Walter Isaacson

Kissinger, Part II

VTR Date: July 23, 1992

Guest: Isaacson, Walter


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Walter Isaacson
Title: “Kissinger”, Part II
VTR: 7/23/92

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. And this is the second of two programs with Walter Isaacson, Assistant Managing Editor of Time magazine, whose wonderfully compelling new biography published by Simon and Schuster – titled simply: “Kissinger” – is about modern America’s most controversial world leader as Secretary of State.

Perhaps Robert Caro, the enormously accomplished biographer – first of Robert Moses, and continuingly now of Lyndon Johnson – says it best: “If there were no such word as ‘riveting’, it would have to be invented to describe this book. In illuminating Kissinger’s complex personality, Isaacson is compassionate and moving, and he captures Kissinger so vividly that the reader follows his maneuvers as if he were standing beside him. This is one of the very few books of recent years that succeed in casting new light on the relationship between personality and policy. Isaacson has a grasp of history that is truly rare”.

So that I want now to talk more now with Walter Isaacson about just that grasp of history…particularly about history and the journalist. Walter, on our previous program I let you off the hook about the journalist as historian, but I wondered what you found both in your previous great book, and in this wonderful biography, to be the parallels between, or the differences between the responsibilities of the historian, biographer, and the journalist?

Isaacson: I think one of the really tragic things about some history, biography and journalism is that a person can either treat it just as history, or treat it just as journalism. For example, you have certain historians who feel that the way to write history is you only go to the documents, you only go to the written record, what’s on paper, and you aren’t supposed to do interviews. You aren’t supposed to talk to the participants. You’re only supposed to study the primary sources and go into the archives. I, I exaggerate a bit, but…but that school of history tends to depend so heavily on archival research that they never take the time to track down the people involved and say, “Why was this memo written? Why was this action conceived?” On the other hand, you have journalists who do a lot of interviewing, do a whole lot of leg work, but never seem to take the time to go into the archives, to study the memos, to study the documents. And, if I may turn back the compliment to Robert Caro, I think he’s been one of the great people in the field, with his Lyndon Johnson books, who shows that you have to do all the interviewing, but you also have to spend all the time in the Presidential libraries and going through the archives…that true history emerges only when you, when you mix the two, because a person you interview may have faulty memory, may…you know, either, either be lying or just forgetting some of the things that happened, so you have to go back to the documents in the archives…yet the documents in the archives aren’t going to give you the full picture, because so much of what is part of the written record is done to either cover somebody’s rear end or to deceive people, or for a specific purpose. So I think journalists and historians should work together.

Heffner: Of course, sometime back, in Time magazine…I…struggle through my papers here until I find it…Kelly Cahill had put it before me…ah, here…an essay you wrote in Time, “History Without Letters”…1987, five years ago…interesting you start off, “Pity the poor historian, the wonders of modern technology are combined with the dynamics of government scandals to make his task next to impossible”. What did you mean?

