The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
Ambassador L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, III
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy Initial
Interview date: June 16, 2008
Copyright ADST 2015
BREMER: The summer of ’66… My father who was still in international business said, “This is the time for public service.” We were in the middle of a war. As I have told you since you were young, everybody’s got to do public service. You’ve got your education; you’ve got to pay your debt to the country through public service.” So I went out and interviewed at the CIA, the State Department, and the Department of Commerce since I was getting a business degree. I talked to Navy intelligence, army intelligence; I did a variety of interviews and took the Foreign Service exam, the written exam. I took it in December of my second year at Harvard, passed that exam and went on and took the oral exam in Boston some months later and passed that. That helped me decide to join the Foreign Service. I had in mind that I would be in the Foreign Service for a couple of years, maybe three or four,” pay my debt to society”, as my father called it, and then go into business, perhaps joining him in business which I knew was his hope.
BREMER: I got married right after I graduated and my wife who had also studied history at college shared my interest in international affairs and we never looked back. We stayed in for 23 years.
BREMER: You know, I took the written exam with a friend from business school, a classmate who was an engineer. He graduated in the top 1% at the business school, so a very bright guy. We traveled to Lowell and took the exam and on the way back in the car he was saying, “Gosh that was a lot harder than I thought. They showed that picture and asked whether it was a Monet or a David or something. I hadn’t the foggiest.” I said, “Of course it was a Monet, it was easy to see. But the question that really bothered me was when they showed that diagram and asked, is it a molecule or an atom.” I had no idea which it was. He said, “Well, of course it was a molecule.” So we concluded that the exam was probably was quite fair because he was stumped by a lot of things I found easy and I didn’t have a clue about the stuff he could do.
BREMER: Three on one. I rather enjoyed it. I took it in Boston and they knew my background, obviously, so they put me in a series of situations. The one I remember was I was the French consul general in Boston and I had been asked to, I think it was to give a Fourth of July speech or do something about Lexington, I don’t know. They said, “What are you going to say?”
So then I had to think on my feet as a Frenchman now thinking “what would I say?” They did a number of those, I don’t remember the other ones but that one stuck in my mind. I rather enjoyed the exam.
BREMER: No, because they are not allowed to know anything about the person anymore.
BREMER: It was really rather fun and in those days they told you right away, within half an hour after the exam. I sat in some room and they came out and said “you passed”.
BREMER: Yes, they told you right away.
BREMER: Francie—Frances McKee Winfield—was born in St. Paul a year later than me, in 1942. Her father was in international business too and then moved to St. Louis where she stayed until she was 12 when she moved to Connecticut. She attended what was then called Connecticut College for Women which was about an hour from New Haven. We met at a Dixieland concert there.
BREMER: It was a good school.
BREMER: In August of ’66.
BREMER: I don’t remember a lot of it. In those days a fairly large class—I think there were 54 of us. It ran the gamut from two people who had no degrees from college to a couple of PhDs and a bunch of people in between. Some people had no languages, some had several languages. I remember the consular part being quite precise. I wouldn’t say it was intense but it was obviously material you had to learn. There was the law, the FAM, you had to learn it.
I remember a lecture on culture by a guy named Bostain. A very amusing, informed lecture about cultural differences.
I passed my language exam in French and did reasonably well in Spanish so I was not on language probation.
I have to go back a little bit. After were married, Francie and I drove to Washington and we stopped to visit her cousin, who was teaching at Princeton. He was a retired Foreign Service Officer, Leon Poullada. Leon had been in Africa, and served as ambassador, I think to Togo. What is relevant is we spent the night with him and before dinner he showed some movies, as they would be in those days, of his time in Afghanistan. He had been an economic officer in Afghanistan in the ’50s and had been James Michener’s control officer when Michener traveled around collecting information for Caravans, the book. We were rather struck by these pictures of Afghanistan.
When I got in the Foreign Service and the question came, where should I ask to go, I had three principles: I wanted to go to a part of the world I had never been to before; I wanted to go to a medium-sized embassy where I figured I would get responsibility; and I wanted to go to a developing country because I had been in Europe and had seen the developed world but I wanted to serve in a country that wasn’t developed. So when the time came round for requesting my first post, I put down Kabul. The people in personnel were obviously flabbergasted. I don’t think anybody had ever asked for Kabul. They obviously said, “Let’s get him out of here before he can change his mind.” They pulled me out of the Consular course and two weeks later we were gone. So we were very happy that we had seen Leon Poullada and seen something about Afghanistan. It fit all my requirements. It was a part of the world I hadn’t been to, a medium sized post and a developing country. We wound up in Kabul rather quickly.
BREMER: It was a factor in our class because at that time the unmarried men in our class basically were assigned to Vietnam. Married officers were not at that time, in late ’66, assigned to Vietnam because it was an unaccompanied tour. Some of my unmarried classmates went to Vietnam. I went to Kabul.
BREMER: No, it wasn’t. I don’t remember strong feelings about it one way or the other. It was not that controversial, as you say.
BREMER: We went on a two year tour but we were shortened by direct transfer two- thirds of the way through.
BREMER: It was a bit of a contradictory place in the sense that it was extremely primitive. On the other hand, from a political point of view, it was—I certainly wouldn’t say it was progressive—but they had a constitutional monarch, Zahir Shah. There was a parliament, a loya jirga. Political life was constrained, obviously. But I think the thing that struck me most when we were there was how primitive it was particularly when you got outside of Kabul, you felt like nothing had changed for a thousand years, which more or less it hadn’t.
Kabul was a city of three quarters of a million people in those days, the size of Washington. None of the streets had names, there were no traffic lights, and there were open sewers on the side of all of the streets. There were camels and donkeys and God knows what. One of the first impressions coming into Kabul was of people pushing cars along the streets either because they couldn’t afford the gas or because the car needed repairs. So rather than have a car drive, you had “cars pushers” all over the place.
BREMER: John Steeves had just left when I got there and Robert Neumann came maybe a month after I got there. Archer Blood was chargé when I got there. I think Neumann came within a month or two.
BREMER: From a physical point of view, we were working out of what was then called “the old embassy” which was a ramshackle compound. I was the consular officer. The fellow I was replacing got pulled out early for medical reasons and that’s why they were able to assign me so quickly.
BREMER: I thought he was fair, tough minded but fair. I will tell you an interesting story from my first week there that has always stuck with me. I was the consular officer and I showed up for work, literally the first day, and there was an Indian consular assistant who came in and said, “Miss So and So is here to talk to you about her visa” and he gave me the file. Her husband was a student in New York, at Columbia, I think and she wanted to go visit him for Christmas. This was in November and in those days you had to fill out a form; I think it was called an I-20. You had to have permission to bring a spouse. The file showed that she did not have the form.
So I interviewed her and told her she had to get that and she said, “No” and we went back and forth a bit. She had been told this by my predecessor and she thought she’d just try the story out again and I said, “No, the law is the law. Even if I issue you a visa,” she had a diplomatic passport, “even if I issue you a visa, it is quite possible the INS, which in the end has to decide to let you in, will turn you back and you will have to come all the way back to Kabul. It is really very simple. Have him send a telex—there weren’t faxes in those days—to me whatever was needed and I can issue the visa.” “No, absolutely no, not at all.” She left and about an hour and a half later, Arch Blood the chargé sent word to come over to his office. I found this rather scary, I had only been at the post for two days. So I thought, “oh, my God. Over to the chargé’s office.”
When I got to his office, Blood said that “the prime minister has just been on the phone to me about his niece’s visa. He says you refused to issue the visa. She wants to be with her husband at the holidays, at Christmas.” I explained to the Charge that she did not have and apparently refused to get an I-20 form. I had in my memory what the FAM had told me in the consular course. “Unless she gets her husband to send a simple telex, I can’t issue the visa.” He said, “There’s no way to issue it?” I said, “Well, there are three other officers here who have consular exequaturs [which included Blood] and anyone of you who wants to issue the visa is welcome to; but I won’t issue the visa.” To his credit he said, “I will tell the prime minister.”
Eventually, it had a happy ending. After several more weeks of back and forth she finally got the document she needed and I issued her the visa.
It also taught me a very early lesson which is, you do what’s right. I wasn’t going to bend the rules for her.
BREMER: Yes, he arrived several weeks later, I don’t remember when. He was a good ambassador. In fact, I have always felt the Foreign Service is lucky that from time to time we have non-career ambassadors. They often bring fresh ways of thinking about foreign policy. In my experience some of them are very good and some are not—but some Foreign Service officers are not very good either.
