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Election Day is Only 265 Days Away

February 15, 2016

“I have one piece of advice to give you, Professor. Read the columnists and if they call a member of your staff thoughtful, dedicated, or any other friendly adjective, fire him immediately. He is your leaker.”

– President Lyndon Johnson preparing Henry Kissinger for the transition to Richard Nixon’s first term 

Before I could vote, Henry Kissinger was all over the news, having served in high-profile cabinet positions for both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford’s administrations. During a high school social studies class discussion of the state of the country and the mess Richard Nixon had made of things, I made the mistake of referencing Kissinger as a future possible candidate himself. The teacher rebuked me quite firmly, with information that was new to me at the time, that this was impossible because Kissinger was born in Germany. Under Article Two of the U.S. Constitution only a natural-born citizen can hold the office. I’m not sure that I knew about that clause and certainly did not know Kissinger, his heavy accent notwithstanding, was born in Germany.

Why I remember that particular moment of that childhood day so long ago, would of course, make a more interesting topic than the 2016 election. However, I am not sure I understand memories well enough to take that on right now.

Nearly forty years later, the kids paying attention to current events today might now be learning about Kissinger themselves. For reasons I don’t fully understand, while trying to prove her foreign affairs bona fides, Hillary Clinton has been name-checking Kissinger on the campaign trail recently. I suspect if they dug into this a little bit, they’d become less enthusiastic, even cynical, about the election process.

Clinton has failed to make much of a connection with young voters. More than eighty percent of voters under thirty years old voted for Bernie Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire. If they’re not listening to her, I suspect Sanders will be happy to tell them all about Kissinger. He has a long record of nasty realpolitik across the globe.

Here is a short story about Kissinger to give you a sense about the man a leading presidential candidate affectionately calls a friend and is honoring with her stump speeches.

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I early May 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced that in an attempt to cease the Vietnam War, meetings with the North Vietnamese would start the following week in Paris. Johnson had already announced that he would not seek another term in the White House. There were a half million U.S. soldiers in Vietnam at the time. More than twenty thousand were killed during 1965 – 1967 and there were another two thousand casualties in the first four months of 1968.

The war was on everyone’s mind and an important election-year topic. According to Gallup polls, Americans’ support of the war was declining. This was no more clear than during the Democrat’s August 1968 convention, when there was a violent and bloody battle between protesters and Chicago police.

That fall, voters were lining up behind three candidates. Vice President Hubert Humphrey was the Democrat’s nominee for president. Former Vice President Richard Nixon was the Republican’s nominee. Alabama Governor George Wallace, best known for his defense of racial segregation, ran as an independent.

Kissinger was a professor at the time and was the only outsider to have access to Johnson’s emissaries in Paris. He used that position to double-deal and provide information to Nixon’s campaign that would be helpful to their candidate; he was Nixon’s undercover operative within Johnson’s negotiating team.

Nixon and his hacks used this information to work their way into the South Vietnamese government and convince them that they would be better off waiting for Nixon to win the U.S. election in November. They sent assurances that no matter what Johnson was discussing with the North Vietnamese in Paris, Nixon would get them a better deal. The South Vietnamese government took them at their word and rebuffed every offer from the North Vietnamese whenever the two sides got close to an agreement. Eventually, the parties pulled away altogether.

If you’re thinking that there must be a law about this, you are right. There is. The Logan Act of 1799 prohibits private citizens from interfering with the negotiations with foreign countries. Johnson, became aware of the Nixon team’s tactics and started bugging the phone of John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager. Armed with this clear-cut evidence he obtained from phone call tapes, he called leaders in congress to let them know about the subterfuge.

In the closing days of the election, reaping the benefits of his campaign manager’s design, Nixon pointed to the breakdown of negotiations as a failure of Johnson and Humphrey’s management of the war. Voters were lead to believe that Johnson had mislead the country about the possibilities for peace. In November, Nixon defeated Humphrey in the election by a slim margin.

Nobody knows for sure why Johnson didn’t make this a campaign issue. Some say that he was simply protecting himself, because he couldn’t disclose that he was tapping a political opponent’s phone. However, some of the transcripts give the impression that Johnson believed that things in the country were too fragile for public disclosure of Nixon’s treasonous acts and his own phone bugging. The real shame of it is that things were coming together with the 1968 Paris Peace talks before Kissinger and Nixon illegally intervened.

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It’s best to read these braced with a healthy pack of skepticism.

For Kissinger’s part, this was his opportunity to prove himself to Nixon. The two of them didn’t know each other before this. In fact, Kissinger had only met Nixon once, socially, before he took the assignment. Kissinger supported Nelson Rockefeller. Nixon was, in Kissinger’s words, “politically anathema” for more than twenty years. Still, three weeks after the election, he met with Nixon to discuss his role in the new administration, a splendid payback for opening up the back channels. Shortly thereafter, in January 1969, Kissinger wrote an article about the Vietnam negotiations, in which he agreed substantially with all the positions that Johnson had taken. There was nothing worth waiting for.

