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Years of Upheaval
AUGUST of 1973 in California was glorious. Each morning, seduced from official papers, I sat outside on the veranda behind my office at the Western White House in San Clemente and watched as the sun burned the fog off the ocean. Occasionally I saw a slight, stoop-shouldered figure amble along the edge of the cliff beyond which lay only the beach and the Pacific. In that tranquil setting Richard Nixon was enduring the long final torment of his political career. Outside of the seclusion of his San Clemente retreat, the country buzzed with heated speculation about whether he would survive as President. He himself seemed calm. He rarely talked about Watergate — never illuminatingly. One had to know Nixon well to recognize his inner turmoil in the faraway look and the frozen melancholy of his features.
On the afternoon of August 21, Julie Nixon Eisenhower telephoned me to ask if my children, Elizabeth and David, wanted to come swim in the pool of the Nixon residence. Indeed they would. Later she called again and invited me to join them. I got my swimming trunks and walked over from my office, past the helicopter pad, to the Nixon family quarters, La Casa Pacifica, a quiet Spanish-style villa set off from the staff compound by large cypress trees and a high white wall. Manolo Sanchez, whose unstinting admiration of his master disproved the adage that no man is a hero to his valet, greeted me. Soon Nixon appeared and joined me and my children in the water. After a minute he suggested we go to the shallow end of the pool and chat about his news conference scheduled for the next morning. It was not the first time that my chief had discussed weighty matters with me in aquatic surroundings. At Camp David in April 1970, swimming in the pool while I walked along the edge, he had communicated his final decision to order American troops into the Cambodian sanctuaries.
I sat on the steps of the pool; the President of the United States floated on his back in the water. Matter-of-factly we reviewed some answers he proposed to give to foreign policy questions. Suddenly, without warmth or enthusiasm, he said: “I shall open the press conference by announcing your appointment as Secretary of State.” It was the first time he had mentioned the subject to me.
It was not, of course, the first I had heard of it. Watergate had made the hitherto preeminent position of White House assistants untenable. My influence in the rest of the government depended on Presidential authority, and this was palpably draining away in endless revelations of tawdry acts, some puerile, some illegal. Alexander Haig, recalled as Presidential chief of staff in May, had volunteered to me earlier in the summer that he saw no other solution than to appoint me Secretary of State. The then Secretary, William P. Rogers, was expected to leave by the end of the summer in any event. Haig kept me informed of his tortuous discussions with Nixon on the subject; they could not have been easy. It was a painful decision for Nixon because it symbolized — perhaps more than any of the Watergate headlines — how wounded he was. He had never wanted a strong Secretary of State; foreign policy, he had asserted in his 1968 campaign, would be run from the White House. And so it had been. If Nixon was ready to bend this principle it showed how weak he had become.
I replied lamely that I hoped to justify his confidence. It was a platitude to maintain the fiction that he was conferring a great boon on me. In fact, both Nixon and I knew there was no other choice.
The next morning I received a phone call from Kenneth Rush, the Deputy Secretary of State. He congratulated me and pledged the full support of the Department. This was a generous gesture, especially as Rush undoubtedly knew that but for Watergate he, not I, would have been Bill Rogers’s successor.1. Rogers also called with his congratulations; we chatted politely but briefly. Then I settled back to watch the press conference on television.
Just as Nixon began to speak, my good friend the talented and beautiful Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann telephoned from Oslo on a matter I have since forgotten. I took the call to explain why I could not talk just then. I said that the President was making an important announcement on television. Since I coyly did not tell her what it was, I needed to add yet another sentence of explanation and by the time that was over, so was Nixon’s brief reference to me. After announcing Rogers’s resignation with warm and generous comments, Nixon named me as his replacement with these terse words: “Dr. Kissinger’s qualifications for this post, I think, are well known by all of you ladies and gentlemen, as well as those looking to us [sic] and listening to us on television and radio.” He did not elaborate what they were. So it happened that by the time I hung up the phone I had missed hearing myself named as the next Secretary of State.
