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The White House, Bureaucracy, and Foreign Policy: Lessons From Cambodia

ISSUE:  Spring 1980

Henry Kissinger published Volume One of his memoirs, The White House Years, through Little, Brown, a subsidiary of Time, Inc.; released it through the Book-of-the-Month Club, another Time, Inc. company; and permitted Time itself to run lengthy prepublication excerpts in the magazine’s October 1979 issues. So perhaps it was not so surprising after all that Kissinger chose People, Time, Inc.’s hybrid of the old Life and the new National Enquirer, as his forum to discuss how he put his 700,000-word, 1,521-page opus together.

According to People’s Patricia Burstein, Kissinger “worked on the project for more than 15 months, encouraged by his wife, Nancy, and with Tyler, their beloved yellow Labrador, usually at his side.” (People: “Will Tyler like your memoirs?” Kissinger: “He is very understanding.” ) The desk at which he wrote overlooked New York’s East River (“very consoling”); while planted there for some 40 to 50 hours a week (P: “How did you keep your weight down?”; K: “I just didn’t get up and have a soda or sandwich”), Kissinger said he used “a combination of memory, notes I kept, plus documents to enable me to reconstruct what happened.” Interestingly, this long period of research and reflection produced no second thoughts. “You must remember this—” he admonished Ms. Burstein, “if a serious person is conducting policy he will have thought through the implications of his actions when he took them.”

Others, however, had been having grave second thoughts about Kissinger’s White House years. One in particular, a 32-year-old British journalist named William Shawcross, was proving to be a particular nemesis. From 1970 to 1974, Shawcross had worked variously as a Vietnam reporter for The Sunday Times of London, the Washington correspondent of the New Statesman, co-author of a Times “Insight” book on Watergate, and a visiting fellow on the staffs of Senator Edward Kennedy and Representative Les Aspin. His knowledge of Indochina and of how Washington works proved invaluable when, in mid-1975, he began research for a book about Cambodia, which had just fallen under the ruthless control of the Communist Khmer Rouge. Using the Freedom of Information Act with great skill, Shawcross persuaded the State and Defense departments, the C.I.A., the National Security Council, and other government agencies to release “several thousand pages of memoranda, cables, and internal histories” whose “classification ranged from “Confidential” to “Top-Secret-Sensitive-Eyes-of-Addressee-Only-No-Forn” (no foreigners).” These documents, along with some 300 interviews of officials in the United States, China, and other countries (not including Kissinger, who refused to see him), provided the basis for Sideshow. Simon and Schuster published it in April 1979, just as Kissinger was beginning the final revisions of his own book.

Sideshow’s thesis—which, as its subtitle, Kissinger, Nixon and the Destruction of Cambodia, suggests, is that “They created the Khmer Rouge”—was vexing to Kissinger by itself. Shawcross argued—not originally, but with persuasive documentation—that the Nixon administration’s 1969 secret bombing and 1970 “incursion” against North Vietnamese “sanctuaries” in eastern Cambodia had served only to drive Hanoi’s armies deeper into the neutral nation’s interior. There they and the previously dormant Khmer Rouge rebels had clashed with Cambodian troops, touching off yet another North Vietnamese-aided civil war. Inevitably, wrote Shawcross—given the “logic” of our foreign policy at the time—the United States escalated its involvement; propped up a new, inept but pro-American regime; and, through six years of bombing, ravaged with fire and sword the Cambodian countryside. A third of the nation’s people became refugees; the capital city’s population swelled from 600,000 to two million; starvation became commonplace in what had been a rice-exporting nation. This destruction, Shawcross continued, set the stage for the brutal triumph of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the subsequent invasion and takeover by the equally merciless Vietnamese, and the mass suffering that has grown steadily more horrible ever since. “Cambodia was not a mistake; it was a crime,” Shawcross concluded: for the sake of preserving a futile policy in Vietnam, Kissinger and Nixon had callously laid waste to a neutral third party. Coming from the son of Hartley Shawcross, the chief British prosecutor at Nuremberg, this was an unmistakably pointed charge.

If Sideshow’s contents were challenging enough to Kissinger, the reaction to the book was, from his standpoint, even worse. “It is the book you see carried openly, title showing, in the corridors of power in Washington,” reported Herbert Mitgang in the May 13, 1979 Sunday New York Times. “No book this year has been greeted with such respect by the critical community.” General James Gavin, the renowned World War II paratroop commander, said Shawcross “ha[d] written the first truly significant book about our Indochina involvement.” When NEC refused to invite the author to appear on its “Today” program to discuss Sideshow, rumors spread that pressure from Kissinger, a paid NEC consultant, was the reason. A Sunday “Doonesbury” cartoon showed Kissinger telling a college seminar that American intervention in Cambodia had begun “at the personal request of Prince Sihanouk,” the nation’s ruler in 1969. Asked by a student if he could remember Sihanouk’s exact words, Kissinger replied, “Yes. He said, “Henry, please drop three times as many bombs on my country as were dropped on Japan in all of World War II.” “(Columnist Anthony Lewis pointed out that this was an understatement—the 539,129 tons of bombs that American planes left in Cambodia were more than three times the tonnage that fell on Japan.)

