Henry Kissinger played a significant role in getting Donald Trump elected with Russian help, and it’s not the first time he betrayed his country for a Presidential nominee.
Richard Nixon would have taken the circumstances surrounding the Chennault Affair to his grave if it weren’t for a moment in space and time which placed the archived memos of Nixon’s Chief of Staff in historian John Farrell’s hands.
It was 2016. Farrell hit the historical equivalent of winning the Powerball when the Nixon Library granted him access to some of the last documents released from Nixon’s Presidency. He came across memos by Nixon’s Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, from the 1968 presidential campaign.
Farrell recognized the notes as confirmation of a rumour which had persisted for decades. The Nixon campaign had colluded with the South Vietnamese to scuttle President Lyndon Johnson’s peace talks to end the Vietnam War, just as those talks appeared to be nearing a successful outcome.
In the Summer of ’68, Nixon’s election support was cratering as a result of Johnson’s overtures to the South Vietnamese. Nixon knew he’d lose the election to Hubert Humphrey, Johnson’s vice-president if a peace deal were struck before election day.
Henry Kissinger, who would later become Nixon’s National Security Adviser, started the whole thing. In ’68 Kissinger was a little-known, 45-year-old Republican strategist who manoeuvred his way into the peace talks as an advisor and, in an act of considerable betrayal, leaked news of the negotiations to Nixon.
Kissinger’s calculus was personal and not political, although it certainly could have been influenced by his connections in Russia and China. He knew he’d get a cabinet position if either campaign won, but as a practitioner of realpolitik, he also knew a diplomat with his skill-set would have far greater opportunity under Nixon and a much higher profile in a prolonged war. He was also covering his bases.
Faced with a choice between peace and power, Nixon made a predictable decision. Along with Haldeman, he hatched a plan which would be tantamount to treason but would land Nixon the White House. It became known as the Chennault Affair.
As Kissinger leaked details of Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks, Nixon hatched a plan that would become known as The Chennault Affair
Nixon and Haldeman enlisted the help of a prominent Republican fundraiser with connections to China. Anna Chennault struck a glamorous figure as she wielded power, money and influence in the US-China lobby and within Republican circles.
The affair was named after her because Chennault was also Nixon’s back channel to the South Vietnamese government. She convinced them to stall the Johnson talks, promising a better deal, if Nixon were elected.
In four pages of notes attached to memos from his years as Chief of Staff, Haldeman had left behind clues for future investigators like John Farrell, to discover. They proved that the Chennault Affair, which Nixon often dismissed as a “canard,” was a true story. In the memos, Haldeman hand-wrote that Nixon ordered him to “monkey wrench” the Vietnam peace negotiations and that Nixon wanted to “keep Anna Chennault working on SVN.”
As Farrell read Haldeman’s notes, the cruelty of Nixon’s plan struck him. There is no doubt the memos were held back for as long as they were because they revealed Nixon won the White House at the cost of American lives.
President Johnson was furious when he discovered Nixon’s betrayal, calling it treason, but he couldn’t prove it. The spy agencies had obtained intercepts of calls between Chennault and the South Vietnamese ambassador, pleading with him to “hold on,” and assuring him “we are close to winning,” but there wasn’t conclusive evidence of Nixon’s involvement.
Even as peace talks collapsed and the election lost, Johnson never spoke publicly about the affair, although he did confront Nixon in the Oval Office. “My God. I would never do anything to encourage [South Vietnam] not to come to the table,” Nixon is heard saying on White House recordings.
Nixon had good reason not to fess up. The affair was likely a violation of the Logan Act. That would have meant far more severe consequences for Nixon than a break-in. Watergate meant impeachment; treason spelled death.
Watergate brought Nixon down, but as far as Presidential scandals go, the Chennault Affair was far more consequential, not only because it potentially extended the war for years but because it revealed the lengths to which Nixon would go to seize power. The deaths of 1000’s of American soldiers in Vietnam was not too great of a price for the man who would become the 37th President.
Haldeman died in 1993 without ever revealing the affair. Chennault was buried in Arlington Cemetery. She always denied her role was consequential. Of the four main conspirators, Kissinger is the only one still alive today.
Kissinger became a towering figure in global affairs by often favouring profit and practicality over principles, even if it meant skirting the law and cost lives.