BREMER: I never worked for Steeves who was an old-school Foreign Service Officer, from everything I understood and Neumann was a bit more open. He was a good ambassador.
BREMER: No, I was on rotation. One of the reasons I wanted to go to a medium sized post was first I wanted to get responsibility. Also in those days the big and medium sized posts had the rotation program which allowed a junior officer to rotate among the four sections of an Embassy—political, economic, administration and consular. Although I came into the Foreign Service as a commercial officer because of my background, I wanted to get exposure to the other three “cones”. I was in the consular section for about five or six months. It was an interesting time to be in consular work.
BREMER: No. I knew that public service was not a way to get rich. On the other hand, I did not intend to stay in government more than four or five years. In any case in those days, Kabul was a 25% hardship post. I think my starting salary was something like $5,000, not a lot of money but you couldn’t spend it anyway, so I saved it. I got a $50 savings bond each paycheck and I put them in my drawer and put a rubber band around them and saved. The same thing my second post which was also a hardship post. But money wasn’t a big focus of mine. Savings made sense in any case.
BREMER: Yes, Kabul was a big stop in the drug route. A lot of young Americans would take the inexpensive Holland American Lines ships to the Netherlands. A group would buy a beat up Volkswagen and five people would drive across Turkey, across Iran, across Afghanistan. They were trying to get to Kathmandu because the drugs were supposed to be very cheap and available in Kathmandu. Actually in1966 -1967 the Nepalese government got tired of all these kids being there and pushed them across the border into India. The Indians took them and pushed them in turn back into Pakistan. The Paks took them and pushed them into Afghanistan. So we had the confluence of two streams of these kids, coming from both east and west. As the consular officer, I spent a lot of time in the jails and the flop houses trying to locate Senator So and So’s constituent who hadn’t been heard of since Tabriz three weeks before and trying to persuade these kids to go home. In many cases I had to do repatriation loans and fix their passports so that they could go home but nowhere else.
One of the embarrassing aspects that we faced was some of these kids set up as beggars outside the gate of the embassy. In Islam you are supposed to give alms to beggars and these Americans were at least middle class, some of them upper middle class, or they wouldn’t be there. This was one of the poorest countries in the world. It was embarrassing to have these Americans with their begging bowls outside the front of the embassy.
BREMER: Yes. Most of the time my dealing with them had to do with figuring out how to get them home. I remember one cable from a senator, relaying a cable from a father to the girl, I think her name was Stephanie. ‘Stephanie, our patience and your money have run out. It’s time for you to come home.’ Basically, that’s what I said after I found Stephanie in a flop house. “Here’s how we do it and we are going to do a repatriation loan. You are going straight home.”
Sometimes we had to get them out of jail. Afghan jails were not places you would like to spend a lot of time or have your son or daughter spend a lot of time.
We also had a different consular problem which was American women marrying Afghan men who had come to the US for studies. There was a fairly large USAID program of sending Afghans to study in the United States, particularly in the southwest, agriculture, geology. Afghan men are rather handsome and American women often found them attractive. They would marry the Afghan and then they would come back to Afghanistan and two things happened: first, as soon as they landed in Kabul the Afghan government took their American passports away. They were not allowed to travel. When the American arrived at the husband’s home in the compound, she would find at least one other wife, several children and usually a mother-in-law living in the compound. It was often not a happy situation. Most of them did not speak the local language. One of the other things that the consular section had to deal with was helping these American women once they decided they wanted to leave. That meant issuing them a valid passport and helping them get out of the country legally. Some of them went illegally.
BREMER: Well, we could issue them passports once they could prove they were Americans and that was, of course, always a problem. Sometimes they had to get birth certificates and sometimes we could find their records. Of course, there were no computers in those days so getting records back and forth was hard.
BREMER: Well, usually once they had the new passport they could get out legally. Sometimes they tried to go out illegally and that became a problem. We had a case of a USAID employee who befriended one of these unhappy women and smuggled her out of the country to Pakistan in the trunk of his car. We found out about it, I think because they told somebody at the airbase in Peshawar. In those days we had an airbase in Peshawar. We found out that the Russians had found out about it.
I remember being called up to Ambassador Neumann’s office. After welcoming me, he gestured me to follow him into his private bathroom. He turned on the water full blast and revealed that we had “excellent information” that the Russians had caught wind of the escapade. There was a possibility they might try to blackmail the AID employee presumably to turn him into an intelligence asset. So we had quite a confrontation. We had to send the AID employee home. On the whole as far as I could determine, most of these unhappy American women went out legally.
BREMER: They were in jail largely for petty theft, usually to support their drug habits. I don’t think any of them were put in jail for drugs because the drugs were so available.
The most common drug in those days was hashish. I don’t remember any case of heroin.
We had pretty good relations with the police and basically tried to get the Americans remanded to our custody, usually with the hope we would also be able to send them home, which in most cases we were able to do.
BREMER: It was difficult—particularly for families with small children because of the health problems. You couldn’t drink the water. The embassy had a deep artesian well where you got water. You took the water home, you boiled it, and then you put halizone in it and you still got dysentery. We were required to have stool checks every two weeks for dysentery, amoebic and bacillary dysentery. I remember asking the embassy doctor what the results of these were on the whole and he said that they are 90% positive and 10% false negatives. Everybody was sick all the time.
But because it was such an alien, I would not say hostile, but alien environment, the morale at the embassy was very high. People, who could stay, stayed and really enjoyed it. We still see people, friends who were there with us.
BREMER: Well, it was interesting. I think I went first from the consular to political section but anyway, I wound up in economic/commercial for some months toward the end of my tour. We had no commercial program there and yet the Department of Commerce had these trade opportunity programs, which I had learned about, and so I decided to hit the road and travel around and see what I could do. One of the key products that I thought American companies could sell there was submersible pumps, small submersible pumps because obviously it is an arid country, although there is water down below. So I developed trade opportunities and submitted them back to the Department of Commerce. I can’t say it changed the balance of payments of either country but it was fun traveling around and meeting Afghan businessmen and traders.
America’s major export to Afghanistan was used clothing. The used clothing bazaar was a very big bazaar in Kabul. It was called the Kennedy Bazaar at that time. Basically it was used clothing collected by organizations in America, bundled up into big packages and sold by the pound, without regard to content, to middlemen, who then flogged it on to the bazaar merchants. Once I found a nice, but worn, tweed jacket with the name of a Yale classmate sewn in it.
BREMER: We had a barbershop quartet in Kabul and decided we ought to have red vests. So we trooped down to the used clothing bazaar and found four red vests in various stalls, so we got had our red vests.
BREMER: I had a good friend at the British high commission as it was called in those days, not an embassy. A few others. The most interesting diplomatic contacts in those days were with the Russians. This was 1966 – ’67. It was one of the few posts in the world where there was quite a bit of regular and authorized interaction between the American and Russian diplomats, like Berlin in a way. We had an active station and the Russians had a rather active resident. Every six months or so, alternating turns, the Russians Resident would host a rather drunken brawl for the Americans; the Americas station would host the next one. This was obviously an attempt by both of our agencies to recruit, find the weak points in the other side. So there was quite a bit of contact with the Russians, which was of some interest, less so to the political section than to the station.
Other than the Brits, I don’t remember spending a lot of time with other diplomats.
BREMER: Obviously we had a lot of official contact with those in the government, the foreign ministry and in the case of consular, the police and security services. There was almost no private sector. I remember only a couple of businessmen. If you got to Kandahar or Heart or Mazar-i-Sharif or some of the other places you would see other non-official Afghans. It was mostly men; they rarely brought their wives to a dinner. One of the challenges in entertaining there was that you never knew how many people would show up.. The men might show up with one or more wives or they might show up with no wives but two cousins who were in town or they might not show up at all. You basically never knew who was going to come to dinner. So Francie and I quickly realized you never planned seated dinners—at least not at our level.
BREMER: I did.
BREMER: In theory it was a constitutional democracy but pretty much the king and his court ran the country. I used the time in the political section to try to travel around the country a bit and see parts of Afghanistan outside of Kabul. I made trips to Kandahar, to Ghazni, to Herat, and to Jalalabad a number of times. I never got to Mazar-i-Sharif because the trip I was making there we had a terrible accident in which one of our fellow travelers was killed.