It still is not clear how much all this affected Kissinger’s final revisal of his memoirs, but one can see the problem Shawcross’s book had created for him. Kissinger certainly did not want to dwell on Sideshow—after all, his own book was being written for the ages, for “people in the future (to) see how somebody in high office perceived his choices,” as he put it to People. By spending precious pages rebutting Sideshow, he would risk making Shawcross and his thesis a part of history, too. On the other hand, Sideshow’s astonishing critical success meant that to ignore it completely might be taken by reviewers and future historians as a concession that Shawcross’s charges were irrefutable.

Kissinger told People that he resolved his dilemma by merely “add[ing] one or two footnotes” to dispose of Shawcross’s “one-sided polemic.” This simply is not true, according to New York Times reporter Wolfgang Saxon, who saw Kissinger’s corrected galley proofs of Chapter 12, the major Cambodian chapter in The White House Years. Though Sideshow is mentioned by name only in footnotes 8 and 15, Saxon found evidence that Kissinger had made “many additions, deletions, and changes of phrases and paragraphs.” Certainly Chapter 12 is the most defensive and disputatious in tone—the experience of reading it is not unlike that of hearing someone argue aloud in his sleep with some unnamed tormentor.

Other prepublication activities by Kissinger also suggest that Sideshow was much on his mind. In August, he wrote a long letter to The Economist to argue that “the basic point of Mr. Shawcross’s book” is “obscene.” In his controversial October interview with David Frost on NEC, Kissinger came so primed to attack the Sideshow argument that he began answering Shawcross’s charges before Frost even raised them. (Kissinger: “It is total hypocrisy—”; Frost: “I’ve not made that point—don’t, don’t give me points that I’m not making.”) Later that month, apparently having decided once again that to discuss Shawcross’s case was to dignify it, Kissinger denied to an interviewer in Frankfurt, West Germany that he had made any revisions as a result of Sideshow and dismissed the book as “a shoddy, outrageous work that is filled with inaccuracies.”

One result of all this posturing is that if there is a thorough defense to be made against Shawcross’s detailed indictment of America’s actions in Cambodia, Kissinger has yet to make it. In fact, to the extent that Kissinger treats Sideshow’s argument at all in his memoirs (without ever mentioning Shawcross by name), he does so in a way that sustains—sometimes inadvertently—Sideshow’s two major theses.

The first is that American policy toward Cambodia was shaped almost exclusively by the White House, not only without the counsel of the State and Defense departments and other executive agencies, but despite their counsel. Kissinger’s description of the week of decision-making that preceded the United States’ April 28, 1970 invasion of Cambodia is instructive. At an April 22 National Security Council meeting, he records, “the preferred course of the State and Defense departments” was “doing nothing” even though “the North Vietnamese were systematically expanding their sanctuaries.” Urged on by Kissinger and goaded to be tough by the vicepresident (“Agnew was right,” is Kissinger’s verdict), Nixon decided to invade. Reluctantly, Secretary of State William Rogers and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird gave passive assent—until the day before the invasion, when on the basis of more information, they weighed in with last-minute doubts. “The final decision to proceed,” Kissinger concludes, “was thus . . . taken carefully, with much hesitation, by a man who had to discipline his nerves almost daily, to face his associates and to overcome the partially subconscious, partially deliberate procrastination of his executive departments. The fact remains that in Cambodia, Nixon was right. And he was President.”

Kissinger also lends inadvertent support to Shawcross’s argument that American actions in Cambodia were taken with little regard for the welfare of Cambodia itself, as a “sideshow” to our effort to exit Vietnam gracefully. In one typical passage, Kissinger writes: “From an inexhaustible national masochism there sprang the folklore that American decisions triggered the Cambodia nightmare. . . . The military responses we made were much agonized over and in our view minimal if we were to conduct a retreat [from Vietnam] that did not become a rout.” Later he adds that not invading Cambodia was an option “we did not have, for the prospect it describes would have meant an overwhelming, insurmountable and decisive menace to the survival of South Viet Nam.”

