A Greek Tragedy
and a Civil War in Africa

excerpted from the book

The Price of Power

Kissinger in the Nixon White House

by Seymour M. Hersh

Summit Books, 1983, paper

A Greek tragedy and a Civil War in Africa

From the beginning of their first year in office, Nixon and Kissinger were consumed with the great issues abroad-in Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and Europe-and the need to consolidate their control of foreign policy at home. The two American leaders had edged close to a dramatic escalation in Vietnam, only to pull back at the last moment in fear of public dissent at home. By the end of that year, Vietnam was entrenched as the main obsession of the men in the White House, whose policy of secret threats and public calls for patriotism was being offset by the turbulence and growing despair at home.

There was little room at the top for concern over what were seen as the lesser issues, such as human rights, and the problems of lesser countries, in Africa and Latin America; these were shunted into bureaucratic limbo. The vaunted Nixon-Kissinger NSC system continued to demand reams of studies and analyses, but by January 1970 the system had decayed into a crisis management unit incapable of dealing effectively and consistently with issues that did not personally interest the President or his national security adviser.

The human rights issue confronted the Nixon Administration most directly in Greece, where a military junta headed by Colonel George Papadopoulos had seized power in April ~967. The Johnson Administration had immediately authorized a partial suspension of the shipment of heavy arms, including aircraft, artillery, and tanks, despite protests from McNamara's Defense Department, which argued that the embargo on American military aid would damage Greece's ability to be a full participant in NATO. Over the next year and a half, the junta moved with increasing brutality to stifle dissent, and detailed reports of torture-many from victims and eyewitnesses-flooded the world. An inquiry by the European Commission on Human Rights produced evidence that torture was being routinely applied to political prisoners at, among other sites, a Greek military police facility less than a block from the American Embassy in Athens-and near a statue of President Harry S Truman, whose "Truman Doctrine" had in 1947 publicly heralded the beginning of the Cold War, America's worldwide effort to contain communism.

Neither Kissinger nor Nixon mentioned Greece in his memoirs, nor did either seriously discuss the general issue of human rights. NSC staff members recall that Kissinger viewed Greece geopolitically, in terms of its logistical importance in the worldwide struggle against communism. Greece served as an important strategic base for the Navy's Sixth Fleet, operating in the Mediterranean, and it permitted United States Air Force planes full overflight and landing rights. According to his aides, Kissinger's support for the junta was based on its strong stance against communism. "Henry regarded Greece as being one of those places that was going to embarrass us eventually," one of them recalls. "It was one of those countries where he had a feeling of prejudice -as if, given half a chance, the Greeks would stab us in the back."

Another factor in Kissinger's support was his knowledge that the CIA was among the junta's strongest backers in official Washington, a reflection of the Agency's long-standing dominant role there. The CIA, newly set up in 1947, spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the next three decades directly financing, training, and supplying the Greek intelligence service, KYP. During a trip to Greece in 1956, Kissinger, then a private citizen teaching at Harvard, was greeted by the CIA station chief, John H. Richardson, who arranged details during his stay. A prominent Athens journalist, Elias P. Demetracopoulos, was asked to be the host at a lunch for Kissinger that week; he recalls that Richardson reassured him of Kissinger's "importance."

Nixon's support for the Greek junta was based on more than geopolitics, as investigators would learn much later. One of the junta's leading supporters was Thomas A. Pappas, a prominent Greek-American businessman with CIA connections who had raised millions of dollars for Republican candidates.

In the early 1960s, Pappas, who maintained homes in Athens and Boston and routinely commuted between them, had become a dominant financial force in Greece by persuading the government to grant him the right to construct a $ 125 million oil, steel, and chemical complex in partnership with Standard Oil of New Jersey. Pappas also promised to invest heavily in other businesses in Greece, and won favorable government terms for doing so. When the more liberal Center Union Party, headed by George Papandreou, was in power in 1963 and 1964, Pappas was forced to renegotiate downward many of those highly profitable contracts. Three years later the junta began rescinding Pappas' concessions and his business interests rapidly flourished.

