Transcripts of Kissinger phone calls detail fallout of Vietnam massacre

Official didn't want Nixon to see photos

president too `loaded' to take call

May 27, 2004|By James Gerstenzang | James Gerstenzang,LOS ANGELES TIMES

COLLEGE PARK - The political and diplomatic morass brought on by the military misconduct was getting worse by the day. U.S. soldiers, fighting a distant war amid growing opposition to the conflict at home, faced prosecution for their role in horrific abuse. And the photographs of the abuse were so upsetting that the defense secretary advised the president's national security adviser not to view them because "they're pretty terrible."

Memoranda and transcripts of telephone conversations conducted more than three decades ago by Henry A. Kissinger, and released yesterday by the National Archives, show that senior Nixon administration officials discussed how they should deal with what was clearly about to become a public relations disaster - the 1968 massacre of Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops in the village of My Lai. They were angered by the photos, considered ways to suppress them, and honed their argument that they had begun an investigation of the abuse.

The 20,000 pages of documents, which were held at the Archives Records Center at the University of Maryland, include transcripts of conversations Kissinger conducted from President Nixon's inauguration on Jan. 20, 1969, until Aug. 8, 1974, when the administration was brought to an end by the Watergate scandal. The conversations covered everything from casual chats about women on Kissinger's arm to the inability of Nixon to take a call from the British prime minister because he "was loaded."

Putting the best face on the losing effort in Vietnam was the subject of many conversations. Kissinger reached out to entertainers (Bob Hope, for one), peace activists (one of whom, John Kerry, is now running for president), and politicians (then-Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, among them) as he sought to manage public opinion.

In a conversation with Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird on Nov. 21, 1969, Kissinger sought information about the My Lai case. According to a summary of the conversation, Laird asked Kissinger if he had seen pictures of the massacre. Kissinger said he had not, then asked whether he should. Laird, as summarized by a secretary, said he "might as well not. They're pretty terrible."

The documents show numerous examples of Kissinger's efforts to shape public opinion: As defeat piled upon defeat in Vietnam, he instructed White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler to "say we have achieved essential objectives."

At other times, Kissinger spoke with striking candor: Told of a plan by Sen. Jacob K. Javits, a liberal New York Republican, to take the administration to task for being too tough on Israel, Kissinger says: "He's right, of course."

Nixon and Kissinger enjoyed a comfortable familiarity, speaking throughout the day and into the evening.

They talked about news coverage and individual reporters ("Hell, if it weren't for the hysteria that the media engender we'd be in good shape," Kissinger told the president during one particularly difficult period of the Vietnam War in 1971). They discussed military tactics (at one point, they bragged about the tons of bombs being dropped there).

Kissinger now heads the foreign policy consulting firm that bears his name.

On Oct. 11, 1973, as the Yom Kippur war in the Middle East was raging, Prime Minister Edward Heath of Britain sought a conversation with Nixon. Brent Scowcroft, then a senior Kissinger aide, conveyed the request to his boss.

"Can we tell them no?" Kissinger asked Scowcroft. "When I talked to the president, he was loaded."

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