Isaacson: Well, what happened, when we wrote “The Wise Men”, which was about the statesmen of the early cold War era, the Acheson, Harriman crowd, Acheson…Dean Acheson and Averell Harriman, who were partners on Wall Street and went down to work in government would…when one was in Washington, one was in New York…they’d write each other letters twice a day, and the delivery of mail was twice a day. So you can go back into the records and the archives of Brown Brothers, Harriman…the investment bank where they worked, and look at those letters and see exactly what they were thinking. And as you progress through that period, you finally hit the late 1950s and in the folder, instead of being letters, there are telephone messages saying, you know, you know, “Ambassador Harriman called, wants you to call back as soon as possible”. So the historian, all of a sudden loses the paper trail when it became easy to make long distance phone conversations. Now the amusing thing is that…this, when I talk about scandals there…it used to be from John Kennedy, but most famously of all Richard Nixon, they’d record their phone conversations. And so, at least the historian, if he was lucky, could get access to some of the recorded phone conversations, which were even richer than the letters, because they were the unguarded moments of people talking. And one thing I was lucky on, with the, with the book on Kissinger, is that Nixon recorded his phone conversations. John Erlichman recorded his phone conversations, and every single conversation that Henry Kissinger had in his office was recorded, automatically, and overnight transcripts were made by a battery of secretaries. And those things are locked away. They’re not public, but enough people have access to them that if you want to study a certain period and you can get access to the right people, you can read some of the telephone conversations between President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, between Kissinger and Al Haig, and it gives you a rich sense of what really happened. Now the problem is after Watergate, after the wire-tapping scandal, after the bugging scandal of Democratic Headquarters, no official in his right mind would secretly tape his telephone conversations any more…so you lose that source of original historic documents and material. And finally, the last blow was, as you may remember, Oliver North and some of the people in the Nix…in the Reagan White House, used to send each other computer messages, and they thought that those computer messages vanished into silicon chips and disappeared once they finished with them. But, to their chagrin, it was discovered that those messages remained in the memories of the computer, and they were subpoenaed during the Iran/Contra scandals. So now that source of historic documents…the computer messages, they’ll no longer be there because people will…the minute they get computer messages…make sure, if they want to make sure that historians will never see them, will erase them completely from the record.

Heffner: So posterity isn’t going to know as much about us as we know about those who came before us.

Isaacson: Oh, no, in writing history without letters, without documents, without telephone transcripts, where you just have to rely on people’s memory is going to be very difficult. So, I think it’s a great loss to historians that people don’t write letters anymore and, although it’s a great strength for democracy, it’s a loss for historians that they don’t tape each others’ phone conversations.

Heffner: Wait a minute…what do you mean? “Strength” or a “blow for democracy”…

Isaacson: Well, I, I don’t think it’s good for democracy of good for our, our system for people to be secretly taping each others’ phone conversations. I think it’s a violation of the type of privacy and civil liberties that we learned to cherish here. I think that most people would feel that secretly taping and keeping each others’ phone conversations is not the best way to run an honest government, but for the historian, it’s a wonderful resource if people wanted to tape each others’ phone conversations.

Heffner: Did it take very long into Kissinger’s ascendancy before people knew that their phone conversations were being recorded?

Isaacson: Oh, I think people would be stunned…no, most people did not know…

Heffner: Did not.

Isaacson: …oh, sure…I think some people even reading my biography will be somewhat stunned to find out that the telephone conversations they had with Henry Kissinger…such as the, you know, the Israeli Ambassador, the Soviet Ambassador, the Secretary of Defense, Jim Schlesinger, all these peoples’ conversations were taped. I think a lot of them knew, many of them suspected, but I don’t think most people consciously were aware that when they were talking on the phone to Ehrlichman, to Nixon, certainly nobody knew about the White House tapes while they were being made, or to Kissinger…that they were all being taped. And finally, the wire-taps, those were very secret.

Heffner: But Henry…(laughter)…that’s great…

Isaacson: (Laughter)

Heffner: …do you mind if I promote you to Secretary of State…

Isaacson: (Laughter)

Heffner: …former Secretary of State…Walter…you, you wish for the time, you bemoan the end of the time when people wrote letters as they did in the past…

Isaacson: Yes.

Heffner: …you long for the day when you could look back and have history traced for you…have access to those materials. Why are you so adamant about the undemocratic nature of keeping records of telephone conversations? Making transcripts of them?

Isaacson: I think that it violates a certain sense of trust if you and I are talking on the pone and I’m taping you and transcribing you and maybe leading you on to say certain things for the record and getting a transcription of and putting it into the archives when you’re not fully aware that that’s what I’m doing.

Heffner: Do you think as a historian, as you’ve gone back in the past, particularly in…with the first book…do you think that having available to yourself and your writing, letters that were exchanged on a personal basis, between these men, between and among these men and many others…that you’re in a sense invading their privacy?

Isaacson: Well, I think that if you take a person’s letters without their permission and get them through stealth, or steal them or what ever, I think that’s an invasion of privacy. I think it’s a somewhat tricky question. Let me give you an example. I have the letters in this book that Henry Kissinger wrote as a young man after he survived the Holocaust in Germany. And he doesn’t talk much about his childhood these days. He doesn’t talk much about being Jewish and growing up Orthodox Jewish and beaten up as a kid when he lived outside of Nuremberg, in Nazi Germany in the 30s. But in those letters, letters that his mother, who is still alive, kept and gave me and he knows that I have, in those letters he…as a young man, he expresses the very deep emotions he felt about the Holocaust, and then he went back to Germany as a member of the U.S. Army’s counter-intelligence group to help liberate and run liberated Germany and he visited the windows, stood under the windows in Furth, Germany and Nuremburg, Germany of the 13 close relatives of his who were killed in the gas chambers and he wrote a short story and he wrote letters home and he wrote letters to the parents of certain people he had rescued from the concentration camps describing the emotions he felt, the sense of order that he felt was necessary for morality to exist, the, the deep feeling about the pessimism he felt in history, and the pessimism he felt about the human race…all of these things are crucial to understanding Henry Kissinger. If I went and stole those letters or something I think that’s improper…I think a good historian goes back and says to, as I did to various Holocaust survivors who had gotten letters from Henry Kissinger, or to Kissinger’s family to try to find those letters and to explain his personality through his own words and through his own letters. That’s how history is written, and that’s how a man’s complex personality is best explained.

Heffner: But if you solicit access to those letters written by Dr. Kissinger to survivors or the parents, the children of survivors, unless you have his permission, don’t you feel that there is something strange about your having access to them?

Isaacson: I think, I think it’s a difficult question…I…when I got letters that he wrote as a young man, or access to the papers he wrote at Harvard when he was an undergraduate…

Heffner: Yes.

Isaacson: …and his philosophical papers or his papers about government, I went to him, asked for permission to use the papers at Harvard. I explained when I got letters from other people that he had written. I let him know…I let him comment on it…I think he had mixed emotions. At one point, I hope he doesn’t…I mean …his mother doesn’t mind me quoting this…but I explained to him that his mother had given me a set of these letters including the short story about the Holocaust and coming back and sensing the ghosts of the survivors in his family and what he would say to each of them. I said that his mother had given this to me and he said, “Well you seem to have co-opted my mother and now, like all of my enemies, she’s out to destroy my reputation”…

Heffner: (Laughter)

Isaacson: …I told him that if he had had his mother as his Chief PR person while he was in government, he wouldn’t have been as controversial of a figure.

Heffner: Look, Walter, there’s a question about this matter of access to what I have written without giving permission to you to have it. You’ve gone to the person who’s received my letter…there are a lot of, a lot of these questions. Let me ask whether, in your experience, because you are a journalist, you play a very important role in a very major publication in this country, what are the parallel…go back to the, to the first questions…what’s the parallel between the responsibility of the historian and of the journalist? Does the historian have to have standards that the journalists, at least today, may ignore?

