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The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House, by Seymour M. Hersh

“Getting” Kissinger

The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House.
by Seymour M. Hersh.
Summit. 698 pp. $19.95.

This very long book is the latest sally in the war of a certain segment of the journalistic elite against the Nixon administration. Not content with having won a large battle that ended in the liquidation of that administration, lacking the ability to analyze and understand the policy issues, viewing the world through lenses dimmed by ideology and narrowed by ignorance, some among the Washington press corps are still searching out survivors upon whom to concentrate their personal attack. The major figure among such survivors is of course Henry Kissinger, and the effort to destroy him is the immediate purpose of Seymour Hersh’s 698 interminable pages.

To those very few people who will ever actually read The Price of Power (though many are buying it), the title should stand as an ironic commentary on the effects of megalomania on Washington journalists. For Hersh (who won a Pultizer Prize for his reportage on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam) is suffering under the delusion that in this book he has written a major work of history. He has not; anyone trying to understand American foreign policy in the period of the Nixon Presidency (the book covers the years 1968-73) is advised to look elsewhere. Hersh has produced nearly 700 pages of gossip, gathered and repeated without standards of evidence, thrown together without suitable context, and wrapped in judgmental language that insults the intelligence of the reader. The book is useful only for the light it throws on a “school” of journalism, the self-proclaimed investigative reporters, and on the view of the world held by an influential segment among them.

We have here, then, a compendium of all the nasty comments, snide remarks, unflattering recollections, and bitter self-justifications directed against Kissinger (and Nixon) that Hersh has managed to sweep up, mostly from individuals who lost out in policy or power struggles, some from sworn enemies of the United States. A number of these items may be true; many are demonstrably false. But all of them receive the same uncritical treatment. For Hersh, the truth is secondary to the main task—to “get Kissinger,” as he often put it to interviewers during his research. For these purposes he mainly attacks from the Left (e.g., accusing Kissinger of planning the overthrow of the Allende regime in Chile), but he is even willing where convenient to attack from the Right (claiming that Kissinger was not sufficiently tough with the Russians on the terms of SALT I).

Throughout, the unending refrain is that Kissinger (together with Nixon) based every foreign-policy decision primarily on domestic considerations, and in his actions was motivated entirely and exclusively by personal ambition and egotism. In this way he (no less than Nixon) mirrored the sins of the United States itself, a country fueled by greed (the multinationals) and imperial ambition (Vietnam and Chile). And just as the testimony of Kissinger’s personal enemies is recorded uncritically and given the benefit of every doubt, so America’s enemies, from Moscow to Santiago, are seen here as acting nobly and always seeking peace (while being frustrated, betrayed, and defrauded at every turn by the Americans). In his effort to “get” Kissinger, Hersh is out for even bigger game: through Kissinger, he is out to “get” America itself.

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In his obsessive pursuit of anything damaging to Kissinger, Hersh makes some remarkable claims. For example, Kissinger is held responsible for the Yom Kippur war, on the grounds that he sabotaged the 1969 Rogers plan for an imposed solution of the Middle East conflict. In the course of this “analysis,” Hersh writes revealingly that “Nixon and Kissinger could, so it seemed, be counted upon to try to stop the Russians no matter what the merits of the issues were.” The “merits” in this case, it is perhaps worth noting, were the introduction of advanced Soviet weapons into Egypt.

But then Hersh has in general adopted the anti-Israel world view, complete with dark whispers about the Israel lobby in Washington: “A Foreign Service officer, if he reports critically on Israeli policy in State Department cables, runs a risk of being labeled anti-Semitic. . . . The effect of these limitations has . . . been severe self-censorship by American officials, in the field and at home, in dealing with Israel. . . .” In Hersh’s eyes, Kissinger’s rage with State Department officials who supported Nasser’s claims (for Israel’s territory!) was unprofessional, and part of a generalized campaign against the “dedicated” State Department Arabists who “have invariably been written off by Israel and its supporters as pro-Arab and anti-Israel.” In short, Kissinger was himself part of the Jewish lobby—an idea that has not previously occurred to anyone involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Then there is Vietnam. Here Hersh, for all his vaunted original research, makes a great point of the “secret” bombing of Cambodia—a tale told some years ago by William Shawcross in Sideshow and firmly and convincingly refuted by former Kissinger aide Peter Rodman. But it would be churlish to deny that Hersh has done a great deal of original research on other aspects of the Vietnam war, or that he has had access to some spectacularly well-informed sources on the subject. Indeed, he has spoken to the North Vietnamese themselves, and evidently found them so reliable that he has embraced their view of the war.

Thus every statement from Hanoi is taken at face value by Hersh, and repeated without critical comment, including most astonishingly the claim that “There was no bloodbath in the South after Hanoi’s victory in 1975. . . .”

