by Peter Bridges
Henry Kissinger left government service in 1977; after serving earlier as National Security Adviser he was replaced as Secretary of State by Carter’s incoming Secretary, Cyrus Vance. Now it was 1984; since 1981 I had been the deputy chief of mission to Reagan’s ambassador to Italy, Maxwell Rabb. We learned that Dr. Kissinger was coming to Venice to brief the board of a major American corporation that was meeting there. Max Rabb asked me to go to Venice and make sure the Italians would provide proper protection for the famous—some would have said infamous—man.
I went north and met with the Prefect of Venice, the senior representative of the interior ministry, and members of his staff. They had taken all precautions. Terrorists in Italy liked to strike targets after studying their usual routes, as they had done in 1978 when they kidnapped and later killed former prime minister Aldo Moro, and as they did in Rome in June 1984 in killing our former Foreign Service colleague Leamon Ray Hunt, director general of the Sinai peacekeeping force. Kissinger’s Venice visit was unadvertised but he would have been a high-priority target. In the event, the two of us had a pleasant but not very substantive breakfast on a terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, and I went home to Rome.
About that same time he and his wife, Nancy, came to Rome on a private visit and stayed with the Rabbs. One evening my wife Mary Jane and I drove over to the residence in my somewhat-armored embassy Ford, and the four of us went for a moonlight drive through the old city to Piazza Navona, Piazza del Quirinale, a few old side streets, and the Pincio, to look down at Piazza del Popolo and the Tiber and Vatican dim beyond us. Thank goodness, no one recognized the former Secretary of State in the dimness.
I doubt Kissinger knew that years earlier, in 1969, I had turned down a chance to work on his staff in the White House, after he became the National Security Adviser. His friend Helmut “Hal” Sonnenfeldt soon became Kissinger’s senior NSC staffer for the Communist world. I had known Hal from the time I served as a junior officer on the State Department’s Soviet desk and he was a mid-grade analyst in INR, the Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
Duties in Rome
In the autumn of 1969, I was three years into my first tour of duty at Rome, with a year yet to do. I was the embassy’s sole contact with the large Italian Communist Party—although I suspected (rightly, I learned later) that the CIA station had contacts they were not telling us about—and I also kept in touch with the center-right Liberals. I did not want to see the Communists join a future government coalition, but I thought they might. They had moved far away from Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, but they could not make a complete break, and I knew they were still accepting some funding from Moscow.
I was, in addition, our working-level contact with ten or a dozen offices that covered Italian interests around the world, in the foreign ministry’s Directorate General of Political Affairs. It all made for busy days. I knew my bosses thought well of me. At home, our three children were doing well in school and sports, my wife ran Rome’s American Girl Scouts, and the five of us spent happy Sundays exploring ancient Etruscan sites and hiking in the Apennines. We had spent two years in the Soviet Union, now we were in the West. I hoped next to be sent somewhere in between, to some embassy in Central or Eastern Europe, to observe the byplay between Communism and Western civilization. I thought someday—but who knew when?—we would see tyranny fail.
Meanwhile, in several more months Mary Jane was going to bear our fourth child. Life was good in Rome.
Then one afternoon Hal Sonnenfeldt phoned me. He wanted me to come work for him in the White House.
I had visions of 12-hour days and 7-day working weeks and an end to family happiness. As politely as I knew how, I told Hal that I was honored to be asked to join him (and Dr. Kissinger); I would of course go where ordered; but I’d rather stay in Rome. He said he was sorry to hear it. So we stayed in Rome, for not one but two more years, and then went to Prague.
They were exciting times. In 1972 Kissinger (with Sonnenfeldt) went secretly to China to prepare President Nixon’s subsequent breakthrough visit there. He also went secretly to Moscow to meet with Brezhnev, without telling our ambassador in Moscow, Jacob Beam. I thought that wrong—and, much more importantly, I thought Kissinger dead wrong in supporting governments like Pinochet’s vicious military regime in Chile. In addition, he had listened to our ambassador to Italy, Graham Martin, who (over CIA protests) got him to supply White House funding for a tinhorn Italian general, Vito Miceli, who dreamed of a coup d’etat. That might look like Realpolitik but it was not right policy for our democratic republic.
