At the height of the Cold War, with the death toll mounting in Vietnam and the split between the USSR and China becoming more and more evident, it became clear to the Nixon Administration that ending the war in Vietnam and opening relations with China could be a two-front victory. However, because of the sensitive nature of negotiating with the United States' ideological enemies, negotiations had to remain secret. This was particularly difficult with China, given that Washington had no established contact with Beijing.
Like something out of James Bond, Henry Kissinger and his Special Assistant, Winston Lord, used secret flights and body doubles to pull off the talks with both the Chinese and North Vietnamese. The talks on China were by far the more successful, as they led to President Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972, which reopened ties with the Communist country for the first time since 1949.
Ambassador Lord was interviewed by ADST in 1998, and the entire account can be found on the ADST website: This account was compiled by S. Kannan.
LORD: [President Richard] Nixon sent [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger a memo on February 1, 1969, approximately one week after his inauguration as President. I can't reconstruct this memo verbatim, but basically he instructed Kissinger to find a way to get in touch with the Chinese. This was one of the earliest instructions that Kissinger got from Nixon.
First, in terms of communications, the only way to get in touch with the Chinese was through third parties....There were various channels that Nixon and Kissinger tried to use to get word to the Chinese. In a general sense, they were looking for a new beginning. One involved using [former French President Charles] de Gaulle and the French, another was Romania, and we finally, of course, settled on Pakistan. Pakistan had the advantage of being a friend to both sides. There was no danger of Russian involvement, as we might have had if we had used Romania.
Kissinger chose three people to go to China with him. Myself, as a sort of global sidekick, Holdridge as the Asia and China expert, and [NSC Staff Member] Dick Smyser, as the Vietnam expert. The Vietnam issue would be a significant factor in the discussions in China.
There was a publicly announced trip that Kissinger took. It included Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. Then Kissinger was supposed to return to Washington through Paris. That was the public itinerary. However, the game plan was to go off secretly to Beijing from Pakistan and by pleading illness and the need to go to a Pakistani hill station to spend a couple of days allegedly recuperating while, in fact, Kissinger was secretly going into China.
I had to make sure that only Kissinger, Smyser, and Holdridge would see certain briefing books. I'm talking about people sitting right next to each other on the plane, some of whom knew of the secret trip to China and some of whom did not.
Then there was another group. I know that it included Hal Saunders, NSC Specialist for Near Eastern Affairs, who was along because we were visiting India and Pakistan. People in this group knew that we were going into China, because they had to help cover for us. So Hal and a couple of others had another series of briefing books. These were sanitized or excerpted copies of the other memos.
We went publicly to Pakistan. There was a public banquet the first night. We went back to the government guest house. We packed and, at about 3:00 a.m. we were driven to the Islamabad airport by the Pakistani Foreign Minister I believe -- Sultan Khan. On that morning the story was put out that Kissinger was not feeling well and, at the invitation of the Pakistanis, he was going up to a hill station [mountain resort] to recuperate for a day.
There was a Secret Service agent in a car, slumped over. It wasn't supposed to be an impersonation but he played Kissinger up to the hill station. All of this was done fairly early in the morning so that there were no journalists around.
At the end of that day the Pakistanis put out a communiqué saying that Kissinger still didn't feel very well and was going to stay another day at the hill station. So that was the cover on that front.
We took off for China and we left about 4:00 a.m. Smyser, Holdridge, Kissinger, and I, plus two Secret Service agents, named Reedy and McLeod, arrived at the airport in Islamabad. We had a banquet that night, sitting around with Zhou En-lai. We had discussions with him which, according to Kissinger's book, lasted for 17 hours. We were in China for a total of 49 hours.
We wanted to make it look essentially that the Chinese wanted President Nixon to come to China. The Chinese essentially wanted to make it look as if Nixon wanted to come to China and that the Chinese were gracious enough to invite him. So we went through our first, agonizing process of negotiation on that issue. At one point we broke off the negotiation, not in a huff, but just recognizing that we were at an impasse. We thought that the Chinese were coming back to the negotiations within a couple of hours.
Finally, the Chinese came back, and we resumed the discussion and worked this issue out. I forget the exact language used in the brief communiqué which was made public. The formulation used went something like this: "Knowing of President Nixon's interest in visiting China..." And in fact he had expressed an interest in visiting China in general. The formulation went on that the Chinese had invited him. So it wasn't as if the Chinese wanted Nixon to come to China and were going out of their way. They used the formulation that they invited him because they had heard about his interest in visiting China. On the other hand, Nixon wasn't begging to go to China. So it was a fair compromise.
It so happens, and we'll get back to this, that while we were publicly in Paris, we secretly snuck off and met with the Vietnamese communists. Indeed, this was one of the more forthcoming meetings with them. Afterwards Kissinger and I thought, somewhat naively, that we had pulled off two, historic encounters in one trip: the opening toward China and moving toward settling the Vietnam War.
We got out to San Clemente and worked on Nixon's announcement. Nixon's inclination, and I think that he was entirely right, was to keep his remarks very short. It was so dramatic that he didn't need to elaborate. He could get away with a few sentences or a few paragraphs. The eventual announcement was only a few hundred words long.
For the secret negotiations I would usually leave my NSC office on Friday evening. Without exception, I believe, these sessions took place on weekends and/or public holidays. For example, July 4, Labor Day, and so forth. Otherwise, we handled them on Saturdays and Sundays, that is, the regular weekends.
The obvious point was that, since these sessions were secret, we didn't want people wondering where Kissinger was. There would obviously be less notice of his absence over a weekend than in the middle of the week. Al Haig would always cover for Kissinger, saying that he couldn't bother Henry with inquiries during the weekend. So the secret negotiations were always held on the weekend. So when a secret negotiation was set up, I would leave the NSC office late on a Friday evening, after my usual 80- to 100-hour work week, say goodbye to my colleagues, in effect making the case that I wasn't coming into work the next day for I always came in to work on Saturdays. I would then go home.
Early on Saturday morning, a White House car would come to my house in Washington, pick me up, and take me to Andrews Air Force Base, where one of the U.S. Air Force Special Mission aircraft would be waiting.... Kissinger, Dick Smyser or later John Negroponte, and sometimes Peter Rodman (latter stages) would also be there.
We would get on the plane.... On the way over to Paris we continued to discuss the agenda. Keep in mind that I had already put in an 80- to 100-hour week at the NSC and helped to prepare the briefing books with Dick Smyser or John Negroponte. Kissinger always asked for revisions to these briefing books during the week....Kissinger would always work on this before he left but would also rework these papers on the way. So we would work all the way over to Paris on the plane.
Then, when we finished, we would drive back to the Paris airport, get into the French President's plane, fly to the air base in central France, pick up Air Force Two, and fly back to Washington. On the way back we worked the entire time, first writing a memo for President Nixon, reporting what had happened, and, perhaps, suggesting where do we go from here. Then we would begin to transcribe our verbatim notes on the meeting.
We would get back to Andrews Air Force Base between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., Washington time, on Sunday. Of course, by now it was early Monday morning, Paris time. So I would go home and come into the NSC office on Monday morning, Washington time. By then I was absolutely exhausted. Ostensibly, I not only had not worked throughout the weekend but had had a nice, 48-hour break! I somehow had to look bright and lively as someone would who had had a free weekend off.