Late in the presidential campaign of 1968, there were repeated press allegations that Pappas played a role in delivering campaign contributions from the Greek government to the Nixon forces. On October 31, just five days before the election, the Boston Globe reported that "the rumor mills of Boston and

Washington" were hinting that Pappas was "the conduit of campaign funds from the Greek junta to the Nixon-Agnew treasury." No evidence could be found to support the allegation, the Globe said. That same day, Lawrence F. O'Brien, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, publicly called on Nixon to explain his relationship with Pappas. O'Brien acted after a series of private meetings that had begun weeks earlier at his Watergate offices with Demetracopoulos, who had turned to the Democrats after hearing from friends in Greece that, as he puts it, "hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Greek KYP, directly subsidized by the CIA, was being laundered through Pappas for the Nixon campaign." O'Brien's carefully hedged statement received little press attention, but left Demetracopoulos a marked man for the Nixon Administration. In July ~97', after testifying publicly against the regime and Pappas before a congressional committee, Demetracopoulos was warned by senior White House aides that he would be deported if he did not stop his activities. Nixon's old friend and political operative, Murray Chotiner, went so far as to tell the Greek exile at a luncheon meeting, Demetracopoulos recalls, to "lay off Pappas. It's not smart politics. You know Tom Pappas is a friend of the President." Nixon was "angry," said Chotiner.

In 1972, Pappas served as a principal Nixon fund raiser and as a vice president of the finance committee of the Committee to Re-elect the President. It was not until 1976, however, that the House Intelligence Committee was able to confirm Demetracopoulos' allegations against Pappas. It received sworn evidence from Henry J. Tasca, a career Foreign Service officer who had been Nixon's Ambassador to Greece, that in 1968 Pappas had served as a conduit for campaign funds from the Greek government to the Nixon campaign. Tasca's statement was made off the record-at his insistence, according to a committee investigator-and was not published. Tasca died in an automobile accident in 1979, but the author was told by a senior State Department official, then serving abroad as an American ambassador, that he too had learned of Pappas' role as a conduit for campaign funds while dealing with Southern

European affairs. "We were carrying out policy to support 'a Greek bearing gifts,' " the official said.

The Nixon Administration formally retained the partial embargo on heavy arms shipments to Greece, but by mid-1969 the embargo had evolved into little more than a token of official disapproval. And it had never blocked the shipment of small arms and riot control equipment, which the junta was using to maintain control. Furthermore, the Pentagon, eager for any method of evasion, had begun selling defense materiel to the Greek government and officially describing it as "surplus" goods. Congressional investigators computed later that total delivery of military goods climbed by some $l0 million annually after the junta seized power.

Throughout this period, as opposition to the junta mounted in Congress and among the public, Greece was not considered a significant issue inside the National Security Council. "It wasn't high on anybody's agenda," recalls Donald Lesh, who worked on European problems for the NSC. "I can't recall anybody worrying about it," says another NSC aide. Harold H. Saunders, the NSC staff member who was assigned to monitor Greece, among other nations, remembers that "Things had pretty well settled to a pattern [in Greece] by the time the Nixon-Kissinger team came. It doesn't stand out prominently in my mind." Still another aide specifically recalls that Pappas' influence was felt inside the NSC. "He was very close to the junta; one of those counseling us to 'go easy.' " Nobody asked too many questions. "We knew Pappas had a special relationship-access right at the top. One didn't ask on what it was based." This staff member had visited Greece and met with some of the junta while working for Kissinger. Upon his return, he made a point of assuring everyone who was interested how successful the government was: "If you wanted to score points with Henry, the hard line scored well."

Publicly the Nixon Administration continued to insist that the political embargo on military shipments was still in force, and would remain so until democratic reforms were made. Such claims, however, were left to Rogers and Laird. In July 1969, the Secretary of State told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the suspension of arms shipments would not be removed "unless the Greek junta made some progress toward more parliamentary government." Laird told the committee the next day, "I want it understood . . . we have a freeze on the aid as far as Greece is concerned, and that freeze is being continued and will be continued until progress is made toward more democratic procedures in the country.'

