must know how to fawn.”

“The Price of Power” is a sprawling, hybrid book, not precisely a history or a biography or a work of social criticism. It is not primarily concerned with analyzing or evaluating American foreign policy, whose roots and goals were fundamentally the same during the Nixon era as before and since. Neither is the book solely an attempt at demythologizing Kissinger, welcome and necessary though that effort may be. It is a study, and a compelling story, of the shaping — and corruption — of policy by personality.

According to Hersh, Nixon entered the White House determined to centralize foreign- policy decision-making in his own hands. He found a willing tool in Kissinger, whose position as National Security Adviser was only as powerful as the president allowed. Together they rigged the decision-making process: cutting out the State and Defense Departments from the normal flow of information and debate; setting up committees chaired by Nixon or Kissinger that excluded or downgraded input from State and Defense; creating secret communications “backchannels” to bypass their bureaucratic enemies. To some extent, what motivated this pernicious partnership was a shared world view: aggressive anticommunism — the waging of what Nixon would later call “The Real War” and what Kissinger constantly referred to as “the geopolitical struggle.” But to a far larger extent, it was mere opportunism. By Hersh’s account, Nixon’s personal insecurity was very nearly a clinical phenomenon: he was morbidly fearful of criticism, confrontation, or loss of control. And Kissinger, wholly dependent on the president’s favor for bureaucratic advancement (to Secretary of State in Nixon’s second term), needed to make himself indispensable. It was an effective symbiosis. But their radical centralization of power necessitated inordinate secrecy and duplicity, which became (to appropriate a phrase) “a cancer on the presidency.”

Hersh charts that pathology in a series of case studies: Vietnam, Chile, Cuba, Berlin, Biafra, the Mideast, SALT, the opening to China. It is hard to know which of these episodes is the most appalling. Certainly the costliest — potentially, at least — was Kissinger’s mishandling of the SALT negotiations, and especially his failure to press for a ban on MIRVs (Multiple Independently Targeted Re-entry Vehicles). Nearly everyone now agrees that MIRVs were the most fateful and disastrous innovation in the history of the arms race. The Pentagon, protecting its turf, wanted MIRVs. Nixon did not under stand arms-control issues and did not much care about them, except for their domestic political impact. Kissinger later claimed that he hadn’t given the matter sufficient attention. But as Hersh makes clear, Kissinger well understood the implications of MIRVing, and he so dominated the SALT negotiations that his firm support for a ban (which Congress and the arms-control agencies also favored) would probably have made a crucial difference. The chance to ban MIRVs was lost because Kissinger was, as always, unwilling to be outflanked on the tight by a bureaucratic rival (in this case, Defense Secretary Laird).

Hersh also makes it clear that much of the value of SALT I was lost because of Kissinger’s insistence on conducting the negotiations single-handedly and in secret. He offended the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency by ignoring the SALT delegation in Geneva. He offended the Pentagon by making technical blunders (confusing silo “size” with “volume,” and confusing one class of Soviet submarine with another). He offended the CIA by requesting it to falsify intelligence estimates in order to justify his negotiating positions. He offended Congress by denying it information. And he of fended everyone by his frequent, self-serving leaks to the press. As a result, no one but Kissinger had a bureaucratic vested interest in the SALT agreement (except Nixon, who got to sign the treaty at the Moscow summit of May, 1972, thereby boosting his reelection prospects). And the ill will aroused by Kissinger’s pointless razzle-dazzle soured many in the government, according to Hersh, on arms control altogether.

The opening to China was another of Kissinger’s vaunted achievements. It, too, was accomplished in secret, using China’s ally, Pakistan, as an intermediary. Pakistan was rewarded with American support (the infamous “tilt”) at a time when it was carrying out near- genocidal massacres of the Bengali secessionists of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). What was already known about this tilt was scandalous enough, but Hersh adds further damning details. For one thing, maintaining secrecy — the rationale for the tilt — was unnecessary: the Chinese were puzzled and even annoyed by it, and there were other secret channels available anyway, like Rumania. But secrecy allowed Kissinger to cut the State Department out of the action; and his clandestine trip to Peking in 1971 — his supreme personal triumph — required Pakistan’s cooperation. So much for the Bengalis, more than a million of whom were slaughtered by Pakistani dictator Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan, who Nixon praised in the midst of the massacres for his “great delicacy and tact.”

Even worse, if that’s possible, was Nixon’s and Kissinger willingness to provoke a nuclear confrontation with the Soviets over India’s attempt to prevent further carnage. Hersh reveals secret testimony by Nixon to the Watergate prosecutors that “we had threatened to go to nuclear war with the Russians” over the India-Pakistan conflict. Why? Be cause of his and Kissinger’s characteristic insistence on interpreting local conflicts in global terms. The Russians (who seem to have taken Nixon’s “madman theory” more seriously than any one else) were urging caution and restraint on their ally India. But Kissinger would not be moved. As he summed up the situation at the time, in one of his more elegant geopolitical formulations (reported in Nixon’s memoirs): “We don’t really have any choice. We can’t allow a friend of ours and China’s to get screwed in a conflict with a friend of Russia’s.”

