Video: Nixon and Diplomatic Back Channels
Naval War College Professor Richard Moss holds up a hard drive which contains all available 2,600 plus hours of audio from the Nixon White House taping system.
Richard Moss is author of “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Detente”
Historian Richard Moss talked to a Nixon Library audience about how President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger effectively created a back channel to conduct high-stakes diplomacy with the Soviet Union. The presentation makes use of primary sources from the Nixon Presidential Library, including audio from the White House taping system.
Dr. Moss is a professor of history at Naval War College and author of “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Detente.”
– The importance of back channels as a tool in a diplomatic tool kit.
– How Nixon and Kissinger used back channels in their most important diplomatic initiatives, including rapprochement with China and the Moscow Summit in 1972.
– How back channels were used to diffuse a second potential Cuban Missile Crisis in 1970.
– Why back channels appealed to U.S. and Soviet leaders.
– How back channels protected against leaks.
– How back channels become a safety valve to express tensions between powers.
– How back channels allow diplomats to bargain and make tradeoffs.
– How back channels can ‘personalize’ and enhance diplomatic relationships.
– How back channels can become a weapon in bureaucratic warfare.
– How Henry Kissinger attempted to create back channel with the Soviet Union for Vietnam peace in 1967.
White House Tape Audio Used in Lecture
Lawrence Eagleburger to Henry Kissinger “The problem of contacts in the Soviet Embassy,” January 1969. Box 66, Henry Kissinger Office Files, National Security Council Files, Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Contacts with the Soviets Prior to January 20, 1969. Box 725 (entire folder), Country Files – Europe, U.S.S.R, National Security Council Files. Richard Nixon Presidential Library
Minutes of Review Group Meeting on Sino-Soviet Differences. 20 November 1969. Box H-111, Institutional Files (H-Files), National Security Council Files, Richard Nixon presidential Library.
Haldeman Journal, 20 September 1970 (handwritten)
Brezhnev Letter to President Nixon, 7 September 1971. Box 497, President’s Trip Files, Volume 2, National Security Council Files, Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Memorandum of Conversation Between Richard Nixon and Andrei Gromyko, 29 September 1971. Box 492, President’s Tip Files, National Security Council Files, Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Telcon Between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, 29 February 1972. Telephone Conversation 20-126, Box 29, Kissinger Telcons, Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
Memorandum from William Rogers to Richard Nixon, 16 May 1972. Box 476, President’s Trip Files, National Security Council Files, Richard Nixon Presidential Library.
In the Media:
“Donald Trump is wrong. When Democrats were offered secret help by the Soviets they refused,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, 13 July, 2017.
“This is why presidents want back channels and how it can go wrong,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, 27 May 2017.
With Luke Nichter, “This is why Richard Nixon Tapes His Conversations,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, 15 May 2017.
“Why Back Channels with Russia cost Michael Flynn his job,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, 14 February 2017.
“Trump may be borrowing Nixon’s ‘back channel’ strategy in his contacts with Russia,” Washington Post Monkey Cage, 16 December 2016.
Jonathan Movroydis: Dr. Richard Moss is an associate research professor and co-director of the Halsey Bravo research effort and a faculty affiliate in the Russian Maritime Studies Institute at the United States Navy War College Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He earned his BA from the University of California Santa Barbara and his master’s in philosophy and Ph.D. in history from George Washington University. He specializes in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and is an expert on the Nixon Presidential recordings. A few people are experts in the Nixon tapes and Dr. Moss has listened to countless hours of tapes as he’ll show you in his presentation. He’s the author of a new book and a groundbreaking study on Nixon’s foreign policy, “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow: Confidential Diplomacy and Détente.” Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Richard Moss.
Richard Moss: Thank you for the nice intro. Thank you, Jonathan, for the nice intro and thank you to the Nixon Foundation for hosting me here tonight. It’s really a pleasure to be here. When I was doing my research for my doctorate and also for this book, the records were actually at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland. So, this is the first time I’ve really been able to dig into the records here where they really belong. So, it’s nice to see after many years that all the records have been relocated. This is the photo that was used for the cover of my book. And over on the left is Anatoly Dobrynin, who was the long-serving Soviet Ambassador to the United States for six American presidents from John F. Kennedy all the way to Ronald Reagan. And the middle is no one other than Richard Nixon, President of United States, and to his left, National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger. So, I thought that was a good dynamic.
The picture was taken in July 1973. Sorry, July 1972, less than 2 months after the Moscow Summit of May 1972. It was taken here in California. And it gives something of the impression of a reward for Dobrynin for his essential role in facilitating an improvement of relations between the United States and the Soviet Union through a back channel between Dobrynin and Dr. Kissinger. So, before we get into it too much… We appear to be having technical difficulties. As Jonathan mentioned, I have listened to quite a lot of Nixon tapes, so I always call it the curse of the Nixon tapes. I always have technical difficulties. It also explains some things about my personality. But anyhow, the views I present tonight are my own views and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of Defense or any of its components including the United States Navy and the U.S. Naval War College. Also, material that I cite and clean on the screen if it decides to cooperate may be deemed offensive, especially some of that stuff from the Nixon tapes. If you all recall the phrase “expletive deleted” came from the exposure of the Nixon tapes by Alexander Butterfield in the summer of 1973.
This is a brief overview of what we’re gonna be talking about tonight. I’m gonna spend a lot of time on definitions and examples of what differentiates back channel diplomacy from more traditional diplomacy. I’ll give you two definitions of that and then I’ll talk about some of the sources. Nixon tapes were just one source that I used. I was very blessed in having access to a wide variety of documentary records as well and a wonderful memoir was written. We’ll get into that in a little bit. We’ll talk about some of the findings, the overall bottom line in the middle, or it should be bottom line up front, but it’s in the middle of the presentation. Some of the things I found in terms of doing a deep dive into U.S.-Soviet back channel diplomacy.