In private, Nixon and Kissinger had decided to "tilt" toward the junta, as White House documents make clear. On November 14, 1969, National Security Decision Memorandum No. 34 informed the bureaucracy, in secret, that the White House had decided to suspend the embargo and was looking for a way to do so without creating controversy. Tasca, just appointed Ambassador to Greece, was to play a major role in a five-stage process that would lead to a renewed flow of heavy weapons. First, Tasca was to meet privately with Papadopoulos and inform him that the United States was prepared to resume normal military aid. The Ambassador was to "make clear" that some movement toward democracy "would ease U.S. problems in speeding the release of the suspended equipment." NSDM 34, which was signed by Kissinger, noted at this point: "This linkage is conceived as a means of improving the atmosphere for removing the suspension...." The next paragraphs spelled out the extent of the White House's fait accompli. Point three: "The U.S. government, after the President has reviewed Ambassador Tasca's report of the Greek government's response, [is to begin] shipping the suspended items gradually, beginning with the less dramatic items." Point four: "After the President's final review and approval [emphasis added], the following public line will be taken with members of the Congress and the press as necessary: Overriding U.S. security interests were the principal factor in the decision to lift the suspension. The U.S. government will continue urging the government to move toward a constitutional situation." Finally, Tasca was ordered to "develop a relationship" with the junta in a way that would permit him to "exercise influence for democratic reform."

Before departing for Athens, Tasca was invited to meet with the President. Like many of Nixon's ambassadorial appointees, he, while serving as Ambassador to Morocco, had befriended the former Vice President during one of his overseas trips in the 1960s. Nixon made his policy explicit during the meeting telling Tasca, as later reported in The Wrong Horse, by Laurence Stern of the Washington Post: "We've got to restore military aid; as far as the rest is concerned, make it look as good as you can."

The continuing uproar over the junta's human rights violations apparently forced Nixon and Kissinger to delay putting NSDM 34 into effect in late ~969. In June ~970, however, a new NSDM was issued, No. 67, marked "Exclusively Eyes Only," setting a target date of September ~ for the resumption of shipments. Nixon and Kissinger still wanted their "linkage": Tasca was instructed to inform Papadopoulos that "it is anticipated that there will be further specific steps which we can cite as further evidence of progress toward full constitutional government." The Greek Prime Minister was to be assured NSDM 67 added, that the Nixon Administration would take "at face value and accept without reservation" any such assurances. The arms embargo was formally lifted on September 22, 1970, with little protest within the bureaucracy. The White House found an easy way to handle the story: Word was leaked a few days earlier to the New York Times, which reported that the renewed flow of arms was linked to an ongoing national security crisis in the Middle East. The decision to lift the embargo, the Times wrote, had apparently been taken I just a week before, at the White House level.

... The Nigerian war had begun in May 1967, when Biafra declared its independence. The rebellion attracted strong support from both the left and the right in the United States. The Biafran Ibos were Christian, mainly Roman Catholic, in a war against Moslems. They were also seen as blacks battling for self-determination against far superior forces. Senators Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts liberal, and Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina conservative, became strong supporters of the Biafran regime, and both urged relief organizations and the State Department to supply desperately needed funds. The war for independence went badly for Biafra from its inception; photographs of its starving children, staring with unblinking eyes at the cameras, seemed to fill the magazines and newspapers of the world.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon spoke out at least twice in support of more relief aid for Biafra, and his wife publicly appeared on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to encourage donations. "This is not the time to stand on ceremony or go through channels or to observe the diplomatic niceties," Nixon said in a public statement. "While America is not the world's policeman, let us at least act as the world's conscience in this matter of life and death for millions....''

The State Department's attitude remained fixed in support of the Nigerian government, at least partly because it was clear from the outset that the Biafrans had no chance of winning. Roger Morris had been frustrated in the Johnson White House at his inability to persuade the administration to increase its aid to Biafra, but there was reason to believe Nixon would change policy. Indeed, during the transition period after the election, Nixon asked Kissinger for a study paper on expanded relief to Biafra; and on January 24, 1969, four days after the inauguration, Biafra was the subject of one of the first National Security Study Memoranda Kissinger ordered. In the early months of his presidency, Morris recalls, Nixon repeatedly told Kissinger that he wanted formal recognition of Biafra, which would have provoked open opposition in the State Department. Yet the policy agreed upon at a February 1969 NSC meeting, at which Nixon presided, called for the United States to maintain official neutrality on the civil war, although continuing to supply relief for the Biafrans.

