An Evening with Henry Kissinger

An Evening with Henry Kissinger

Henry lets his hair down.


This article was originally published in The Nation on March 8, 1971.


Henry lets his hair down.

Mr. Shearer, co-editor of The Pentagon Watchers (Doubleday), is a member of the conversion action study group of the Cambridge Institute.

The Nation did not know in advance of the meeting here described by Derek Shearer, nor did it ask that he submit his article to us. One previous article by Mr. Shearer has appeared in The Nation, but he is not a staff contributor or in any other way connected with the magazine.-The Editors

On the weekend of January 29 to 31, while the United States bombarded southern Laos in preparation for an offensive by South Vietnamese troops, and the astronauts blasted off for the moon, I attended a conference at which Presidential adviser Henry Kissinger spent two hours talking and answering questions on American foreign policy. The meeting, as are all at which Kissinger appears, was officially off the record. Kissinger reminded us that if his remarks were reported it would make it difficult for him to meet with other groups in the future. Some group might then be denied the experience we enjoyed of hearing Henry Kissinger explain, “We are trying to end the war . . . . The trend line is down and I assure you it will continue to go down” on the eve of a new invasion, blacked out, of course, by a press embatgo.

In Nixon’s domestic war strategy, Kissinger’s role is that of pacifying the intellectuals. For the past few months, he has been crisscrossing the country, meeting with editors and publishers, businessmen, alumni groups and, on rare occasions, with students, and giving his performance–an ostensibly sincere and certainly suave testimony on the difficulties of withdrawing from Vietnam without reverting to the neo-isolationism which, in Kissinger’s view, is what radical-liberal critics of the Nixon Administration have done. To acquiesce in the charade that gentlemen can discuss the finer points of foreign policy in private, while the United States daily pounds the people of Indochina with bombs, seems to me to make one complicit with the policy, no matter how many “tough” questions one might ask Kissinger at such sessions. If Kissinger felt he could no longer conduct his road show with impunity, it would hurt the Nixon Administration more than it would those who might be deprived of Kissinger’s supposedly candid insider explanations of the war.

Moreover, policy makers, especially those who are appointed and given as much power as Kissinger enjoys, should be responsible to the public for the policies which they help shape.

The gathering that Kissinger addressed on Friday evening, January 29, was sponsored by an ad hoc organization called Project Runnymede. The idea for the project goes back to last spring, when American troops invaded Cambodia and moderate MIT students demonstrated in front of a number of defense firms on Boston’s Route 128. The students approached Franklin Lindsay, president of Itek, a firm that specializes in making optical reconnaissance devices for the military. Lindsay and the students decided to convene a meeting of responsible students, academics and businessmen to discuss the foreign policy crisis and what might be done about it. The students invited other moderate students from around the country: members of the Ripon Society, former Congressional interns, et al. Also Jerome Wiesner, provost of MIT; Jeremy J. Stone, executive director of the American Federation of Scientists; Matthew Meselson of Harvard; Howard Johnson, president of MIT, and other academics. Lindsay arranged for the businessmen–Cyrus Vance, former Deputy Secretary of Defense; William Eberle, president of American Standard and co-chairman of Common Cause; Robert Manning, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Osborn Elliott, editor of Newsweek, and Arthur Taylor, vice president of the International Paper Co. I was invited at the last minute, along with a few others associated with the Institute for Policy Studies, because the student organizers,had just seen a copy of our study, The Pentagon Watchers, which deals with national security policy.

The name Project Runnymede is something of a mystery. My wife suggested that the students, academics and businessmen invited to the conference could be the nobles and Richard Nixon the king. Presumably the purpose of the conference was for us to arrange a new social contract with King Richard.

