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Some China Contacts With Henry Kissinger

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Some China Contacts With Henry Kissinger

Dr. Jerome Cohen offers his personal experiences interacting with Kissinger on China issues – with all the complexity that involved.

Some China Contacts With Henry Kissinger
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

I had hoped that reading endless tributes and critiques of the work and life of Henry Kissinger would disabuse me of the felt need to add my own fragmentary comments. We all know that Winston Lord, because of his historic cooperation with Kissinger in opening relations with the People’s Republic of China, is the leading repository of incomparable, hard-earned learning on the subject. Yet many hundreds of other China watchers have had at least brief exposure to one of the most formidable diplomats and scholars of the 20th century.

I first encountered Henry when, in about 1966, as a newcomer to the Harvard Law School faculty recruited to teach about China, out of curiosity I sat in on a session of a seminar on law and national security that a still relatively young Henry was co-teaching with soon-to-retire Law School professor Barton Leach. The most remarkable thing I noted about that session was the number of times Henry, a federal government consultant, declined to answer student questions on the ground of national security, the very topic of the course. This left me with an uneasy academic feeling.

Although in the mid-1960s I had a nodding acquaintance with Henry due to our participation in the stimulating Harvard-MIT faculty seminars on international arms control, unlike some of Harvard’s China specialists I did not really know him. Their contacts with Henry soon proved important to the efforts of a committee that the Kennedy School’s newly established Institute of Politics organized in the fall of 1966 to study the need for a new U.S. policy toward China. Our committee’s goal was to prepare a memorandum to present to the winner of the 1968 presidential election.

Henry was not asked to serve on the committee. He at that time occasionally joked about how little he knew about China. But soon after the election, when Richard Nixon announced that Henry would be his national security advisor, committee members who knew Henry were quick to see that we now had a presumably reliable means for sending our recommendations to the president-elect.

Indeed, we decided to incentivize Henry’s cooperation. The first recommendation of our draft memorandum had urged the president to ask the new secretary of state, as yet unidentified, to seek to conduct secret, if necessary deniable, talks with China’s leaders. When we learned that Henry would be Nixon’s main international adviser, we altered the draft to urge the president to select the person in whom he had the greatest confidence to conduct the secret talks, suspecting, quite correctly, that Henry might maneuver to fit that description.

After Nixon and Henry moved into the White House, from time to time from 1969-71, since I was committee chairman, I would meet with Henry in Washington to review progress in implementing our committee’s recommendations. Although we discussed various recommendations, he never indicated any progress about our proposal for secret talks. In May 1971, after one of my meetings in Ottawa with Huang Hua, China’s newly installed ambassador to Canada, I telephoned Henry to suggest that he contemplate secretly going to Ottawa to meet Huang as a first step toward a meeting in Beijing. Henry was appreciative but skeptical and asked: “Do you think I could get away with a secret trip to Ottawa?” This at a time when, with the aid of Pakistan, he was secretly planning a trip to Beijing – far more difficult and spectacular than what I had just suggested.

After his July 1971 and later meetings with Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, as well as with Chairman Mao Zedong, Henry, of course, seemed to exude considerable confidence in his knowledge of China. When I asked his opinion of Zhou, Henry said: “That man is really serious.”

My brief Washington visits with Henry gave me some insights into several other aspects of his character that many observers have mentioned. He was notorious as a flatterer. One day at breakfast in the White House he looked me in the eye and said: “American experts on China have played a major role in influencing our China policy and no one has played a more important role than you, Jerry.”

Somewhat startled at what we both knew was untrue, I replied: “Henry, I bet you say things like that to all the girls.” This, as he undoubtedly knew, was a defensive reference to his then widely advertised social life with several starlets. (His son David, when later interviewed by the Boston Globe about his divorced father’s nightlife, accurately responded: “My father’s a secret square.”)

