This direct approach occasionally led to policy masterstrokes such as Nixon’s visit to China, but it also created an air of secrecy as policy was made without congressional and public scrutiny. This was most controversial in the Vietnam War, but Kissinger has also been accused of breaking international law elsewhere and of involvement in secret buggings and wiretaps.
At Harvard, Kissinger made his reputation with a study of the realpolitik of the Austrian chancellor, Klemens von Metternich, who emphasized power and self-interest over more moral concerns.
Kissinger’s liberal critics (especially Hitchens) accuse him of secretly pursuing similarly amoral policies, including tacit endorsement of the 1971 Bangladesh coup that led to 3 million deaths and of Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor in 1975, which caused 200,000 deaths. Vietnam, however, is the main issue of contention, with Kissinger being accused, for instance, of sabotaging the 1968 Paris peace talks to ensure Nixon’s victory at the polls.
The U.S. and North Vietnam had agreed to a bombing halt, but, following Kissinger’s tip-off, Nixon’s camp and right-wing supporters pressed the South Vietnamese government into renouncing the plan. The move all but ensured Nixon’s victory, but Kissinger still continued sending overtures to the Democratic candidate, Hubert Humphreys, criticizing Nixon and angling for the national security adviser job in case of an upset.
Once in office, Nixon and Kissinger quickly reacted to a North Vietnamese offensive by bombing enemy bases in neutral Cambodia. The plan was justifiable in military terms, but to avoid rousing public opinion and to test diplomatic reactions, it was not revealed to, or approved by, Congress. (However, when the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Nixon in 1973, it refused to endorse an article citing the secret bombing.) News of the secret bombing quickly leaked to the press, with a full description appearing in the New York Times on 9 May 1969.
Nixon and Kissinger, who were both secretive and suspicious of others, reacted in what was to become a typical manner by angrily demanding to know who leaked the report. J. Edgar Hoover was summoned and Kissinger agreed to a list of suspects, eventually totaling thirteen government officials and four journalists, including close friends and staff, whose phones were then bugged.
Kissinger has subsequently tried to play down his role in these “Kissinger taps,” while arguing that they were justified because of national security. However, they were run outside of the normal FBI channels, with no official records kept and summaries sent straight to Kissinger until May 1970, when Nixon decided that the White House should receive them instead.
The taps ran until February 1971 and they were the first of the political wiretaps that came to characterize Nixon’s presidency. They were also cited as evidence in the House Judicial Committee’s decision to recommend Nixon’s impeachment.
Kissinger’s temper and his ability to provoke Nixon were most noticeably shown over the Pentagon Papers. When this huge study of the Vietnam War was leaked to the press, Kissinger was enraged, as it threatened to undermine his secret negotiations with China. His mood was darkened even further when the leak was revealed to be Daniel Ellsberg, a former student and aide of his.
Kissinger denounced Ellsberg to Nixon as a drug-fueled eccentric who enjoyed taking potshots at Vietnamese civilians, and so enraged the president that he supported action that led to an illegal break-in of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office. When the judge at Ellsberg’s trial in 1972 learned of the break-in and of recordings of Ellsberg on the “Kissinger taps,” he dismissed all of the charges against the defendant.
Kissinger’s and Nixon’s heightened paranoia following the Cambodia bombing leaks meant that they soon cut all but a few others out of foreign policy discussions. National Security Council staff members were reduced to guessing what was happening by watching the limousines coming to the White House. Kissinger even told his staff to keep an eye on his chief of staff, General Alexander Haig, who was said to listen secretly to Kissinger’s phone calls.
In December 1971, another of Kissinger’s aides, navy yeoman Charles Radford, was also discovered to be secretly photocopying documents and passing them on to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer. This had a dramatic effect within the White House, with Kissinger demanding action and threatening to quit.
However, the incident was so embarrassing that nothing happened except for more wiretaps and yet more secrecy. Eventually, it was estimated that only seven people including Nixon really knew what was happening in Vietnam. None of them were in the cabinet.
Since leaving office, Kissinger has become one of the most respected elder statesmen in the United States. Partly through good self-publicity, such as his voluminous memoirs, he has won much respect for some of his actions during the Nixon presidency, including his role in the recognition of China.
Typically, this involved a fair amount of duplicity as few in the administration knew about Kissinger’s visit to Peking until Nixon dramatically revealed it to the nation. Kissinger also won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1972 Vietnam peace talks, even though they led to little more than a brief cessation in the war.
His prolonged efforts to secure détente with the Soviet Union were more successful, as was his role during Watergate. The scandal only indirectly involved him, and he was portrayed as holding the presidency together, running foreign policy, and edging Nixon toward resignation.