Kissinger’s indifference to elementary humanitarian considerations embraced Africans as well as Asians. In 1967 the province of Biafra attempted to secede from Nigeria. The rebellion was doomed, and by 1969 the province was sealed off. Mass starvation ensued. The State Department opposed pressuring Nigeria to allow extensive relief efforts. In early 1970, after Biafra surrendered, Nixon and Kissinger were presented with authoritative evidence that hundreds of thousands would starve over the next few weeks. They did nothing. Roger Morris, a disenchanted Kissinger aide who pressed unsuccessfully for massive aid to Biafra, told Hersh: “After one meeting with Elliot Richardson and other State Department officials, all of whom downplayed the estimates of Biafran starvation, Nixon telephoned Kissinger and, Morris recalls, said simply of his State Department, ‘They’re going to let them starve, aren’t they, Henry?’ Kissinger’s answer, according to Morris, was ‘Yes.’ He and Nixon then began discussing some of the foreign policy passages in the State of the Union speech.” Morris concluded, “Henry understood the issues perfectly.... He had no rational reason for letting those kids starve; he was just afraid to alienate Richardson [Kissinger’s only State Department ally] because he and Richardson had other fish to fry. And with the President, Henry just didn’t want to bother him. He’d look soft.” So much for the Biafrans.

Kissinger’s “shuttle diplomacy” after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war is legendary. Nearly every one was impressed; even Anthony Lewis (who once wrote of Kissinger, “His jokes have about them the air of the grave. That we honor a person who has done such things is a comment on us.”) has consistently praised Kissinger’s Mideast efforts, and he recently urged sending him to the region as a special US envoy. Hersh shows that such admiration is unfounded. As soon as Anwar Sadat took office in 1970, he made it clear that he wanted Egypt to leave the Soviet orbit and enter the American one. He pressed for disengagement in the Sinai, promised to open the Suez Canal, and offered Israel a peace settlement on more generous terms than were eventually agreed to at Camp David. But Kissinger was having none of it. Nixon had assigned responsibility for the Middle East to the State Department, partly to mollify his otherwise ignored Secretary of State, William Rogers. The prospect of Rodgers’s receiving credit for diplomatic progress in the region alarmed Kissinger. Moreover, his geopolitical fantasies intruded once again. Israel reacted to Sadat’s overtures by escalating the constant border tensions between the two countries, launching deep-penetration bombing raids on Egyptian cities. Kissinger supported these raids enthusiastically: for an American client to humiliate a Soviet client— that, presumably, was real progress. Sadat, rebuffed, sent numerous public and private signals during the next few years that if he could not get a peace settlement any other way, he would go to war; and in October, 1973, he did. Whereupon Kissinger’s brilliant shuttle diplomacy helped bring to a close a war that he, as much as anyone else, had made inevitable.

Hersh’s account of Kissinger’s mistakes and malefactions goes on and on. There was a factitious confrontation with the Soviets over construction of a recreational base for Soviet submarines in Cuba, which was supposedly the leading edge of Soviet strategic penetration in the Caribbean. (This at a time when the United States had large bases, thousands of military and intelligence personnel, and electronic spy facilities in Iran and Turkey, which border the USSR.) There was a precipitous and dangerous mobilization of the Sixth Fleet in the eastern Mediterranean during the Jordanian-Palestinian civil war of 1970, on the rash assumption that the Soviets were fomenting a regional crisis. And there was Chile, where Nixon and Kissinger authorized bribery, kidnapping, disinformation, and military coup plotting in order to prevent Salvador Allende’s election.

There is farce as well as tragedy in “The Price of Power”. According to John Ehrlichmann, “Nixon would talk about Jewish traitors, and the Eastern Jewish Establishment — Jews at Harvard. And he’d play off Kissinger. ‘Isn’t that right, ‘Henry? Don’t you agree?’ And Kissinger would respond: ‘Well, Mr. President, there are Jews and Jews.” Nixon calls Kissinger about a foreign-policy paper on Africa: “Is there some thing in it for the jigs? Make sure there’s something in it for the jigs, Henry.” Kissinger meets a Southern senator at a White House dinner for African diplomats and mutters, “I wonder what the dining room is going to smell like.” At National Security Council staff meetings on Africa, “Haig would begin to beat his hands on the table, as if he were pounding a tom-tom, and make Tarzan jokes.” An NSC aide recalls briefings in the Oval Office during the Jordanian crisis: “I’d walk in and begin to give a listing of what happened over night and Nixon would interject, ‘Bomb the bastards’ or some other wild remark.”

