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Digital National Security Archive (DNSA): The Kissinger Telephone Conversations: A Verbatim Record of U.S. Diplomacy, 1969-1977

About this Collection

Comprising over 15,500 telcons, this collection documents Kissinger's conversations with top officials in the Nixon and Ford administrations, including the president, Secretaries of Defense Laird, Richardson, and Schlesinger, Secretary of State Rogers, and a host of other senior officials, as well as noted journalists, ambassadors, and business leaders close to the White House. Topics range widely, including détente with Moscow, the Vietnam War (negotiations and military action, including the war's end), the Jordanian crisis (1970), rapprochement with China, the Middle East negotiations, U.S.- European relations, U.S-Japan relations, the Cyprus crisis, and the unfolding Watergate crisis.

Research Value of the Collection

Until the late 1990s, Henry Kissinger's enormous memoirs, White House Years (1979) andYears of Upheaval (1982) were the only significant "primary sources" on U.S. diplomacy during the Nixon administration. Drawing on his personal control of a huge collection at the Library of Congress, Kissinger's memoirs quoted numerous but selective excerpts to describe his role in Nixon and Ford's decisions on the global policy issues of the day--war, peace, and crises; relations with key allies; and relations with the U.S.'s Communist adversaries. His accounts of détente, the Vietnam War negotiations, the rapprochement with China, and the October War, among other events, dominated the historiography of the period. Seymour Hersh's interview-based The Price of Power (1983) remains an impressive alternative to White House Years, but as long as Kissinger had an effective monopoly on the documents, researchers had to depend on his memoirs. This changed during the late 1990s, as important collections opened up in State Department records and the Nixon Presidential Materials Project at the National Archives. Over the following few years even more documentation became available.

Along with the National Security Archive's earlier publication of Kissinger memcons, this collection enables researchers to go beyond memoir literature and prepare more authoritative accounts of developments during the Nixon and Ford administrations. While Kissinger's insights and recollections about the events in which he participated will remain important, researchers can use the new documents to determine the extent to which his memoirs elide or obscure the events in question. The research possibilities, however, are far more interesting than critiquing Kissinger. In light of his position at the top of the policy hill and the variety of issues that concerned him, an extensive collection of his telcons constitutes a critically important record of the history of international relations from 1969 to 1977. While coverage of some areas is broader and deeper than others, these materials are essential for research on such topics as:

  • the wars in Indochina: not only Vietnam, but also Laos and Cambodia, and the White House's managerial role in United States military operations in these countries
  • U.S. (especially Kissinger's) interactions with the North Vietnamese, the Chinese, and the Soviets in trying to bring conflicts in Indochina to an end
  • the final stages of the Indochina wars, including U.S. reactions to the collapse of the client regime in Saigon and the rise of the Cambodian Khmer Rouge
  • U.S.-Soviet détente and Kissinger's conduct of "back channel" diplomacy with the Soviet leadership
  • U.S.-China rapprochement, including initial White House efforts to communicate with Beijing; Kissinger's "secret trip" to China, July 1971; and subsequent high-level meetings with Chinese officials, including visits by presidents Nixon and Ford in 1972 and 1975, respectively
  • developments in South Asia, including the 1971 India-Pakistan war and the Nixon/Kissinger tilt toward Pakistan during that crisis
  • the Middle East, including U.S. conduct during the 1973 October War and Kissinger's role as shuttle diplomat during 1974-1975
  • revolutions in Portugal and its colonies and U.S. policy toward the ensuing political crisis in Portugal and the civil war in Angola
  • the negotiations to end minority white rule in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe
  • U.S.-European relations, including policy coordination and consultations on a variety of "hot spots" and "hot issues," such as the rise of Euro-Communism
  • the 1974 Cyprus crisis and U.S. relations with Greece and Turkey
  • international economic, energy and raw materials policies
  • relations between the mass media and policymakers

The extensive interaction between Kissinger and his high-level interlocutors make the telcons a critically important source not only for the study of U.S. diplomatic and military history but also for other fields of history and the social sciences, notably presidential decision-making.

A noteworthy feature of the documents is that they are, to the extent that it was possible at the time, literally verbatim records of Kissinger's telephone conversations. Kissinger was not the first senior U.S. official to have records prepared of such conversations, but he may have taken the practice further than anyone else, in part because he did so much business on the telephone. In this way, he could keep track of Nixon's (or Ford's) wishes, follow up on decisions, and preserve a record of what he told journalists, among other considerations. (Very likely, he also made recording of the telcons routine in order to aid in the eventual preparation of his memoirs.) The detailed nature of the telcons increases their value; they provide insights into Kissinger's conduct of diplomacy and also that of the presidents, diplomats, and officials with whom he spoke.

Nixon Resignation and new Ford Administration