Henry Kissinger and ‘Crisis’
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JIM LEHRER: Now a conversation with Henry Kissinger about his new book. Titled “Crisis,” it looks back at two major events when he was secretary of state: The 1973 Middle East war and the 1975 American withdrawal from Vietnam. Mr. Secretary, welcome.
HENRY KISSINGER: Pleasure to be here.
JIM LEHRER: Why did you choose those two events?
HENRY KISSINGER: The Middle East War, with all its difficulties, was a great American success. We protected an ally, we reduced the Soviet role in the Middle East, we avoided nuclear war, and we began a peace process, which, for a number of years, brought about three major agreements. The withdrawal from Vietnam was an American tragedy. It was the culmination of five administrations’ efforts. It was caused in part, in large part, by the divisions in our own country. And I wanted to illustrate what the final outcome was and what the mood was, when all you could do is try to preserve a minimum of dignity and save as many lives as you could of the people who had relied on us.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the way you handled these two stories is by transcripts of telephone conversations you had as secretary of state. Now, where did these transcripts come from?
HENRY KISSINGER: Well, I had these transcripts made so that when I was talking to people, I did not then afterwards have to dictate a memorandum so that we could follow it up. And if you read the book, you will see sometimes I had made, like, ten phone calls in an hour in a fast-moving situation.
JIM LEHRER: For instance, just to stop you there, you were on the phone with Dobrynin, who was the Russian ambassador, the soviet ambassador, and trying to find out what was going on in the Middle East. And you made a comment that this war could be over by the time you…
HENRY KISSINGER: By the time I finished saying what I’m saying. We got word there was a war. This was 6:00 in the morning. We got word that there was a possibility of conflict. So I called Dobrynin to pass on assurances, which I had been authorized to give by the Israelis, that they weren’t going to attack. So if it was caused by a fear of an Israeli attack….
JIM LEHRER: The Syrians and Egyptians…
HENRY KISSINGER: Syrians and Egyptians were attacking, so I tried to pass this on to him, whom I had awakened and who was a little slow. But we did not know when the war started, who had started it, and we spent about two hours on the telephone understanding which side had started it. I was pretty sure that Israel would not start a war on its holiest holiday.
JIM LEHRER: So the recordings were made by your secretary. She was listening in?
HENRY KISSINGER: They weren’t recordings; they were sort of transcripts.
JIM LEHRER: You had a secretary listening in to the phone conversation.
HENRY KISSINGER: Right.
JIM LEHRER: Did the people who were talking to you through all these things, did they know they were being recorded?
HENRY KISSINGER: They were not told explicitly, but it was a fairly common practice. What was not a common practice was that these things would then be preserved.
JIM LEHRER: You preserved them. You went back and chose the excerpts for this book.
HENRY KISSINGER: I took every conversation that took place so that the reader can tell exactly what we knew and what we said. There were no deletions of conversations. In some places where there was a repetition of the same point, I would take out the repetition. But this is all the conversations on that subject that happened: Middle East War and Vietnam, in the one month that I’m covering.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll go to Vietnam in a minute. On the Middle East, it’s 30 years now obviously since the 1973 war, and there’s still no lasting peace in the Middle East. Why not?
HENRY KISSINGER: Because the passions– it’s not just the passions, it’s the perceptions of themselves– of the contending parties are so different. The Israelis want security. The Arabs want dignity. And they consider the demands of each other as incompatible. So in my period, we proceeded in a step-by-step approach, and we got a number of agreements as a result of that. But the fact is that today we’ve run out of little steps or medium-sized steps you can take. And we have to head for either a final agreement or none. And also in the meantime, there has been so much additional bloodshed, that there’s….
JIM LEHRER: More today, suicide bombings. Two more Hamas people killed by the Israelis. Yeah.
HENRY KISSINGER: Then the international… when I was in office, there was the Soviet Union that could inflame matters. Now you have states not as powerful as the Soviet Union, but states like Iraq, like Iran, and to some extent Syria, having made it possible for some of these groups to operate. So it is a very difficult situation. But I think we have to bring it to a conclusion within a reasonable period of time now.
JIM LEHRER: Does the United States of America have the power to do that?