The most memorable trip I ever made in the Foreign Service was with an Afghan friend who worked at the central bank who was from a town called Juwayn. If you look at a map where Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iran come together, in the far southwest, that’s were it is. This Afghan had gone to primary school in Juwayn and when he finished, his father wanted him to farm. He wanted to get more education and so he had run away, went to Kandahar. His father sent some men from Juwayn to kidnap him and take him back home. He escaped and made his way to Kabul. There he was taken under the wing of some American missionaries. They arranged to send him to the United States for college to become an economist. After several years studying, he came back to Afghanistan and took a job in the central bank. He regularly wrote his father and sent him money, but he had never been back to Juwayn for 30 years. Together with another guy from the economic section, we drove down to this village which is the most foreboding landscape I have ever seen in my life. It’s part of Baluchistan. We went to his little village with mud huts, no electricity, to see his father for the first time in 30 years. It was a very moving trip and very exciting. The most exciting news was that his father had realized the value of education, and had persuaded the local villagers to allow girls into the primary school. Believe me, in rural Afghanistan in the 1960s, this was in its own way revolutionary.
BREMER: Yes, it was dangerous even in Kabul because there were no traffic signs in a city of three-quarters of a million people. So you had to be pretty careful crossing roads. Outside the capital, we were competing on road construction with the Russians. We were building roads to the south; the Russians were building roads from their borders down.
On those roads the Afghans, those who could drive, drove like maniacs and there was always the likelihood, not even possibility that a camel or a person would suddenly walk across in front of you. As Michener wrote in his Caravans, if you had the misfortune to have an accident and you killed an Afghan, there was a pretty good chance you would be stoned to death as had happened in one of the scenes in Caravans. We had incidents where people had serious accidents and, basically, the instructions were to leave the scene and come to the embassy right away. So it was dangerous.
BREMER: Oh, yes, Francie and I really enjoyed our time. We didn’t have any children yet. I think it was harder, a much harder place to be with children because of disease, everybody was sick all the time.
BREMER: Yes, there was a fair amount of in house interaction and entertaining. There were also people from UNDP who were there and from some of the other embassies.
BREMER: No, the United Nations Development Program. It was the aid arm of the U.N.
BREMER: Yes, a little bit and it stuck with me. Our biggest aid project at that time was south of Kandahar in the Helmand Valley. It’s become more famous now as a poppy growing area. In those days we had people from, I think, Indiana University doing advanced planting techniques for corn, for maize. It was by far the largest program in those days. The other objective of the program was to try to settle nomads, Kuchi nomads, who again who feature in Caravans. They have forever been nomads in that part of Afghanistan.
When I heard the phrase, ‘settle nomads’ a small alarm bell went off in the back of my mind, wondering if these people haven’t settled for the last three, four thousand years, why are they going to settle now? And it didn’t work very well. We built nice little houses and schools but the nomads continued to go on their nomadic way.
It struck me then that this was probably not the best way to spend taxpayers’ money.
BREMER: Not Iran although when we flew to Kabul we always stopped at Tehran. India and Pakistan in this way: first of all, Pakistan because the nearest medical help, western medical help, was at the American airbase in Peshawar.
Francie and I had one memorable trip there. I woke up one day with a very sore tooth. I went to the Embassy doctor and he diagnosed an infected root canal and said, “Well, you’d better go down to Peshawar and get it fixed.” That was the nearest dentist. I was in a lot of pain so he gave me some codeine. Francie had to drive and it was quite a drive in a little Volkswagen. I was lolling half asleep while she had to navigate the hair-raising Khyber Pass to Peshawar. We arrived at the base late Saturday afternoon and asked the guard where we could find the base dentists. He referred us to the Officers’ Club. There we repeated the question and a first lieutenant slid off the bar stool and told us to follow him. He was two weeks out of dental school making me his first patient for anything other than cleaning teeth. I’m not sure which of us was more nervous, but it was not a happy experience for either of us.
Kabul was at the end of long supply line for furniture and furnishings. In effect the post got the castoffs from the embassy in New Delhi, desks and chairs and everything. But the Pakistan India border was closed to all but diplomatic traffic at this time. So the only way to get those materials up to Kabul was to have a diplomat escort the Embassy trucks across the border to Delhi and back. So every three months the Embassy ran a convoy of three large trucks down to New Delhi. My wife and I were asked to escort one of these convoys in the summer of ’67. We rode in the three trucks with our Embassy Afghan drivers, to New Delhi, picked up a whole bunch of furniture and drove it back to Kabul.
The political impact of the broader region while we were in Kabul was the Six Day Mideast War. We had a lot of anti-American demonstrations in Kabul. They were not very rough, mostly just noisy. And then we had evacuees out of the Middle Eastern Embassies who came to work in Kabul, Foreign Service officers who had been evacuated from their posts in the Middle East.
BREMER: 1966 to 1968.
BREMER: In substance it was not important. Averill Harriman was a special envoy for President Johnson on Vietnam. This was probably was in mid ’67. He came into town as part of a trip to Asia to try to shore up support for our position in Vietnam. What was interesting to me was the preparations. It was the first time I had seen a high level visit. He had people from the executive secretariat supporting him with trunk loads of classified material. He rushed off in a motorcade to see the king. It made an impression on me about the effort and work that had to go into a short high level visit like this which came back later in my next assignment. When I was finishing my next assignment, in Africa, somebody suggested to me that for my first Washington assignment I ought to think about working in the executive secretariat, and then I remembered all these people rushing around. In terms of substance, I have no idea what came from the visit itself.
BREMER: In the early ’60s the King ruled in what amounted to a constitutional monarchy. He was the head of state. There was a loya jirga, a parliament of sorts which met and debated issues, but with little obvious power. He was still running the show but on a more or less moderate basis. For example, Zahir Shah was in favor of educating women. In western terms he was a moderate monarch.
BREMER: I can’t remember what his immediate family history was. He was from the ruling Pathan Durrani tribe that the British in 1888 had chosen to run the place after they had been beaten a second time in a war. They basically went and found a Pathan tribal chief, gave him a sack of gold and said, “Sort these guys out, will you and we will call you king.” There had been internal tribal coup back in 1929, very complicated. They were certainly from the ruling Pathan class. I shook his hand once; I was after all the ‘juniorest’ of the junior officers. I didn’t see king often.
BREMER: Well, we didn’t know. I wound up being his contact at the embassy by virtue of the fact that I was about his age. He was maybe a couple of years older and I spoke fluent French. In Afghanistan at that time the second language among many upper class people was French because the French had established the first school, Esteqlal, back in 1906. A lot of the civil servants at the higher level and as it happened the royal family had as their second language French.
Some intermediary—at this point I can’t remember who it was—suggested that I meet the crown prince. I checked with the ambassador and the political section about this because it was obviously way above my pay grade. They encouraged me to go ahead because the USG would want to know more about someone who might some day become King.
Francie and I had the Crown Prince to dinner a couple of times at our house He was well polished and charming, brought his wife. They had a couple of kids, as I recall.
There is one other story about the Crown Prince. A couple of us New Englanders at the Embassy had found a way to set up a ski tow south of Kabul on the road to Ghazni. We got an old unused truck from AID which we jacked up on its rear axle. We ran a rope around the rim to create an old New England style rope tow. The Crown Prince told me he wanted to come and ski.
So on the appointed day, we met at the “ski area”, a smallish hill off the Kabul-Ghazni road. I have a lasting memory of the day. Instantly it was clear that my briefing on the proper use of a rope tow had been grossly inadequate. For the Prince, with a wave and gay smile, bent down and firmly grabbed the fast-moving rope. He was immediately lifted off his feet and dragged up the hill.
I watched, transfixed with horror as he was pulled along in an ever growing cloud of snow, out of which appeared an occasional arm or leg. As it progressed up the hill, the cloud of snow spewed out one ski pole to the left, another to the right. A glove, a pair of goggles, one ski and the Prince’s bright red hat were left in his wake. Watching this ghastly sight, it occurred to me that the incident was unlikely to prove career-enhancing: the State Department could hardly be expected to overlook the diplomatic consequences if one of its officers had killed off the Crown Prince of a nation with which, at least until recently, America had enjoyed good relations.
Fortunately one of the other club members turned off the tow. The Prince, now two thirds of the way up the mountain, rather gamely staggered to his feet. Something in his expression convinced me that it would not be prudent to suggest he have another go at the rope tow. Anyway, he survived.
One of the problems with the royal family was they more or less considered themselves above the law. For example, AID paved the road from Kabul down to Kandahar. Before the road was opened, the king used to go out and run one of his Mercedes a hundred and twenty miles an hour down this road just to see how the road went and how his car went.
The crown prince during the time we were there was never much of a political factor; in fact, I don’t think he ever became a political factor. They threw the king out in 1973. The Crown Prince now lives in quiet exile in the US.