The setting for Runnymede was a large country estate 3 or 4 miles outside Boston. A shoe magnate named Endicott had donated the place to MIT, which now uses Endicott House, as it is called, for conferences and seminars. The main building, of fifty rooms, seems to have been kept much as it was when the former owner used it as a weekend retreat. It looks like a medieval castle. In one central room, Endicott’s shotguns and rifles are exhibited in glass-paneled cabinets; in a nearby cabinet are his fishing reels and other sporting equipment. Stuffed heads of wild animals that Endicott had killed–bears, elk, lions and so on–glare from all four walls, and on one far wall is a life-size portrait of the man himself, dressed for hunting. In the other large room, where Kissinger would speak, medieval tapestries hang from the walls; they also hang in the hallway near the stairs. In one corner of the gun and stuffed-head room, somewhat incongruously, is a computer printout terminal, used by MIT personnel. Upstairs are two floors of guest suites, where those invited to the conference slept.

Kissinger was not the first speaker of the evening. After dinner, Albert Gore, the former Senator from Tennessee, opened the proceedings. Kissinger, who had hesitated about coming to the conference at all, stipulated that he would not appear with Gore and that there must be a period of separation between their talks. So Gore spoke for half an hour, mostly recounting the battles that he had fought during his years in the Senate against American involvement in Southeast Asia and his recent opposition to the ABM. His talk was rambling and a trifle self-serving, though excusable in one of the last Populists who found himself defeated in the fall elections by a millionaire, candy manufacturer who purchased tremendous amounts of air time and used TV pots effectively to attack Gore’s liberal position on defense matters. Sparks flew only when Gore suggested that Lyndon Johnson had led the country astray deliberately with the Tonkin Resolution. Cyrus Vance stood up and in his best lawyer manner offered to correct the record on the matter, asserting that at the time Secretary McNamara and President Johnson were acting on the best information available.

The group adjourned for coffee after this gentlemanly exchange. Kissinger arrived with his crew-cut secret service man as coffee was being served in the gun room. After a flurry of Hello Henrys from the older nobles, many of whom knew Kissinger from Washington or Cambridge, we moved back to the discussion room.

One of the MIT student organizers introduced Kissinger briefly and reminded us of the ground rules on attribution. Kissinger stood before the fifty of us, seated on chairs and couches. In a navy blue three-piece suit with white shirt and dark tie, he looked very much like a professor about to address his graduate students. As he spoke, he kept his left hand in his pocket, gestured with his right hand, and walked slowly back and forth along the carpet.

He began with a smile and a small disclaimer. Usually, he said, men who come from the White House tell those outside the decision-making process that if they only knew what those inside knew, they would understand the decisions taken–but he was not going to say that to us. He knew, he continued, that many of us in the room did not like the Nixon Administration, and he wanted us to know, he said with a confidential air, “that the President was not my first choice.” He paused to let the point sink in.

Kissinger, of course, did not tell the group that Rockefeller had been his first choice, since he’d been on the Rockefeller payroll for many years, drafting the Rockefeller brothers’ defense report, and that he had barely met Nixon before he was elected. Once they had met, and Nixon had offered him a job, he found that he liked the President a great deal and that they saw eye to eye on foreign policy.

He continued, after his brief silence, by observing that it was ironic that the intellectuals who had at one time participated in foreign policy making were now becoming isolationists, and that support for a rational world order was being left to the Republicans, who, said Kissinger, in another day had been the isolationists. The inference was clear that Kissinger, the intellectual, found himself in unpleasant company down in Washington, but that for the sake of world order he would put up with the situation and try to keep foreign policy matters in hand.

He went on to describe the “crisis atmosphere” that prevails in the White House and how little time those in power have for reflective thinking, for taking the long view. He spoke somewhat plaintively of the agonies of decision making and the burdens of power. “There are no good choices left in Vietnam,” he said. We had to do what would cause the minimum amount of dislocation in the world order.

What’s more, he explained, if Mr. Nixon had, upon taking office, withdrawn immediately from Vietnam, the domestic response from the right wing might have been overwhelming. “If we had done in our first year what our loudest critics called on us to do,” explained Kissinger, “the 13 per cent that voted for Wallace would have grown to 35 or 40 per cent; the first thing the President set out to do was to neutralize that faction.” He advanced the theory that by rejecting such action, the Administration had saved many liberals from becoming the victims of Wallace-ite and hard-hat backlash. “This Administration has been the best protection of those who most loudly deplore our policy.”

With Kissinger’s formal talk over, the floor was opened for questions. One could not help but admire the performance. He had sounded so sincere, so sympathetic, so much one of us. (Franklin Lindsay of Itek said later, “Henry would never lie to us.”) He let us know that he had doubts, that he was troubled, yet confident that the Administration had chosen the only sensible path for the country-and as he spoke, he knew that preparations were being made for the move into southern Laos, a subject which he never mentioned. How could one doubt the learned professor?

The first question by a student was a general one about policy on Vietnam and the dangers of escalation. Kissinger used the opportunity to assure us that the Administration would not use nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia “under any circumstances that I can foresee.” He made a disparaging remark about absurd scenarios that might be found in the lower offices of the Pentagon, but the real decision makers would never use those terrible weapons. Perhaps Henry had changed his mind from the days when he wrote so enthusiastically about tactical nuclear weapons; in any case, who could doubt his word? Henry Wouldn’t lie to us–or perhaps there are circumstances that he can’t foresee.

Then I asked him under what circumstances he would resign and publicly oppose President Nixon. He hedged for a minute, then admitted that he would resign when the “whole trend of the policy became morally reprehensible to me”–but, even if he did resign, he would not attack the President publicly because of his special position so close to him, “unless gas chambers were set up or some horrendous moral outrage.” Again Kissinger sounded reasonable–a man had to draw the line and when the time came, take a stand. But what if there is no need to build ovens; what if, as many “isolationists” think, the ovens are the infernos created by the napalm and the bombs from the B-52s?

The next question came from Mark Gerzon, a former Harvard student, now a graduate student at the University of Chicago, who had written a book called The Whole World Is Watching: A Young Man Looks at Youth’s Dissent. Gerzon prefaced his question with a lengthy autobiographical statement. He had, he said, in years past met with Secretary McNamara and later with Secretary Rusk, and he had been troubled about what to ask them, and at first he had asked questions of policy, and later he had asked how they felt about draft resisters. It seemed to him that as the war went on, his questions for policy makers became more personal. He wanted, therefore, to know what growing up had been like for Kissinger. “How did you view the world?” Gerzon asked Kissinger. “How has your perception of the world and your values changed since?”

Kissinger looked pensively at the group and said nothing for a moment when Gerzon had finished. He said he could not answer such a question in front of so many people. “You would not respect me if I tried.” Kissinger suggested that perhaps he and Gerzon, if they knew each other better, could get together and have a close talk.

A black student, the president of the student body at Jackson State, asked Kissinger a vague question about priorities, and another student asked him about the effect of the war on youth. To both questions, Kissinger suggested that even if the war ended tomorrow, he did not think that youth’s dissatisfaction would end. In his professorial voice, he elaborated on the nature of the bureaucratic state and its unresponsiveness. Once, he even used the words “bourgeois society”; but the failures that troubled him were always abstract and general. No, he did not think that the President could, or should, be the source of moral leadership; that had to come from somewhere else. Kissinger would not be pinned down with a specific criticism of the war and its effect on American society–he saw no chance that those right wingers might hate the war and the inflation and their sons coming home in boxes; yes, he knew how youth felt, but there were other considerations: a stable world order, faith in American commitments, etc.

Off the subject of the war, a young physics professor from MIT asked Kissinger why no progress had been made at the SALT talks. Kissinger launched into a discussion of deterrence strategy and the complications of arms talks. “It takes time,” he explained, because the Russian negotiators don’t really understand their own weapons and we had to give them our technical papers to study so they could understand the issues. And there is the problem of offensive capability upsetting defensive capability and vice versa. Most of the audience looked bewildered as Henry ran on in the jargon of nuclear strategy, joined by Jerome Wiesner, President Kennedy’s science adviser. Wiesner and Kissinger conducted a two-man act: “But Henry, as you remember …. Yes, as Jerry can tell us ……

In the middle of these mini-SALT talks, Mark Gerzon said loudly, “Mailer and Solzhenitsyn would have solved the matter long ago.” No one said anything for a moment, then Kissinger fixed Gerzon with a disapproving look and said, “I doubt it.” Wiesner endorsed Henry’s judgment: “I doubt it, too.”