By May, however, Nixon had changed his mind and decided to recognize Biafra-largely, Morris concluded, to teach the State Department a lesson in authority. "He wants to recognize them," an astonished Kissinger aide told Morris and others after a meeting with Nixon. Morris' account, in Uncertain Greatness, his 1977 study of Kissinger's foreign policy, goes on: "Presidential musings on recognition continued through June, apparently sparked by intelligence reports or press summaries.... To each statement, Kissinger by his own account gave an unquestioning and sympathetic hearing. He then returned to his office and proceeded as if the conversation had never taken place, ordering his staff to do the same with a knowing smile and a reference to the increasingly common West Basement explanation of periodic behavior upstairs in the Oval Office: 'He's a little crazy, you know.' "

Kissinger, in his own memoirs, speculated that Nixon's support for the Biafrans was not a deeply felt view but a ploy: "I am inclined to believe that Nixon took the contrary view in part because he took no little pleasure in showing some of those who were wont to attack him for his alleged moral defects that they too were capable of expediency on the issue of human rights."

In early July, on a state visit to Washington, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia discussed the Biafran war with Nixon. Kissinger soon received a presidential directive from Alexander Butterfield, telling Kissinger,- as Morris recalls, "I have decided, Henry, that I'm going to mediate the Biafra civil war (Haile Selassie agrees). Get on with it." Why Kissinger chose to obey that directive when he had ignored earlier presidential orders was not made clear to Morris, whom Kissinger told to negotiate secretly with the Foreign Minister of Biafra at the New York apartment of Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review. "I'm looking at Henry like he's mad," Morris recalls. "I have no negotiating position; no instructions. Henry is saying, 'Just negotiate something that's sensible.' " Haig, who was in the meeting, slipped Morris a much appreciated note: "Don't you understand? If you're successful, Kissinger gets the diamond. If not, you get the rocks." Haig winked at Morris as he read the note, and Morris was relieved: "I had an ally. Kissinger's given me an impossible job to do, which clearly Kissinger doesn't understand, because he's dead serious. He sees himself on the podium in Stockholm getting the Nobel Peace Prize. And I'm going up there without instructions and staff." At that point, Morris had only one person helping him handle African affairs, a young White House intern from Ohio State University.

The subsequent negotiations, kept secret from the State Department, were a fiasco. The meeting with the Biafrans at Cousins' apartment was inconclusive, and Morris later needed to clarify a point left unsettled. The Biafran officials, meanwhile, had gone on to Brussels, apparently to meet with NATO officials before returning home. Morris sent a backchannel message to Eagleburger, his former NSC benefactor who was now fully recuperated and reassigned out of the White House as a Foreign Service aide to Ambassador Ellsworth at NATO headquarters in Brussels, asking him to meet secretly with the Biafrans and resolve the issue. The message to Eagleburger, sent through CIA channels, was somehow deflected to the National Security Agency and from there to the State Department. The men at State were furious, not only because the White House seemed to be working against the official United States policy, but also because the department's official position, as cited repeatedly to the Biafrans at the United Nations, was that America would have nothing to do with any mediation efforts. "It's a little difficult to do these things when you're working against your government," as Morris puts it.

Elliot Richardson then paid Kissinger a visit and formally protested the White House intervention, carefully accusing only Morris of exceeding his authority. Kissinger expressed his regrets over Morris' "insubordination" and promised to reprimand him. Morris remembers the issue as "a sideshow par excellence. Henry called me in and told me to write a nice little note to Richardson. And then he asked me how it was going and reminded me that Nixon wanted it settled."