Kissinger has had his foot on the scale of global power for over half a century. Over the years he’s been accused of committing genocide in Cambodia, encouraging death squads in Chile and Argentina and more recently, of looking passed Russia’s atrocities in Syria and the annexation of Crimea. He believes the world would be a better place if strong US and Russia relations could co-exist with the Kremlin’s global misbehaviour.
“The long-term interests of both countries call for a world that transforms the contemporary turbulence and flux into a new equilibrium which is increasingly multi-polar and globalized,” he said. “Russia should be perceived as an essential element of any new global equilibrium, not primarily as a threat to the United States.”
That thinking is music to Vladimir Putin’s ears. Kissinger has had a close relationship with Putin since they first met in the early 90’s. Next to actor Steven Seagal and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Kissinger is the closest connection Putin has to Washington, D.C. and the peculiar way it handles itself. He is also friends with Donald Trump. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when it came to a political marriage between Putin and Trump, Kissinger was the inevitable matchmaker.
If Time Warner was the proposal, the Mayflower was the engagement party.
Henry Kissinger faced the prospect of a damp Manhattan reception as he made his way to the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle in March 2016. He was the star attraction at a swanky power lunch hosted by executives of the media company and was to speak about US-Russia relations.
The Center for National Interest co-hosted the lunch. Nixon founded the Washington-based think tank in 1994 and Kissinger serves as its Honorary Chair. The Center is a remnant of a bygone era, a place where fossilizing former titans of business and politics can lay their hat when fate, age or circumstance counts them out of the game.
Dimitri Simes is the Center’s president and the publisher of its magazine, National Interest. The Center appears to operate like any other think-tank, but it has a reputation for an extremely pro-Russian ideology.
Jared Kushner sat quietly, absorbing the scene. The soon-to-be son of the next President of the United States was invited by HBO president Richard Plepler and former Time Warner CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, who both sit on the Center’s governing board (a fact which deserves greater scrutiny). CNN president Jeff Zucker, who at the time reported to Bewkes, was also present at the event.
After lunch, Kushner met Kissinger and Simes. The encounter was a formal introduction, not a chance New York meet and greet. Kissinger, it would emerge, was trying to broker a relationship between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
In the ensuing weeks, Kushner would ask Simes and the National Center to put together one of the pivotal events of the Trump campaign timeline: a foreign policy speech scheduled for April 2016, entitled “America First.” It was to be a public announcement of Trump’s pro-Russia foreign policy platform. If Time Warner was the proposal, The Mayflower was the engagement party.
From that moment, Kushner took over the bulk of the campaign’s foreign policy, while Simes began organizing the Mayflower event.
Simes invited Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and other foreign diplomats, he arranged for the venue to be moved from the National Press Club to the Mayflower Hotel and organized a pre-event meet and greet which would include guests like Kislyak, Michael Fynn, Jeff Sessions and Kushner (who met Kislyak for the first time at the event).
Simes is himself an intriguing figure. He is directly connected to Putin and keeps in regular touch with Kremlin insiders. In 2013, he sat alongside the Russian President on a panel and was effusive as one can be. “I fully welcome President Putin’s tough stance, not because I am not a patriot of the United States, but because I believe that with regard to the great powers, baby talk is not the way to agreement. You need to understand what you can expect from another country, and you need to understand where there is resistance.”
Simes also chairs the Center’s advisory board which includes Alexey Pushkov, the former head of the Duma’s international-affairs committee.
The Center has also repeatedly intersected with key Kremlin figures in Trump-Russia, Alexander Torshin is Deputy Governor of Russia’s Reserve Bank. Torshin and suspected Russian spy Maria Butina played a significant role in influencing the NRA to become an intermediary of Russian money funnelled to Trump’s campaign. Torshin and Butina had several interactions and meetings with the Center, which remain unexplained.
After Trump was elected, Kissinger felt emboldened to come out of the shadows. A report in the German tabloid Der Bild headlined ‘Kissinger to prevent new Cold War’, claimed the former envoy was working towards a new relationship with Russia which included the U.S. accepting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Kissinger, now 95, had proved himself just as shrewd a diplomat as he was at 45. While it is clear Kissinger played a vital role in aligning Putin and Trump’s interests, it isn’t clear if he knew anything about Putin’s cyber plans to manipulate the electorate or hack DNC emails, not that it would have changed much. There’s a good reason the New Yorker trumpeted in a headline in 2016, “Does Henry Kissinger have a conscience?”