I should say one other thing about the loya jirga, about the political situation because it was important later in Afghanistan. There were two deputies in the loya jirga who were declared communist. One of them was Babrak Karmal. At some point, it may have been after the coup—it was after we left anyway,—he exiled himself off to one of the Soviet satellites, I can’t remember which one. There in effect Russians kept him in reserve. They sent him back in after the coup in 1978 to be a leader in Afghanistan. So there was already at the time we were there, quite a lot of, one would call it, peaceful competition between us and the Russians in Afghanistan about who built which roads, who did what. But the Russians were apparently already planning ahead.
BREMER: The Russians built the road from the northern border, Amu Darya River, down to Kabul and we built the road from Kabul down to Kandahar and then there was a question about the road out to Herat on the other side. We also worked on the road going out to Jalalabad to the east. We used to joke before it turned out to be not at all funny, about how the Russians had built the road from the north down to Kabul so that they could invade Afghanistan. At the time this was sort of a fantasy. This turned out to be unfortunately true in the late ’70s.
In the ’60s as we discussed earlier, Kabul was one of the few posts where American and Russian diplomats had regular, approved contact. There was Berlin and a little bit in Vienna and Warsaw. Today in the early 21st century we forget that before détente American and Russian diplomats did not regularly visit each other.
BREMER: In the summer of 1968. I was called up to the DCM’s office about four months before our tour was due to end and handed a telegram that said, ‘TM4 Bremer report to Blantyre in two weeks.’ So I asked Arch Blood, the DCM, “What does this mean” He explained that it was “travel message” which said we were to take a “direct transfer” to the post in Blantyre, due there in two weeks. “Well”, I wondered, “where is Blantyre?” and he said, “Damned if I know. Sounds kind of English.” We looked it up in the list of Foreign Service posts and found it was in a place called Malawi which neither of us had heard of. “OK. So where’s Malawi?” He replied that he didn’t know either, but perhaps it was in Africa. Well we looked at the globe in his office and couldn’t find any Malawi in Africa or anywhere else. So on a hunch, because Blantyre sounded kind of English, I called a friend at the British high commission and asked him, “Have you ever heard of a place called Blantyre?” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I am supposed to be there in two weeks and I don’t even know where it is.” He said that it was the capital of what used to be called Nyasaland in the federation of Rhodesia. Since Malawi had become independent only in 1964, the DCM’s globe had it marked as “Nyasaland”—which at least solved the mystery of where we were headed.
Francie and I then went through one of those rushed routines of packing out and saying our farewells. The Embassy Admin people had to figure out how to get us and our household effects from Kabul to Blantyre. We broke our backs, we got to Blantyre, arrived there about ten days later. The DCM met me at the airport and his first words were, “What the hell are you doing here? We didn’t expect you for a few more weeks.” It turned out that the man I was to replace was still at post. I decided that was the last time I would pay attention to TM4 orders.
BREMER: We were there from the summer of ’68 to the early spring of ’71, just about three years.
BREMER: Malawi, in Central Africa, had been a British colony until 1964 when it became independent in the rush of decolonization in Africa. It was being run then and for some years afterwards by Dr. Kamuzu Banda, a British educated medical doctor who came back to become the great independence leader of Malawi. Malawi in those days was a country of about five million people, at the time was one of the most heavily populated places on earth, I think second only to Hong Kong in terms of people per square mile; a small country It is the place where Livingston made his name and Blantyre is the name of a Scottish city.
BREMER: Well, it’s fertile country. Then there was the fact that Banda, although he was a medical doctor, simply did not believe in family planning. He wanted to build his population as much as possible and encouraged people to have as many babies as possible. Perhaps 90% of the people are in agriculture. Maybe more. So there was the natural desire to have more hands to work the fields. Banda was encouraging a bigger population and so the population was growing very fast. . Among other jobs, I was the post’s population, or “family planning officer” or whatever it was called which was a thankless task. It never got off the ground.
BREMER: Not that I could discern, though there were two aspects of Malawi that perhaps had some relevance. First of all, Malawi was at that time the only country in Africa that had relations with Taiwan which in those years America still recognized as the government of China. Taiwan had an Embassy there and was helping the Malawians establish something called Young Pioneers, like Boy Scouts. While we were there Banda became the first and only country in sub-Saharan Africa to establish relations with South Africa. One of the big events while we were there was a visit by then President Vorster to Malawi. It was the first time, I think, a South African president had been able to visit another African country. This did not endear Banda to other African Chiefs of State.
There is an interesting angle to that. When Banda was young, about 11 or 12, like many Malawians he left the country to work in the mines in South Africa. This is in the early part of the 20th century, probably around 1915. He walked there as Malawians did then and probably still do. When he was working in the mines as a teenager, an American Baptist missionary group offered him to send him to the United States for his education, where he went to college. Eventually he went to medical school in Britain.
Banda used to tell Americans his story, particularly American congressmen, black American congressmen who visited and were often outspokenly critical of his relations with South Africa. I remember hearing him tell these people how he had walked to South Africa and come to the US for school. “Look, when I was your age, Congressman, I went to school in the United States and I saw black men lynched at the school I was at and now, forty years later, I see what progress has been made in your country.” This was after the Civil Rights Act had been signed in the United States. “I see that progress has been made, that whites and blacks can get along in the United States and who is to say,” He would also add “who is to say that forty years from now blacks and whites can’t get along in South Africa? Shouldn’t we encourage this direction?”
In terms of American interests, I would say that I never found it a very compelling reason to have an embassy there. We did need a consular agent because there were about 750 Americans in the country, most of them missionaries from various denominations.
Obviously, we had an obligation to look after them. Very few Malawians traveled to the United States so it wasn’t as if it was a visa mill. It was a hard argument to make, in my view, that we needed an embassy there. I reached this conclusion early on and to show how incompletely I understood the mores of the Foreign Service, I committed this conclusion to writing in a memo to the DCM. The deafening silence from the “Front Office” sent a clear message.
BREMER: It was a political decision. I felt as a taxpayer, it was really open to question. I could see no compelling national reason why we needed an embassy in every country and I certainly, after three years there, could not make the argument for one in Malawi.
BREMER: Marshall Jones, who was a career diplomat. He’d been in the administrative cone and was our ambassador there. Bill Barnsdall was the deputy. Actually, in many ways it was the most fun job I had in the Foreign Service because the ambassador did whatever ambassadors did.—I never could really figure that out, even after having been an ambassador. We had closed our AID mission and moved its responsibilities to a regional office in Zambia. So the DCM occupied himself largely by overseeing the residual AID programs which involved self-help money and a few leftover projects. And there was an administrative officer. So that made me the consular officer, the economic, the political, commercial officer. It was a great job.
BREMER: Well, they were very different from the Afghans. They were much more outgoing and less reserved than the Afghans. Perhaps they were that way because the climate was more benign than in Afghanistan. The sub-Saharan African climate of Malawi has a fair degree of altitude; it’s on the Rift Valley so it wasn’t at all tropical except in the south. So the Malawians weren’t going to starve to death which you could easily see happening in Afghanistan with very rough topography.
We had good Malawian friends; they were easier to get to know, to have to your house to dinner than the Afghans had been.
BREMER: The Malawian economy was and is almost entirely agricultural. When we were there, its main export crops were tobacco and tea, both of which were sold basically to the London market. When they had been colonists, the British had established both of those industries. But most of the Malawians were on a subsistence economy growing maize, cassava and cotton. The Malawians tended to export people to South Africa to work in the mines as they had done for a hundred years. It was and is a very poor country.
BREMER: Yes, the British still had a very strong residual presence. They ran the security forces, the guy in charge of the army, the guy in charge of the police; these were professional British officers seconded to the Malawians. They had advisers to the president in the capital which at that time was in Zomba and they were certainly the predominant factor.
BREMER: No. The main threat, which was just a very small threat on the horizon at that time, that became a big threat, was the insurgency in Mozambique against the Portuguese; Mozambique was still a Portuguese colony and FRELIMO (Liberation Front of Mozambique), the independence movement, was operating mostly in the northern part of Mozambique and there was occasional spillover into Malawi. It became much more serious after we left. Banda was pretty strict. He didn’t want to have these FRELIMO guys operating in Malawi so he did his best to keep them out.
BREMER: No, it was not a particular theme.
BREMER: Francie and I liked it a lot. We liked the people a lot and as I said they were easier to get to know than the Afghans. We enjoyed our time there; it was a fun post for us. I didn’t feel one way or the other about whether I was going to make my career in Africa. I did not have the idea that by joining the Foreign Service I was making effectively a choice to be a missionary. If you want to be a missionary, be a missionary. We were there to help advance American interests and I just didn’t find that American interests in Malawi were very compelling.