Later that summer, Dr. Jean Mayer, a leading expert on food supply and nutrition who taught at Harvard, visited his former colleague in the White House. Dr. Mayer had gone to Biafra early in 1969 to assess conditions there for a United Nations relief agency, and had been deeply shocked. "My estimate was that one and one-half million were dying from starvation," Dr. Mayer says. "I saw villages where no one over seven years of age was left." The scientist spent months without success trying to instill some urgency into the various U.S.-sponsored relief programs. In June, he was appointed a special consultant to President Nixon and assigned responsibility for planning a White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health to be held in December. Still haunted by the carnage he had witnessed in Biafra, Mayer took his crusade into the White House with him. He finally obtained an appointment with Kissinger, and it was one of Kissinger's more convincing performances.

"His attitude was very understandable," Dr. Mayer says. "His point was that he was concerned but he was the national security adviser to the President and it was difficult in his job not to overlap too much with the State Department. He was constantly resented by the State Department, he said, and so he found that the only behavior to avoid this was to limit himself strictly to those matters affecting the national security of the United States and only to deal where the actual security of the United States was threatened." Dr. Mayer left Kissinger's office convinced that the national security adviser shared his concern but was powerless to take on the State Department.

In fact, Kissinger was at an impasse with State over Biafra, but only because of his effort to negotiate behind the department's back. Kissinger risked a breach with Richardson, his most competent State Department ally, if he continued to meddle in Biafra; clearly, the possible starvation of hundreds of thousands of Biafrans mattered less than maintaining good relations, if only on the surface, with the few people in the bureaucracy whom he could rely on. Dr. Mayer, with his tales of horror and death in Africa, was mollified and sent away, and the Nigerian civil war disappeared as a significant issue in Washington.

By late fall, Biafran leaders were bitter over the Nixon Administration's refusal to do more than express sympathy and support for their position. "We are especially resentful of the ambivalent pretenses the United States makes, that it is trying to help us," Sir Louis Mbanefo, Biafra's Chief Justice, told a Washington Post reporter. "If we are condemned to die, all right, we will die. But at least let the world, and the United States, be honest about it." White House interest in the Nigerian civil war was not renewed until January 10, 1970, when word came that the collapse of the Biafran forces and the secessionist movement was imminent. The Biafrans surrendered twenty-four hours later.

Roger Morris quickly reminded his superiors of what Dr. Mayer had learned nearly a year before-that the lives of a huge number of Biafrans were in the balance. By January ~o, Morris had forwarded to Kissinger an authoritative study, prepared by physicians from the U.S. Public Health Service, which predicted that more than one million Biafrans would, as Morris summarized the document, "be dying over the next :-3 weeks unless there is a massive injection of high-protein food." In this secret memorandum, Morris was also careful to note that the American doctors "contend that in the Nigerian case as in every recorded famine in modern history, initial observer reports have vastly underestimated the magnitude of the problem."

The major opponent of any large-scale relief effort was still the State Department, which, in its continuing attempts to avoid a rupture of relations with Nigeria, had been minimizing the peril. On January 14, for example, the New York Times quoted a State Department official as explaining that the Nixon Administration "was anxious to counter an impression there is a serious danger of starvation" in Biafra.

In Morris' view, Kissinger fully understood and sympathized with the gravity of the situation in those days of crisis; many of Morris' memoranda and documents were forwarded to the President. On January 23, in one of the secret memoranda Morris drafted for presentation to Nixon, Kissinger told the President about the American doctors' report indicating that more than a million Biafran lives were in imminent jeopardy, and strongly recommended that Nixon take action. He noted that he had discussed the issue with Senator Kennedy, Nixon's bete noire, who had urged that the United States pressure the Nigerian government to change its policy and permit an airlift directly into Biafra. "Firm Presidential action now to press the Nigerians does risk offending them. They could turn closer to the Soviets," Kissinger wrote, but on the other hand, "Mass deaths . . . will hardly make for good relations between the U.S. and Nigeria." And there was "also an important point to be made in terms of protecting you on this issue domestically. Acting strongly now to follow up our offers of assistance would probably gain support from many elements not usually in your camp. In this respect, Biafran relief would be similar to your decision on chemical and biological warfare.... But if mass starvation does take place, and we cannot point to a record of strong action, you will be vulnerable to criticism.... Elements who say this Administration is efficient but unfeeling might then charge we were neither in the case of Biafra."