Isaacson: Well, no…I think, I think both journalists and historians have to have standards, and I think when you’re writing journalism or writing history, you have to balance a right to privacy, but you balance that against it being a public figure and it being a compelling and important subject for the people to know. I think that letters that Henry Kissinger wrote while he was in government are certainly in a totally different category than a private citizen’s letters may…you know, somebody who’s not been in the public eye, and even the Supreme Court makes that distinction between public figures and private figures, and so I think if somebody’s a public figure, and I think that if the letters are what they wrote in the public realm, not that you’re breaking into their bedroom and stealing them, and if those letters shed light on important national history or events, then those are the type of things you balance. But you’re right…it’s always…you know, and you balance it whether it be a government document like the Pentagon papers, or J. D. Salinger’s private letters which became the case for a Supreme Court decision…or many other things. You have to balance and the courts have to balance and government and legislatures have to balance, but in general, for a public figure, when you’re telling the truth and you’ve honestly acquired information, be it Ross Perot’s letters way back…you know, this past summer when he was…people were revealing the letters he wrote to IBM, or Bill Clinton’s letter to his draft board, the head of his draft board…I’m sure Bill Clinton felt that was an invasion of privacy…a letter he wrote from Oxford to the head of his draft board. But I’m sure that the voters of America probably…should have the right…I shouldn’t say “probably”, should have the right to weigh that in when they’re considering voting for Bill Clinton as President. That letter sheds light on what Bill Clinton’s values are, and so if somebody gets a hold of that letter that Bill Clinton wrote to his draft board, where he explains why he’s dropping out of the ROTC program and submitting himself for the draft…if I had gotten that letter…I would have printed it. When I got the letters Kissinger wrote as a child that explained the Holocaust, I certainly felt those should be printed. There were letters from our wise men that I found…some of which we left a little bit out of…that dealt with family and very personal, or sexual matters, that we just felt might be titillating, but…this is my co-author and I, when we were doing “the Wise Men”, but you use those judgments and you try to be responsible. Would you have printed, Dick, I mean if you were a journalist, the letter Bill Clinton wrote to his draft board? He certainly didn’t authorize release of it.

Heffner: I certainly found it to be the most compellingly strong statement and the letter he wrote subsequently, the most compelling strong statements of how intelligent and how analytic that young man was. But that’s not the point of what I would do because I’m asking you the questions, Walter.

Isaacson: (Laughter)…I was trying…it’s a tough question so I was trying to turn the tables on you.

Heffner: Well, look, you’re a historian…

Isaacson: Yeah.

Heffner: …you’re a journalist…

Isaacson: Right.

Heffner: …do you see different responsibilities? May I impose upon you, as a historian…

Isaacson: Well, I will tell you why I think…

Heffner: …principles that I can’t impose upon you as a journalist…

Isaacson: …I think there are some differences. Partly the difference comes because historians are writing about things that are, usually, further in the past than a journalist, is, by the very nature of the trade. And I think the more time passes, the more legitimate it is to use say, letters. I think writing…using any letters you can find of Thomas Jefferson is perfectly valid. Using letters of somebody who we can no longer hurt their career or something is perfectly…is, is more likely to be valid than if you’re taking a letter out of context about somebody who is in the midst of a Presidential campaign. But I think the standards, I think the basic standards are the same. I don’t, I don’t see that a journalist should get away easier than a historian.

Heffner: You might well be surprised about the number of journalists who sit where you’re sitting now who come on this program and say, “Don’t impose upon us the standards of the historian. Even if it’s only a matter of time…”

Isaacson: Okay, here’s, here’s a different standard that I think is valid. In the Kissinger biography I did, every single anecdote, every single piece of praise or piece of criticism is, is sourced. There are no anonymous sources. And when I did my interviews I’m not averse to people talking on background, or off the record, and a lot of people told me things on background and off the record, but when it came down to putting it in the book, for history, I felt the need to go back to each one of these people and say “Okay, this book is going to come out in a year or so. You told me this two years ago and we talked on background…I think it’s important that you be willing to put your name on this anecdote. I think it’s important that I be able to put a footnote, or put into the text that it was said by so-and–so who, you know, said by Daniel Ellsberg or said by James Schlesinger or said by, you know, Richard Helms, or said by Richard Nixon, that it’s important for history to know the source of each anecdote and each allegation”. And every one of them, except for one which I didn’t really need and didn’t use, but every one of the 150 people I interviewed agreed that the thing should go on the record. Now a journalist, I think, can use, in my mind, carefully anonymous sources.

