Nixon’s War 4

At the end of 1968, as Nixon prepared to move into the White House, these geopolitical considerations were still abstract speculations. To translate them into reality would require a diplomatic giant. By sheer impulse, he selected Henry Kissinger.
Then forty-five, Kissinger personified human complexity—his characteristics ranging from brilliance and wit to sensitivity, melan¬choly, abrasiveness and savagery. As he adapted to Nixon’s court, with its arcane and unsavory intrigues, he was also to acquire a talent for duplicity. He was not, as he liked to pretend, the innocent scholar fallen among fierce competitors for influence; he had flourished in an academic jungle at least as hostile as the upper echelons of government. For he was driven by inexhaustible, almost primeval ambition. “What interests me,” he confessed to the journalist Oriana Fallaci, “is what you can do with power.”
He had landed in New York in 1938 with his family, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, a timid adolescent whose highest aspiration was to become an accountant. Drafted into the infantry during World War II, he was spotted by Fritz Kraemer, another German immigrant, who recruited him for the U.S. military administration that would run postwar Germany. Kissinger excelled in the occupation army, and he afterward heeded Kraemer’s advice: he went to Harvard, where he found a new mentor in William Yandell Elliott, a patrician professor of government, who named him head of a summer seminar for prom¬ising foreign officials. Thus Kissinger began to weave a web of global contacts, cultivating those who succeeded and discarding the failures. As a celebrity years later, he snubbed a minor European civil servant who had once attended the seminar. “Henry, don’t you remember your old friends?” the man remonstrated. “The secret of my success,” Kissinger replied, “is to forget my old friends.”
Though he had graduated with top honors and an award for his doctoral dissertation, Kissinger’s peers initially denied him a Harvard professorship because, they felt, he would use rather than serve the university. Elliott recommended him for a staff job at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and the assignment catapulted him into loftier spheres. He wrote Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, an argument for a limited atomic strategy, which made the 1958 best¬seller lists and established him as a major defense specialist. He also widened his spectrum of prestigious acquaintances to include a new patron, Nelson Rockefeller, who hired him as an adviser. Now Har-vard granted him a tenured position on its faculty, but Cambridge became only a base as he sallied forth in search of bigger conquests.
He made little headway with the Kennedy set, which was already overloaded with intellectuals like McGeorge Bundy, John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.—and in addition, they could not abide Kissinger’s awkward solemnity. He went slightly further with Johnson, for whom he conducted Operation Pennsylvania, one of several abortive attempts to lure the North Vietnamese into ne¬gotiations. By early 1968 he had returned to advising Rockefeller, who was scrambling at the time to become the Republican presidential candidate. Kissinger would probably have had no alternative, if Rock¬efeller failed, to going back to the dreariness of teaching at Harvard. He could not plausibly switch to the Democrats, and working for Nixon was out of the question.
Kissinger had met Nixon only briefly, at a cocktail party at Clare Boothe Luce’s elegant Manhattan apartment late in 1967. He later recalled that Nixon seemed more “thoughtful” than he had expected and claimed that until then he had shared the orthodox anti-Nixon bias prevalent at Harvard. In fact, he displayed nothing but contempt for Nixon during the ensuing months. On the eve of the Republican convention in July 1968, for example, he described Nixon as “the most dangerous, of all the men running, to have as president.” Nixon’s nomination drove him to despondency; the country, he feared, was about to be taken over by an anti-Communist fanatic. Over the next few weeks, however, ambition spurred him to reconsider. He began to ingratiate himself with the Nixon camp while keeping in contact with the Democrats.
Johnson was then considering the halt in the bombing of North Vietnam—a step that might swing the antiwar liberals back into sup¬porting Humphrey. As Humphrey’s fortunes rose, Kissinger main-tained his ties with the Democrats. But through one of Nixon’s foreign policy aides, Richard Allen, he contacted the Republicans, offering to furnish them with covert information on Johnson’s moves. A clan¬destine channel was set up through Nixon’s campaign manager, John Mitchell, and Kissinger guided the Republicans secretly on the Viet¬nam issue for nearly two months—thus supplying Nixon with the ammunition to blast Humphrey for “playing politics with the war.” Kissinger glosses over the episode in his memoirs, recalling that “only one question was ever put to me by the Nixon organization.” Nixon, by contrast, says in his memoirs that he received three substantial messages from Kissinger. Whatever the truth, Kissinger’s subterfuge earned him Nixon’s admiration and gratitude. Kissinger was soon to acquire his most important patron.
Other intrigues were meanwhile going on—among them one in¬volving Anna Chennault, the Chinese-born widow of General Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers during World War II, and Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese ambassador to Washington. Chennault, a small, energetic, intense woman, was a familiar figure in Washington political circles, largely through her past liaison with Tom Corcoran, a veteran New Dealer. She had often toured Southeast Asia on behalf of the Flying Tigers freight airline, frequently visiting Saigon, where her sister lived. During her trips she became acquainted with both South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu and Bui Diem, a former newspaper publisher who dabbled in politics. Her association with Corcoran notwithstanding, Chennault became a Re¬publican activist and campaigned for Nixon. Using Bui Diem as a conduit, she urged Thieu to object to the halt in the bombing of North Vietnam as a stratagem to foil Johnson’s attempts to reach a negotiated settlement to the war, and thereby damage the Democrats’ claim to be peacemakers. She also recommended to Thieu that he waffle over participating in the Paris talks, telling him that firmer American sup¬port for his cause would be forthcoming after Nixon entered the White House. But Johnson was tracking her Qvery move. Both the FBI and the CIA were tapping her telephone conversations with Bui Diem, intercepting his cables to Saigon and spying on Thieu through an electronic device installed in his office. Nixon believed that he was being bugged as well—especially after Johnson bluntly warned him against relying on Chennault’s machinations.

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