Still Blazing Away At 100: When Kissinger Flew Out From Chaklala Airbase

Still Blazing Away At 100: When Kissinger Flew Out From Chaklala Airbase
27 May 2023 came and went away silent and uneventful, as the grand old man Dr Henry Alfred Kissinger turned 100 that day. It would be difficult to find anyone alive who has more experience in international affairs, first as a scholar of 19th-century diplomacy, later as America’s national security adviser and secretary of state, and for the past 46 years as a consultant and emissary to monarchs, presidents and prime ministers. His writings have kept him at the forefront of public discussion of international affairs, well after his public service ended in 1977. Indeed, in all of American history perhaps only John Quincy Adams has exercised comparable influence after his term as Secretary of State – and he then went on to serve as the nation’s sixth President, eventually becoming a leading voice against slavery, as a member of the House of Representatives.

Kissinger served as National Security Advisor from 1969 to 1973 and as Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, during the presidencies first of Richard Nixon and then, after Nixon resigned in 1974, of Gerald Ford. The Nixon administration took office with American foreign policy under considerable stress, as the US was bogged down in an apparently unwinnable war in Vietnam, in which 500,000 American troops were engaged. The conflict was consuming the energy, attention and resources of the American government and creating increasingly acrimonious divisions within the American public. With Kissinger playing a crucial role, the administration launched five major initiatives designed to relieve the mounting foreign and domestic pressures on the United States. For his actions negotiating a ceasefire in Vietnam, Kissinger received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize.

It is worth recalling his personal history. Having fled Nazi Germany with his family as a Jew in 1938, he arrived in the USA as a fifteen-year-old refugee and served with courage and distinction in World War II, earning the Bronze Star. This is why Kissinger’s 100th birthday was an occasion to celebrate not only his own extraordinary career, but also the contributions that the ‘greatest generation,’ whose bravery and sacrifices saw the country through its greatest military trial. Kissinger was a bright student who graduated from Harvard College with a BA summa cum laude in 1950 after studying under William Yandell Elliott. At Harvard University, he earned his MA in 1951 and his PhD in 1954, respectively. Famously, Kissinger’s doctoral thesis was on the diplomacy of the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). He argued that ‘legitimacy’ in international affairs rested on establishing a balance between powerful states rather than promoting justice.

That being said, Kissinger also remains a controversial and polarising figure in US politics, both venerated by some as a highly effective US Secretary of State and condemned by others for allegedly tolerating or supporting war crimes committed by allied nation states during his tenure. A 2015 survey of top international relations scholars, conducted by the College of William & Mary, ranked Kissinger as the most effective US Secretary of State in the 50 years ending in 2015. After the death of centenarian George Shultz in February 2021, Kissinger is the oldest living Cabinet member, who sexed up the art of diplomacy. Nixon was the grand strategist and Kissinger the able tactician. The world watched where he went, which makes his career one of the most influential and important in the history of American foreign policy. His diplomatic achievements were quite astonishing – the recognition of China (1971-72) by the US was something which stunned the world. But domestically, more important was America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (1973) and the Nixon administration policy of détente (easing of hostility) with the Soviet Union, which led to a series of strategic arms limitation talks. These helped to secure Kissinger’s global brand, which continues to stand against his name.
Dr Kissinger’s personal aide and his ‘double’ fell ill with severe stomach pain, as he had consumed half a dozen mangoes in lieu of lunch. A doctor was phoned to come urgently to treat “an eminent person.” The doctor had, fortunately, never heard of Henry Kissinger

I am changing gears a bit now, to take a deep dive on a historical event which took place at this time, in which Pakistan featured directly with Kissinger.

It was mid-1971 that Dr Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing took place, in which Pakistan played a key and historic role as a facilitator and also provided for a transit stop for Kissinger in Pakistan. Very few people were aware at that time as to what was going on. The NWFP Governor’s summer residence at Nathiagali, a hill station 9,000 feet high, was selected as the meeting place where Dr Kissinger would supposedly go to take a few days’ rest. A Pakistani Boeing, flying over the Karakoram mountains, was to take him to Beijing and bring him back. On 24 June, Yahya Khan received a message from President Nixon expressing his appreciation for the “great service to peace and mutual relations that he is rendering as a true friend of two parties (US and China).”