Congratulatory phone calls flooded into my office, while the remainder of Nixon’s news conference was consumed by an interrogation on Watergate. I took the calls with mixed feelings. What might have been a simple moment of gratification was beset with deep anxiety, for the news conference dramatized how much the Administration was under siege. We were straining all our efforts to prevent the unraveling of the nation’s foreign policy as Nixon’s Presidency, and with it all executive authority, slowly disintegrated. I had achieved an office I had never imagined within my reach; yet I did not feel like celebrating. I could not erase from my mind the poignant thought of Richard Nixon so alone and beleaguered and, beneath the frozen surface, fearful just a few yards away while I was reaching the zenith of acclaim.
IT was all so utterly different from what we had hoped for in 1973. The year had begun with glittering promise; rarely had a Presidential term started with such bright foreign policy prospects.
In January 1973, a decade of bitter domestic divisions seemed to be ending with the Vietnam war. An overwhelming electoral mandate the previous November had given Nixon an extraordinary opportunity to reach out to all men and women of goodwill and to heal the nation’s wounds. The suspicions of the debate over Vietnam lingered, but its protagonists were partly exhausted by the ordeal, partly confused by a new world in which the slogans of a decade had lost their relevance. Sooner or later, we hoped, antiwar critics would take solace in the end of the war even if they continued to question the tactics used. And those who had supported us could take pride in the fact that the nation’s sacrifices had preserved its honor. Nixon himself might be haunted by his eternal premonition that all success was ephemeral; he was stronger and safer than a lifetime of surviving disaster permitted him to accept. In reality he faced no significant opposition; he had, after all, carried every state in the Union except one. It was possible to hope that the anguish of the past decade might teach all sides the fundamental lesson that a society becomes great not by the victories of its factions over each other but by its reconciliations.
Perhaps we were too euphoric but we were convinced that the United States had before it a rare opportunity for creativity in its foreign policy. At last we could turn as a united people to tasks from which the preoccupation with Indochina had deflected us. The usual fate of leaders is to inherit some intractable problem or commitment that has its own momentum — as indeed the war in Vietnam had blighted Nixon’s first term. Now suddenly many factors in international relations seemed amenable to creative diplomacy at the same time:
• With our allies, the industrial democracies of the Atlantic Alliance and Japan, Nixon had in his first term ended the brutish quarrel with France, safeguarded our troop commitment to Europe from Congressional assault, and preserved the ties of alliance through the superficial “shocks” of America’s new initiatives with its Communist adversaries. The political and economic strength of Europe and Japan invited new initiatives to reaffirm the common future and common values of the democracies.
• In Nixon’s first term we had improved relations with both Communist giants, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Their mutual distrust and fear would complicate giving concrete form to their ideological hostility to us; neither could go too far in challenging us without driving us toward its mortal enemy. Freed of the Vietnam war, the United States could resist aggressive acts that threatened international order. Backed by an overwhelming mandate, Nixon had the possibility to undertake negotiations of fundamental scope.
• In the Middle East, Egypt was beginning to turn away from the Soviet Union. America’s tenacious diplomatic strategy had contributed to this development, which offered unprecedented prospects for peace diplomacy.
• With the prestige of the Vietnam settlement and the improved relations among the superpowers, the Nixon Administration could turn confidently to the Third World. We planned a new approach to Latin America and intended to use that as a point of departure for a new pattern of cooperative relations between industrial and developing nations.
As for me, at the beginning of 1973 I felt especially detached from the battles of the first term. The bureaucratic pressures and personal rivalries that are such an integral part of life in Washington had lost much of their meaning for me. For I had decided to resign by the end of the year.
I felt at liberty to do so because the vision of a new period of foreign policy, no longer overshadowed by a divisive war, was coupled with the conviction that an end had to be put to the Byzantine administrative procedures of Nixon’s first term. No longer should power be centralized in the hands of Presidential assistants acting in secret from the rest of the government. My friend the venerable and wise David Bruce argued that if I was serious about making our achievements permanent, I should be prepared to entrust their elaboration to others. If we had built well and true, the nation’s foreign policy would have to be institutionalized. To leave a legacy, rather than a tour de force, we would have to entrust greater responsibility to the permanent officials of the Department of State and the Foreign Service. This, Bruce suggested not too delicately, could not happen while I dominated all decisions from my White House office.