In view of the evidence at hand, some critics have argued that the major unresolved issue in the Cambodian controversy is whether the Nixon-Kissinger policy was merely ill-conceived and amoral or, as Shawcross insists, willfully. insensitive and thus immoral. The danger in pursuing such issues—the “Who lost China?” dispute of 30 years ago is the best example—is that they involve post hoc investigations of personal motive and probity which invariably shed more heat than light. Surely there is more to be gained from directing our attention to the other, more serious issue that comes from a close reading of Sideshow and The White House Years. The issue is that of how foreign policy properly should be made within the executive apparatus of a democratic society—by the elected chief executive or the permanent bureaucracy.


To address this question adequately, we first need to go back a few years. For though the 1970’s now are commonly regarded as the time when anti-bureaucratic feeling spread leftward to span the political spectrum (primarily as a response to the perceived failures of the Great Society’s domestic poverty programs), the truth is that the liberal turn against executive bureaucracy already had begun a decade earlier in the area of foreign affairs. Civilian foreign policy agencies such as the State Department were among the chief villains of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days and the other instant Kennedy administration memoirs, books which still were celebrating blissfully the virtues of the domestic agencies. Why this earlier, now unremarked turn? In Bureaucracy and Foreign Policy (the book which, I should make plain at the outset, has shaped my thinking on the subject since its publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1972), Francis Rourke suggests a plausible theory: “Former members of the Kennedy administration led the way in attacks on the role of bureaucracy in foreign affairs in part, perhaps, in an effort to shift the blame for Vietnam from the political echelons in which they had temporarily served to the career bureaucrats they had always held in some contempt.” Whatever their motives, though, the ex-New Frontiersmen and their scholar-allies offered a vigorously argued indictment of the executive foreign affairs establishment. It is a case worth reviewing in any discussion of how foreign policy should be made, in part because of its intellectual merits, which are considerable, and in part because of its immediate practical effects, which were venal. Indeed, both the personal, White House-dominated style of foreign policy making that the Nixon administration employed and, equally important, the wide acceptance of the legitimacy and virtues of that style at the time, can be traced in no small measure to the effects of the Kennedy liberals’ anti-bureaucratic critique.

The wellspring of most pathologies in foreign policy making, as liberal critics saw it, was bureaucracy’s preoccupation with its self-interests at the expense of all others. “It [was] argued,” Professor Rourke observes, “that bureaucracies push for policies designed to serve not so much the national interest as their own hegemonic ambitions as organizations—competing more for primacy in the governmental structure of the United States than with any foreign adversary.” This selfishness, the argument went, poisons agencies’ behavior in their two major areas of responsibility and power: first, as givers of information and advice to the president so that he can make intelligent decisions, and second, as faithful agents of policy implementation once those decisions are made.

With regard to the first area, it was said that the information presidents were getting from bureaucracy often was structured not to inform their actions, but rather to predetermine them. As a rule, Morton Halperin complained, agencies like to channel the discussion the president hears prior to decision into three options, only one of which is plausible: “You can blow up the world, do as we say, or surrender to the Kremlin.” This is exactly what happened in the summer of 1964, James C. Thomson, Jr. records, when President Johnson asked the departments to work up as wide a range of possible Vietnam courses as possible and was advised almost unanimously to bomb the North (or “blow up the world, or scuttle-and-run”); Kissinger himself suggests only half in jest that “a totally ignorant decision maker could satisfy his departments by blindly choosing Option Two of any three choices submitted to him.” Ironically, two characteristics of the structure of the foreign affairs bureaucracy that were intended to enhance its accountability to the president—internal hierarchy and the consolidation of the military services into a single Department of Defense—were said to have made it all the harder for him to overcome these information distortions. “Hierarchy,” notes Rourke, “ma[de] it impolitic for subordinates to disagree openly with superior officials who control job assignments and other avenues of career advancement.” (Franklin Roosevelt liked to quote the advice one veteran foreign service officer gave to his colleagues: “You can get to be a Minister if a) you are loyal to the service; b) you do nothing to offend people; c) if you are not intoxicated at public functions.”) As for consolidation, it meant that the Army, Navy, and Air Force would speak with one voice instead of three; disagreements that used to reach the president’s ears, taking up his time but also offering him several realistic choices, now tended to be smoothed out first within the Pentagon.

Liberal critics found equally severe pathologies of organizational self-interest in bureaucracy’s exercise of its second important responsibility, that of policy implementation. The story—apocryphal, some revisionists now say—of President John F. Kennedy’s discovery during the Cuban missile crisis that his earlier order to remove American Jupiter missiles from Turkey had been shelved by the State Department often was cited as an example of bureaucracy’s unwillingness to obey directives it doesn’t like. There was something to this; as Rourke writes, “Bureaucratic resistance or incapacity may spell the doom of even the most modest policy proposals.” A more common and, perhaps, more important danger was said to come when agencies did implement presidential policies, but only after tailoring them to fit their own organizational interests. Just as professions must profess if they are to flourish, so must organizations try to organize policies in line with their particular capabilities and long-established methods of performing them—their standard operating procedures, or “SOP’s.” Naturally, on most issues where there is any doubt about what to do, State is predisposed to a diplomatic course, the armed services to a military one, and so on. Once set in motion, their SOP’s for effecting these strategies of action make any reversal or even change of the chosen course difficult to effect; like any body in motion, a bureaucracy tends to stay in motion, sometimes with consequences that policymakers never intended. Again there is a certain irony in all this. SOP’s were justified because they made subordinates “go by the book” and thus kept them accountable to those above. But in limiting the independence and power of individual low-level bureaucrats, SOP’s also enhanced the independent power of the organizations they served.

