After the New York Times began publishing “The Pentagon Papers” on June 13, 1971, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger told President Richard M. Nixon that Daniel Ellsberg was “the most dangerous man in America and that he must be stopped at all costs.” Nixon was not inclined to seek legal action against Ellsberg and the Times, but Kissinger convinced the president to do so. Kissinger was never tarred with the crimes of Watergate, but his obsession with Ellsberg contributed to the worst aspects of Watergate.
The obituaries for Kissinger in the Washington Post and the New York Times paint a dramatic picture of a dangerous man, an amoral man, who was unscrupulous in his handling of the foreign and national security policies of the United States. These obituaries document the deceit and duplicity of the only man to serve simultaneously as secretary of state and national security adviser. His dangerous policies included the secret and illegal bombing of Cambodia and Laos over the objections of the secretary of defense; the “tilt” toward Pakistan that ignored Islamabad’s responsibility for the tragic events in East Pakistan; the green lighting of Indonesia’s bloodshed in East Timor; and the sponsorship of a coup in Chile that led to the deaths of Chilean President Salvador Allende and Commander in Chief General Rene Schneider over the objections of the deputy secretary of state. While Schneider was dying in a Santiago hospital, Kissinger told Nixon that the Chilean military was a “pretty incompetent bunch.”
Kissinger’s most dangerous action, which could have led to a direct military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, received no mention in the obituaries of the Post and the Times. In the end game of the October War in 1973, Kissinger chaired a meeting of the National Security Council that raised our military and nuclear forces to DefCon-III. [DefCon-I is war; DefCon-II means attack is imminent; DefCon-III means increased readiness without a determination that war is imminent. U.S. forces in the Pacific were permanently at DefCon-III because of the Vietnam War.] The conventional wisdom is that the Soviet Union was threatening to intervene militarily because of Israeli violations of the ceasefire that were leading to the annihilation of the Egyptian III Corps. As a result of Kissinger’s decision, according to the conventional wisdom, the heightened state of alert convinced the Soviet Politburo to reverse its decision to intervene. It’s true that Israel violated the ceasefire that Kissinger arranged with Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin, but there is no truth to the view that the Kremlin was preparing to intervene.
Kissinger must have known that the Soviet Union lacked the means to conduct power projection, particularly in the Middle East, where Israel held the upper hand, and the United States had deployed significant military forces.
The Soviets lacked the ability to conduct military operations in distant areas. They had no network of foreign military bases; no conventional aircraft carriers. Their tactical air forces had limited range and no aerial refueling capabilities; their amphibious lift was extremely limited and their naval infantry was extremely small. For these reasons, the principal members of the NSC (secretary of defense, director of the CIA, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) opposed the idea of an enhanced military and nuclear alert.
Far more worrisome is the rarely discussed fact that Kissinger’s chairing of the NSC and his decision regarding DefCon-III were serious violations of the National Security Act of 1947, which created the national security architecture that still shapes U.S. decision-making. The National Security Act states that only the president or the vice president can chair a NSC meeting. Nixon was asleep at the time of the meeting; his military aide, General Alexander Haig, refused to wake the president; and the new vice president, Gerald Ford, had not been confirmed. The meeting was held after 11pm. When Kissinger instructed Haig to get Nixon to the meeting, Haig refused.
No one enjoyed military or coercive diplomacy more than Henry Kissinger. There were times when Kissinger wanted to deploy military forces, and Nixon had to talk him back. In 1970, Kissinger wanted to deploy military forces to prevent the possibility of a Soviet naval repair facility in Cuba, Nixon said “I think we can resolve this with diplomacy.”
Diplomacy was applied, and Pravda announced almost immediately that Moscow had no plans to build a naval facility in the Caribbean. In 1971, Kissinger sent an aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal during the Indian-Pakistani War despite the Pentagon’s objections. Fortunately, India ignored the presence of the carrier.
In 1975, Kissinger deployed forces to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez (who had already been released) in order to demonstrate that the new president, Gerald Ford, was willing to deploy military force. The final 41 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall represent 25 Air Force pilots and crew, 2 Navy corpsmen, and 14 Marines; these were the men killed in the operation to rescue the crew of the Mayaguez.
Kissinger’s illegal declaration of DefCon-III did great harm to Soviet-American relations in the wake of the important arms control agreements the previous year. It put detente on hold for several years, and it could have led to a Soviet-American confrontation. It also did great harm to the NATO alliance, since the members of NATO were never consulted or even advised. Moreover, they were never persuaded that there was an evidentiary basis for the decision in the first place. Kissinger was probably our most powerful secretary of state, but he was not the wisest. The mainstream media comparisons of Kissinger to Thomas Jefferson and George Marshall are misplaced.
Like most secretaries of state and national security advisers during the Cold War, Kissinger consistently exaggerated Soviet behavior, intentions, and capabilities in order to justify U.S. military actions, including the use of force in Vietnam. The current warmongering among U.S. politicians and pundits with regard to China suggests that history is repeating itself.
Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University. A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: