Source Material: Sequestered from the Court of History: The Kissinger Transcripts

Article excerpt

On February 11, 2002, after nearly 30 years, Henry Kissinger agreed to release 20,000 pages of transcripts of his telephone diplomacy with foreign leaders made between 1969 and September 1973 when he was special assistant to the president for national security affairs in the Nixon administration. This disclosure followed his agreement just months earlier in August 2001 to turn over to the State Department 10,000 pages of his telephone transcripts made from 1973 to 1977 during his time as secretary of state under the presidencies of Nixon and Ford. Kissinger had his secretaries tape the calls or listen and take shorthand on what was said, then type summaries, sometimes verbatim transcripts, of the conversations. (1) Upon leaving office with the 1976 presidential victory of Jimmy Carter, Kissinger donated the documents to the Library of Congress as his private property under restrictive terms that effectively sealed them until after his death. He argued from the beginning that the transcripts and summaries were his personal property and not government records or Nixon historical materials as others claimed. Nonetheless, his shrewd evasion of federal records laws with the aim of exercising unfettered control over the materials argued otherwise. Indeed, Kissinger's determination to conceal the documents and monopolize the history of his deeds after leaving office matched the urgency and secrecy with which he directed the affairs of state during the Nixon and Ford administrations. Against those who claimed the materials were public documents subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Kissinger fought a dogged and ultimately successful legal campaign all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to ensure his unbridled discretion over access to the transcripts and summaries.

Nonetheless, his victory before the Supreme Court provided little protection from claims that the transcripts and summaries from January 1969 until August 1974 were Nixon presidential records under the 1974 Presidential Records and Materials Preservation Act, which Congress passed to seize the former president's White House tapes and records for the continuing Watergate trials and investigations. Because Nixon's presidential materials contained Kissinger's national security and state department files and because these transcripts and summaries appeared to come under the purview of the Act, Nixon's subsequent constitutional challenges to the statute significantly helped Kissinger's own campaign to keep the full record of his activities under wraps. No doubt, Kissinger had concerns about potentially embarrassing revelations concerning his most controversial dealings with foreign governments. At the time, Kissinger was making extensive use of the transcripts and summaries to write his massive two-volume chronicle of his diplomacy during the Nixon years--a work evidently written with great care to his place in history and to perpetuating his image as the consummate strategic thinker who executed sweeping and highly successful radical shifts in American foreign policy: the opening of China, detente with the Soviet Union, extrication from the war in Southeast Asia, the establishment of a new foundation for Middle East dialogue, and other dramatic breakthroughs that set the global stage for the monumental changes to come in succeeding decades. In assiduously developing this self-portrait through his memoirs and other writings, speeches, and public persona, (2) it seemed imperative for Kissinger to control access to the very same documents that perhaps could support an alternative assessment of his diplomatic accomplishments. His efforts to close the most detailed record of his activities were therefore carefully calculated to give the facade of legitimacy, while knowingly sidestepping federal statutes and regulations. Years later in January 1999, not long before finally agreeing to release the transcripts, he stated in an interview with a CNN international reporter that "I am not trying to hide government documents. …