For the deep dive, I’m gonna talk about how Kissinger, Henry Kissinger did not have his first foray into back channel diplomacy in the Nixon administration, he actually had it during the Johnson administration where he was on a trip to Moscow. It doesn’t get a lot of press, he doesn’t mention it in his memoirs, but it’s an interesting episode nonetheless. I’ll also talk about the 1968 election and the transition period where there were U.S.-Russian back channels going on. Also, we’ll talk about how the Kissinger-Dobrynin back channel really rose to the center of the Nixon foreign policy in 1970 with a crisis over Cienfuegos, Cuba. Then time permitting, we’re gonna have some snapshots for other parts of the book, including the India-Pakistan war and the Moorer-Radford Affair, which if you’ve never heard of the Moorer-Radford Affair, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military officers in the United States were spying on President Nixon. We’ll let that sink in for a second. So, we’ll talk about that a little bit.
Nixon’s groundbreaking trip to China in February 1972, we’ll get into that and how it played into U.S.-Soviet relations. And then also we’ll about how two different crises, or how a crisis over Vietnam, which was the crucible for the Nixon administration, much as it had been for the Johnson administration, Vietnam entered into U.S.-Soviet relations. The United States expected the Soviet Union to help in certain ways, the Soviet Union expected the United States to be constrained in its behavior. Both sides were disappointed, but it was back channel diplomacy that made a compromise possible. And then we’ll talk about the achievement of détente at the May 1972 Moscow Summit.
So, back channel, briefly. This is the Oxford English Dictionary definition of what a back channel is. So, if you wanna go to the root of a word, the OED, as it’s called, is no better source. But it’s a means of communication which circumvents official channels, especially in order to facilitate informal or clandestine negotiations. The first use of it according to the OED was in 1968, but you can see a more prominent use in 1977 in The New York Times Magazine” where they specifically mentioned Kissinger at the center of a back channel, specifically over arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. This circumventing official channels is an important distinction there. It’s going around the traditional foreign policy apparatus, which in the United States, we have the U.S. Department of State and that has control over our ambassadors that go abroad, over our consular officers. And that is the official way of conducting foreign policy. Back channel goes around those mechanisms that may be in place, either with different communication systems or different relationships. It’s still an official relationship, it’s just again, circumventing existing machinery.
William Safire, who was a speechwriter for President Nixon gave a definition. He talked a lot about political language in his own language columns in New York Times for close to two decades. And he wrote that a back channel is seemingly unofficial but direct method of high-level communication bypassing the usual routes of messages through bureaucracies. So, again, like the OED definition, the bypassing usual routes through bureaucracies. That implies going around the State Department, going around the Defense Department, going around these institutions that exist in foreign policy.
I mentioned when I was going over the title of the book and the introductory slide, the main channel of the Nixon administration, which is between Dobrynin and Kissinger, it was established early in the Nixon administration, which we’ll get to in a few minutes, but this is the channel that we talk about. But Nixon and Kissinger had a deep-seated philosophy about the conduct of foreign policy using back channels. Back channels with the Soviet Union were not the only back channels that this administration used. The opening to China was facilitated using back channels to the Pakistanis under General Agha Yahya Khan. Other back channels with friends and foes alike were how Nixon did business. And the reason he used these back channels was not just to circumvent the existing bureaucracy but it was because of a deep-seated fear about leaks and about maintaining confidentiality, maintaining compartmentalization of important information that can change the course of foreign policy.
There’s also a political role to it as well. If you can time these things, breakthroughs, diplomatic breakthroughs, it can give you a boost in domestic politics. So, there’s no one reason to use back channels, it’s more like a basket of reasons that you wanna use them. And some other examples in history, back channels have been used to avert World War III. During the Kennedy administration, Robert Kennedy, who’s on the far left and a KGB operative named Georgi Bolshakov, who is on the right, met and they were able to work out a compromise solution whereby the United States would withdraw its obsolete missiles from Turkey and Italy in exchange for the Soviet Union removing its nuclear weapons from Cuba. So, we didn’t know how close we came to nuclear war at the time. There was a great deal of fear but we now know after the end of the Cold War and with access to Soviet material, that the Soviets had operational nuclear weapons in Cuba. So, this type of back channel quite literally saved the world.
Other examples, these two figures may look a little bit familiar. The Russian Ambassador to the United States who’s actually going back to Russia, Sergey Kislyak and the short-lived national security advisor of President Donald Trump, retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, they met in December of last year and it was Flynn’s misrepresentations to the vice president of the United States that made the President and the Vice President lose confidence in Flynn’s ability. So, he resigned. It also points to what my wife says about my book. I started this research in 2002, so we fast forward 15 years here, but the book was published in January and my wife said “It’s unexpectedly relevant, Rick.” Notice what was going on at the time. Soon after the election, in 2016, there were a series of press articles in New York Times most prominently where the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that the Russians had been in touch with the Trump campaign and were well acquainted with members of his inner circle, which you can translate it in different ways as either his entourage or his inner circle. My little back channel antenna went up. So, at this point, it shows that back channels remain relevant.
You also have the Jared Kushner angle with the President’s son-in-law meeting with General Flynn and meeting with the Russians and talking about, for some reason trying to use Russian communication devices to communicate so as to again, circumvent or bypass existing channels through the State Department or the Department of Defense. Ostensibly, a fear about leaks, about controlling foreign policy, about whatnot. There are legitimate reasons for it and there are also illegitimate reasons for it. And these are the things that are being investigated right now. But it does show that back channels remain useful. As this example shows, the Iranian nuclear deal, the joint comprehensive plan of action that President Trump just affirmed after all last year saying that he was going to ditch the nuclear deal, it was a bad deal, he actually kinda came around possibly under the advice of the Secretary of Defense and it’s actually not a terrible deal. It’s not a perfect deal, but it is one that reduces or prolongs the timeline by which Iran can gain nuclear weapons. And this was negotiated not between the State Department and the Iranian Foreign Ministry. This was done through the Omanis. Yusuf bin Alawi is the Omani foreign minister and press accounts say that he carried messages from the Secretary of State and the President of the United States, Obama at the time, to the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.
Addressing those questions was a way to then move into more formal negotiations. So, you use a back channel to establish a connection, find areas where you need to negotiate, find areas where you can’t negotiate or you may need to rethink and then you can move on from there, either proceed with formal negotiations or not. So, back channels are a good way to do that. In terms of sources, The National Archives has wonderful textual records. Henry Kissinger had secretaries listen in on deadlines to all his phone conversations and initially write them out in shorthand and then type them down into telephone conversation transcripts or Telcons. And there were close to 30,000 pages of these. So, I had access to those, had access to the memorandum of conversation that Kissinger kept or his talking points, National Security Council papers. Also, we have wonderful memoir material. Kissinger himself wrote probably the first and best exposé of his back channel relationship with Dobrynin in his 1979 memoir, “White House Years.” Anatoly Dobrynin wrote his memoir first in English actually, and it was called “In Confidence” and that came out in the 1990s. He had a number of amazing revelations and we’re gonna get into one of them about the 1968 election very shortly. But we have these wonderful memoir accounts, you have documents that you can compare it to.
In 2007, the United States Department of State and the Russian Foreign Ministry during a short-lived reset and improvement of relations under the Bush administration, we’re able to jointly compile and publish the memorandum of conversations that both Kissinger and Dobrynin kept of all of their meetings. And they published it in English, “Soviet-American Relations,” and in Russian in two volumes in Sovetsko-Amerikanskie Otnosheniia: Gody Razriadki. So, the détente years essentially, American-Russian relations. This was an amazing, amazing source because you can see what Kissinger said and you can compare it to what Dobrynin said. And sometimes you wonder whether they have the same meaning. But most of the time, there’s a lot of agreement. And you can take these and then you can balance it against yet another source, which is the Nixon tapes, which I’ve been exposed to far too much. But there are 2,636 hours of publicly released Nixon tapes as of the last release, which is what, in 2013?
Also, I have in my hands, the Nixon tapes. It’s a two-terabyte hard drive. These are the digitized Nixon tapes and it fits on a hard drive this small. When I started doing digitization in 2006, 2007 I took 5 big hard drives and I kept overloading my computer, but now it all fits onto one. Things like computational power and the advances in storage technology, you can have access to the entirety of the Nixon tapes on something that can fit in your pocket. Using these though is another question and I have a number of guides and I’ve worked with another professor, Luke Nichter at Texas A&M, Central Texas at nixontapes.org. So, if you’re interested in listening to Nixon tapes, you can go there and if you have questions you can email Luke or myself and we can point you in the right direction. But you can take the tapes and you can have them correspond to the meetings that Kissinger had with Dobrynin. What did Kissinger report back five minutes after he met with Dobrynin at the White House? What did he tell Nixon? Is that the same as the written record or is it different? So, a lot of rich, revealing material that goes on. We also have some conversations in which Dobrynin was a participant in the Oval Office at the White House. They used to sneak him in through the side entrance when he had this back channel relationship with Henry Kissinger.
The bottom line, the point of my book, the analysis is that back channel diplomacy was both a necessary and an effective instrument of policy, especially when it supplemented rather than supplanted more traditional diplomacy. Back channels have legitimate uses. They should be used. You can have breakthroughs. You can achieve things like opening to China, but again, you should also be aware of the pitfalls. Back channels worked for Nixon, they also worked for Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. And it worked because this modus operandi, this way of doing business appealed to both Nixon and Brezhnev. Secrecy and compartmentalization were more of a way for the U.S. to avoid leaks. And the Nixon administration was plagued with leaks from the very beginning. So, listen, two weeks after he was inaugurated, there had already been dozens of leaks about everything from possible Supreme Court picks to arms control negotiations. So, that’s one way for a president and a national security advisor or secretary of state, if he or she is included to try to avoid that.
The back channels can also be a safety valve in times of crisis. We talked about Georgi Bolshakov and Robert Kennedy averting World War III during the Cuban missile crisis. There are also crises that erupted during the Nixon administration, which I get into some detail in the book, but briefly, there was one over Cuba, Cienfuegos where Soviet nuclear submarines were going to be serviced. And the question was whether they were nuclear powered or nuclear armed or if they were both nuclear powered and nuclear armed. And it gets into technical details pretty quickly. But the back channels are a good safety valve for addressing those kinds of concerns, India-Pakistan war, which I mentioned, and the Moorer-Radford Affair, and then the Vietnam War, which was central to Nixon’s administration.
Back channels can also be used as a tool in the diplomatic toolbox for a concept that Nixon and Kissinger loved to use, the idea of linkage. Where you take one area of foreign policy and you tie it to something completely unrelated. “Oh, you wanna have arms control agreement? Well, we’ll give you an arms control agreement, but we want better trade terms for purchase of steel or coal or something.” So, areas that are not necessarily related but they’re being tied or linked together. Back channels can be used to make that linkage and they can be used to make that linkage very explicitly. It also gives policy actors a personal stake when they have these types of relationships. In the copy of his memoir that he gave to Kissinger, Dobrynin wrote, “To Henry, my opponent, partner, friend.” That’s an interesting way of looking at their relationship. They were opponents, they were representatives of opposing superpowers that had a lot of points of contention, but they worked together to achieve détente and to achieve those breakthroughs and to diffuse tensions. And they developed a friendship over the course of working together for many years to the point where Nixon authorized a secure phone line being installed between the Soviet Embassy in Washington, DC and the White House in Kissinger’s office. That says something about a level of trust.
It can also be used in bureaucratic warfare. Kissinger completely eclipsed the Secretary of State, William Rogers, who was Richard Nixon’s close personal friend going back to the 1940s. He had served as a deputy attorney general under the Eisenhower administration. They used to have dinner at each other’s house in the 1950s. Nixon picked Rogers as Secretary of State because he knew he could rely on him, he was loyal, he was a smart guy, and also, he was good at presenting a public face. So, they said he was a good front man. But Kissinger, behind the scenes, was able to use things like the back channel relationship he had with Dobrynin to slowly whittle away at Rogers’s portfolio. And by the end of the first term, Rogers had been pretty much…completely eclipsed by Kissinger and was not necessarily an effective secretary of state. And Henry Kissinger later replaced William Rogers as a secretary of state in 1973.
It wasn’t just in the U.S. though. Brezhnev had taken over from Khrushchev in 1964. They had a group get together in the central committee in the Politburo to remove Khrushchev from power. But Brezhnev was just one of many people. He hadn’t quite emerged as the top man in the Kremlin at this point. But by having a policy of improved relations with the United States, he was able to use that. And the way he was able to use that was that back channel with Dobrynin. And Dobrynin rose from being a mere ambassador to actually being a member of the Politburo which is a pretty significant achievement for an ambassador in Soviet times. And his abilities as an astute observer of the United States or his innate skill explains his longevity in that role as well. But it reinforced the Brezhnev-Gromyko, the Soviet Foreign Minister and then Dobrynin was like the ambassador member who was stationed in the United States, but it reinforced their holdover power in the Kremlin.
Back channels can backfire though. They can also telegraph anxiety about certain issues. In the case of the Soviets, anytime Kissinger mentioned China, the Soviets got really upset because the Soviets and the Chinese were nearly at war in 1969 over this remote frozen tundra section called Zhenbao Island in Chinese or Damansky Island in Russian. And any time Kissinger wanted to push that back channel button mentioning China, it could send Dobrynin into a little bit of a tizzy. And you see it in some of the reporting and it’s also a double-edged sword because the U.S., Nixon wanted a summit meeting for political purposes. It looks good to go to Moscow as a leader of the United States in the capital of the Soviet Union, sitting down with their leadership to sign agreement, after agreement, after agreement on a wide variety of matters and showing that this is genuine leadership and this is a genuine improvement and a step towards peace. It gives credibility, it is a political boost.
Nixon and Kissinger also wore that on their sleeve that desire for a summit meeting and the Soviets just, they would press their own back channel button whenever they wanted to drive anxiety up. They’d keep prolonging, “Well, we’ll make an announcement about the summit meeting in maybe six months. We still need to work on certain issues.” So, this eventually backfired for the Soviets with the opening to China because the Nixon administration was able to use triangular diplomacy where you try to play Beijing and Moscow off each other for American advantage. But that developed a little bit later, at the middle of 1971. And to take a step back to 1967 in which Professor Kissinger, who was a professor at Harvard’s prestigious Kennedy School, he was working as a consultant for the State Department of the Johnson administration. And he had tried to put forward a peace proposal to the North Vietnamese through two French intermediaries. And this is pretty well known. It was called Operation Pennsylvania. And in exchange for negotiations, the U.S. would agree to halt bombing North Vietnam and it became known as the San Antonio Formula after President Lyndon Johnson made a speech about this in San Antonio. It didn’t seem to go anywhere.
And by the fall of 1967, it was considered to be dead until some telegrams were declassified from Moscow, from the U.S. embassy in Moscow in 2008 or so showing that Professor Kissinger tried to revive the same proposal, this bombing halt in exchange for negotiations. He tried to revive that, not through the two French intermediaries, but through Moscow. And that became the seed of the approach that he tried to negotiate the end of the Vietnam War during the Nixon administration. The belief that the path to peace with Hanoi went through Moscow because Moscow was one of the largest supporters of North Vietnam. They provided sophisticated surface to air missiles and weapon systems and ammunition and oil that helped the North Vietnamese war machine run. Kissinger had this realization again end of 1967. So, this predates his period as National Security Advisor for Richard Nixon.
Here’s Kissinger laughing with Lyndon Johnson and also Dean Rusk, his predecessor in the Johnson administration. Getting into the election of 1968 is interesting. Initially, I had a little bit in the book about this, but since last year’s election, I’ve dug a little bit deeper. And one of those revelations in Dobrynin’s memoir, I mentioned he had all these revelations, well, one of them was that the Soviet leadership had decided that Richard Nixon was an anti-communist, anti-Soviet ogre and they didn’t wanna deal with him and they would much prefer to deal with Vice President Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic candidate. So, Dobrynin was ordered and he protested. He did his utmost to try to dissuade the Kremlin from this course of action but he was ordered by the Foreign Minister, Andrei Gromyko to approach Humphrey to offer Soviet assistance, including financial assistance for the Democratic campaign. Hubert Humphrey, right here, Hubert Horatio Humphrey. I have a fondness for him. In high school, I swam at the Hubert Humphrey swimming pool.
But Hubert Humphrey as Ambassador Dobrynin described him was both an intelligent man, but also a clever man. He knew what was going on, he knew when Dobrynin raised the question about the campaign and how are your finances doing and is there anything the Soviet Union might be able to do to help you? He kindly said, “Your moral support is plenty. I appreciate it and let’s change the subject.” So, that’s how the Democratic candidate in 1968 handled a Soviet approach to assist or interfere in a U.S. election. In the election and in the transition period after Nixon won a plurality in November 1968, there were not just one but two back channels to the Soviets. One was through Robert Ellsworth who was a friend of Richard Nixon and it was through Dobrynin but it was really primarily through the number two guy at the Soviet Embassy, a guy named Yuri Cherniakov. And they had some exchanges going on.
Another exchange that would probably raise some eyebrows today was between Henry Kissinger and a KGB operative who was… I’ve seen him described as the second counselor at the Soviet Embassy and the chief KGB agent in the United States at the time. A guy named Oleg Kalugin. He wrote in a book that Boris Sedov, the guy Kissinger was meeting was a reporter for the Novosti state-owned press agency. I’m still trying to dig into and deconflict. He may have been both. Soviets often they would have an official embassy function, but they might also function as a journalist. The case with Georgi Bolshakov and the Cuban missile crisis, he was presented as a journalist as well. Everyone knew he was KGB. But Boris Sedov, a known KGB operative in the United States was meeting with Henry Kissinger both before, during, and after the election and it actually altered the inaugural address by Nixon in January 1969 when Sedov made the suggestion that the Soviet leadership would be really reassured if Nixon were to make some reference to improving relations between the superpowers. And Nixon had a throwaway line in his inaugural address about how all channels would be open and try the improvement of peace between the superpowers. And a so Sedov got his feather in his cap, but the Sedov channel quickly died out in February 1969 when the Kissinger-Dobrynin channel started. And here’s the Boris Sedov, I couldn’t find a photo of him. The KGB operative unknown shadowy figure.