BREMER: It didn’t really feature in the discussions with the Malawians. The government of Malawi tended to be supportive of the United States in places like the U.N. when votes came up. Malawi was a very poor country and they pretty much concentrated on trying to develop themselves, in a misguided way, because of Banda’s attitude towards population.
We had a pretty substantial Peace Corps group there as we had in Afghanistan. Francie and I had a Landrover, and we often went “up country” to visit the Peace Corps volunteers, which we enjoyed a lot. There was a lot of anti-war feeling among volunteers which wasn’t too surprising. It wasn’t an issue with the Malawians though.
BREMER: I didn’t have strong feelings about the war. . If I were asked I would say I supported what we were trying to do in Vietnam and I felt much more strongly about that later when I came back to Washington and got more involved in it. In Afghanistan it did not intrude much either. As we discussed earlier the ’67 Middle East war tended to be much more on the front line than Vietnam.
BREMER: Yes, I mentioned earlier about the Harriman visit to Kabul. I hadn’t served any time in Washington. We’d been moved very quickly through the junior officer course and sent off to Kabul. I really had no idea what I wanted to do in Washington but another American diplomat said to me, while we were still in Malawi, “You know, you ought to think about working in the operations center and the secretariat. There you can really get a good quick overview of how the Department works.” So I wrote a letter to somebody—maybe the director of personnel—and said that I would like to apply for a job in the operations center. To my surprise when my tour was over, I got orders to report to the operations center. So that’s in a way how the Harriman visit influenced where I wound up.
Toward the end of our tour, Francie got pregnant and flew home to have our son born in Connecticut because she was RH negative and we didn’t trust the Malawian health services to deal with that. Also she got malaria twice during our tour there, which was probably the cause of the fibromyalgia which she still suffers from.
BREMER: We came back from Africa in early 1971. I spent very little time in the operations center initially because I was almost immediately seconded over to the National Military Command Center(NMCC). In those days—I don’t know if it is still the case—we had a State Department representative in the NMCC and there was a DOD rep in the Ops Center at State. I spent a few weeks in the Ops Center, and then four or five months over at the NMCC. Then I came back to the Ops Center. So the total time in the operations center was about a year, maybe a little less than a year.
BREMER: The NMCC is in effect the Pentagon’s equivalent operations center – a 24 hour watch center with representatives from all the services, from the Joint Chiefs and from the CIA, State Department—I can’t remember who else was there, maybe the Justice Department. We were there to provide liaison on issues that might arise in the middle of the night or the middle of the day that had a diplomatic, political aspect to them. For example, one night there was an incident, I think it involved some Central Americans, as I recall they were Hondurans. They were on a small ship, or a boat and for some reason an American Navy ship fired on them. Several of those Hondurans got badly burned and SOUTHCOM, the command in Panama, was trying to figure out what to do with these guys. We had injured them in international waters and the military at the NMCC came to me with the idea that they were just going to take them back to where
they came from. I said, “No, you really have a diplomatic problem on your hands here.” Several of them had been badly burned due to our actions. Working with the Pentagon folks and talking back to State on the telephone, we were able to persuade the military that we had an obligation to help these people and take them to the burn center in Brownsville, Texas. These guys didn’t have passports, didn’t have visas.
BREMER: Anyway, we got them there and that worked out.
Another event that happened on my watch one night, I think it was a Saturday night. I could tell that there was considerable tension and dismay in the room. The flap was that the NMCC had just heard about the pending publication the next day of the Pentagon Papers. I started nosing around with some captains and majors to find out what the uproar was about.
BREMER: This was a series of papers relating to the Vietnam War that were published, I think first in the New York Times, on a Sunday morning in the middle of the War, revealing a lot of the U.S. internal deliberations about Vietnam particularly under Johnson; there may have been some Kennedy stuff. It caused quite a flap. I was standing the evening watch—the 4 to midnight watch—and there was a lot of commotion. The Pentagon had just learned the papers were coming out the next day. I was able to alert the ops center. I don’t know what happened from there. I presume they told the secretary if he didn’t already know which I presume he did.
BREMER: As the State Department representative over at DOD, you had first an obligation to try to deal with the political or diplomatic aspects of events which might not be apparent to the military. We were in the middle of a war, after all. We were doing very heavy bombing, ‘rolling thunder’ was the name of the bombing campaign, B-52 raids over North Vietnam at that time, There were a lot of other things happening around the world. To a degree if DOD needed help or advise on political and diplomatic issues you were at least the first point of liaison to State especially in the night. You didn’t necessarily solve it but you’d plug them in to somebody at State.
And then of course, you were effectively a distant early warning post for the State Department on things going on, like the Pentagon Papers.
BREMER: At this distance it is a little hard to remember. I had a lot of respect for them, for what they were trying to do. I think that the political/military nexus is always a complicated one. As I also experienced in Iraq, the political and military people understandably approach matters from a different perspective and a different set of ideas and principles. It is always complicated to make that connection. I can’t say that this was a big problem for me when I was there or in the ops center. At this time there was a ‘milrep’ in the operations center who was a representative of the NMMC, 24 hours a day. We often used him to liaise on matters involving the military.
BREMER: Then I came back to the ops center as an assistant watch officer for a month or two. Then I was transferred to what was then called, and may still be called, “the line”. This is the secretariat staff, a small group of FSOs, 6 or 8, effectively serving as the common staff to all the principals, in those days not just the secretary but to the deputy secretary and the under secretaries.
In early ’72 my first big assignment was preparing the briefing papers for President Nixon’s visit to Russia which was in May. This was the first visit b a sitting American president to Russia since the war and obviously, a major diplomatic move. So a massive amount of paper had to be pulled together into briefing books from virtually all over the State Department. I am not sure any of the papers ever got read by anybody other than me, but anyway it was a challenge to pull it all together in a timely and reasonable coherent fashion.
BREMER: He did, but I just don’t know that he read the State Department books. He knew what he was doing,. Our job was to get the papers reflecting the Department’s views on all matter of policies and issues and ship them over to the White House.
BREMER: Actually by ’71 we were already drawing down. At that period in ’71 and ’72, it was a very ambiguous situation in Vietnam. We’d had the Tet Offensive in ’68 which had been portrayed as a defeat for America. Whereas if you looked at it from a military point of view, it was the Viet Cong that lost. But the political impact in America was the important result—declining support for the war.
BREMER: Then you had the major troop movements by the regular North Vietnamese troops. I would say the overall military situation in early ’72 was still ambivalent We were still conducting large bombing raids still in ’72. It was hard to draw any conclusion. I was not working on Asia at that time; I was working on Europe, which is why I got the assignment to do the preparations for the Nixon visit to Moscow. Obviously it was an issue to talk to the Russians about. And the Kissinger visit to China had taken place in 1971.
BREMER: A little bit. There were stories in the press about Kissinger and his relationship with Bill Rogers, at that time Secretary of State, and how the State Department had been dealt lower in the chain. I accompanied Secretary Rogers and the President to Moscow in May. After that, Rogers asked me to join his staff as special assistant so I moved from the secretariat staff to work directly for him. Of course, in the secretary’s office you got more of a sense of the tension between State and the NSC. There were the problems of what Kissinger was doing. I think it was during the Moscow visit that Kissinger held his first on the record press conference and that, of course, put him in a directly competitive status with the secretary. It was one thing if he was doing back-grounding or talking to journalists off the record. But it was quite another thing that he was doing things actually on the record sessions.
BREMER: This was basically more or less what I had seen of that Harriman visit while in Kabul. The secretariat staff traditionally accompanied the secretary of state on his trips, prepared him, read and screened his cables, worked on memoranda, helped him organize his briefing materials during a trip. So that’s what we were doing. I don’t remember how many of us there were on the trip; there were probably four or five of us from the secretariat staff because it was a 24 hour a day operation keeping Rogers up to speed on what was going on in Moscow, and around the world while he tended to immediate issues being addressed at the Moscow Summit . Now, again, since we were at the bottom of the well looking up, I don’t know how much of all the work we did actually mattered. But, anyway, we were there beavering away day and night.
BREMER: He was a very nice, genteel man and as I think back on it, essentially misplaced. He had been a deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower administration. He was a big corporate lawyer from New York and probably was better suited to being an attorney general than secretary of state. He did not have any particular expertise in foreign policy and was clearly outclassed by Kissinger in terms of his bureaucratic
abilities. I don’t blame him. Nixon made very clear that he distrusted the State Department and wanted to control foreign policy himself. So he used Kissinger to that effect which is certainly the President’s prerogative. So even if Rogers had been a real foreign policy expert working hard, I am not sure it would have mattered because, in the end, it is the president who decides the set up.