And not only farce but melodrama too. In 1968, jockeying frantically for a job, Kissinger passes on secret information about the Paris peace talks to Nixon campaign aides, who secretly urge Nguyen Van Thieu to resist any agreement until after the election. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, annoyed by Kissinger’s intrigues, plant a spy on Kissinger’s staff who steals and photocopies thousands of sensitive documents. In response to press leaks, Nixon and Kissinger have their staffs wiretapped by the FBI and are later black mailed by J. Edgar Hoover, who himself is double-crossed by an assistant, William Sullivan, who turns incriminating wiretap records over to the White House in order to facilitate a cover-up and thereby secure White House support for his eventual appointment as director of the Bureau. And so on through 700 pages: endless sycophancy, posturing, secrecy, and deceit. A former Kissinger aide muses retrospectively. “The essence of all this was betrayal.” It sounds like a bureaucratic version of “I, Claudius”.

What do Hersh’s revelations amount to? Do they really add up to “something new in American foreign policy,” as he claims — new enough to alter our judgment of the already public record? Noam Chomsky once compared Watergate to “the discovery that the directors of Murder Incorporated were cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure; but hardly the main point.” Next to Vietnam, Kissinger’s other transgressions, however staggering, were a sideshow. Above all, he was centrally responsible for carrying on an illegal and brutal war. Recall that from the late 1940s on, as American policymakers privately admitted the only mass-based political organization in South Vietnam was the nationalist revolutionary movement, whose members were known, in deference to Cold War conventions, as “the Communists.” To keep this movement from power, the United States financed French colonialism until its demise in 1954; subverted the Geneva Accords; helped organize a campaign of violent repression by its client Diem regime throughout the late 1950s; intervened in force during the early 1960s, after the hitherto nonviolent “Communists” began resisting the Saigon government’s assault; and launched a full-scale invasion in 1965, before there was any evidence of serious North Vietnamese involvement in the conflict. To all this Kissinger never offered any principled objection. (Although to be fair, neither did most of his critics, who opposed the war because it could not be won at an “acceptable cost” or because it damaged other, more important American “interests” abroad.)

Not only was the war illegal, by any meaningful interpretation of international law, it was insanely, almost incomprehensibly, destructive. During Kissinger’s tenure in office, four million ton of bombs were dropped on Indochina — as much as on all fronts throughout World War II, the equivalent of several Hiroshimas per month at times, and amounting, in South Vietnam alone, to more than 60 tons per square mile and 500 pounds per inhabitant. More than a million people were killed, and many millions more became refugees. The economy, the social fabric, and even the landscape of the region were devastated, to the point that famine threatened South Vietnam in 1973 and an American AID administrator leaving Cambodia in 1975 predicted that a million people would starve to death in that country within the next year.

This grim record has long been entirely public, and its discovery does not require the talents of a top-notch investigative reporter. And if after all this official barbarism Kissinger remained popular, even among liberals, is any useful purpose now served by conclusively demonstrating that, in addition, he was an egregiously ambitious, petty intriguer?

Yes — but first a word about the conclusiveness of the demonstration. Hersh interviewed hundreds of former government officials, including aides and close associates of Kissinger (many of whom spoke for attribution); read most of the relevant memoirs of the period; and acquired access to personal files and recently declassified documents. Even this immense (by now almost legendary) research effort cannot ensure definitiveness: his reconstruction of individual episodes will no doubt be sharply challenged. But even if a fraction of Hersh’s exhaustive indictment stands, he will have made good his claim that the style, if not the substance, of foreign policy in the Nixon-Kissinger era underwent ominous innovations.

In documenting this mischief, “The Price of Power” raises fundamental questions about American political culture. It does so only indirectly; there is not a speculative word in the book — perhaps the price of being a great investigative reporter is having a wholly empirical mind. Yet the density and comprehensiveness of wrongdoing it catalogues (keeping a sharp eye out, I counted all of three admirable actions) cries out for diagnosis.

Perhaps one can understand Kissinger’s ascendancy as an expression of the cult of “national security.” Social critic E.P. Thompson has recently analyzed, under the rubric “the culture of exterminism,” the ways in which defense establishments generate ideologies that take on lives (interests, constituencies) of their own and provoke responses that seem to verify the need for still more “defense” and “security.” The military, the defense industry, and the geopolitical intelligentsia may now be the dominant voice in American foreign policy, outweighing even representatives of nondefense corporations, who own the private economy. Cold War demonology flourishes and the “Vietnam syndrome” is deplored. Ominous power shifts have occurred: from Congress to the Executive; from the State Department to the National Security Council; from the unionized Northeast to the nonunionized Sun Belt.