I think it was at that same breakfast that I saw an example of what some have called Henry’s hypocrisy. He had been joking in a belittling way about Nixon’s understanding of foreign policy when his phone rang. I have never seen a greater sudden transformation of any individual. “Yes, Mr. President. Yes, Mr. President, I’ll be right there, sir.” And off he dashed. I remember thinking that no job would be worth that degree of obsequiousness.

Certainly Henry did not want to give Nixon any reason to doubt his loyalty. In mid-1971 Henry told me that Nixon was sensitive about Henry’s continuing contacts with his presumably Democratic Harvard colleagues, especially with the 1972 electoral campaign coming up. I had been giving modest advice to the developing effort on behalf of Senator George McGovern’s hope to oppose Nixon and took the hint, which was not a problem for me since I was about to leave for a sabbatical year in East Asia.

On my return, I occasionally renewed contact with Henry by phone. Only one such contact warrants mention.

On August 6, 1973, South Korea’s KCIA kidnapped democratic leader Kim Dae-jung from his Tokyo hotel room. I learned about this when Kim’s Washington representative phoned to ask that I notify Kissinger and persuade him to intervene with the Seoul government to save Kim’s life. Henry thanked me for the call and said that he would do everything possible to save Kim.

The next day, as KCIA agents were about to throw Kim – who was chained, gagged, and blindfolded – into the Sea of Japan,  as he later told me and published, he heard a helicopter overhead and a lot of shouting. After that, he was unchained, put back in a cabin and ultimately released. Kim, who would go on to serve as the president of South Korea, always gave me and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Edwin Reischauer credit for obtaining Henry’s help in avoiding an untimely death. Yet Henry, who needed all the anecdotes he could muster to refute accusations that he was insensitive to human rights, never mentioned this case.

When I asked Henry why he failed to discuss it in his memoirs, he seemed uncertain in recalling it and said that it had probably failed to fit into his presentation. The then-U.S. ambassador to South Korea, the feisty Philip Habib, reportedly did read the riot act to South Korean President Park Chung-hee about the need to spare Kim, presumably after communication with Washington, but, since Habib died in 1992, this episode remains a mystery to me.

Henry plainly played a major role in extracting my college classmate Jack Downey from Chinese prison after Jack, a convicted U.S. CIA agent, had been confined for 21 years while our government continued to deny CIA involvement. In 1971 I revealed the truth about the case in nationally televised testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in two New York Times op-eds and asked Ambassador Huang Hua in Ottawa whether China might release Jack from his life sentence if the U.S. government would finally admit the truth about the case in public. Huang liked the idea and said he would inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

The problem was how to persuade the U.S. government to finally admit the truth in a way that would minimize the embarrassment. Nixon and Kissinger skillfully met the challenge. In the midst of an exciting January 31, 1973, Nixon press conference announcing the American withdrawal from the Vietnam war and the release of all American prisoners of war in Vietnam, a reporter asked Nixon whether this also meant the release of Jack Downey. Nixon, a smart lawyer, might have ruled the question irrelevant and refused to answer because it had nothing to do with Vietnam. Instead, in a brief matter of fact manner, he said: “Downey is a different case, as you know. Downey involves a CIA agent.”

Six weeks later, after Henry persistently pressed Zhou Enlai for Downey’s release, emphasizing the deteriorating health of Downey’s mother, Jack was freed.

My final effort to enlist Henry in the cause of human rights in China was less successful. In 1987, during the Communist Party’s campaign to stifle rising demands for “bourgeois democracy,” he was scheduled to give a well-publicized speech in Macao. Knowing that I was involved in some business negotiations in Guangzhou, an American human rights organization urged me to travel to Macao to ask Henry to voice some support for China’s repressed intellectuals. He told me that he would mention the plight of intellectuals in his remarks but then merely mumbled a few words about the importance of providing intellectuals with suitable work – a great disappointment.

I hope that these few shards will add to the vast body of material that future historians will evaluate as they assess Henry’s complex achievements.