Not long ago I requested and received White House Years, Henry Kissinger’s 1,500-page account of his stint in the Nixon Administration, the Ford Administration being covered in a later and no doubt less edifying volume. I was so excited that I wanted to share a bit of my joy with my cellmate, Tom. Tom is a bank robber who has the words “Game Over” tattooed on his knuckles, which is to say by implication that at some point in his life he happened to glance at his knuckles, noticed that the words “Game Over” were not to be found on them, and said to himself, “I’d better get that rectified.” When I was first assigned to his cell, I noticed that he was in possession of something called The Anger Management Workbook, which is rather a cliche thing for one’s new cellmate to have lying around. I like to think that before he came upon this textual remedy, he spent a great deal of his time pummeling people to death while shouting, “Game Over!”
“Tom,” I asked him now, “Would you like me to read to you from Henry Kissinger’s memoirs in Henry Kissinger’s voice?”
“How do you know you don’t unless you’ve tried it?”
“I just know.”
I operate under the assumption that people don’t know what’s good for them until I show them, so I began to read out loud. “In a deep sense Nelson Rockefeller suffered from the hereditary disability of very wealthy men in an egalitarian society,” I croaked Teutonically. “He wanted assurance that he had transcended what was inherently ambiguous: that his career was due to merit and not wealth, that he had earned it by achievement and not acquired it by inheritance.”
Tom got up and left. You can tell what a hard case this guy is, unmoved as he was by Nelson Rockefeller’s central anxiety. I continued to read out loud for a few minutes. Then it occurred to me that this might summon an evil spirit, so I stopped.
Whether you consider him a war criminal or you’re a war criminal yourself, there are any number of reasons to read White House Years. Regardless of whatever else he may be, Kissinger is certainly a sure hand at characterization:
Nixon’s fear of rebuffs caused him to make proposals in such elliptical ways that it was often difficult to tell what he was driving at, whether in fact he was suggesting anything specific at all. After frequent contact I came to understand his subtle circumlocutions better; I learned that to Nixon words were like billiard balls; what mattered was not the initial impact but the carom.
This is rather poetic for a German. And one has little choice but to respect someone so thoroughly ruthless that he will deploy two semicolons within a single sentence. Quibble with his methods, but here is a man that gets results.
Not all of the book’s gems are provided by Kissinger himself. Here’s a bit of folksy wisdom from Lyndon Johnson:
“Read the columnists,” he said, “and if they call a member of your staff thoughtful, dedicated, or any other friendly adjective, fire him immediately. He is your leaker.”
As much as I enjoyed this magisterial treatise on U.S. foreign policy in the Age of Spiro Agnew, it was nonetheless disturbing to read under my particular, limited circumstances. Not having access to the internet by which I might readily check Kissinger’s claims against the historical record, and my own knowledge of the era being limited largely to the fact that Jefferson Airplane had not yet evolved (suddenly and Pokemon-like) into Jefferson Starship, I felt myself at the mercy of Kissinger, whose famous advocacy of realpolitik and secret bombings and such things would presumably also entail a not-entirely-thorough commitment to the truth on such occasions as when U.S. national security might be better served by lies, which I gather is often the case. This was not much of a problem during my similarly incarcerated reading last year of Born Again, by Kissinger’s fellow Nixon Administration ne’er-do-well Chuck Colson, a book I reviewed or at least made fun of for Vice. Being a reliably mediocre fellow, Colson’s attempts to conceal the truth are usually on the order of “Whatever you do, don’t look over there!” Ah, but Kissinger is very much the Final Boss of the Obscurantist Establishment.
To catch out such a man as Kissinger, you must wait for him to venture out of his impenetrable Fortress of Rhetorical Competence. This he will do whenever he sees that some other powerful U.S. official is being made to answer for his illegal conduct by the citizenry or its elected representatives. On page 38, for instance, Kissinger throws out a few glowing words about CIA Director Richard Helms and then adds, cryptically even for him, “He deserved better than the accusations that marred the close of his public career after 30 years of such distinguished service.” One can’t help but detect that something is amiss here when Kissinger feels compelled to denounce certain “allegations” but cannot bring himself to even hint at what these might consist of. Presumably he is not constrained by space considerations, this being, after all, a 1,500-page tome in which 11 pages are given over to a round of talks with the Japanese on textile exports.