But January 1969, Nixon is inaugurated and then a month later, February 14th, Henry Kissinger goes to the Soviet Embassy on Valentine’s Day to begin his bromance with Anatoly Dobrynin. But he’s there and he finds Dobrynin sick in bed. Dobrynin had the flu, but they agree that they should establish a most confidential exchange of views on all the issues in U.S.-Soviet relations and thus begins the channel, the main back channel, the subject of my book, between Kissinger and Dobrynin. So, what did it achieve? Well, for the first year and a half, it didn’t really achieve very much. They were just talking, not really achieving anything. And until September, October 1970, where the U.S. Navy sends helicopters and destroyers and an aircraft carrier to force the Soviet Foxtrot submarine to surface. Now, that wasn’t October or September 1970. That was the Cuban missile crisis. The Cienfuegos crisis was not so much of a public crisis because of the back channel angle. Kissinger forced the issue and he was a wise man as well, like Hubert Humphrey and he saw the way to do that was to approach President Nixon through his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman.
So, here’s where seeing Cienfuegos is located and there were issues of Soviet submarine tenders, which are vessels that service submarines and the question of whether they’re armed with nuclear weapons again. But according to Haldeman’s memoir, a ruffled Henry Kissinger comes in and said, “It’s a Cuban seaport, Haldeman and these pictures show that Cubans are building soccer fields. Those soccer fields could mean more.” Okay. Haldeman didn’t quite understand exactly what Henry Kissinger was trying to get at until Kissinger explained that Cubans play baseball and Russians play soccer. Not true. Cubans play baseball and they play soccer. But regardless the photo here, there’s your basketball court and your volleyball court and your soccer field. So, it must be a Soviet submarine base.
This is when Kissinger was able to completely bypass and circumvent William Rogers, the Secretary of State who wanted to handle it at the United Nations and wanted to wait till the Soviets came and made their annual appearance in September, October. And again, Kissinger forced the issue. And by doing so, he was able to play to Nixon’s fear about Cuba and his loss of the 1962 gubernatorial campaign in California. One of the reasons Nixon always felt was it was the boost to the Democrats over the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis that helped the Democrats defeat him. That’s when he had his last press conference and you won’t have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore. But this back channel angle and this cultivation between Kissinger and Dobrynin solves this crisis. Sorry, one second.
This is a clip from January 1972. So, you’re in the home stretch of the first term. And this exemplifies from the president’s own mouth about how Kissinger had eclipsed Dobrynin.
Richard Nixon: The problem that we have here is that Bill Rogers has made a big old error in terms of his own place as secretary of state and in history. He has panted so much to be liked by his colleagues at the State Department, that the State Department runs him, rather than his running the State Department. He has panted so much to be liked by the press that covers the State Department, that the press run him rather than his running them.
Richard Moss: Those are pretty harsh for someone who’s been your close personal friend for over two decades. So, I see a few of my friends for two decades and I wouldn’t say anything like that about them. But
Richard Nixon: Be sure you warn Gromyko and obviously Brezhnev that they’ve got to be very careful not to talk about the special channel where Rogers is involved. You see what I mean? Because then we’d have to explain what the hell it is to him.
Richard Moss: Nixon is telling Kissinger a week before the Moscow summit that the Soviet leadership who are well aware of the back channels that exists need to be careful about talking about the back channel. It’s like the first rule of “Fight Club,” you don’t talk about “Fight Club.” The first rule of the special channel or the back channel of diplomacy, you don’t talk about the back channel and don’t do it in front of our secretary of state because we have to explain what the hell it is to him. That’s pretty damning. And it shows how much Nixon and Kissinger were able to use this back channel and how this became their foreign policy, circumventing the State Department on so many matters. And the backfires, the India-Pakistan war, the United States and the Soviet Union find themselves supporting the other sides. The United States supports the brutal dictatorship of Yahya Khan in Pakistan and the Soviet Union supports democratic India, the world’s largest democracy. And they’re fighting over a refugee crisis and a humanitarian crisis. A cyclone in 1970 destroyed a large part and killed tens of thousands of people in East Pakistan. It’s probably one of the worst natural disasters in the 20th century. We don’t really talk about it very much in the United States.
But this natural disaster combined with bad political decisions by Yahya Khan resulted in refugees fleeing from East Pakistan into India and being a potentially destabilizing force and Pakistan or West Pakistan being unable to control its eastern wing, which they’re separated by hundreds of miles across hostile India. They had a long history of animosity and they’d actually had several wars prior to this. But Yahya Khan decides that after the cyclone, it’s a great time to have an election. Except it completely backfires. And as Kissinger told Yahya, he said, “For a dictator, you run a lousy election.” Because not only did the people of East Pakistan voted against Yahya Khan, but they voted for the secessionist Awami League and they won. The Awami League won by such a large majority that it wasn’t just for East Pakistan, which is much more populous than West Pakistan. It was actually a majority for the whole country. So, the dictator has to clamp down on the descent. And this is what sends people fleeing into India. India wants to see East Pakistan break off from West Pakistan because it’s a security threat and they have tens of thousands, eventually hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming across their border, potentially causing instability. So, they support the secessionist Awami League and the United States. And Soviet Union find themselves again, supporting the opposing side.
Scholars disagree on this. They say that Yahya Khan started the war with a strike in early December on forward airfields for the Indian Air Force. But if you go back about 10 days to November 22nd and the liberation force, the Mukti Bahini, which was being supported by India, made raids, including with artillery and heavy weapons from India into East Pakistan against the Pakistani army. So, this was when Nixon finds out about it, Kissinger tells him what’s happened and Nixon says, “Is Yahya saying it’s war or not?” Kissinger says, “Yeah. They’re saying it’s war.” “And of course, the Indians deny it.” So, Nixon says. And Kissinger says, “That’s right. It’s a naked case of aggression, Mr. President.” And he was, “Absolutely no,” and his voice trails off. And Nixon says, “Well god damn it, maybe we ought to say something about this.” He was again supporting Yahya Khan and you ask, well, why did he support Yahya Khan? And that gets us to the topic of China. Yahya Khan was the broker, was the back channel and the opening to China.
So, he’s the one who arranged the trip through handwritten notes between Nixon and the Chinese leadership. And it was said that never before had a message been transmitted from a head to a head through a head. And this is one of the reasons why Nixon had this liking for Yahya Khan and he was willing to overlook the brutality of the regime and among other things, the humanitarian crisis. And he felt that the Indians had lied to him. So, the war is over very shortly. The Indians handily beat the Pakistanis. East Pakistan becomes the country of Bangladesh that we know today and it’s good that the war is so short and so decisive because it would become an issue. The Soviet support for India, it was seen as encouraging Indian aggression and supporting these liberation forces in these cross border raids. Nixon saw it as all part of a Soviet plot. It turns out it really wasn’t, but he made an issue of it in the back channel. And back channels were able to diffuse the crisis.