There was little to quarrel with, then or now, in the criticisms of the foreign policy bureaucracy that liberals were making in the mid-1960’s. The political effects of their criticisms, however, later would seem less agreeable. The State Department’s power, tenuous in the best of times because of long-standing conservative opposition and the department’s lack of a domestic constituency, was shattered by this assault from its traditional friends. A similar liberal-conservative consensus kept Congress and the public as impotent in foreign policy as ever; they were too dovish for conservative tastes, yet not “reliable” enough to overcome liberal suspicions, born of pre-World War II isolationism, that voters and their elected representatives are, in Walter Lippman’s phrase, “too pacifist in peace and too bellicose in war.” The power of the military bureaucracy expanded to fill much of the vacuum, another unpleasant consequence for liberals of their denunciations of the civilian agencies. (Actually, the military’s power in foreign affairs had been growing ever since the postwar decision to pursue cold war with a large defense establishment created a pork barrel that overflowed into virtually every congressional district in the country and a large constituency of veterans to boot.) But, ex-New Frontiersmen argued in the mid-1960’s, all this was an acceptable price because they were placing their chips on the White House (now that it was unimpeded by stodgy State) to bring boldness and good sense to foreign policy and to keep the Pentagon in line. Soon after his appointment as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger told a reporter that he shared this sentiment: “There are 20,000 people in the State Department and 50,000 in Defense . . . and they all want to do what I’m doing. So the problem becomes: how do you get them to push papers around, spin their wheels, so that you can get your work done?”

In reflecting on this, with all the wisdom hindsight affords, one is reminded of nothing so much as W. W. Jacob’s “The Monkey’s Paw.” The lesson of that classic story of two parents who, granted three wishes, have them fulfilled but in ways too horrible to imagine, is that sometimes it is best not to get what you think you want. Liberals did, however. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the effects of a foreign policy apparatus dominated by the military and the “wrong” kinds of powerful presidents became altogether clear. Sideshow, a book that somehow manages to combine lucid writing, scholarly rigor, and moral fervor, is the clearest and most persuasive account yet of what those effects were.

Sideshow is such a good book, in fact, that the only fully adequate summary of it would be virtually a full repetition of its 466 pages, the only complete discussion of its implications a book twice that length. In lieu of that, and in preference to a scatter-shot presentation of its high points, perhaps we should dwell instead on two of Sideshow’s more compelling images. One illustrates the undesirability of having the White House replace the bureaucracy as the chief generator of information and advice in foreign affairs, the other the impossibility of its doing so as policy implementer, bureaucracy’s second major area of responsibility.

First, the “Nisim,” which is what the Nixon White House called NSSM’s, or National Security Study Memoranda. Nisims were a brainchild of Kissinger and Morton Halperin, his antiwar aide and former colleague at Harvard. They were meant to work as follows: a Nisim would begin when either President Nixon or his national security adviser (Kissinger) decided he wanted to find out all he could about a particular foreign problem or situation. Kissinger would circulate a twoto-three page memo among all the concerned agencies, asking that they send up whatever advice and information they had that was pertinent. The bureaucracy’s varied responses would be collated by Kissinger—whose role, Halperin proposed, would be only that of a “traffic cop”—then passed on to Nixon for consideration.

In theory, the Nisim was a marvelous device for informing decisions—a sure cure for the pathologies of narrow bureaucratic information-giving the Kennedy alumni had been criticizing. Liberals applauded it as fervently as they had applauded Kissinger’s appointment (“I’ll sleep better with Henry Kissinger in Washington,” Adam Yarmolinsky had said). In practice, though, Nisims served a less lofty purpose, at least on those issues that were of central concern to the Nixon White House. In practice, Shawcross shows, they were devices to achieve Kissinger’s goal of “keeping the departments occupied and under the illusion that they were participating in the policy-making process while decisions were actually made in the White House.” Thus did the traffic cop get all the cars snarled up, then drive off himself on a clear road.

