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A window on talking Kissinger

After South Vietnam fell to the communists in April 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked the Nobel Committee to take back the Peace Prize he’d won with North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho for a peace deal in 1973. (Le Duc Tho turned it down back then, saying peace had not yet been restored. Kissinger accepted the award “with humility.”)

But after Saigon fell, Kissinger prepared the medal for shipping back to Norway. He told Lawrence Eagleburger, deputy undersecretary of state, that Oslo was refusing because the panel felt the award “was worthy of having been given.” Kissinger and Eagleburger agreed that Kissinger should stand down because, as Eagleburger noted, it would be “unseemly to fight with them to take the damn thing back.”

These and many other nuggets have been unearthed and are being released Friday by the National Security Archive after a protracted battle with the State Department over more than 800 of Kissinger’s telephone conversation (“telcon”) transcripts, which Kissinger had tried to keep secret until five years after his death. (You can view the documents at The Archive has received more than 100 of them so far, most of them from 1974 to 1976, but will be getting more now as the State Department processes them, Archive senior analyst William Burr tells us.

They are vintage Kissinger — of course, everything Kissinger is “vintage.”

For example, a leak of U.S. aid to opposition groups in Angola in 1975 led to a purge of staffers in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.

“It will be at least a new cast of characters that leaks on Angola,” Kissinger quipped to Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to President Gerald Ford.

A CBS News story by Bob Schieffer in early 1975, about a National Security Council meeting on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), finds Scowcroft complaining about the “total lack of honor and discretion,” and Kissinger saying that when he meets with Ford, “almost every day I am in there crying” about the leaks.

In a December 1975 telcon, we find Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s folks at the Pentagon balking — in a “stonewall position,” Kissinger tells Ford — over a pending new SALT agreement that Kissinger says is “within our grasp.” Kissinger said he hoped Ford would help him “smash” the opposition — and tell Rumsfeld and the Pentagon “to get with it.”

And, of course, former president Richard Nixon makes an appearance — in an early 1976 telcon about his planned trip to China — one that Ford didn’t want him to take in an election year, preferring that Nixon stay out of the limelight. Kissinger thought otherwise, saying the trip could help “get them off this idea we are soft on the Russians.”

Nixon says he thinks Ford challenger Ronald Reagan’s attacks were encouraged by former defense secretary James Schlesinger. If Schlesinger “keeps going after me, I will have to go after him.” But Nixon said the two of them had to “stay out of political activity,” and Kissinger agreed.

Learning from George

This week’s extraordinarily cold weather wreaked havoc on people’s plans, causing airline cancellations, traffic accidents and tie-ups, and school closings.

Among the unfortunate casualties was an event we were hoping to attend Friday: the Securities and Exchange Commission’s all-day (well, from 8:30 a.m. to maybe almost 4 p.m.) training session for about 30 senior SEC operations managers at Mount Vernon.

The general theme: looking at and learning from George Washington’s leadership skills and public service as they might apply to senior executives today.

Our invitation said we’d take off from SEC headquarters at 8:30 a.m. in an SEC van “or personal vehicle” — but the agency won’t cover any costs for those driving themselves — and we’d get to Mount Vernon an hour later. “Attire: Casual (suggest walking shoes and warm coats).”

First off, we were to have a 45-minute tour of the father of our country’s lovely estate. (“Theme: Executive Leadership: Challenges and Solutions.”)

Then, from 10:30 a.m. to noon, there was to be a “Visitor Center/Museum Self-Guided Tour (Context in which we Lead, Facing Situational Challenges).”

From noon until 2 p.m. it’s “Luncheon,” which includes a “Team Discussion: Leadership Lessons and Executive Leadership Skills.”

The van was to leave the estate at 2:30 p.m. and get us back to SEC headquarters by 4 p.m., which seems like a long time to travel 18 miles or so.

It should be noted that each participant paid $40, which apparently covered costs, including lunch. (We’re told these folks are paid about $700 a day, not counting benefits.)

That $40 is “non-refundable after January 17th,” the invitation said, but surely, since it was postponed by the SEC, we’ll get our money back. Or at least a rain check. And we definitely don’t want to have the training moved to the beautiful, spacious SEC digs by Union Station — where’s the inspiration in that?

Worst of all, we had a really good, warm coat at the ready. And we know Washington had a major leadership challenge in that really cold weather at Valley Forge.

The blog:
intheloop. Twitter: @InTheLoopWP.

Al Kamen, an award-winning columnist on the national staff of The Washington Post, created the “In the Loop” column in 1993.

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