And again, the short-lived nature was another good thing. But in the course of this it’s revealed that the military was spying on President Nixon. And they find this out because there were a series of very high-level documents that were leaked and published by a syndicated columnist, Jack Anderson. He was at the top of Nixon’s enemies list for quite some time. But the plumbers of Watergate fame, we always say the plumbers, completely illegitimate, no real purpose, acting outside of the bounds of the law, that actually started off with a fairly legitimate reason, which is to try to plug leaks, find out who’s leaking classified sources to the press, and potentially undermining sources, and undermining U.S. aims. So, it starts off that way. It devolves into Watergate, but that’s later. This time the plumbers were the ones who discovered this military spy ring and Nixon decides to sweep it under the rug at the time because you can’t attack the military when it’s still embroiled in Vietnam. And much like the reason he gives when he resigns from office, Nixon says, “You have to protect the military. Just like you have to protect the office of the presidency, you have to protect the military.” So, he sweeps it under the rug. He also has the nice political advantage of having a pre-shrunk admiral, Thomas Moorer, who’s the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
He called the pre-shrunk admiral so we can get him to do whatever we want because we have the dirt on him that he had authorized a navy yeoman, this guy Charles Radford to spy on Henry Kissinger and President Nixon. Henry Kissinger has a little bit of a nervous breakdown over this revelation of seeing these documents being published and seeing the outcome of India-Pakistan war and basically being shut out by President Nixon. So, Nixon gets together in his executive office building hideaway office and they do some armchair analysis of Henry Kissinger. And one of the great lines there and I started the book off with this, is that there had been more back channel games played in this administration than any in history because we couldn’t trust the goddamn state department. So, that reveals Nixon’s attitude about back channels.
Richard Nixon: The thing that is very, very bad about this that we have to watch…
Richard Moss: And here’s the part about the Gestapo being set up by the military.
Richard Nixon: …that’s why we have to keep an eye on this thing. I just think that, John, if this story got out, it would be used to destroy the services. It would destroy [inaudible 00:43:49] Here’s the services setting up their own Gestapo and so forth spying on the president.
Richard Moss: Again, Nixon decides to sweep it under the rug for the good of the country, for the good of the military, for the good of the office.
Richard Nixon: He is extremely valuable to us.
Richard Moss: Here’s that armchair analysis of Henry Kissinger.
Richard Nixon: He is indispensable at this time because of the China trip…and to a lesser extent the Russia trip. Rogers is not. But the point is that we cannot have Henry have an emotional collapse. He’s the kind of fellow that could have an emotional collapse, you know.
Richard Moss: Nixon to his credit recognizes that Kissinger is the indispensable man at this point. The entire web of foreign policy and all these back channels, including the one with Dobrynin and Kissinger that are just beginning to bear fruit for the Moscow Summit and have already borne fruit in terms of the opening of China that he’s in a tough place. So he goes and he tries to bolster his national security adviser after locking him out. This conversation takes place on Christmas Eve, 1971. And then Nixon is on the phone with Nelson Rockefeller, Kissinger’s former benefactor saying, “You’ve got to wish Henry a merry Christmas,” which is ironic since Henry Kissinger is Jewish. But also saying that, “This India-Pakistan war and these leaks, and everything is terrible, but do what you can to tell Henry that we have confidence in him. We need him, we need these back channels.” So he didn’t say the back channel part, but you get the idea. So, here, “Give him a ring. Tell him to pay no attention by nitpicking by people about how we handled it. Well, India-Pakistan, there’s no way it’s ever gonna come out. And thank God we didn’t get involved in the war and thank God we saved West Pakistan.” Which became just Pakistan. So, since we’re running out of time, the opening to China has been recounted in so many places, including the amazing exhibit right down the hall. If you haven’t seen it, please go see it. It is fantastic. But back channels again, Henry Kissinger was the man behind that.
Richard Nixon: We are playing a game without being too melodramatic. Whatever happens with the election is going to change the face of the world and it just happens that there is only administration [inaudible 00:46:22] at this time. Now the China move, I’ve made not because of any concern about China, because I have none, not for 15 years. But I think we need to do something about the Russians and to have another specter over ’em.
Richard Moss: If you couldn’t hear that, that’s basically triangular diplomacy in action. You’re playing the Russians and the Chinese against each other. We may have to change. Fifteen years from now, we may be playing and maybe improving ties with the Russians more than the Chinese to put the Chinese in their place. But it’s about restoring balance. And the back channel that Nixon had with the Soviets is one of the reasons they are able to do this. It was only hypothetical really, until 1971. You could dream about doing this, but can you actually make it happen? Can you translate it into reality? You do that by bypassing the existing bureaucracy. Kissinger had his own lines about it, about playing a cold-blooded game. Right now it serves our interests to go against the Russians. All right. Now, the Chinese are making our policy go. That’s a great conversation. The audio quality is horrendous though. But I think that’s because there were competing taping systems. By this point, Kissinger’s secretaries were taping Kissinger’s conversations and then transcribing them and then probably destroying the tapes and it’s like holding a microphone up to a speaker. You get that kind of feedback. But this is the tape…typed transcript done at the time by Kissinger’s secretarial staff. And then the tape above it is similar but there are differences.
The rich nature of the sources of the Nixon administration allow you to do these types of comparisons where we have two versions of the same conversation. Neither one is perfect, but you can bind them together and you get a good understanding of what was being said. And we’ll wrap this up over the Easter Offensive. I mentioned earlier about the concern that the Soviet Union was backing North Vietnam and enabling North Vietnamese aggression. And one of the ways it was doing that was sending arms and petroleum shipments and really supporting North Vietnam. But the United States from almost the beginning of the Nixon administration had been withdrawing its troops. When Nixon took office, about 550,000 American troops were in Vietnam and by March, April of 1972, it had been reduced to under 100,000. So, he’s had a pretty significant reduction, 80% plus. Eighty to ninety percent of American troops had been withdrawn by this point. So, Nixon keeping his promise, “You’re going to Vietnamize the war. As American boys come home, South Vietnamese boys are gonna stand up and fight and the United States would supply the air power necessary to beat back the North Vietnamese.”