To be sure, Kissinger’s machinations meant that the White House was now free of the bureaucracy’s information-gathering pathologies. But he and Nixon proceeded to relocate all of them within the White House itself. If executive agencies had been guilty of giving presidents only the information they wanted to give, so were Nixon and Kissinger guilty of receiving only that which they wanted to receive. In December 1968, for example, Kissinger forbade Daniel Ellsberg, whom he had asked for an options paper on Vietnam, from including unilateral withdrawal as one of the options. Later, when our Ambassador to Cambodia, Emory Swank, began expressing mild reservations about our policy there, Kissinger had him reassigned to Norfolk. (In the FBI, Siberia is Butte, Montana; in the foreign service, it’s Norfolk). Secretary of State Rogers, who had been kept out of the early planning of the Cambodia invasion, weighed in at the end with some objections. Kissinger’s response was to close his department’s Cambodian desk out of all subsequent top-secret cable traffic. Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel, who brought Nixon the bad news that students were rebelling, was fired almost immediately. Eventually Rogers was booted out as well, to be replaced by Kissinger himself.

Biased advice, distorted reporting, hierarchic suppression of dissent—sound familiar? What’s more, the White House revived an old pathology, one traditionally associated with bureaucracy but less so in the Freedom of Information Act and whistle-blowing age: obsessive secrecy. Nixon and Kissinger were men driven by the need for secrecy in policy-making, and the more open—as well as leak-prone—bureaucracy infuriated them. As a result, knowledge of the 1969 bombings of Cambodia was kept not only from the public and Congress, but also from the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff—even the Pentagon’s secret records were altered on the grounds that they weren’t secret enough! Leaks are unpleasant and sometimes harmful, but they do have the effect of airing out policy for wider discussion. So tightly held was information in the Nixon administration that when General Creighton Abrams was planning the Cambodia invasion, he was unable to find out how many bridges his troops would have to cross—no one who could answer his question was cleared for the planning and thus could be asked.

Another defect of foreign policy making was unique to the White House-centered style. As cultural and impersonal bureaucratic influences on decision-making declined in power, so did the importance of presidential character grow. Professor Rourke reminds us that both Kennedy (whose first reaction to the Cuban missile crisis was “He can’t do this to me!”) and Johnson (who feared being “the first American president to lose a war”) were prone to project their egos onto the world stage. But nobody did so more pathologically than Nixon. The decision to invade Cambodia, Shawcross shows, was charged with psychological overtones. Enraged by the protests of “bums blowing up campuses” and the Senate’s rejection of his Supreme Court nominations (to Kissinger: “Those senators think they can push me around, but I’ll show them who’s tough”), Nixon resolved to launch the sudden invasion, then shocked even the military leaders who had supported it with his vitriol. The morning after American soldiers crossed the border into Cambodia, Nixon curtly interrupted a progress briefing by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to harangue them in locker-room language on the need to “electrify people with bold decisions.” “”Let’s go blow the hell out of them,” he shouted, while the Chiefs, Laird and Kissinger sat mute with concern.” (George Smiley, the central character in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, tells his superior that there is a lot to be learned from the cover an enemy agent chooses; if he constructs a false identity that is five years younger than he, for example, that tells you something about his vanity. Nixon’s cover, H. R. Haldeman records in The Ends of Power, was instability. “T call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything.”“)

The pervasiveness of the Nixon-Kissinger influence on the foreign policy-making of that administration makes it easy to forget just how powerful the Pentagon—more ascendant over State than ever in the wake of the ex-New Frontiersmen’s assault—remained in the second traditional area of bureaucratic power: policy implementation. This, of course, is inherent in modern government; a small number of people may be able to decide what is to be done, but they must trust to large organizations actually to do it. With that trust goes a certain delegation of power. Nothing illustrates this better than Shawcross’s second image: the Air Force “fire hose.”

The Air Force’s posture within the postwar military has been that of the textbook bully: powerful but insecure. Its power comes from the primacy in modern warfare of air-delivered nuclear weapons. Its insecurity is born of air power’s essentially trivial role in the limited wars that, ironically, are characteristic of the nuclear age. In Korea, the Air Force felt it had been slighted; in Vietnam, it decided, it wasn’t about to be. By swinging its considerable political weight and by playing to Johnson and Nixon’s desire to battle the North while keeping American casualties low, the Air Force got its foot in the door.

Air Force SOP’s then came into play. Once bombers were assigned to Southeast Asia, they had to be kept busy. In a classified study, a senior Pentagon analyst likened the result to a fire hose “running under full pressure most of the time and pointed with the same intensity at whichever area is allowed, regardless of its relative importance in the scheme of things.” In late 1968, the power of the fire hose was such that President Johnson was able to stop bombing the North without rousing military ire only because he allowed the Air Force to bomb Laos instead. When the Paris Peace Agreement of early 1973 ended the bombing in Laos and Vietnam, the full force of the fire hose was turned on Cambodia; over the next halfyear, as many bombs were dropped each month on Cambodia as had been dropped on it in all of 1972. Explained William Colby: “Cambodia was then the only game in town.”