Chaklala Air Force base was used for this secret operation. The Pakistani Boeing crew, all handpicked for their professional experience, were briefed for strict confidentiality and a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy. After months of preparation, there was a sense of relief that the time had finally come to launch the visit the next morning. Dr Kissinger arrived on 8 July along with his four principle aides and after a brief rest, left for Beijing on time, but not without some anxious moments taking place behind him.

Dr Kissinger’s personal aide and his ‘double’ fell ill with severe stomach pain, as he had consumed half a dozen mangoes in lieu of lunch. A doctor was phoned to come urgently to treat “an eminent person.” The doctor had, fortunately, never heard of Henry Kissinger, so there were no raised eyebrows. While this was going on, a helicopter carrying my father-in-law Syed Wahiduddin, who was associated with Foreign Secretary Sultan M Khan at that time, and carrying highly confidential documents, made an erratic landing at the far edge of the terrace and flipped over. It was literally one lone tree which prevented it from falling in the ravine below. A sensitive rescue operation took place at sunset time, thankfully, with no serious injuries. The helicopter had to be replaced.

Kissinger and party returned to Pakistan on 11 July after a historic meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai. The trip remained top secret until it was broadcast by President Nixon on 15 July. Who knew that many years later, I would migrate to the US after the Gulf War – and then be posted to China of all places in 1996, when it gearing up to become a major world power.

On the other side, Indians and Bangladeshis widely remember Kissinger as an unusually cruel and cold-hearted person. As they bitterly recall, he and Nixon firmly supported Pakistan’s military dictatorship throughout its bloody crackdown in 1971 after Pakistan’s establishment brushed aside the results of a democratic election, killed a high number of Bengalis and committed unheard-of atrocities on what is today Bangladesh, sending some 10 million Bengali refugees fleeing into India. Kissinger’s actions in 1971 were clouded by his own ignorance about South Asia, his emotional misjudgments and his stoking of Nixon’s racism toward Indians. As US government officials presciently warned him, a Pakistani crackdown would result in a futile civil war with India sponsoring the Bengali guerrillas, creating the conditions for Soviet-backed India to rip Pakistan in two—a strategic defeat for the United States and a strategic victory for the Soviet Union. Kissinger also knowingly violated US law in allowing secret arms transfers to Pakistan during the India-Pakistan war in December 1971. Despite warnings from White House staffers and State Department and Pentagon lawyers that such arms transfers were illegal, Nixon and Kissinger went ahead, developing and executing a series of covert actions that culminated with Watergate.

Important groundwork on détente and on the opening to China had been laid earlier by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, respectively, while on Vietnam both men were longtime hawks who upon taking office seemed no less determined than the Johnson team had been to achieve an “honourable” exit from the war, i.e., one that preserved, for the indefinite future, an independent, noncommunist South Vietnam. Or if not indefinitely, at least through the 1972 election—a remarkable feature of Kissinger’s statecraft was its intense interest in the domestic political implications of his policy prescriptions. Publicly he claimed otherwise, insisting that US foreign policy had always been, and continued to be, made on a bipartisan footing in the national interest.

Just where Henry Kissinger’s reputation will stand in history cannot be said for sure, but it is safe to predict that he will continue to be regarded as one of the leading figures in the history of American foreign policy. This will be so, not only because of his accomplishments in office, but also because of his prolific, widely read, and highly influential published writings. Uniquely among Americans, he has contributed to the theory as well as to the practice of foreign policy. Watergate was the scandal of the century, and Kissinger’s key role in it would surely be one thing that history will remember him with always.

As for himself, he is certain that we are all on the path to a great-power confrontation.

The author is a Karachi-born, Boston-based global finance and audit specialist. A connoisseur of South Asian film music, he has written scripts and directed concerts in the USA, South Asia and the UAE. He believes in using art and culture to build bridges.