North Vietnamese launched this massive invasion in March of 1972, and it didn’t exactly take the Nixon administration by surprise. They’d had intelligence and they had seen the build-up of arms and material and they knew that the North Vietnamese were gonna do something. They didn’t know that the scale was gonna be so tremendous. This was a large scale invasion of South Vietnam by North Vietnam. And Nixon sees this in very personal terms that the Soviets are the ones enabling this aggression just as they had enabled Indian aggression against Pakistan or just as how they had tried to gain advantage in Cuba at Cienfuegos, which incidentally was in contravention of the agreement that ended the Cuban missile crisis. This Soviet promotion of aggression, Nixon phrases one way, “How the hell can I go to Moscow and toast to the Soviet leaders when Soviet tanks and guns are kicking the hell out of South Vietnam?”
And there was a fear, a genuine fear in the White House that South Vietnam might collapse. There again, 80% to 90% of American troops had been withdrawn at this point. It was really only air power and the South Vietnamese and the initial onslaught seem to be doing pretty poorly and provincial capitals were falling. And again, this takes place less than two months before Nixon was scheduled to go to Moscow. He eventually is able to break that connection. Nixon, the politician is very pragmatic. And Nixon, the foreign policy president who sees the Soviet enabling aggression is able to have a split.
Richard Moss: I’ll skip this one for now, but they do some feelers through other back channels. This is one that was arranged between Kissinger and Dobrynin but it involved Mrs. Nixon, Pat Nixon setting up a lady’s tea with Ambassador Dobrynin’s wife and to convey the message that the United States is, you know, we’re not happy about the situation, but we’re probably not gonna cancel the Moscow Summit. And Mrs. Nixon did a great job conveying it and you can hear, the audio is not working on this one, but you can hear the pride in his voice in the last line. “You now should do it right on the nose.” So, that message goes back. So, Nixon, the pragmatic politician is recognizing that the American people don’t see the Soviet aggression in supporting North Vietnam against South Vietnam is against American interests. Only people who really follow foreign policy are gonna make that kind of connection.
Nixon goes back and forth over this. He’s wavering… Kissinger’s pushing for the Moscow Summit, which he’s been working with Dobrynin very carefully on and on a number of agreements. But Nixon decides that he’s gonna go through with the summit, but he’s going to massively bomb and mine North Vietnam and conveys to the Soviets that, “Okay. We’re not gonna cancel the summit. If our bombing destroys Soviet ships that are on Haiphong harbor or damages Soviet interests, that’s just kinda the price you have to pay for supporting North Vietnam. But we’re not gonna cancel the summit, so you have to do it.” Nixon has this realization to go through with the bombing because of the advice of his Treasury Secretary, John Connally, who was… As Kissinger described John Connally, his decisiveness was Nixon’s Walter Mitty image of himself. And Connally with his animal-like decisiveness, which I also have, but I’m much more subtle, Connally quickly gets to the point, he says, “Look, the summit is great. I hope you don’t knock it off. I think you can do both. I hope you can do both, but you’ve got to remember you can do without the summit, you cannot live with the defeat in Vietnam. So, bomb North Vietnam to smithereens, mine Haiphong harbor. Don’t cancel the summit, let them do it. Put the onus on them.” Which is exactly what Nixon does. And less than three weeks later, he’s in Moscow clinking glasses with the Soviet leadership.
And there’s a somewhat blurry picture of John Connally from Texas. He lived with a bullet fragment from the Kennedy assassination until the day he died. He was sitting next to Kennedy when he was assassinated. And he was a Democrat. And Nixon admired John Connally very much. Three days after the announcement, the visiting Soviet trade ministers there and there are Kissinger and Dobrynin looking adoringly into each other’s eyes. It’s kind of that like smirk, that, “Look what we just managed to do. We managed to avoid canceling the summit, we managed to do what we need to do in Vietnam to prevent a collapse and the Soviets are just gonna protest loudly.” So, which was exactly what the Soviets did. But the Moscow Summit goes off pretty much without a hitch from May 22nd to 28th. There are a number of agreements signed. The Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, one of the cornerstones, the foundations of arms control until it was abrogated by George W. Bush, was signed at the Moscow Summit by Richard Nixon.
The interim agreement on the limitation of strategic arms. So, trying to halt that nuclear weapons race between the United States and Soviet Union. This is a first big breakthrough. It’s done primarily through the back channel. There were SALT negotiations but Nixon did a lot of stuff with Kissinger and Dobrynin behind the scenes. But there were seven other agreements including efforts in science, technology, and cancer research, for example, sharing like radioactive isotopes for using chemotherapy to target tumors, and environmental protection, preventing incidents at sea and in the air, space exploration. These were all signed. So, the cause of peace benefits and these are all achieved through back channels and there’s the Apollo-Soyuz Docking and it’s a model. But 1975, the docking did after, that was agreed to be designed at the Moscow Summit. It’s still in use in an updated form on the International Space Station to this day. So, there are lasting achievements to improving U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Soviet relations.
Back channels can be an important tool in that toolbox, but they should not be the only tool and it’s a question of balancing the legitimate aims with the aims that are more nefarious or illegitimate. So, this is the other Boris Sedov, he writes these crime novels. So, maybe it’s the same Boris Sedov, the KGB agent. But anyhow. With that, I would be honored to take any questions that you may have.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you, Rick. Just as a reminder, “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow” is available in the museum store for purchase. Rick will be happy to sign copies of your book here in the East Room. I’d like to start off with the first question. Given today’s 24/7 news cycle and leaks, apparent leaks in the government is having a back channel even possible today?