I remember one day when I was his special assistant, Rogers came back from the White House and called me in and asked me to get someone from the legal adviser’s office up for a debriefing of his meeting with the President. We got a lawyer up and Rogers said, “The president has asked me to have you draft legislation abolishing the Foreign Service and I need it on my desk by tomorrow night.” The event made a big impression on me. Apparently some unmentioned new “outrage” had been attributed by the President to the “striped pants” crowd and he decided he didn’t need our advice any longer I have told the story many times to Foreign Service officers. It showed me that the Foreign Service has a constituency of one and that is the president. If the president doesn’t want and respect or feels he needs the Foreign Service, the Foreign Service is
pretty much out of business. Obviously, this legislation was never drafted; the whole
thing went away as it often did with Nixon. He had an impulse and said, “Do this” and then people let him cool off.
But it made a big impression on me. It showed me how thin the thread is by which the Foreign Service hangs.
BREMER: There’s no question that Nixon understood foreign policy, probably better than any president in the 20th century except Truman. He was good. My interaction with him was pretty modest when I was in the Foreign Service. I saw him more after he resigned. He clearly knew his stuff and Kissinger produced very high quality materials for Nixon. It just happened that Nixon had a suspicion of the Foreign Service, coming I guess from his time as vice president; I don’t know where it came from. He clearly
thought he did not need the State Department until he moved Kissinger over in ’73.
BREMER: No, we weren’t monitoring phone calls, at least I wasn’t, and Rogers didn’t have a system. He did have an executive assistant, Maggie Runkle, who I believe listened on a number of his calls, essentially for action items. If he said to a caller “I’ll do this” or “I’ll do that” she’d make a note of it and then tell us and we would tell the people in the secretariat to send a paper up, say, on the Cuba embargo. Let’s get it by 5 o’clock.
BREMER: Absolutely and a vital part of the machinery because otherwise it doesn’t get done. Maggie listened to be sure we had follow up to his calls.
BREMER: Yes, of course. When you are in one of those staff jobs your job is to try to mobilize the building to support the secretary. It’s the job of the secretariat to mobilize the building to support all of the principals. That can be pretty uncomfortable particularly when you are a very junior officer and you are talking to an assistant secretary who has been in the Foreign Service for 25 years and rightly considers that he knows better than you do. On the other hand, you have to say, “Yeah, well, but this is what the secretary wants” and argue with him. “He said he wants a memo on that by 6 o’clock tonight, so you will just have to get the memo up here.”
Of course, when Rogers was secretary, the secretariat was the main enforcer of that process. The role of the secretariat tends to ebb and flow depending on how the secretary organizes himself. It was quite different when Kissinger came over. But under Rogers, the secretariat really took the main brunt of enforcing the secretary’s and other principals’ needs.
BREMER: I worked for Rogers for about a year and a half. He resigned in September of ’73 and Kissinger came over from the White House as secretary of state and national security adviser for about a year. He was double-hatted for a little more than a year.
BREMER: I think there was a sense that he had lost out on the bureaucratic battle with Kissinger, particularly when Kissinger replaced him. When Kissinger came over he had initially a pretty steep hill to climb to get the Foreign Service on his side. He brought with him a number of people who had worked for him over at the NSC, some of them Foreign Service officers like Larry Eagleburger, some of whom were not, like Hal Sonnenfeldt who came as his counselor. I think it took a while for Kissinger to really get hold of the Foreign Service.
I told Kissinger when he came over, I was pretty tired. I had been doing this for two and a half years and you get kind of burned out. He asked me to stay on a little while. I said, “OK, I will stay on a little while but then I really need to move on to something else.” By this time I had one young child and another one coming and Francie started saying “You know, you need to move on” So I told Kissinger that I would stay on briefly and then transition to something else. I had no particular assignment in mind, just something with a less frantic pace. The trouble was that two weeks after Kissinger arrived, the Yom Kippur War broke out in the Middle East.
BREMER: No, October, ’73. So much for my leaving. And if I thought I had worked hard before, that time looked like a picnic compared to the next years. We basically didn’t look up for another three years. I think the war was in a way what forged Kissinger’s relation with the Foreign Service. He wound up relying very heavily on Foreign Service officers, still had a few people he brought with him from the White House who were Middle East experts like Hal Saunders. But he suddenly found he needed people like Joe Sisco and Roy Atherton who could help him. On their side, they recognized he could get things done because of his understanding of the President and his policies.
Under Rogers, very often whatever State proposed got either modified at the White House or turned down. In Kissinger, because he was so close to the president, the Department suddenly had a real channel to the President. In the last quarter of ’73 with the Yom Kipper War and the oil embargo, lots of related problems, these events began to forge a relationship between Kissinger and the career service.
BREMER: I stayed until early ’76.
BREMER: I was his special assistant and eventually his chief of staff. I replaced Larry Eagleburger. Larry moved from being chief of staff to being under secretary for management and I became Kissinger’s chief of staff.
Kissinger operated in a way that in effect downgraded the secretariat’s role as an organization. He moved most of that kind of coordination of the State Department into his own office. He wanted tighter control over everything and he certainly exercised very tight control of the State Department.
BREMER: Well, he’s a very difficult man to work for. He is extremely demanding. There are a lot of stories about that. He worked very hard. In a way, it was another lesson that I take from my time in Washington. I have never seen anybody get ahead in this
town who doesn’t work hard. You cannot be an effective top official in the American government and work 9 – 5; it just doesn’t work. This became clear when Ed Muskie was secretary whom I worked when he became secretary. He liked to work from 10 – 5 or what FSOs privately called “senator’s hours”.
Henry worked really hard, long hours, demanded a great deal of his staff, much more than anybody thought they could produce, both those people on his immediate staff but particularly the State Department.
BREMER: As a result of his demanding standards, Henry was able to assemble a very strong “6th floor” team at the assistant secretary level. By most people’s analysis, it was the strongest group of assistant secretaries since Dulles had been secretary. Most of them were career Foreign Service officers and he worked them to death. None of them ever complained about not seeing enough of the secretary. He really worked them. It persuaded me that when it is challenged and pushed, the Foreign Service is the best group of people in the U.S. government. They can produce enormously well, but when they are not pushed they tend to fall back to a rather “get-along-down-here-on-the-sixth-floor” approach and “let’s not bother those top guys on the seventh floor with our problems.
We’ll cut little deals on our own among ourselves.”
Henry was on to that. He would say, “No, that issue belongs up here with me. I want to decide that. I don’t want you, assistant secretary for Europe, making a deal on an important policy matter with the assistant secretary from Near East about something without my knowing about it.”
Every day, every assistant secretary had to write a one page memorandum to Kissinger of what he or she had done that day. There were 23 or 24 of them. Moreover every other principal of the Department, the deputy, the under secretaries, wrote a similar memo to Kissinger every day. When he traveled, those memos came by cable, every day. One of the things we did on the staff was read them and decide what was of interest to him that he should see. It was a mechanism of over watch of the Department which only a megalomaniac like Henry who worked that hard could actually do, but it worked.
BREMER: Winston was very close to Henry. He had been with him at the White House. He came over as director of policy planning and in terms of Henry’s strategic approach to the world, grand strategy, Winston was certainly one of his closest advisers. He also was the main speech writer.
Kissinger had the view that speech giving by the secretary of state is the way you move policy, which was news to me, I hadn’t figured it out. You move policy by what you say publicly as secretary of state. So writing a speech for Kissinger was a major policy matter. He would say to the staff including Winston, “I am going to give a speech on food policy at the FAO conference in Rome in six weeks and I want to do the following four things” and all four of them were new policy. The way you got that done was not by writing a memo to the president—well, sometimes you did—but the other way was you circulated drafts of the speech and the people at the Department of Agriculture would say, “No, no, no. You can’t say that at the FAO because this is the current policy.” Kissinger would say, “Well, I think we ought to move the policy.” Anyway, he used speeches as a way to move policy forward in a way I think few secretaries before or since have done. So speechwriting was more than just writing putting words on paper; it became a way to make policy.
BREMER: Not a great deal. I had a sense of a mostly respectful rivalry. They both considered themselves—and certainly were—experts on foreign policy. They were both realists, they both saw the world the same way. Nixon, as many people have written, had a rather inward-looking personality, I guess is one way to put it. I think he often found it very hard, particularly after the China opening, that Kissinger became such a star which certainly wasn’t Nixon. He was never going to be a star. So there was a certain jealousy there.
