Henry Kissinger wormed his way into Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign by volunteering to act as the Republican’s mole at the Paris peace negotiations to end the Vietnam War. Kissinger’s betrayal of President Johnson’s trust helped secure the election for Nixon and resulted in the war dragging on to its ignominious end in 1975.
by Don Fulsom
The traitor question at the heart of the debate over the behavior of today’s top leaker of classified data—NSA contractor Edward Snowden—could, justifiably, also be asked about the clandestine1968 activities of Harvard professor Henry Kissinger.
The politically ambitious Kissinger—a protégé of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller—was then a trusted advisor to Democratic President Lyndon Johnson at the critical Vietnam peace negotiations in Paris. But the brilliant foreign policy expert actually had dual loyalties in that sensitive mission: He also served as a mole for Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon.
From Paris, Kissinger regularly fed highly classified intelligence on the talks to Nixon, who used it in back-channel communications with South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu to prevent any pre-election progress toward peace by the Democrats.
A circumspect spy, the Harvard professor always used pay phones and spoke exclusively in German to his young Nixon campaign contact, Richard Allen (who spoke that language even better than the German-born Kissinger). Allen recalls that Kissinger “offloaded almost every night what had happened that day in Paris.”
These leaks of top-secret information were of immense assistance to Richard Nixon. The paranoid GOP contender was eager to use any and all means—including Kissinger’s furtive reports and advice—to keep LBJ from pulling an “October Surprise” that could end the increasingly unpopular fighting on the faraway battlefields. (A half-million U.S. troops were on the ground in South Vietnam; and the war was going poorly.)
David Davidson, a delegate to the Paris talks says that, in using Kissinger for intel and guidance, the Nixon team had a highly professional and accurate source for inside information: “Kissinger shared his analysis of what was happening with (the talks). And he was probably by far the most brilliant mind available to them, and the most sophisticated analyst.”
For Nixon, any meaningful move toward peace might end his longtime White House dreams. The Republican nominee rightly feared that any Democratic breakthrough at Paris in October could well propel his opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, to victory in November.
At the turn of this century, without knowing the full story of Nixon’s anti-peace moves, Christopher Hitchens asserted that the Republican candidate’s “illegal and surreptitious conduct not only prolonged an awful war but also corrupted and subverted a crucial presidential election. The combination,” he added, “must make it the most wicked action in American history.”
Henry Kissinger did not have to have his arm twisted to become Nixon’s 1968 Paris spymaster. Indeed, as Nixon-Kissinger go-between Richard Allen later observed, the esteemed academic had “on his own, volunteered information to us” on the negotiations. This account jibes with that of Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, who writes that Kissinger “approached John Mitchell … and said he was eager to pass on information to the Nixon camp, if his role could be kept confidential.”
In his revised and updated Vietnam: A History, Stanley Karnow agrees—stating that Kissinger “contacted the Republicans, offering to furnish them with covert information on Johnson’s moves … and Kissinger guided the Republicans secretly on the Vietnam issue for nearly two months—thus supplying Nixon with ammunition to blast Humphrey for ‘playing politics with war.’”
What did Allen do with the reams of unsolicited intelligence he got from Kissinger? At first, he briefed Nixon personally at the candidate’s Manhattan apartment. He wound up summarizing each Kissinger phone call in writing to Nixon and John Mitchell, Nixon’s campaign manager.
In his memos, Allen stressed the importance of keeping Kissinger’s involvement “absolutely confidential.” Many years later, Allen ruefully conceded to Nixon biographer Walter Isaacson, “I became a handmaiden of Henry Kissinger’s drive for power.” In a separate interview, Allen offered some backhanded praise for Kissinger’s courage: “It took some balls to give us those tips” because it was “a pretty dangerous thing for him to be screwing around with national security.”
Kissinger, of course, went on to become President Nixon’s national security advisor. As Kissinger’s top deputy, the new president chose Kissinger’s German-speaking co-conspirator in the anti-peace leaks from Paris. Kissinger is now 90; Allen—who wound up as President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisor—is 77.