Victor Palmieri, a liberal businessman from California, stood up next to ask Kissinger how he could say the war was winding down, when the air war was going up in intensity, and what good was it to destroy Vietnam, when it could serve as a bulwark against Red China. Kissinger dealt with Palmieri’s comments about China, saying that he did not find it wise to turn over South Vietnam to Hanoi merely to create a buffer state against China, but he didn’t answer Palmieri’s question about the widening of the air war.

Another man rose and pressed the issue; he was Daniel Ellsberg, a former Defense Department official who had served under McNamara, worked in the United States Embassy in Saigon, studied policy on Vietnam at RAND, and who is now at MIT’s Center for International Studies. Since leaving RAND about a year ago, Ellsberg has been actively opposing the war, testifying at trials of draft resisters, writing articles and giving speeches at anti-war rallies. He noted that Kissinger had avoided part of what Palmieri had been saying. He suggested that a person’s values showed by what he didn’t say, and by his actions, no matter what his words. Ellsberg said he knew that Kissinger’s staff had figures on estimated American casualties over the next year, but had the staff estimated Asian dead and wounded, including civilians, that would result from Vietnamization? Could Dr. Kissinger give us those figures?

Kissinger recognized Ellsberg and when he responded his voice sounded suddenly less certain; he hesitated, then called Ellsberg’s question “cleverly worded.” “I answer even if I don’t answer,” he said. Ellsberg interrupted to say that he had no intention of being clever, that this was a basic question–were such estimates made? Kissinger started to say that one had to consider the options. “I know the option game, Dr. Kissinger,” said Ellsberg, “can’t you just give us an answer or tell us that you don’t have such estimates?” Kissinger again evaded the question; he said the question had racist overtones. Ellsberg pressed him again. For the first time the meeting took on the air of confrontation–then the student moderator stood up and abruptly ended the questioning, saying that Dr. Kissinger was tired and thanked him for coming. The audience, save a few of us, applauded. Drinks were being served in the gun room. A few students stayed to ask Kissinger a few more questions, crowding around him.

I went and got a beer and approached the secret service man who had come with Kissinger. “The building is surrounded by nuns,” I said. He chuckled and replied, “All sex-starved and after Henry.”

Everyone was polite over drinks. Kissinger chatted with friends for awhile, then departed with his bodyguard. Many of the students were impressed with what he’d had to say. “I think he’s sincere,” said a girl from Mt. Holyoke.

The nobles spent Saturday and Sunday communicating. I left on Saturday, reading in the morning paper about the embargo on the embargo on news from Laos. The mansion was too much for me, as Kissinger had been. One wanted to yell at him or douse him in blood. The only response that I thought might have some effect was to describe how Kissinger had behaved on the very night of another escalation of the war. The conference, I learned, finally agreed on a statement deploring “war by proxy” in Indochina, but rejected a statement calling for members of the conference to refuse support to Presidential candidates who did not agree to a specific date for the withdrawal of all American troops from Vietnam. The businessmen were opposed to such a statement; condemning the war was all right, as long as no commitment to end it was included.

Runnymede adjourned without a new social contract. Franklin Lindsay of Itek was angry at Ellsberg who had pressed the statement of nonsupport for candidates. Some claimed he ruined the conference by preventing a consensus to be reached. In my mind, the conference was ruined before it began; everyone’s morals had been shattered by the bombs, pierced by the screams of the Vietnamese people a long time ago.

As for Kissinger, the Boston papers on Sunday ran a picture of him and his son catching a plane for the space center to watch the astronauts take off. He did not look overburdened by the agony of power. He looked content–he was having a good time.

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