We all know the end of this sordid story. Nixon and Kissinger dragged the war out another five years, before eventually agreeing to essentially the same terms to end the war that Johnson was driving towards in 1968. Nearly seventeen thousand kids from the U.S. military were killed in 1968 and another twenty-one thousand from 1969 – 1974. Many more Vietnamese than that were killed. All for nothing, in part courtesy of Hillary Clinton’s friend and adviser.

Here is some of the advice Kissinger gave to Nixon in 1972 about the viability of their policies should South Vietnam collapse under their watch. He wanted it to appear that it was all due to Saigon’s incompetence.

If we sell out in such a way that, say, in a three-to-four month period, we have pushed President Thieu over the brink, it will worry everybody. So we’ve got to find a formula that holds this thing together a year or two, after which, no one will give a damn.

Bill and Hillary Clinton go out of their way to court and even spend time with Kissinger. I don’t know who Kissinger is supporting – Jeb Bush, I would guess. If so, and Bush finally falls off, maybe Kissinger will make his pitch for Hillary this fall. During the year of the “outsiders” perhaps the political elites don’t have any other choice but a firm double-down with their inner circle. Kissinger would be just one more “super” on board for the Clintons.

Desperate to distinguish herself from Sanders, Clinton is trying to show that she is the only one who knows how to get things done and has the right experience to run the situation room. It seems a little premature to highlight her relationship with a person who’s That part of the claim may be hard to deny. She’s the only candidate in either party who served as Secretary of State. Still, what does it say about her that she’s charmed by Kissinger?

 

 

 

 

23 Comments
  1. Enjoyed the historical review. I shook hands with Nixon at an elite luncheon at the Deauville hotel on Miami Beach at a 3 day interim convention in 1965, June 18 , my birthday. Again in rope line at Tampa airport in 1968 and again in rope line at Miami airport in 1972. You may like my post “How I got Barry Goldwater’s Autograph” (just google the title) whom I saw at Jackie Gleason Center on June 16, 1965.

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  2. There are many who would read this and reach the conclusion that Hillary wouldn’t have a problem with the tactics disclosed here. The reality is that politics is a brutal business but when it comes at the cost of thousands of lives, it becomes far more than a justifiably brutal business. It becomes a game like Risk … where the lives are just plastic little pieces and when somebody wins you get to start over. GWB’s invasion of Iraq has a similar feel.

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    • It generally backfires. When these guys go into war to “maintain the country’s credibility,” they commit the country to something that is difficult to execute. The end result is something a lot messier than the starting point with all sorts of unintended consequences to deal with for a long time.

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  3. You brought back some very vivid memories here. I doubt that there will be any help for Hillary in touting the name of Kissinger. Even those who remember him, associate him with the ancient past.

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    • Hello Shimon. Good to hear from you. I trust you are well.

      I don’t know if her touting her relationship with Kissinger will help her or not. It seems she’s already convince the voters 60 years or older to support her. I don’t think the youngest voters will be too impressed with Kissinger. I would have guessed that she would save Kissinger for the general election. But, depending on who they nominate, perhaps that will be too late. I could imagine that Kissinger will support Rubio or Bush, should either of them make it that far.

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  4. Interesting look-back at history. For me, today’s Kissinger references raises a big “Huh” in my mind. Besides, can’t we find a negative story about anyone associated with DC?

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    • When I first saw her mentioning HK, I too thought “what in the world…?” It seems however, that Kissinger is such an big deal with the DC elite that nobody in that circle can talk about his long unseemly record.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. He is a nasty piece of work, isn’t he? Has made me profoundly uncomfortable that Hillary Clinton has been mentioning him with affection.

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    • It is unsettling. On the other hand, maybe that’s the wrong way to think about it. If Clinton is elected, perhaps she can have her friend call in a few favors from China and Russia and get them play a more constructive role in the Middle East and in Africa.

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  6. Brings back lots of memories flooding into my mind, Bruce. Kissinger was a nasty piece of work if you believed some type of morality as opposed to realpolitik should govern political decision making. Johnson was a complex person. His initial thinking was that “We wouldn’t lose Vietnam on his watch.” I remember being at the first major anti-Vietnam War rally at Berkeley in the Spring of 1975 where Johnson was regarded as a major part of the problem. Very few political leaders had the guts or foresight to speak out against the war, Wayne Morris of Oregon being a notable exception. I think the anti-establishment fervor in America is at a close to all-time high. Bernie is the choice of the young and educated. Trump is the choice of… –Curt

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    • Hi Curt – Your front and center seat at Cal back then was at the epicenter.

      There were a lot of blind spots during those Cold War years. LBJ had some himself.

      There is no way of telling what, if anything would have become of Paris in 1968. Still, it was not right for Kissinger and Nixon to involve themselves on the side. Kissinger’s “ends justifies the means” way of thinking is a case study. I wonder how he explains it to his friends who lost their sons in Vietnam after 1968. It’s possible of course, that in spite of their losses, they believe four more years of war was necessary too.