The fire hose is only representative of the importance of the military bureaucracy’s standard operating procedures in the implementation of our Indochina policy. All through the war, the Air Force dropped its bombs, despite a host of strategic studies that demonstrated the ineffectiveness of saturation bombing; the Army massed large troop formations for battle as in World War II and Korea, even though such tactics were inappropriate for guerrilla fighting; and the Navy, after decades spent perfecting procedures of sea battle, shelled the shores of Indochina’s rivers as if there were enemy ships in the jungle. Sometimes the results were blackly humorous. From the start, for example, American military advisers insisted on remaking the primitive Cambodian army in the American brigade and division command model, even though its own more diffuse structure surely was better-suited to fighting guerrillas. In one instance, an American general insisted that Cambodian authorization forms be written in English, which few native officers knew. The Cambodians drew up a form in both English and Khmer. No good, said the general—it “had no ability to interface carbon paper between the copies.” So he imported trained English-speaking Filipinos to take over from the Cambodian quartermasters. As for State’s embassy people, Cambodia was such a “professional backwater” for them that most moved on as soon as they could, many without learning French, much less Khmer.

In Vietnam, liberal critics of bureaucracy had argued, the momentum of bureaucratic SOP’s had drawn us deeper into war than anyone had intended. A modest decision in late 1964 to construct air bases had led inevitably to a second decision to assign ground troops to defend them, which—again, inevitably—led to a third decision to “search and destroy” the enemy soldiers who were attacking our defenders, and so on. Nothing illustrates better how this also happened in Cambodia than the code-name chosen for the supposedly one-shot secret bombing raid in early 1969: “Breakfast.” It’s a bounded image, one that can stand alone as intended or, at most (if the first raid was less than perfect), with a subsequent “Lunch” and “Supper.” In Cambodia, though, each futile set of bombings led to another—to “Lunch,” “Snack,” “Dinner,” “Dessert,” and “Supper” before the image was exhausted and a new terminology had to be invented. A decade later, with Cambodians starving by the tens of thousands as a final consequence of these bombing missions, the irony of their codenames is Dickensian in its blackness.


The argument of mid-sixties liberals was that foreign policy properly should be forged not by “professionals” in the bureaucracy, but by the White House. The case they made—whatever their motives for making it—was a strong one: organizational pathologies inherent in large-scale bureaucracy mean that it simply can not act adequately in foreign affairs. The lessons of the Nixon years show the limits of this propresidential position—namely that White House power does not bring about the national good automatically and cannot eliminate bureaucratic influence entirely—but they do not invalidate it. A close look at Kissinger’s The White House Years helps show us why.

First, though, a statement of the fundamental, which no one has seemed to pay much attention to in any of this. The real defense of presidential ascendancy in foreign policy rests not, as the Kennedy alumni had it, on ostensibly pragmatic considerations of who-does-what-best, but rather on constitutional democratic theory. The president is the only elected member of the executive establishment. Unlike congressmen, he is in the branch of government whose constitutional duties and inherent institutional advantages of unified leadership and ability to act flexibly and with dispatch mandate its primacy in foreign policy making. Unlike the career bureaucrats in that branch, he is elected by the people and can be held accountable by them for his conduct. The presidency is a political office, and in a democratic system, governmental legitimacy is rooted in politics.

What makes Kissinger’s memoirs so interesting is that they show clearly that he doesn’t believe any of this—democratic accountability is the least of his concerns. Thus, in his first meeting with the president-elect, Kissinger recalls, he told Nixon that the “goal of his diplomacy” should be to establish that American foreign policy is “related to some basic principles of national interest that would be maintained as Presidents changed.” This is another way of saying that foreign policy should be divorced from politics, which in a democracy is always subject to change. It also is a way of saying that it should be divorced from elected presidents. Indeed, one of the really cruel things about Kissinger’s book is his relentless effort to discredit President Nixon, who in his erstwhile courtier’s account, comes across as a deranged bumbler whose foreign policy successes were due almost entirely to his willingness to listen to Kissinger.