In this instance it might help to know that Helms was discovered to have instituted a thoroughly illegal domestic surveillance program, CHAOS, by which to keep tabs on dissent. Luckily I happen to be a malcontent and thus also something of a walking encyclopedia of illegal government activities, vintage and otherwise, or I wouldn’t have known this off-hand. But after checking with a friend in the outside world, I learned that Kissinger was more likely referring to Helms’ criminal conviction around the time when White House Years was being written for misleading Congress over CIA activities overseas (for which he received no jail time, naturally). Whatever it was, the bottom line is apparently that Helms “deserved better” than to be subject to “allegations” of having committed some of the crimes against the public of which he was shown to be guilty, although Kissinger does not explain why this should be the case; I assume the reason is classified on grounds of national security.
Indeed, interference by mere congressmen into such things as the CIA is a sore spot with Kissinger, who is still upset that the Senate had the nerve to investigate the agency’s involvement in the 1973 overthrow of Chile’s President Allende. Bizarrely, he tries to claim that the mere act of criticizing its policies left the CIA with no choice but to conduct even worse illicit activities abroad: “Paradoxically, American intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries has multiplied and become less discriminating since the covert operations of the CIA have come under attack. The earlier ‘Cold War’ period of CIA activities observed certain limits: Its criteria were foreign policy and national security dangers to the United States, of which there were not that many.” Kissinger makes no effort to enlighten us on how opposition to the CIA’s illicit conduct has somehow caused it to drop its prior sense of restraint, which is just as well since this claim is nonsense.
The democratically elected government of Iran that was overthrown in 1953 with the active participation of the CIA, for instance, was obviously not any sort of “national security” threat to the United States, unless Kissinger defines U.S. national security as requiring that former colonies of the British Empire refrain from taking back the natural resources that its former masters seized from them, as happened in Iran to prompt the CIA to intervene (something it presumably did more in sadness than in anger). Come to think of it, Kissinger may in fact define U.S. national security in such a way, in which case I suppose I owe him an apology. Wait, what just happened?
Kissinger is especially hilarious on the subject of the domestic Vietnam debate. “There was no civility or grace from the antiwar leaders; they mercilessly persecuted those they regarded as culpable.” In support of this, Kissinger points out, in apparent seriousness, the following instances of merciless persecution: “Walter Rostow was not reappointed to his professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. … William Bundy’s appointment as editor at Foreign Affairs was greeted by howls of protest. Dean Rusk … could find no position for months until his alma mater, the University of Georgia, appointed him to a professorship and gave him a part-time secretary.” And yet even today, there is no Architects of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington to commemorate these fallen (or at least un-reappointed) heroes. I suggest a statue of a man nobly typing up his own lesson plans because his part-time secretary is off in the afternoons. On a totally unrelated note, the name “Daniel Ellsberg” does not seem to appear in the book, probably due to some sort of editorial oversight.
My main complaint with The White House Years, aside from the frankly incredible bullshit I just quoted, is the presence of Henry Cabot Lodge, who shows up in several capacities, most notably as Ambassador to Saigon. I have nothing against Lodge, who I’m sure is a fine public servant, but for some reason I’ve always been under the vague impression that he is actually a mid-19th-century senator. Clearly I’m mistaken in this, for here he is in the 1970s at the peak of his working life, but no matter how often I read about him shuttling off to Paris to negotiate some minor point with Le Duc Tho, I simply cannot shake my original conviction that I’ve also seen him conferring in Brookline with Daniel Webster. Then I begin to suspect that perhaps he has done both of these things — that Henry Cabot Lodge is in fact a sort of St. Germain figure who cannot die, or perhaps even some extra-dimensional entity who travels through time at will and who has decided to champion the cause of our republic in service to his own etheric agenda, incomprehensible as it may be to our human linear thinking. One evokes this minor deity, I suppose, simply by saying his name with due reverence. I see Nixon, for instance, in the Oval Office, very much at the end of his rope. Desperately he voices the age-old incantation passed down from president to president: “HENRY CABOT LODGE!” Before the last syllable is even spoken, he is simply THERE, standing entirely motionless in a pose of ice-cold competence. The problem is explained to him — simply a matter of habit, as of course he knew all that was to come before the bodies were cold at Valley Forge. “Leave it to me,” says this fixer bound by neither space nor time, and then 11 pages later we have a textile export agreement with the Japanese that both sides can live with. Needless to say this is all very distracting.
John Kiriakou, the former CIA employee who is now serving time on charges related to his exposure of the agency’s torture program, is being systematically harassed by prison officials in retaliation for the column he’s been writing on his experiences while incarcerated. Please help to spread the word by visiting defendjohnk.com and sharing this information with news outlets and activist organizations.
Bible Verse of the Day: Deuteronomy 22:17
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the LORD your god gives them unto your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails.”