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      • Total agreement, Bruce. And I will always remember what LBJ did for Civil Rights. The war was a bad idea from the beginning and it only got worse as time went on. And we still haven’t learned the lessons it had to teach us. –Curt

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Nixon was a disgraced President, yet every one of his successors sought his council on foreign affairs – and specifically China. Seeking input from “others” who might be outside your ideology, regular sphere of influence or political party – especially if they have held the same high office – is not a sign of weakness, IMHO…nor is it a statement of complicity or acceptance of their prior acts.

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    • Certainly there is something Clinton can learn by understanding Kissinger’s involvement in foreign affairs. No doubt about it. Who would want a president that didn’t appreciate his impact and legacy?

      Still, there’s something unsettling about her cozy dealings with the man. And it seems so premature for her to tout her buddy at this stage of the election cycle. Is this really something that she wants to talk about only in order to point out Sanders’ shortcomings with our national security?

      Maybe it’s really intended to blunt the noisy R’s. That’s it. All tough guy R’s think they have the answer. They have nothing on her – she’s chummy with one of the coldest SOBs alive and has the speed dial on her cell phone to prove it.

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  8. Did she “tout it” or answer a question about him?

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  9. Clinton touts.

    Her affection was evidenced long before the debate. Op-Ed page, holiday vacations together, Manhattan party circuit, etc. It’s a political class, high-society thing, for sure. That’s only natural for the Clintons. And of course, Kissinger has long been part of that world. This type of access is certainly the envy of those still trying to make their name – Rubio comes to mind.

    None of this probably matters to most voters, of course. The kids who take a look might be repelled and maybe that’s the bet she’s made. Blunt the R’s, pick up a few independents and some of the Republican voters who are mortified by what they hear from the front runners over there, distinguish her experience from Sanders. For the most part, younger voters aren’t going to abandon Sanders no matter what she says.

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  10. Actually, it did come up as a question…but the rest is hard to argue with. By the way, I think I was in that social studies class you speak of! I remember *the talk* at the time of him being qualified for the job and being reminded of his lack of birthright. Hindsight reminds me I also thought he was up to the task. 😉 But heck, what did really we know way back when…

    This topic came up in a FB political group I’m in, with all the Bernie supporters howling about how this disqualified HC. That is of course nonsense (as I hope I made the case for in my OP above) but that’s how politics works. So be it. A couple of items popped up in my search for some reference material that I’ll share for consideration.

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/10/henry-kissinger-vietnam-diaries-213236

    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/02/13/henry-kissinger-sage-or-pariah/henry-kissinger-provided-strategic-vision-in-dangerous-times

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  11. Pete,

    Secretary of States and their bosses rarely have the luxury of all the facts and due to the cruel nature of the business, sometimes the more facts they have, the more complex and difficult it is to arrive at the best answer. (Of course, politically, sometimes the hardest choice to make is to take no action at all.) None of them get it right every time and it’s ridiculous for us to expect that.

    Clinton knows that if she is nominated the R’s will jack-hammer on her tenure with the strength of hundreds of millions of dollars. Their half-truths, distortions and lies will be noisily spread to confuse and disorient the public. As you say, “that’s how politics work.” The voters will be coaxed and dazed into a froth of fear and hate. (Kasich’s nomination is our only hope for avoiding that landscape.)

    Clinton’s touting her relationship with and affection for Kissinger will serve her well then. She needs as many of the R’s who are mortified (rightly so) by the state of their party and the people running for office. The R’s can’t attack her on her support from HK. Colin Powell will likely line up behind her too. R’s have a hard time attacking anyone in uniform, especially one with high character. On net, that will help her too. They will attack Clinton for her support from Albright with the usual contortions no matter how closely her involvement tracks with Condaleeza Rice, HK or Powell. As you say, “that’s how politics works.”

    Younger voters may soon have to face the fact that Sanders is no longer an option. When they look at the November ballot, they may feel like they have nowhere to go. And perhaps that’s the choice that they will make; they may not rally behind her or vote at all. Clinton may not be up to the task to inspire them, so it will be Sanders’ responsibility to get out the vote.

    Thanks for the two links. I had previously read the Politico article, but not seen the NYT one. Ferguson is right to study HK’s career and try to help us understand the impact after all these years. (I have not read his book.) It is well known that Kissinger knew that HK believed two or three years earlier that that the US involvement in Vietnam was doomed.

    The Politico article helps make the case that Kissinger’s maneuvering behind the scenes to help scuttle LBJ’s 1968 meetings with the Communists to end the war was a treasonous act. HK’s betrayal of the diplomats confidence and the effort LBJ was making to stop the bombing and end the war is the height of arrogance. Involvement with this evil cabal seems to come naturally to him given his record elsewhere. By participating, he chose to help extend the war and punch his ticket to Washington DC with or without his benefactor, Nelson Rockefeller. This is unforgivable in my book. Thousands of POWs, MIAs, WIAs, KIAs during 1968-1973. One can only imagine the pain of a parent, sibling, wife or friend who lost their loved one in the subsequent years because of election year deceit. Maybe HK can console them with the assurances that “that’s how politics works.”

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  12. Good points, all, my friend. And as we all know, hindsight is rarely wrong.

    Did you watch the D Town Hall last night?

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