Opening Remarks by Dr. Henry Kissinger

DR. KISSINGER: Thank you very much. Let me--I've been asked to keep my remarks to 15 minutes, in which case you can all say you were present at a historic occasion. (Laughter.)

Let me make my remarks on three major points. One, what was the situation that President Nixon and his Security Advisor found when they entered office? Secondly, how did--what was the channel? What were we trying to accomplish? And third, what are the conclusions one can perhaps draw from this?

First, whatever various historians in this room may have written, I had never met President Nixon until he had been elected as President. And I had reached that eminence by opposing him in three presidential campaigns, primary campaigns, as the principal foreign policy advisor of Governor Rockefeller.

So President Nixon arrived into office with very clearly formed opinions about the nature of the international situation, and so did I. And those opinions were congruent, no matter what comments you may find in phone conversations at the end of the day which prove preconceived ideas. In fact, one could say that whatever was achieved in the Nixon Administration was due to the fact that there was a substantial philosophical agreement about what was attempted to be done.

The Nixon Administration took office six months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in the midst of the Vietnamese War in which there were 520,000 Americans in Vietnam, and their number was still increasing for the first three months of the Nixon Administration on a schedule established by our predecessors. In the previous five years, there had been two assassinations in America, the most recent, less than a year before Nixon achieved office. The country was as divided as it had ever been in its history and the issue whether the administration desired peace--any administration, our predecessors and we ourselves--was a crucial issue in the American domestic debate. The defense appropriations were under constant attack and it was possible to maintain the defense program of our predecessors and the slightly modified program of the Nixon Administration only against the most intense opposition. The missile defense program of the Nixon Administration was passed by one vote in the authorization process and then reduced every year in the appropriations process.

Now, that was the situation in which we found ourselves. Now, the Soviet Union had started a massive buildup of its strategic weapons, which in numbers exceeded our own. At the same time, we faced what we considered to be an obligation to end the oscillation in this country between extremes of commitment and extremes of withdrawal, and anchor it into some permanent perception of the American national interest.

Secondly, we felt we owed it to the American public to demonstrate a permanent commitment to a period of what President Nixon called negotiation, a commitment to the desirability of peaceful resolutions of disputes, and to make permanent efforts to bridge the gaps that existed between us and the Soviet Union, between us and China, and to solve the Vietnam War on a basis which we considered honorable, which meant that we were not prepared to turn over the people who, in reliance on American promises by our predecessors, had staked their fate on America.

Those were the principles which governed our strategy. And it was expressed in, on the one hand, resistance to any expansion of the Soviet sphere based on the use or the threat of force; a maintenance of a strategic equilibrium between us and the Soviet Union. But it was also based on a serious effort to open a negotiating channel.

Now then, how did what is called "the channel" in this book come into existence? It is fair and correct to say that President Nixon entered office with a profound distrust of this Department. That was based partly on his experiences, or as he described his experiences, when he was traveling as a defeated candidate in the 1960 elections and as an aspirant candidate from '64 to '68. He perceived that he had been treated inappropriately and with condescension. I can make no comment because I did not witness it, but it would be wrong to underestimate the depths of his feelings.

Secondly, it was equally important to understand, because I participated in that, when it came time to organize the structure of national security after his election, the person on whom he relied most was General Goodpaster. I had no fixed views on that subject at the time because I didn't have enough experience at that time.

And General Goodpaster and I called on President Eisenhower, and President Eisenhower passionately stated that whatever else was done, the chairmanship of all inter-departmental committees could not be in the Department of State; it had to be, according to President Eisenhower, in the White House. I pointed out--I--m not arguing these points. I just want to give you the history of how this all evolved. And this combined with President Nixon's already settled view that he wanted to run foreign policy out of the White House that he had stated in the election campaign. So from the very beginning, before my relationship with Nixon was firmly established, he told the Soviet Ambassador, as you will see in this book, in the very first meeting that he wanted a special channel that would--ran from Dobrynin to me. And this was three weeks after I met Nixon for the first time.

Now, again, if we are dealing here with historians, Nixon was reinforced in this view by a tendency of this building, which you will--some of you may agree, others not--which is this. When the State Department is overruled on something by the White House, its basic assumption is not that it was wrong or that the President has stated a view; its basic assumption is that it was misunderstood and that it has to take another shot at it, and another shot and the modifications of what had been originally produced. So one is engaged in an endless guerrilla war unless the State Department is run by somebody who is very close to the President. And that difference doesn't arise. What cannot happen, in my view, bureaucratically, is that the State Department wins a bureaucratic battle with the White House, no matter who is right, and that is however what happened. On many of the key issues--linkage, could one proceed on a broad basis with the Soviet Union, the timing of the initiation of negotiations, how best to proceed with China--there were not only disagreements, which can be helpful, but there were disagreements that couldn't end, that wouldn't ever end. And there are many explanations for that and I've offered to meet with the historians here separately to go into that. But there was a real problem. It was not just an invention of the President or of myself. And I can tell you, as somebody who had to manage this process, it had a nightmarish quality when the Department which had all the diplomats was going one way, the White House was going another way, and you could never be 100 percent sure who was saying what to whom.

Now, then it's important to understand how the channel actually operated. It's often presented by people who write on it as if the White House just invented its strategy and went ahead on its own. But this isn't actually how it operated. General Goodpaster, and I suppose myself in the interim between the election and the inauguration of the President, established a very systematic national security procedure which operated through various regional groups, through a senior review group, to the National Security Council. And I would urge historians who now seem to me to specialize on finding a sentence in a phone conversation that demonstrates what they thought they already knew to begin with, and do it more as a criminal investigation than as a historical investigation. I urge them to read these inter-departmental meetings, the Washington Special Action Groups, which were done in great detail. What we did in the channel was we took the material from these special--from these groups and we selected one of the options, so everybody participated in creation of the options but not everybody participated in the choice of the options. And this is how the channel--how it was possible to conduct this wide array of negotiations with the Soviet Union basically through a channel restricted to two individuals because, actually, the input of the bureaucracy was very decisive. And ironically, it worked very well as long as the bureaucracy didn't know that the channel existed, because then they put forward their best efforts to find a consensus in the inter-departmental process.