Oddly enough, this disdain for democratic and even presidential politics shows through most clearly in Kissinger’s discussions of Nixon’s two great foreign policy triumphs: the Soviet summit and the China trip. Among other things, his summit discussion shows, Kissinger doesn’t like open government. He still buys the hoary philosophy, which many feel was discredited by World Wars I and II, that democracies are at a disadvantage in their dealings with totalitarian regimes. “Our internal divisions handed the Soviet leadership an opportunity to whipsaw us. . . .,” he writes in one representative passage. “While the White House would try to gear our response to overall Soviet conduct, the rest of our Government would find innumerable ways, from press leaks to informal hints, to let it be known that it was ready, nay eager, to start talking.” By “White House,” it is understood, Kissinger means himself and his staff. Nixon, for his part, had fallen prey to the temptation that “sooner or later every President since Roosevelt” has yielded to, that is, “that he should take a personal hand in East-West relations through face-to-face meetings with the Soviet leaders.” Why are presidents so prone to this supposed failing? In part, says the understanding adviser, because they are only human and “it is human to yearn to make a decisive breakthrough toward peace.” More important, though, are the rude imperatives of democractic politics, born of “an American public that finds it difficult to accept the existence of irreconcilable hostility and tends to see international relations in terms of individual personalities.” Thus, in 1970 Nixon wanted to go to Moscow because he “foresaw benefits for the congressional elections in the fall,” but Kissinger says he talked him out of it. What of the Nixon-Brezhnev summit of two years later, which climaxed with the signing of SALT I? A waste of time, Kissinger suggests, but for the groundwork laid for it by him.

Kissinger’s account of the China rapprochement offers still a better example of his disdain for the influence of democratic politics in foreign policy making. To arrange the Nixon visit, he writes, required “an intricate minuet, so stylized that neither side needed to bear the onus of an initiative, so elliptical that existing relationships on both sides were not jeopardized”—so delicate, in short, that there was no room for politicians, bureaucrats, or citizens in it. Again, the president comes across as Kissinger’s loutish albatross ( “”This is a great wall,” said Nixon to the assembled press at the Great Wall, placing his seal of approval on one of mankind’s most impressive creations”). Again, the State Department’s influence is ham-handed; its people intrude at the last minute to challenge Kissinger and Chou’s “communiqué, in the preparation of which they had had no part, . . .[with] a list of amendments as numerous as they were trivial.” Again, the aura of absolute pre-trip secrecy is justified on grounds of some greater good.

Notwithstanding Kissinger’s impressive contribution to our new China policy, several points need to be made. First, the costs of arranging the rapprochement secretly were great. As Kissinger reveals in different parts of his book, the claim of a need for total secrecy in approaching China was used variously to justify the administration’s pathological and, later, illegal response to Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers (“Our nightmare was that Peking might conclude that our Government was too unsteady, too harassed, and too insecure to be a useful partner”); its diplomatic tilt toward Pakistan, which was conducting a campaign of what Kissinger admitted to David Frost was “genocide” in Bangladesh (“a demonstration of U.S. irrelevance would severely strain our precarious new relationship with China,” an ally of Pakistan); and its tortuously slow withdrawal from Vietnam (“We might not achieve our opening to China if our value as a counterweight seemed nullified by a collapse that showed us irrelevant to Asian security”). Second, it is not at all obvious that these costs or the secrecy that spawned them were necessary. As Kissinger points out, in 1969 the militarily-weak Chinese were desperate for a counterweight to the Soviet Union, which had just bloodied them in a series of border clashes; he later adds that “For all their charm and ideological fervor, China’s leaders were the most unsentimental practitioners of balance-of-power politics I have encountered.” Why, then, the need for his “intricate minuet”?; why the alleged impossibility of a less “elliptical” approach by either of the powers when both regarded entente as so much in their respective national interests? Why, in short, this absolute secrecy, with its attendant lockout of all but a few White House personnel from the policy-making process?

The range of possible answers is endless, but one thing is certain: Kissinger regarded secrecy not as a necessary evil, but as something desirable in itself. He revels in telling how he fooled reporters and slipped covertly into China after a predawn drive masked in sunglasses and a hat “to ensure that no stray pedestrian spotted me”; his glee is unbounded when he recollects meeting North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho:

“In Paris General Walters would lead me to an unmarked rented Citröen. Walters would drive us to his apartment building in the Neuilly section of Paris, where he smuggled us by elevator from the underground garage. As far as his housekeeper was concerned, I was a visiting American general named Harold A. Kirschman.” This may sound like James Bond stuff, but Kissinger’s fantasy evidently was more American in its origins. He told interviewer Oriana Fallaci that he envied “the cowboy . . . who rides all alone into the town, the village, with his horse and nothing else. . . . This amazing, romantic character suits me precisely because to be alone has always been part of my style.”

There we have it—the national security adviser as Lone Ranger, the authority of the White House his silver bullets, secrecy his mask, the president his Tonto. What this had to do with sound, democratically accountable foreign policy making escaped many people, and as the costs of Kissinger’s brand of diplomacy became clear—in Vietnam, in Cambodia, and in Europe, Africa, and those other parts of the world he had little time for—the American consensus turned not only against his policies, but against the very idea of White Housebased foreign policy making as well.