Kissinger was respectful of the president, both because he occupied the office and I think he understood that the president saw the world largely as he did and he could work with him. But it was an up and down relationship.
BREMER: Certainly for the first year or so, the problem was less with the right than with the left because Vietnam was still going on. Senator William Fulbright was chairman of the senate Foreign Relations Committee and as I recall most of the issues raised at that time were related to Vietnam. The Congress, in the summer of ’73, had cut off funding for our military operations in Vietnam. We were drawing out troops by then. I don’t remember the right being a problem until later, until maybe ’74, ’75.
Senator Jesse Helms and Senator Scoop Jackson, a Democrat, had problems with the détente policy towards the Soviet Union. They believed we should confront the Soviets and that the idea of having some kind of cooperative relationship with the communists and Moscow was wrong-headed. And, of course, some of them were very upset with the opening to China which many on the right considered a betrayal of our old allies, the KMT in Taiwan.
BREMER: I was working for Rogers at that time. I think his trip was in’71, I don’t remember exactly.
BREMER: I did not know about it ahead, of course. I assume Rogers did. I was stunned by the trip as most people were. I saw the opportunity presented by the opening to China, an opportunity to use the Chinese to bring some pressure on the Vietnamese where we were still in the war and as a counter balance to the Russians to try to make the Russians pay a little more attention. I saw it as a part of the chess game of national security policy. So once I got over my shock, I thought it was a good move.
BREMER: Yes but this was difficult and complicated because of the long time war-time relationship with the KMT in Taiwan. This was not an easy thing for Nixon to do. This wasn’t just “let’s talk”; this was a major strategic move on the global chess board—obviously one of the more important of the later 20th century.
BREMER: Yes. While he was at the NSC Kissinger had established a very close relationship with two ambassadors: Dobrynin and Simcha Dinitz who was the ambassador of Israel. Particularly after the Yom Kippur War broke out in October of ’73, Dinitz was a regular visitor and Kissinger talked to each them very often on the telephone. When either of them came to call on Kissinger, the Secretary arranged each Ambassador could drive into the basement and park in the basement. In those days there wasn’t as much security but you still had to have special permission to get in. So when Dobrynin or Dinitz was coming, somebody on our staff would go down and tell the guards to let the Ambassador’s car in. He would then use the secretary’s private elevator to arrive directly at the Secretary’s office suite on the 7th floor. It wasn’t a stupid practice because visits could be done without the press knowing. It became a controversial issue when Kissinger left office in early 1977.
I think that Secretary Vance or somebody on his staff made a big thing about the fact Dobrynin would have to park out front like anybody else. I could understand this but it did mean when Dobrynin came, it was a matter of public knowledge and sometimes in diplomacy it is a good idea for not everything to be public.
BREMER: Yes, generally I think his records would show that often Kissinger met alone with Dobrynin . So on our side, anyway, there was no written record of what happened. I assume Dobrynin would go back and dictate a telegram. Kissinger would normally call one of us in and say we decided to do this or we decided to do that or I need a memo from Art Hartmann who was assistant secretary for European affairs to do this or that.
On a personal basis they appeared to have a good, easy-going relationship. Of course, they were both professionals so they knew what the limits were.
BREMER: I don’t have a strong memory of how the China thing played out.
BREMER: Winston Lord would be a much better person to ask; the very fact that I am hesitating suggests that it didn’t make a big impression on me.
Going back a bit, how it was to work for Henry. He worked regularly until 10 or 11 at night and then he usually went off to dinner somewhere, sometimes later than that. I remember an occasion, I think we were working on a speech, which was always a nightmare, going through draft number 16 or something—I mentioned before how important speeches were to him. It was about 3 o’clock in the morning. He called me in to yell at me about something about the speech and he basically accused me of working more closely with one of the assistant secretaries than with him—kind of questioning my loyalty. Here I am at 3 o’clock in the morning and I knew I had to be back at 6:30 in the morning. He had secret service protection at that time. Walt Bothe, the head of his USSS detail standing post just outside Henry’s office. As I came out, I turned to Walt and said, “You know, you Secret Service guys are not assessing the threat correctly here.” He look puzzled and I added, “You should be looking for people who have access and motive” and I walked away.
BREMER: No, Henry was different. I didn’t have enough direct experience with Nixon but I could tell there were times when he would say, “Do this”. I told one story about Rogers. Nixon did it with Kissinger, you know: “I want this done by tonight” and then it would kind of go away because Nixon had other things on his mind. The bureaucracy learned to slow-walk some instructions, even from the President.
Kissinger was quite demanding and he would stick with something until he was either persuaded it was the wrong course, or he got his way. He tended to blow off steam to those of us on his personal staff, which is, after all, one of the roles of the staff. You take the brunt; you are a buffer in a way and that’s OK. You get used to it or you leave.
When we hired new staff, we used to say they were either gone in 24 hours because they couldn’t take it, or they stayed on. He was a tough taskmaster but I came to have great respect for him.
BREMER: She was. I think she softened some of the edges a bit. One of the more interesting sidelights was Francie and I went on their honeymoon with them. It was quite amusing. I remember it was a Thursday evening and he had been planning a vacation starting that weekend to go to Acapulco as he had done for years—he had friends who loaned him their house for a week. He called me in Thursday night and said, “I am going to marry Nancy Saturday morning and fly down there and I’d like you to come down to keep me staffed during our honeymoon.”
I said, “Mr. Secretary, I’ve been on the road with you for something like 200 out of the
last 250 days. I’ve got two young children and a wife and I just can’t do that.” In the end he said, “Well, you can bring your wife.” And so Francie and I went to Acapulco on their honeymoon with them. The pace for me didn’t relax much. We had State Department and White House communications—he was still both Secretary and NSC advisor—so we received the usual hourly flow of cables, reports, memos, press stories, etc. We were in our villa and he had his villa. I would make several runs each day with the cable and memo traffic, get his guidance on action items, scurry back to our villa and send off instructions to State and the NSC. We were there for about a week.
BREMER: Not very well and in the end that’s why I left. I had planned to stay through
the ’76 election. But in early ’76 Francie put down her foot and said, “Look, this can’t go on.” It had been five years of this work pace, starting in the secretariat, then NMCC and the ops center and then working for Rogers and then for Kissinger. I was pretty burned- out and she was very burned out. So I told him I just had to leave. Family comes first and so that was the end of my assignment. We went off to Norway.
BREMER: When Kissinger came over to the State Department, he imported a system that had been established at the NSC which recorded his phone calls; they were automatically recorded and then stenographers typed up verbatim records of them. Their purpose was twofold: one, for immediate follow-up. He just told the assistant secretary to get him a paper on economic policy towards Russia by tonight, so the staff needed to know that and to follow up to be sure that happened. And then for historic purposes, in terms of what did he say on the telephone to Dobrynin or Dinitz or somebody.
When he came to the State Department, I was uneasy about this process of actually taping people’s phone calls. I am not an attorney so I wasn’t looking at it from a legal point of view; I was just saying it makes me uneasy. So I persuaded him that we should not make recordings anymore. Instead, the secretaries would listen to the calls and make the notes as they listened. We would still get stenographic records, although obviously less accurate because you couldn’t go back and forth and hear them. You had to do it one time in real time. Those records were then typed up and a copy was circulated to the staff, basically for the purpose of follow-up; that was our main purpose.
I can’t remember the sequence of when that happened but it happened soon after he came over. Admittedly this was a fine distinction—between actual tape recordings and stenographic records.
BREMER: Oh, that was before he came to the State Department. That’s when he was over at the NSC. You are talking about something else. That happened when he was at the White House. I was not involved in that.
BREMER: Peter was very long-term associate of Henry’s. He had been a student of Henry’s at Harvard, worked for him at the White House in a staff job, came to the State Department. I think he worked with Winston in policy planning. He was a beautiful writer, had a wonderful mind and supplemented Winston in terms of their ability to help Kissinger think about the broad strategic view. Peter was very knowledgeable on the Soviet Union and so he was helpful in Europe the way Winston was helpful with China. These were the two big subjects. He was very close to Kissinger.
BREMER: Yes during the denouement. The break-in was ’72 when I was still working for Rogers. Kissinger came to the State Department in ’73 but I was there for the denouement including Nixon’s resignation in ’74.