Once it became clear that the channel existed, in late '72, then each of the elements in this process would put forward their maximum position and let the White House worry about resolving it. So, actually, by the time I became Secretary of State, the channel, as the channel was breaking--was not breaking down as a channel, but the bureaucratic backup for it was breaking down, Détente got on a violent controversy. And so then when I was made Secretary of State, the channel in its old sense didn't exist anymore because it moved into the State Department. I could use State Department backup, and all it was then was a very intense conversation between the Secretary of State and the Soviets, and the Soviet Ambassador, who was outstanding.

One of the attributes of this channel was that we could spend time on philosophical issues. We did not come to each meeting with a formal position and begin negotiating. We would have sessions which I described, or which we described to each other, as thinking out loud. And I would say, for example, "Let me tell you how we think about this problem. We haven't made a proposal yet, but when we make a proposal, you ought to understand the thinking that is behind it. And if there is a crisis, you ought to understand what we are trying to achieve." And I think that brought--there must be many documents to that effect in here, and this helped negotiations.

Nor should it be thought that the channel was an idyllic friendship (inaudible). On what we called the month of crisis, when simultaneously a Soviet submarine base was built in Cienfuegos, Soviet troops appeared along the Suez Canal, Syrian troops invaded Jordan, that was not what you would describe as an idyllic period. But the channel continued to work. Similarly, during the India-Pakistan crisis, which was not--which was handled as far as the White House was concerned as a Soviet-Indian cooperation, in the interval between my visit to China in 19--in July and Nixon's visit to China in February. So it had to us a geopolitical consequence which transcended the Bangladesh issue.

But I think I've given you a flavor, but what emerged out of this was a degree of confidence in understanding each other's perceptions, of the necessities of handling crises and of a larger view. As far as the American public was concerned, we felt it imperative to demonstrate a commitment to peace. As far as the Soviet Union was concerned, we felt it important to demonstrate to the Soviet Union that if they conducted the foreign policy of a normal great power, we would have differences but they would be manageable differences. What would drive differences out of control was the attempt to achieve domination in areas that were of vital interest to us or vital interest to both of us.

And it is based on these assumptions that a number of agreements were made. And for example, the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement, which was really an attempt by us to cap the growth of the Soviet missile force, and whose numbers, even though it became very controversial, whose numbers were never altered in the 25 years that followed it or in the 20 years that followed it. The statement of certain principles of international conduct--of course, we knew countries would not consult their lawyers and see what principles, but they would create a basis from which one could either come together or come to a place of resistance.

Access to Berlin was handled in this manner and led to an agreement that lasted for the entire Cold War period.

Then, in America we had Watergate, which was unpredictable, and the collapse of executive authority, and even more the collapse of the comity between the Congress and the Executive Branch and between the media and the Executive Branch, so that issues became highly controversial that normally would have been considered as part of tactical disagreements within an agreed framework. But despite all of this, which was symbolized in part by the issue of Jewish emigration, which we had handled in the channel and in which we had managed to increase emigration from the Soviet Union from 900 to 40,000 and which once it became a public issue dropped down to 10--15,000--it never went back--we did it by doing--operating through the channel. And I'm not going to--the point here it's not the degree of publicity one should give policy.

But with all of this, we managed to conclude the European Security Conference which established certain moral principles or human rights principles, which later on proved of the greatest significance.

Now, what does it mean for the current period? I must say I agreed completely with what the Secretary of State said here. I think she expressed exactly what my views would be on this issue. Russia is in a new and complex position. It has lost 300 years of its history. Its borders are back to where they were under the Peter the Great. This is bound to be an event of tremendous emotional significance and it is bound to produce an attempt to reassert themselves.

Secondly, Russia borders three problematical borders from a geopolitical point of view: a long border with China on the one side of which is highly under-populated, on the other side it's over a billion people, in territory that has been historically contested; a border with Russia--with the Muslim world which is in the throes of a jihadist attempt to overthrow the state system as it was developed; and then a western border which sort of one would say should be a border of peace but which has been identified in the Russian mind with histories such as in Ukraine or Georgia which have been part of Russian history and which make it hard for Russia to think of them as totally foreign countries. But in each of these borders, America and Russia have some common interests and therefore should be able to cooperate to some considerable extent. And therefore the question is how do we do it. I'm not saying that the methods used in the Nixon Administration were ideal. Ideally, the relationship should be a very strong Secretary of State, very close to the President; then the system works. And that's substantially what is happening now.

But it is important to have a dialogue with--a permanent dialogue with Russia and not one that is just geared to the immediate issues, a dialogue that can look five years ahead. And I think that this visit of the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense in Russia provides a forum where this can go and take place. And of course, all of us in this room know it won't end with this administration. The new administration will have to pick up where this administration ends. And hopefully, not by eradicating everything that's gone before, but to try to establish a level of permanence that's actually, since Russia is also changing administrations to some degree, this is a requirement (inaudible) as well. I have proved that I can't talk in 15 minutes. (Laughter.) If you could hear me in German, it would go on even longer and you wouldn't get to the verb until the end of 20 minutes. (Laughter.)

DR. SUSSER: Thank you, Dr. Kissinger. Dr. Schlesinger, please.