This new consensus, like its wholly anti-bureaucratic predecessor, is errant. The experience of Kissinger does not refute the case for presidential leadership in foreign affairs because, as he tells us, it did not build on the foundation of constitutional democracy upon which any such case, to be legitimate, must be built. Nor are Kissinger’s failures evidence of bureaucracy’s virtues (any more than, say, Nixon’s guilt in Watergate is proof of Alger Hiss’s innocence of perjury) or, for that matter, of Congress’s, which some chastened liberal scholars hastened to demonstrate after the consequences of their earlier wish for White House ascendancy became clear. (To his credit, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. refuted the congressional primacy argument by accurately pointing out that even an avowedly anti-presidential congressional initiative like the War Powers Act, which requires Congress to approve a presidential commitment of troops to combat 60 days after the fact, is futile: it flatly gives presidents a power to begin war that the Constitution does not and asks Congress to review his decision at the very time when war fever will be at its highest).

The answer to the question of how foreign policy should be made in a constitutional democracy will be found by elected presidents who first accept the vital role of bureaucracy in the process, both as supplier of information prior to decision and vehicle for implementation afterward, then strive to weed out its pathologies so that it can be properly led. “An ideal system,” writes Erwin Hargrove in The Power of the Modern Presidency (Knopf, 1974), “would give the President analytic help, provide for administrative follow-through and intergovernmental coordination for Presidential purposes, and achieve the primacy of the political perspective.” Interestingly, Kissinger, in a wholly uncharacteristic passage of The White House Years, makes the argument for lodging such a system in the State Department about as well as it can be made. We should watch what he says, not what he did:

“I have become convinced that a President should make the Secretary of State his principal adviser and use the National Security Adviser primarily as a senior administrator and coordinator. If the Security Adviser becomes active in the development and articulation of policy, he must inevitably diminish the Secretary of State and reduce his effectiveness. Foreign governments are confused and, equally dangerous, given opportunity to play one part of our Government off against the other; the State Department becomes demoralized and retreats into parochialism. If the President does not have confidence in his Secretary of State he should replace him, not supervise him with a personal aide.”

There are those, to be sure, who doubt that the State Department can be rejuvenated. State’s steady decline in power since its postwar heyday, when it pioneered such innovations as the Marshall Plan and the containment doctrine, has made it one of the most cautious agencies in Washington. Caution has bred an unwillingness either to pursue its diplomatic tasks innovatively or to seek out new ones; State deliberately defers to the Pentagon on all national security matters, for example, which means that it never challenged military analyses of the situation in Vietnam. What is worse, caution has fed on itself, creating an organizational culture in which getting along means going along with bland convention, thus accelerating the spiral of decline.

Nevertheless, the task—for the reasons Kissinger offers—is an important one. A president who wishes to revive State will do well to consult I. M. Destler’s Presidents, Bureaucrats, and Foreign Policy, a provocative study of the subject which Princeton University Press published in 1972. Destler argues that the only way that the goal of a vigorous, politically responsive State Department can be achieved is if it is given the power and responsibility to inform presidential foreign policy decisions, then coordinate their implementation. To this end, he suggests that presidents transfer the analytic expertise of the White House national security staff to State, giving the department the wherewithal and, one would hope, the confidence to develop policy options for him from a broad political perspective. At this stage, his secretary would have to see to it that this policy staff was linked institutionally to operational and budgetary decisions so that the cautious resistance of the department’s many sub-units could be overcome. These reforms won’t work, of course, unless the president is willing to back up his people and policies, making clear to all in government that in the chain of command confidence runs from him to the secretary, from the secretary to the department, and from the department on out through the rest of the government’s foreign affairs apparatus. To promote this goal, the president might try to secure from Congress the right to replace many career foreign service officers and civil servants with political appointees. In any event, he should pare down the national security adviser’s staff of 100 and insist that its role really be that of a “traffic cop” in the advisory process.

Interestingly, there is evidence that Jimmy Carter may have come to see the wisdom in all this, albeit a bit late in the game. In early November 1979, he approved an Office of Management and Budget report that traced his administration’s foreign policy making deficiencies to the weak position of the State Department within the executive branch. Over the objections of the national security adviser and defense secretary, the report suggested that State be given an active role in the annual preparation of the military budget and in contingency planning for possible crises abroad. (At present, such plans—or SOPs—as do exist not only are solely products of the Pentagon, but of a fairly small group of military officers within it. Thus, contingency plans for possible political or economic responses to foreign crises simply are not available to the president.)

None of this will be easy—as Professor Hargrove points out, “Presidents achieve fame for policy, not administration.” But after years of foreign policy disasters like Cambodia, during which presidents have achieved not fame but infamy for their and the bureaucracy’s actions abroad, new presidents may realize that the time and energy that reconstructing State will require will be time and energy wisely spent by any standard, including a political one.


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