May 27, 2004
Kissinger Tapes Describe Crises, War and Stark Photos of Abuse
WASHINGTON, May 26 — News had just broken of a terrible wrongdoing committed by American soldiers, and the secretary of defense and the national security adviser debated whether there was any way to stop newspapers and television news programs from showing graphic photographs of the victims.
"They're pretty terrible," said Melvin R. Laird, the secretary of defense, of the color photographs of the men, women and children killed in the My Lai massacre in South Vietnam.
Henry A. Kissinger, the national security adviser, responded that one of President Nixon's top aides had "heard that the Army is trying to impound the pictures — that can't be done."
A transcript of this 1969 telephone conversation, with its uncanny echoes of the Iraq war and the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, at least in the fact of the photographs, if not in the severity of the wrongdoing, was released on Wednesday by the National Archives as part of 20,000 pages of records of Mr. Kissinger's telephone conversations. The documents cover the years from the beginning of his service in 1969 until August 1974, when Nixon resigned.
The conversations portray a senior adviser trying to juggle foreign policy crises under a president increasingly distracted by the Watergate scandal and, on at least one occasion, too drunk to talk to the British prime minister.
They also show Mr. Kissinger using his charm on Anatoly Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador to the United States. One minute the two men are joking about Mr. Kissinger's date with a former Playboy playmate, the next they are discussing the Mideast or disarmament treaties, all on a secure phone line to avoid having to share their conversations with the State Department.
The transcripts were released over the objections of Mr. Kissinger after the National Security Archive, a nonprofit organization, initiated legal proceedings to make them public.
Mr. Kissinger issued a statement Wednesday saying he had not seen the released material and would have no comment.
"It's nice to have these juicy details, especially now when I feel like I'm seeing déjà vu all over again," said Stanley Karnow, the author of "Vietnam: A History" and a war correspondent who covered the Indochina conflict.
The episode involving Nixon's drinking occurred on Oct. 11, 1973, shortly after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war erupted. Aides to Prime Minister Edward Heath of Britain telephoned shortly before 8 p.m., hoping to reach the president so the two leaders could discuss the war.
Mr. Kissinger asked: "Can we tell them no? When I talked to the president, he was loaded."
Brent Scowcroft, then an assistant to Mr. Kissinger, said: "Right, O.K. I will say the president will not be available until first thing in the morning but you will be this evening."
The papers cover major events of the cold war, like the opening of China, which was soon followed by calls to Mr. Kissinger from influential figures like David Rockefeller, chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank, and Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, who wanted help getting the first visas to Beijing.
But war and conflict were the most constant topic.
In their conversation on Nov. 21, 1969, about the My Lai massacre, Mr. Laird told Mr. Kissinger that while he would like "to sweep it under the rug," the photographs prevented it.
"There are so many kids just laying there; these pictures are authentic," Mr. Laird said.
The telephone transcripts show how frustrated Nixon was becoming with the Vietnam War and his failing effort to withdraw American troops from Vietnam by expanding the war into Cambodia.
He became especially angry on Dec. 9, 1970, with what he considered the lackluster bombing campaign by the United States Air Force against targets in Cambodia.
"They're not only not imaginative but they are just running these things — bombing jungles," Nixon said. "They have got to go in there and I mean really go in."
Mr. Kissinger then cautioned: "The Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war."
But the president persisted, suggesting that the bombing campaign could be disguised as an airlift of supplies.
"I want them to hit everything," he said. "I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything they can that will help out there, and let's start giving them a little shock."
He ended by saying, "Right now there is a chance to win this goddamn war, and that's probably what we are going to have to do because we are not going to do anything at the conference table."
Mr. Kissinger immediately relayed the order: "A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves."
Few foreign officials had a more complicated relationship with Mr. Kissinger than Mr. Dobrynin, the Soviet ambassador.
At first they were formal with each other, testing whether this new back channel would make it easier for the rival superpowers to avoid war and possibly cooperate on arms reduction treaties or defusing tensions in the Middle East.
They were soon on a first-name basis — Henry and Anatoly — and treating each other like old buddies.
One afternoon Mr. Dobrynin teased Mr. Kissinger about his latest date.
"I guess I have her picture," said the Soviet diplomat. "I think she was on this Playboy calendar."
"Oh-h-h-h, you're a dirty old man," Mr. Kissinger said.
As peace negotiations progressed with Hanoi, it was Mr. Dobrynin who brought proposals from the Vietnamese Communists to Mr. Kissinger, who would win a Nobel Peace Prize for the treaty that brought an end to America's involvement in the war.
In the spring of 1972 Mr. Kissinger telephoned the president with news of something of a breakthrough from the Vietnamese.
"We got some pretty quick action out of our Soviet friends — Dobrynin was in slobbering over me," said Mr. Kissinger. "He had a message from the North Vietnamese for us which was a lot more conciliatory than the one that they gave us in Paris."