The cult of national security has various dangerous corollaries, such as the cult of secrecy. Nixon’s fraudulent in vocation of “national security” throughout the Watergate cover-up was a reflex of this attitude, and Kissinger’s fascination with “backchannels” was merely one of its more outlandish forms. The real enemy was always the rest of us: the sovereign public. Kissinger’s contempt for democratic processes is longstanding, his writings and interviews are laced with references to public opinion as an unfortunate constraint of wise and far-seeing statesmen. Foreign policy is, alas, too complex to be left to a fickle, impressionable democratic rabble. We become impatient with the necessary atrocities. We lost Vietnam, Kissinger frequently hints, because we didn’t trust our leaders.

Naturally the public, like a child, must be cajoled, diverted, and told only as much as is good for it. This is the premise of Kissinger’s memoirs, which skillfully exploit his access to classified materials. Hersh shreds those memoirs, demonstrating dozens of falsifications, distortions, and self-serving half-truths that Kissinger must have thought were forever protected by official secrecy. What has raised that veil, besides Hersh’s ferocious persistence, is the Freedom of information Act — in a sense, the hero of this book. Arguably the most important lesson to be drawn from “The Price of Power” is that without the Freedom of Information Act — now under assault from the Reagan administration and the intelligence agencies — American democracy, such as it is, is at grave risk.

Another feature of the national security subculture is an obsession with “toughness.” Quite possibly the most useful feminist contribution to contemporary social criticism will be a study of the cult of toughness in the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Kennedy’s reckless brinkmanship during the Cuban missile crisis and Johnson’s paralyzing fear of being the first American president to lose a war were more than matched in the Nixon White House. That profoundly timid president, who dreaded even the mildest face-to-face confrontations with subordinates, was, as Hersh shows, almost unbelievably truculent in the conduct of foreign affairs. All his advisers had to prove their mettle, particularly Ivy League intellectuals. And so Kissinger (no bleeding heart to begin with) would outdo even Nixon in urging that a “savage, decisive blow” be struck here, there, or wherever at the North Koreans, Palestinians, Laotians, Cambodians, and — always — Vietnamese. A bureaucratic rival (especially Rogers) who counseled moderation was “soft” or a “fag.” Nixon’s famous “madman theory” — that the North Vietnamese would give in for fear that Nixon was sufficiently bonkers to drop the Big One if not allowed to have his way — was only the most exotic expression of the security mentality. Nixon’s “tough-mindedness” was only Kennedy’s “pragmatism” vulgarized.

Unfortunately, “The Price of Power” does not pursue these questions, or another, more elusive one: the significance of Kissinger’s extraordinary celebrity. Kissinger’s lionization by the media is one of the most intriguing and dismaying phenomena in recent American history. Hersh has said that one motive for writing this book was his disgust at seeing the press “roll over on its back for so long saying ‘Please scratch my tummy, Dr. Kissinger.’” That is scarcely an exaggeration. Celebrity and power often go together, of course; but Kissinger’s prestige is something special, and it can hardly be accounted for even by his masterful manipulation of reporters and columnists.

How else to account for that prestige? It can’t have much to do with his writings, which consist essentially of portentous platitudes and ponderous commonplaces, amounting finally to this: powerful states should choose their goals carefully, pursue them unscrupulously, and always employ high-sounding but vacuous rhetoric (“equilibrium,” “stability,” “world order”) by means of which their interests can be disguised as the general interest. More likely Kissinger owes his vogue to his perfectly representing a new type: the intellectual in (or near) power. As political scientist Theodore Draper has suggested: “Kissinger as an intellectual in politics cap- hired the allegiance and excited the imagination of a journalistic elite that is itself largely made up of intellectuals manqués. By selecting them as his chosen confidants and flattering them with his assiduous attention, he made them feel closer to the seat of power than ever before.” Power corrupts — especially journalists, it seems.

The corruption of the Fourth Estate is only one of Kissinger’s baneful effects on American life, but one that may now, thanks to Seymour Hersh’s splendid indignation, begin to be redressed. Years ago in “Les Temps Modernes”, a French leftist, trying to exorcise a long and oppressive legacy, wrote an article consisting wholly of curses and foul epithets directed at Lenin. One hopes that “The Price of Power” will initiate a similar, equally indispensable exorcism. For American political culture will not be visibly healthy until entire op-ed pages all across the land are devoted to profane and heartfelt revilement of that depraved mass murderer, that odious war criminal, that contemptible liar, that unctuous fraud, that unprincipled self- promoter, that geopolitical fantast, that contemporary incarnation of the banality of evil, the butcher of Cambodia, the mad bomber of Hanoi, the assassin of Chile, the betrayer of Biafra and Bangladesh: Henry Kissinger. Or at least, no more tummy scratching.


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George Scialabba