Henry Kissinger should have gone down with the rest of them: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Dean, and Nixon. His fingerprints were all over Watergate. Yet he survived—largely by playing the press.
Until 1968, Kissinger had been a Nelson Rockefeller Republican—though he also served as an adviser to the State Department in the Johnson administration. Kissinger was stunned by Richard Nixon’s defeat of Rockefeller in the primaries, according to the journalists Marvin and Bernard Kalb. “He wept,” they wrote. Kissinger believed Nixon was “the most dangerous, of all the men running, to have as President.”
It wasn’t long, though, before Kissinger had opened a back channel to Nixon’s people, offering to use his contacts in the Johnson White House to leak information about the peace talks with North Vietnam. Still a Harvard professor, he dealt directly with Nixon’s foreign policy adviser, Richard V. Allen, who in an interview given to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia said that Kissinger, “on his own,” offered to pass along information he had received from an aide attending the peace talks. Allen described Kissinger as acting very cloak-and-dagger, calling him from pay phones and speaking in German to report on what had happened during the talks.
At the end of October, Kissinger told the Nixon campaign, “They’re breaking out the champagne in Paris.” Hours later, President Johnson suspended the bombing. A peace deal might have pushed Hubert Humphrey, who was closing in on Nixon in the polls, over the top. Nixon’s people acted quickly; they urged the South Vietnamese to derail the talks.
Through wiretaps and intercepts, President Johnson learned that Nixon’s campaign was telling the South Vietnamese “to hold on until after the election.” If the White House had gone public with this information, the outrage might also have swung the election to Humphrey. But Johnson hesitated. “This is treason,” he said, as quoted in Ken Hughes’s excellent Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate. “It would rock the world.”
Johnson stayed silent. Nixon won. The war went on.
That October Surprise kicked off a chain of events that would lead to Nixon’s downfall.
Kissinger, who’d been appointed national security adviser, advised Nixon to order the bombing of Cambodia to pressure Hanoi to return to the negotiating table. Nixon and Kissinger were desperate to resume the talks that they had helped sabotage, and their desperation manifested itself in ferocity. “‘Savage’ was a word that was used again and again” in discussing what needed to be done in Southeast Asia, recalled one of Kissinger’s aides. Bombing Cambodia (a country the US wasn’t at war with), which would eventually break the country and lead to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, was illegal. So it had to be done in secret. The pressure to keep it secret spread paranoia within the administration, leading Kissinger and Nixon to ask J. Edgar Hoover to tap the phones of administration officials. Daniel Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers leak sent Kissinger into a panic. He was afraid that since Ellsberg had access to the papers, he might also know what Kissinger was doing in Cambodia.