Richard Moss: Yes. It’s possible. When you look at the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba, probably back channel. When you look at the Iranian nuclear deal, probably back channel. Back channels can remain secret if they’re done correctly. One way to do it incorrectly is to talk on an open phone line or a mobile phone with the Russian ambassador. There are basic operational security measures that you can do like meeting in person, for example, or exchanging handwritten notes. It sounds kinda quaint in today’s email and iPhone world, but I think it is still possible to do it. I don’t think you can have a relationship like the one that existed between Kissinger and Dobrynin. I don’t think that can exist in today’s world. And just yesterday, I was in the archives trying to find more information on Sedov and I found a great memo from Lawrence Eagleburger who was a very short-lived secretary of state under George H. W. Bush in like 1992, 1993. But at the time, he was a foreign service officer and he was an adviser to Henry Kissinger.
And in January 1969 before the inauguration, he warned Kissinger, he said, “There are lots of contacts with the Soviets. We need to kinda corral these. And in Washington, people talk and it’s just a question of time before it gets out.” It didn’t get out actually until…the first hints of the back channel between Kissinger and Dobrynin got out in 1973. I asked Kissinger about this. There was a book published by John Newhouse who was a journalist called “Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT,” the strategic arms limitation talks. And he hints at the back channel and I think Kissinger told him elements of the back channel, but he didn’t get the whole story. And it was again, limited to arms control. So, the full explanation about the extent of how much of U.S.-Soviet relations were determined between Kissinger and Dobrynin, that only really became apparent with the 1979 publication of Kissinger’s memoir, “White House Years.”
Jonathan Movroydis: We have a question right here.
Man 1: Hello.
Richard Moss: Greetings.
Man 1: So, a practical question. I’m sorry if you’ve mentioned it earlier because I missed the first half. How were they able to communicate? Was it by telephone? Did they use another line for interpreter? Did they do it in writing? I don’t think Kissinger spoke Russian.
Richard Moss: They spoke in English. Kissinger joked that he didn’t make fun of Dobrynin because he spoke with an accent. They spoke in English. They took notes. Dobrynin had a phenomenal memory. Kissinger had a phenomenal memory. He still has a phenomenal memory. But Dobrynin would write these long reporting MEMCONs or memorandum of conversations back to the Kremlin, the Soviet foreign ministry after meeting. But they met in person. They often met at the White House. Dobrynin would enter through the side entrance so as to avoid the prying eyes of the press. They eventually had a secure telephone line installed at Nixon’s…with Nixon’s approval so they could talk, just Kissinger and Dobrynin. It was a very personal relationship. And the first year and a half, again, not much happened in the first year and a half, but over time, it really developed to the point where they were meeting several times a week and talking on the phone hundreds of times. So, between the Kissinger Telcons and the MEMCONs that both Kissinger and Dobrynin kept, we have a pretty good idea, it’s an almost complete record of their exchanges that they had across a wide variety of topics.
Man 1: You mentioned President Nixon’s relationship with the State Department and the necessity to build up back channels and the plumbers and whatnot. Do you see any parallels to any other presidency where that same condition’s occurring and where there are some parallels?
Richard Moss: I think the lesson from the plumbers is that when you have something like that that may start off with legitimate goals that with power, it corrupts over time. And you saw them getting entangled with the committee to reelect the president or CREEP and aptly named. I think it would not be advisable to have something like that. And there are agencies that are supposed to function to do this for counterintelligence role, like the FBI, for example. It is not the role of the White House and people who are personally loyal to the president to do that. And there are potentially disastrous and unconstitutional and illegal activities that result from doing that. So, I think that’s a lesson that we learned from that. Again, they did have some legitimate national security purposes when they started off. There was an interesting relationship between J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI at the time. He died in May in 1972. But an interesting relationship between him and Nixon, not entirely trusting of one another. And then the fact that Deep Throat was unmasked as Mark Felt, the deputy director of the FBI, it shows that there was a lot of skulduggery going along from various sides. It wasn’t just limited to the White House. It was FBI as well and the lesson to learn there is not to repeat those mistakes. We just find new ways to make mistakes.
Jonathan Movroydis: Another question in the back row.
Man 2: You might’ve already answered this, sorry. You’ve stated really clearly and I appreciate how you’ve showed us how back channels are useful, but there are a variety of reasons for having them, some self-serving possibly. Whether you have some instances that come to mind of abuse of back channels for self-serving purposes or could you imagine some?
Richard Moss: A great example, I hinted at it, I didn’t really get into it… So, that’s a really good question. Kissinger really wanted to set himself up as the intermediary to arrange a summit meeting between Moscow and Washington and he kinda used that right from the very beginning of the back channel. So, you see that kind of bureaucratic maneuvering but it’s also, I mean, you could accuse Kissinger of self-aggrandizement on this. The memos of the first meetings are actually hilarious. The very first meeting that was on February 14, 1969, Kissinger said, “Oh, Ambassador Dobrynin said that we must have this most confidential exchange of opinions.” Dobrynin says, “Henry Kissinger approached me and recommended this most confidential exchange of opinions on our stances on all of these issues.” So, you see that and the one thing I would stress is there are no monocausal explanations in history.
You can have self-aggrandizement, you can have efficiency, you can have trying to prevent leaks, you can have trying to time things from a political standpoint because at some point, you have to have pragmatism. If Kissinger hadn’t done some of the self-promotion, maybe he wouldn’t have had the cache to outmaneuver his bureaucratic rivals. And he certainly got stuff done. And so if you judge the result with the means, you have to balance it out. The ends don’t always justify the means. But I think the achievements of the Nixon administration using back channels was not only their way of doing business. It was inextricable from the way they did business and it was frankly effective. It’s just when you apply this same type of mentality to domestic affairs, that’s when you start to get into trouble.
Richard Nixon is described in the video outside as an American tragedy, like a Shakespearean tragedy and has all the elements of that. The word tragedy from Greek, from ancient Greek, it was human beings trying to rise to the level of the gods in terms of their achievements and the gods smiting them down. And there are elements of that. Richard Nixon has such innate brilliance and an ability to comprehend what was going on in the world and how you set a goal and how do you achieve it? How do you make it happen? He was very good at that, but then again, he overreached and applied it in some other ways that were less than savory. That is the definition of strategy right there. Thank you for the question.
Jonathan Movroydis: Thank you, Rick. Please give Richard Moss a round of applause. As I mentioned earlier, “Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow” is available at the museum store and Rick will be around in the East Room to sign your books. Thank you very much for coming.