This assertion, made in the teeth of waves of “boat people” and other well-documented horrors, is of a piece with a series of articles Hersh wrote from Vietnam in the summer of 1979. In that series, which appeared in the New York Times, the economic plight of the country was blamed on the ethnic Chinese, who were leaving Vietnam for China; political repression was explained away by reference to the need to control black markets; and words like “brutal” were reserved for characterizing past American actions. Hersh did manage to find one person who had not “had . . . an easy time with reeducation programs.” This poor soul, Dr. Nguyen Hung Tin, formerly a colonel in the Saigon army, had spent two-and-a-half years in the “reeducation camps.” But, in Hersh’s words, “If he was bitter about the experience, the forty-seven-year old doctor did not show it during a 90-minute interview in Ho Chi Minh City. . . . ‘For myself,’ he said, ‘it was a pleasure, especially the manual labor.’ ”

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What was going on here? How is it that, at a time when the whole world was aghast at the viciousness of the Vietnamese regime, an intrepid investigative reporter could manage to uncover no serious wrongdoing? If Hersh himself were examining such a case, he would in all probability conclude that the reporter had traded benign coverage for new “dirt” on another subject of his investigations. But whether or not Hersh made such a deal with Hanoi in exchange for new “dirt” on Kissinger, we know that he made a similar deal in at least one other case.

Thus, seeking for evidence that Kissinger was deeply involved in an American conspiracy that led, in the end, to the murder of Allende and the overthrow of his Marxist-Leninist regime in Chile—a claim disputed by Kissinger and every other major American government official of the period—Hersh offered a deal to a key source, Edward Korry, former American Ambassador to Chile. Korry is an embittered man, and his is not the calmest voice in the current discussion, but this in no way impeaches what he wrote in December of last year to former Attorney General Edward Levi:

From 1974 to 1977, Hersh accumulated from me, in the name of the Times, a huge store of essential facts and documentation about Chile and my role. This material negated the allegations not only of my supposed perjury and involvement in CIA coup plottings [both of which Hersh was alleging in print], but of much else about the U.S. government’s and my actions, my character, and my beliefs. Hersh suppressed the rescuing facts to punish me, as he said then, for not helping him to “get” Kissinger. . . .

When, however, Hersh discovered that he needed Korry’s cooperation in order to write his book, he now offered to publish the “rescuing facts” he had previously suppressed. Korry decided to play along, this time after a written guarantee, and Hersh delivered, in his own way. On February 9, 1981, the readers of the New York Times discovered a most peculiar story on the front page: “Evidence has come to light suggesting that Mr. Korry, despite his strong opposition to the Allende candidacy, was frozen out of the planning for a proposed military coup and warned the White House. . . .” So Hersh “absolved” Korry of blame, after five years of disgrace and torment.

Nevertheless he continued to distort the facts about Chile, as Korry notes in his letter to Levi:

. . . by artful manipulation of material I had provided, by invention, by distortion of my statements, and by a total recasting of my life record (not to say that of the U.S. and the Allende governments’) he pours out the long-bottled truths . . . to falsify what actually occurred in Chile and in Washington. . . . [He] now uses . . . my information . . . to buttress the myths he was the first to plant and to propagate about the U.S.-in-Chile:—that the U.S. was responsible for the failure of the Allende regime, that U.S. hatred of Allende was so strong that we behaved inflexibly and dogmatically, that it was the U.S. [that] . . . overthrew Allende.

As Korry goes on to point out, it is very important that the world at large recognize the truth, not only because Hersh’s myths help spawn terrorism and anti-Americanism, but because without understanding Chile one cannot understand the problems the United States now faces in Central America. The historical truth is that “the U.S. made an all-out effort to reach a generous and fair agreement with a ‘Marxist’ regime in Chile in 1970-71”; Korry insists that Kissinger was fully supportive of this effort. Allende was not interested. The same can be said of American efforts to reach an agreement with Nicaragua in 1981-82, when we were similarly rebuffed.

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Whatever judgment one may pass in the end on the Kissinger period, it is, or should be, obvious that Hersh is too consumed with hatred to be of any help in assessing the record. But it is also important to recognize that it is not simply hatred of one or two men that drives Hersh. His aim is, to quote Korry again, “the capture of history.” In all the international events Hersh describes, it is the United States that foils efforts at peace, and bears the responsibility for war. Communist Vietnam is not criticized; Allende is called a moderate social democrat; the United States is always the aggressor.

These are recognizable themes. They are elements in the great campaign by which so many American journalists and other intellectuals have attempted to transform our sworn enemies into misunderstood innocents, and to portray our own leaders as the foes of freedom and democracy. Hersh’s latest contribution to this campaign is among the most dishonest, and the most disreputable.

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