Reluctantly, I had come to agree with him. There were, to be sure, less elevated reasons that reinforced the argument from principle. My secret trip to China in 1971 had destroyed my previous anonymity, making it possible for Nixon’s critics to diminish his achievements by exalting my own. And while I did not consciously encourage the process, there was no consistent record of my resisting it, either. Thereafter, the White House missed few opportunities to cut me down to size: during the India-Pakistan crisis, in the run-up to the 1972 Moscow summit, during the final phase of the Vietnam peace negotiations.2.
Nixon was not wrong; I had become too public a figure for the post of national security adviser. The intangible bond between President and Assistant had become too frayed for me to be able to function much longer at the hub of the complex system of Presidential policymaking that circumvented the regular bureaucracy — if indeed such a system would have been sustainable for another four years in any circumstances, which I doubt.
Moreover, the national security team had been revamped and I had no stomach for going through another round of jockeying as new members sought to establish their relative positions. Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, the great survivor, had indicated his desire to leave well before the 1972 election. He was replaced in the new year by the thoughtful Elliot Richardson, with whom I worked well when he was Under Secretary of State in 1969–1970. After his electoral victory Nixon fulfilled his long-standing plan to move out CIA Director Richard Helms by appointing him Ambassador to Iran. Helms’s successor was James R. Schlesinger, who had come to Nixon’s attention for his managerial expertise at the Bureau of the Budget and his courageous handling of a nuclear testing controversy as head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Secretary of State Rogers was spared in the general housecleaning, only because he had asked for a separate departure date to make clear that his leaving was his choice and not part of a wholesale realignment. His request was granted, but Nixon intended to replace him during the summer with his new deputy, Kenneth Rush.
A few years earlier, at the height of some bureaucratic struggle or other, I had told William Safire, then a Presidential speech writer, that my victories were bound to be both temporary and fragile. To continue my influence, I had to win every bureaucratic battle; to destroy my authority, a Cabinet member needed only one success. Such odds were not survivable over the long run.3. I had in fact avoided them for a full Presidential term, but there was no sense in courting fate with a new, able, and psychologically fresh group.
For all these reasons I intended to stay long enough in 1973 to see the peace in Indochina established; to launch the new initiative toward the industrial democracies that came to be known as the Year of Europe; and to consolidate the new Moscow-Washington-Peking triangle. I had spoken tentatively about a post-Washington career with some close friends: perhaps a fellowship at All Souls College at Oxford. Nancy Maginnes had just consented to become my wife, though our plans were to be delayed repeatedly by the crises soon to descend on us.
I shall never know whether I would in fact have carried out my intention, or would have become so absorbed in the conduct of affairs as to defer my departure. Nor can I prove that our vision of a hopeful future was attainable. It is futile to speculate on “might-have-beens.” All our calculations were soon to be overwhelmed by the elemental catastrophe of Watergate.
But it was still in this mood compounded of elation and relief that on January 24, 1973, four days after Nixon’s second Inauguration, I crossed the narrow street between the White House and the Old Executive Office Building to brief journalists on the newly concluded Vietnam agreement. After going through the agreement section by section I closed my remarks with a deeply felt appeal for national reconciliation:
The President said yesterday that we have to remain vigilant, and so we shall, but we shall also dedicate ourselves to positive efforts. And as for us at home, it should be clear by now that no one in this war has had a monopoly of anguish and that no one in these debates has had a monopoly of moral insight. And now that at last we have achieved an agreement in which the United States did not prescribe the political future to its allies, an agreement which should preserve the dignity and the self-respect of all the parties, together with healing the wounds in Indochina we can begin to heal the wounds in America.
A Spanish poet once wrote: “Traveler, there is no path; paths are made by walking.” In that fleeting moment of innocence — so uncharacteristic of the Nixon Administration — we were confident that in the second term we would travel the road of our hopes and that we would walk a path leading to a better future.