Heffner: Yes, but I then have to ask the question “why” and I believe from what I’ve heard from across the table when other journalists have been sitting there because historians have so much greater influence, and it seems to me because historians create the picture for us of the way the world was…but it seems to me that increasingly print and electronic journalists are doing that to an even much greater extent. And the point that in Time magazine there is from one week to the next, just…there are those seven days, or there may be three days…or two days, or one day…to get something down. Very strange excuse for not checking through as thoroughly as you as a historian want facts checked because Lord knows what we read in Time becomes perhaps even more a part of our picture of what the world is, even than a noble book such as “Kissinger”, which will be read by hundreds of thousands of people.

Isaacson: I think that it’s that the pressures of daily or weekly journalism and the needs of the moment often make it necessary to use information that you believe is true, that you have reason to believe is true and that you have from reliable sources without having to say the name of the source because as you can well imagine, and you well know, there are many, many reasons why somebody wants to give you a piece of information that’s true, but they don’t want their name attached to it. I think it’s important to convey to the reader the motives, what type of person is giving it, why it’s being done, and you have a duty to yourself to be assured in your own mind that what you’re printing is true. But I think that in, in journalism the use of, of off the record, or background…I mean the use of material that you gathered on background or not for attribution, is, is very legitimate and to some extent is legitimate in history, but less so.

Heffner: wouldn’t you say that happens more and more today? The unidentified official, the “high ranking” person who chooses not to be quoted for the story?

Isaacson: Oh, I think that the “high ranking”…I think that the people who complain about anonymous sources…

Heffner: Yeah.

Isaacson: …tend to be the ones who are the anonymous sources the most. I mean you go into a State Department briefing and you‘re told, right off the bat, “You can use this information, but it’s not for attribution”, and the guy is standing there at the podium saying a whole lot of things. It happens in the White House, it happens with all sorts of top government officials…they want to get their word out, but they don’t want it attributed. Then they’re the ones who usually go around complaining about the use of anonymous sources.

Heffner: But then aren’t you sort of accessory to something that isn’t so savory when you do this?

Isaacson: Well…

Heffner: You know they’re playing a game.

Isaacson: Let me use an anecdote form the Kissinger book…Kissinger ws a master at this…he was the one who developed all these rankings, starting with “on the record”, and then “on background” which meant that it could be attributed to a high State Department official or a Senior Administration official, which everybody knew was Kissinger because it would be for all the reporters on Kissinger’s plane would have the same quotes. It would say “Said a Senior Administration Official”, and then he has something called “deep background” which meant you could use the information but it couldn’t be attributed in any way. And then he had “off the record” which meant “it’s for you to know, but I don’t want you to use it at all yet”. So, I mean he had all of these categories, and after a while he…a lot of his press corps felt they were being used…that, you know, they were writing all these stories and not really able to attribute it, but it got Kissinger’s message out without him having to take the, you know, have his name attached to it. And finally, there was a moment where on “deep background” he said that Nixon was thinking of canceling the Moscow Summit, a certain Moscow Summit because the Russians were not, I think, I think the crisis was in…the India/Pakistan War was going on and he was upset with what Russia was doing in the India/Pakistan War. So on one of his planes to a group of journalists, he said, “on deep background, Nixon is thinking of canceling the Summit”. Well, the Washington Post, Ben Bradley said, “This is going too far. If the guy is talking about changing, you know, a major world event, threatening to cancel a summit, we can’t just put it in the newspaper without attribution. We are going to put it in the paper and we are going to say ‘Henry Kissinger said it’”. So it caused a great uproar because they sort of violated the rules, and there was a lot of hand wringing and as you know from this show, there’s probably nothing less attractive than a group of people in the press wringing their hands about press ethics.

Heffner: Come back sometime, Walter, and talk about access reporting, too.

Isaacson: Alright.

Heffner: Something that needs to be commented on…in the meantime, thank you so much for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

Isaacson: Thank you, Dick, for having me.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Thomas and Theresa Mullarkey Foundation; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.