In July 1973 I was serving in Prague when our Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, made the first visit there by a NATO foreign minister since the Soviet army had invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 to put down Alexander Dubček’s increasingly liberal regime. Until Mr. Rogers’ visit, NATO ministers had boycotted Prague in protest, although the real villain was the invaders.
Czechoslovak officials were very pleased and entertained Rogers royally. After dinner in a well-stocked Prague wine cellar, our ambassador, Albert “Bud” Sherer, and his wife, Carroll—a couple we deeply admired—invited Mary Jane and me to come back to their residence for a nightcap with them and the Secretary.
We sat on their lawn in the warm summer night. Bud Sherer said something to the effect that the visit had gone well. Mr. Rogers said that the President had not wanted him to ignore the NATO boycott, but he had thought he should.
The fact was that the brilliant National Security Adviser, Dr. Kissinger, was running our foreign relations and Rogers was trying to keep at least a little of the action—like dealing with Eastern Europe.
Less than two months after the Prague visit, Nixon accepted Rogers’ resignation and in late September Kissinger left the White House and became the Secretary of State. For two years he was both National Security Adviser and Secretary.
In 1976-77, in Washington, I became one of several deputy executive secretaries managing the Department’s Executive Secretariat, the heart of the Department. We ensured that Secretary Kissinger, the Deputy Secretary, and the Under Secretaries got the information and recommendations they needed, in concise and timely fashion. Staff members traveled with the Secretary and kept him in constant touch with Washington. And our 24-hour Operations Center alerted those who needed to know of new crises and other key developments around the world.
Kissinger, I soon learned, was terribly hard on his associates. More than once, I read in a memorandum of his conversation with some foreign leader, he blamed a subordinate for some wrong thing that he himself had ordered. Fortunately, I myself never got blamed.
One morning one of his several personal assistants, an officer who was to serve years later as a distinguished ambassador in Africa, burst into my office, his face pale white. Kissinger had lit into him without mercy and, said my friend, not only into him. The staff hated and dreaded him.
The Need for a Good Foreign Service
Henry Kissinger could be cruel but he saw the need for a good career Foreign Service. His primary field had long been academia and not management, but he understood people. What especially disturbed him was the increasing tendency for officers to serve abroad only in a single geographic area. The story was told that during a visit to Mexico he found himself needing to confront some nuclear problem that did not immediately involve Mexico. He asked to see whoever in the embassy knew most about the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—and no one knew anything.
To address this situation, the Department came up with the Global Outreach Program. Officers would no longer be permitted to serve on a single continent. The Department decided that they’d be broadened in experience, and they’d be the better for it. Few may have wanted to move, say, from the Andean world to West Africa or South Asia but GLOP was fine with me. I had had two fascinating years in Panama before moving to Europe; I imagined someday going to Africa.
Like every other modern U.S. Secretary of State, Kissinger had to deal with the problem of unqualified, inexperienced political appointees both in key positions in the Department and as ambassadors abroad. He decided to concentrate on installing good career officers in top jobs in State; ambassadorships he thought less important.
When Henry Kissinger left the Department in 1977, only one of his dozen-plus Under and Assistant Secretaries was not a career officer. Today, in the administration of Donald Trump, the top people are more numerous, almost all political, and many are known more for their money or ideology than for their expertise in foreign affairs. Still the career Foreign Service continues to attract good people, devoted to honest and principled work.
Sorry to say, even if someday the conduct of our foreign affairs should be left to seasoned career officials—as in other advanced countries—a major organizational problem would remain. Who should run the show, State or NSC?
We need proper coordination in foreign affairs—but that would best be achieved by having the Secretary of State serve also as the National Security Adviser, sitting a five-minute walk rather than an inconvenient car ride away from the President. It would make for more efficient government. In fact, in his day Henry Kissinger had, efficiently, combined the two jobs. I still think today that they should be combined.
Whatever one thinks of Dr. Kissinger’s management and policies, he was—and still is—a great American statesman.
Peter Bridges spent three decades as a Foreign Service officer on four continents, ending as ambassador to Somalia. In recent years he has published a memoir of his time as a diplomat; biographies of two once-famous Americans, John Moncure Daniel and Donn Piatt; and a memoir of his off-hours climbs, runs, and treks. His articles, essays, and poems have appeared in American Diplomacy, Copperfield Review, Diplomacy & Statecraft, Eclectica, Mountain Gazette, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.