BREMER: The strategic problem was that we had a collapsing presidency which became obvious by the spring of ’74. I went off with Kissinger on the various Middle East shuttles, including the 33-day shuttle that brought about the second disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria in April and May. A lot of the activity on that trip was encouraged by Nixon. He wanted a diplomatic success of some kind—in effect, he didn’t want Kissinger to come home empty-handed. So for 33 days we shuttled between Jerusalem and Damascus and Cairo and Cyprus and all over the place in an absolutely exhausting visit which ended in success. It didn’t save Nixon, of course. The disengagement agreement was reached I think in the middle of May and Nixon wound up resigning in August. Somewhere I have a copy of his resignation letter because the President resigned to the Secretary of State.
Watergate had two effects: making the overall conduct of foreign policy much more difficult because other countries could see we were weakening, our presidency was weakening. That in turn had the effect of strengthening Kissinger within the American government because he was a high wire act and it was about the only act that anybody had going, including Nixon. That’s why Nixon kept saying, “You’ve got to get a success.” In the end, it didn’t save Nixon. So Watergate definitely had an effect.
BREMER: Yes, but only periodically because he was at the White House. I worked for Haig later when he became secretary of state.
BREMER: I would say on the whole, he was quite attentive to Congress’ views because they had cut off funding for Vietnam and we were going to have to wind up a major war. He was under attack from the right for his détente with the Russians and his opening to China. So he paid a lot of attention to them. About his relationships with particular congressmen, you would to look person by person.
BREMER: Yes, they came, they visited. Scoop Jackson came to State a number of times, I remember. Most of the time there was interaction on the telephone. He saw them at dinners. The Kissingers were quite social; despite his work schedule, he did get around. Generally he didn’t go to embassies for dinner. But he saw congressmen at other Washington social events.
BREMER: Yes, although most of the night thoughts came when we were still at the office, since he didn’t leave until 10 or 11 o’clock at night. Most of the time each day was long enough as it was.
BREMER: There were some big figures. Golda Meir was prime minister in Israel. Hafez Assad was president of Syria, Anwar Sadat was in Egypt, and King Hussein was in Jordan. These were important people. You got the impression these were very tough people living in a rough neighborhood. Golda Meir with her background didn’t take any nonsense off anybody, including Henry. Henry has written stories about his meetings with Assad. I sat in on a couple of them. Assad was a very tough character—charming but very tough. Then you had Sadat who had a softness, a kind of humanity, about him that was quite striking, compared to these other very tough people.
BREMER: It was mostly what a staff person does; help him prepare for meetings and help him report back on meetings all the while keeping him abreast of developments elsewhere in the world. When Henry was ‘double-hatted’—he was national security adviser and secretary of state—we had two separate communications channels at this time. We had WACA, White House communications, which was handling cables that went directly to the NSC and to the President if necessary and we had the State Department, normal secretary of state communications.
So every day there was a huge volume of traffic in both channels in both directions We had to figure out what of this he needed to know because as I mentioned earlier, he basically ran the State Department even when he was traveling. There was an acting secretary but any important decision had to come to the secretary, plus there were the daily reports from all of his assistant secretaries. Then there was the question of his meetings wherever we were: who was going to go to which meetings and who was going to be the note taker and who was going to write the cables. One of us, I or one of the other staff, would have to clear the cables on behalf of the secretary unless we thought it was sensitive, in which case we’d have to get him to look at them.
There was a daily report to the president. Either one of the other State Department assistant secretaries or I would draft the cable to the president. That went through the White House channels and not to the State Department on the rather flimsy reasoning that Kissinger’s daily report was sent in his role as National Security Advisor.
There were logistics questions; who’s going over to Damascus today and what time is the plane leaving. It was pretty much a full time operation. Most of the logistics were the responsibility of the secretariat staff who, as usual, accompanied the Secretary when he traveled, as I had done when in the secretariat on the Nixon trip to Moscow in 1972.
In various meetings I would be the note taker, take the notes and write up the record, usually as a cable.
ambassador of the particular country what had been said and so this left the ambassador in sort of a never-never land, or not?
BREMER: I think that’s correct in some cases. Not so much in the Middle East, though. The ambassador in Syria was Dick Murphy and Herman Eilts was in Egypt and Tom Pickering was in Jordan. They were all deeply involved in the discussions with the governments to which they were accredited.
It depended a lot on whether Kissinger trusted the ambassador. As a general rule—at least on the Middle East visits—they came into the meetings with the head of state. Certainly Henry was secretive and didn’t reveal everything that was going on to everybody. I am sure there were times on other visits when the US Ambassador was not included. Until he came to know and trust somebody, Kissinger was very circumspect about what he would tell. There were degrees of information to different people.
One of the things those of us on his personal staff had to do was remember who was cleared to know what. It was complicated.
BREMER: Of course, and you tried to be as helpful as you could within the scope of what you thought the secretary would allow, or sometimes more than that because you knew the Ambassador had to know. Since I was a diplomat, although not a very experienced one at that point, I knew that there was a need to know what was going on, and sometimes Henry would say to one of us, “Don’t tell so and so” and we’d fight back. “Look, he’s got to know because the meeting in Cyprus is coming up in 48 hours.” Usually he would be reasonable once you explained why someone needed to know. He didn’t have to know just because he had to know but because something had to happen or the Ambassador had to do something.
BREMER: It’s true that he was both tough and not unbending. That’s why I think people have assessed that he had one of the strongest team of assistant secretaries. In the end, if the assistant secretary wouldn’t stand up to him, Kissinger wouldn’t respect him and that guy was going to be gone. He had a very strong group of people around him who were not afraid to say, “You are wrong, Mr. Secretary. That’s not the way it’s going to work. Here’s what happens if you do that.” I won’t say every time he would agree; of course not, but he would listen to the argument and where it was a reasonable point, he would agree, even if it meant reversing himself. You could not work closely with Kissinger and not be fairly strong because he would run you into the ground if you weren’t strong.
What offended me in that 3:00 conversation was he accused me in effect of disloyalty. I was “working too closely” with Art Hartman or somebody. I was pretty frosted by that. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. Word got back to him somehow that I was angry. The next morning he was working out of his NSC office. I got word to come over there which I did almost every day. He called me in and apologized. He had realized he had gone too far.
BREMER: Henry was able to mobilize the State Department and the Foreign Service by being a very demanding secretary. My view is that the Foreign Service is probably the most talented group of people in Washington but there is a tendency in the State Department towards fiefdoms. Dean Acheson used to talk about the department “baronies.” Nothing much has changed in the last 50 years. Each of the bureaus is run rather like a fiefdom. So the way the State Department operates in normal circumstances is that the assistant secretaries on the 6th floor often try to avoid having big problems go to the 7th floor, to the secretary, because they know he’s going to “interfere” in their planning. .
BREMER: Or mess up their private arrangements with each other. So when Henry came to the State Department in 1973, he replaced Bill Rogers who was not a very demanding secretary of state, a very nice man but not very demanding. He had a bit of a lawyer’s approach to foreign policy thinking of each country as a separate client and there was little strategic thinking.
Henry couldn’t have been more different. He demanded that all important issues be brought to him. He wanted to make the important decisions. He was also demanding of the quality of work coming from the assistant secretaries. I think the answer was twofold: first, that his style challenged the Foreign Service in a way it hadn’t been challenged probably since the 1950s, under Acheson and Dulles. Those Foreign Service officers who were capable and able to take the pressure and the demands of Henry proved themselves to be quite extraordinary, as you pointed out. Some of them went on to greater public service. And as I mentioned in an earlier interview, Henry knew enough to ask good questions and to take it well if an experienced officer told him his plan of action was wrong—as long as he could back up his assertions.
The officers who couldn’t take this brutal pace fell by the way very quickly. Since I was his chief of staff, I saw it first hand in recruiting for his personal staff because he was even tougher on his personal staff. If you couldn’t take the pressure and sometimes the abuse, you were out very quickly. We had people who we would recruit to be a special assistant and 48 hours later they’d say they really didn’t want the job.
So I think the answer about Henry was first, he was very smart, he was extremely demanding, and in the end he forced people to perform above what they thought they could do. That certainly was my experience. I was performing at a level I didn’t realize I could. I think it was true of a lot of people and therefore he brought the best out of people. As you pointed out, a number of them have gone on to other things.
BREMER: In January or February of ’76.
BREMER: I went off as deputy chief of mission in Oslo, Norway.
BREMER: I had been working as Kissinger’s chief of staff for more than a year, maybe 15 or 16 months by then and I was worn out. I had been in the position working first for Rogers, then Kissinger for almost five years. I had two young kids, Francie was fed up with the life. So I told Kissinger I had to get out for the sake of my family life.
I was offered the chance to go to Norway in January of ’76 and I immediately took it. I hadn’t been to Norway but I was interested in the opportunity.
FROM The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project (ADST)