Five days later, as the world's newspapers and television began reporting that conditions inside Biafra were worse than previously believed, Kissinger wrote Nixon again: Fatalities inside Biafra could reach 85 percent in some localities, and there had been a sharp increase in the roadside death rate (significant because only the strongest were able to walk). It was a picture, Kissinger wrote, "of deep need, Nigerian incompetence and potential mass deaths. . . . Our evidence is now overwhelming that the food and logistical situation in the enclave is desperate."

By then, it had been seventeen days since the fall of Biafra and only 200 tons of food had been airlifted into the area. In other memoranda, Morris was citing expert estimates indicating that at least 20,000 tons of food were needed immediately to prevent mass deaths.

January 28 was also the day the Nigerians did permit two American cargo planes to land in the capital, Lagos, and begin unloading supplies for the 300 mile drive to Biafran areas where the need was most acute. But the impact of the Nigerian-supervised relief program did not become noticeable to journalists on the scene until the middle of February. The number of Biafran children and noncombatants who starved to death in the five weeks between the end of the secessionist war and the beginning of an effective relief program is now known to far exceed the official estimate of 20,000.

What had gone wrong?

In his memoirs, Kissinger discussed the Nigerian civil war only briefly, dryly noting that "For some reason Biafra had become an issue in the American Presidential campaign of 1968." He and Nixon were aware of studies showing that more than a million Biafran lives were threatened with starvation, Kissinger said, and both supported Roger Morris in his efforts to get supplies directly to Biafra. But, he added, opposition from the British, who supported Nigeria, and "State Department procrastination soon made the issue moot. We never succeeded in establishing an independent relief program.... A curtain of silence descended."

Kissinger's and Nixon's unwillingness to take on the State Department- even with hundreds of thousands of lives possibly in the balance-frustrated and further disillusioned Morris. He later wrote that "Throughout this sequence of events, Kissinger and Nixon were suddenly transformed: the responsible, powerful men who had so forcefully seized control of other policies for the good or ill now remained distracted, cynically detached onlookers."

Nixon, preoccupied as usual with political issues, went into hibernation in the last half of January, working for long stretches in his hideaway office in the Executive Office Building on his first State of the Union address. After one meeting with Elliot Richardson and other State Department officials, all of whom downplayed the estimates of Biafran starvation, Nixon telephoned Kissinger and, Morris recalls, said simply of his State Department, "They're going to let them starve, aren't they, Henry?" Kissinger's answer, according to Morris, was "Yes." He and Nixon then began discussing some of the foreign policy passages in the State of the Union speech.

And of course there was theater at the NSC, as Kissinger was deciding not to do battle with Elliot Richardson over Biafra. Kissinger telephoned Senator Kennedy to say he was doing all that could be done, and Roger Morris recalls overhearing his boss say, "You remember, Ted, that I worked for your brother."

Dr. Mayer was also further soothed. His work on the White House Conference successfully concluded, he had been rewarded with a meeting with the President after the rebellion collapsed. Again he urged direct relief efforts, and Nixon authorized him to meet with Kissinger and Richardson. "The minute Henry was officially charged by the President to do something," Dr. Mayer recalls, "he was no longer resented by the State Department. He was extraordinarily effective. Once Kissinger got involved, things started moving."

Morris later wrote that Kissinger, after one meeting with Richardson and Dr. Mayer, took his former Harvard colleague aside and whispered, "You see what I'm up against. The State Department is incompetent." Dr. Mayer was left with the desired impression, Morris wrote, "that Kissinger was a lonely force for compassion against the lethargy and client-myopia of the rest of the government."

Years later, Morris concluded that Kissinger had, in fact, behaved "the worst" of all the senior officials in the Nixon Administration in not doing everything possible to obtain immediate relief in the first days after Biafra fell. "Henry understood the issues perfectly and"-unlike the State Department-"had no bureaucratic rationale of protecting an interest. There really is a streak of compassion in him, yet everything is expendable. He had no rational reason for letting those kids starve; he was just afraid to alienate Richardson because he and Richardson had other fish to fry. And with the President, Henry just didn't want to bother him. He'd look soft."

Nothing and nobody in Africa was worth that.

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