The first journalist to reveal Kissinger’s 1968 espionage was Seymour Hersh. “It is certain,” Hersh declared in his1983 book, The Price of Power, “that the Nixon campaign, alerted by Kissinger to the impending success of the peace talks, was able to get a series of messages to the Thieu government (in Saigon) making it clear that a Nixon presidency would have different views on the peace negotiations.”
Kissinger denounced Hersh’s book as a pack of “slimy lies,” but he did not specifically deny being a spy for Nixon in Paris.
Hersh struck back in a 2002 TV interview: “Do I think (Kissinger) saw what he did as a betrayal of the peace process, or the move by Johnson to start the bombing halt? Um. I really think this guy doesn’t see it that way. He saw it as a means to an end—which is why he’s such a good apparatchik. He then was getting that job (as Nixon’s top national security advisor).
Just how did Nixon use the fruits of Kissinger’s 1968 duplicity? Every time peace seemed to be at hand in Paris that fall, he pressed President Thieu not to send a delegation to the talks because his government would get a better deal under a Nixon presidency.
The GOP nominee’s emissary to the South Vietnamese leader was a good friend of Thieu—Anna Chennault, a high-ranking Nixon campaigner. Also known as the “Dragon Lady,” the beautiful Chinese-born widow of an American war hero usually got Nixon’s “don’t go” messages (through Mitchell) to Thieu by way of South Vietnam’s ambassador to Washington, Bui Diem.
In the waning days of the election campaign, when President Johnson got wind of this seamy arrangement, he blew up and ordered FBI wiretaps placed on Chennault’s phone and had her tailed. Information from the taps—and from NSA intercepts and CIA eavesdropping—gave LBJ “smoking gun” evidence of Nixon’s treachery.
Though he was evidently unaware of Kissinger’s role in the ultimately successful operation (South Vietnam refused to attend the talks, and Nixon edged out Humphrey in the voting), Johnson privately labeled the activity “treason” and said Nixon had “blood on his hands.”
President Johnson declined to blow the whistle on Nixon, however, because he didn’t want to endanger the talks; cripple Nixon’s presidency before it even began; or “rock the world” by disclosing U.S. intelligence “sources and methods.”
Secretary of State Dean Rusk provided Johnson with another reason: “I do not believe that any President can make use of interceptions and telephone taps in any way that would involve politics. The moment we pass over that divide, we are in a different kind of society.”
Only in recent years has the complete sordid saga of Nixon’s efforts to sabotage the 1968 peace talks trickled out. In fact, LBJ’s observation that the Nixon forces had committed “treason” was not learned of until the LBJ Library released a batch of audiotapes in 2008.
Treason, however, evidently was the appropriate word to use. (The nation’s top elected Republican, Senator Everett Dirksen, agreed with Johnson’s description).
After all, the highest crime one can commit against his country is described in the Constitution as giving “aid and comfort” to the enemy. And the subversion of negotiations with a foreign power in opposition to official U.S. foreign policy sure seems like something that could benefit an enemy.
The top penalty for treason is death. But a traitor could get off with as few as five years in prison, a fine of $10,000, “and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.”
What President Johnson called “treason” could also be considered a war crime. More than 20,000 U.S. soldiers and millions of Indochinese died as a result of Nixon’s successful effort to steal the 1968 election. The Vietnam fighting continued—and was even expanded to Laos and Cambodia—until 1975, when North Vietnamese forces captured Saigon … and America lost its first war.
Nixon was never brought to justice for his Kissinger-aided 1968 anti-peace maneuvering—actions not covered by a 1974 pardon for his multitude of presidential sins. That’s because the former President died in 1994—many years before most of the 1968 evidence against him was made public. So history will have to judge our 37th president on that score.
Kissinger is still “at large,” however. But, sadly, he’s still too highly admired as an international celebrity and legendary diplomat to realistically fear being punished for any crime at this late date.