HENRY KISSINGER: The United States of America doesn’t have the power to do it, but at some point, they have to put forward their idea, our idea of what it is that the Palestinians can reasonably expect… what the Israeli contribution has to be, and to tell the Palestinians that they cannot have in the back of their mind a negotiation which is a process of attrition in which they eliminate the Israeli state. And they will have to… by now, I think both sides have to understand that you cannot impose your will on the other by force. And at some point, you know, I often think back of the 30 years… I don’t think back… I’m getting old enough. 30-year war. It started about imposing the religion on the Protestant and Catholic religion of the opponent. And it ended 30 years later with an agreement to tolerate each other’s religion and to take religion out of politics.
JIM LEHRER: So maybe it could happen again.
HENRY KISSINGER: I think at some point, yes.
JIM LEHRER: Now, quickly, on Vietnam. A lot of people are now beginning to say, uh-oh, Iraq is beginning to smell like Vietnam all over again. Does that smell like that to you?
HENRY KISSINGER: Guerrilla wars, in a sense in that guerrillas dictate 95 percent of the electricity in Iraq. That’s hard to cover in your program. Blowing up a building– which may happen very rarely– nevertheless attracts a lot of attention. People who defend the existing order have to succeed nearly 100 percent of the time, the guerrillas only 1 percent or 2 percent. That’s the same.
But in Vietnam there were special circumstances. There were jungles in which to hide. There was an outside source of supply from the Soviet Union, which supplied almost all of the equipment. There were North Vietnamese divisions that were in the country, so that the forces that were used to defend the government had to fight both regular troops and guerrilla troops.
So in all these circumstances, the conditions in Iraq are more favorable. We have to remember, this is only the fourth month after military operations ended. I was in the occupation of Germany– which is not a great comparison necessarily, but there wasn’t a police force in Germany. We ran the whole thing for months.
JIM LEHRER: For a long time. Well, back to the theme of your book, “Crisis,” what do you want people to know as a result of reading your book, which is, as I say, mostly transcripts of your telephone conversations, which is very dramatic at times? But what should they know about handling crisis? Is there a message in the book or that you would like to say about… is there some special thing that people should bring to the table when they’re in the middle of a crisis like that?
HENRY KISSINGER: I think they should develop some almost compassion, or at least understanding for the decision maker that he doesn’t have a very clear idea what is going on. But the major task of the decision makers have to be first to find out what’s going on; then to define an objective; then to define a method by which to reach his objective; and then to convince a whole bunch of constituencies, foreign governments, congressional people, media people. And all of this has to be handled simultaneously with having all these balls in the air at the same time. So sometimes when a decision maker slips, when he says something that doesn’t turn out exactly as he predicted, that means that he was, on some level, as confused as everybody else.
JIM LEHRER: In fact, I read a review of your book that said that that is its underlying message in a way, that there is a fog that goes with every crisis; that nobody ever really knows… in fact, in your section on Vietnam, you spent hours on the phone just trying to find out how many Americans were still there to get out.
HENRY KISSINGER: That’s right. And at the end, after having spent a month on handling the evacuation and planning it and calling up and saying there are 800 left, and you get all the helicopters you need plus two for emergencies, 123 marines were left behind. And I had already had a press conference announcing, in good faith, that everybody had left. I come back to my office, and it says, well, they didn’t take out the marine guard battalion, or the guard unit, so we had to go back with three more helicopters and get them out.
JIM LEHRER: So information is crucial to anybody who is running a crisis.
HENRY KISSINGER: Information and a sense of direction, some understanding of what you are trying to do.
JIM LEHRER: And that has to come from the president, if you’re secretary of state, in most cases, right? And it did in both cases with you? Did you know exactly what the president wanted you to do in both those cases?
HENRY KISSINGER: As you see in the book, I had a major role, but I checked every major decision. I kept the president informed.
JIM LEHRER: President Nixon, in the first case.
HENRY KISSINGER: And President Ford in the second.
JIM LEHRER: Right. Dr. Kissinger, good to see you. Thank you for being with us. Good luck on your book. Next week, we’ll have another book conversation with a former secretary of state, when Madeleine Albright talks about her just-published memoirs.