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Kissinger and Lord in China:  A How-To Guide for Secret Negotiations

At the height of the Cold War, with the death toll mounting in Vietnam and the split between the USSR and China becoming more and more evident, it became clear to the Nixon Administration that ending the war in Vietnam and opening relations with China could be a two-front victory. However, because of the sensitive nature of negotiating with the United States’ ideological enemies, negotiations had to remain secret. This was particularly difficult with China, given that Washington had no established contact with Beijing.

Like something out of James Bond, Henry Kissinger (who served as National Security Advisor from 1969-1975 and Secretary of State from 1973-1977) and his Special Assistant, Winston Lord, used secret flights and body doubles to pull off the talks with both the Chinese and North Vietnamese. The talks on China were by far the more successful, as they led to President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972, which reopened ties with the Communist country for the first time since 1949. 

Winston Lord was one of Kissinger’s closest confidantes and accompanied him to both the Paris negotiations and to China. He describes the exhausting logistical challenges of undertaking trans-Atlantic trips to negotiate in Paris and the difficulty of juggling three different agendas while on a trip to Pakistan that served as cover for a secret overnight rendezvous with the Chinese that led to Nixon’s trip in 1971. Ambassador Lord was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Nancy Bernkopf Tucker beginning in April 1998.

Read an abbreviated version of this Moment on Huffington Post. Ambassador Lord’s account of Nixon’s trip to China and how his phones were bugged during Watergate. You can read about the Blood Telegram criticizing U.S. policy in Pakistan, which Kissinger and Nixon ignored as they pushed for a channel to China.  Read other Moments on China.


“We had no way of communicating directly with the Chinese”

LORD:  [President Richard] Nixon sent [National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger a memo on February 1, 1969, approximately one week after his inauguration as President. I can’t reconstruct this memo verbatim, but basically he instructed Kissinger to find a way to get in touch with the Chinese. This was one of the earliest instructions that Kissinger got from Nixon.

Of course, Kissinger was all in favor of doing this. We had the following challenge, among a lot of other challenges. You have to remember that we had had 20 years of mutual hostility and just about total isolation from China. We had no way of communicating directly with the Chinese.

First, in terms of communications, the only way to get in touch with the Chinese was through third parties….There were various channels that Nixon and Kissinger tried to use to get word to the Chinese. In a general sense, they were looking for a new beginning. One involved using [former French President Charles] de Gaulle and the French, another was Romania, and we finally, of course, settled on Pakistan.

So we began with indirect negotiations and communications. These warmed up, and we’ll come back to that later on. We finally settled, as I say, on the Pakistani channel. Pakistan had the advantage of being a friend to both sides. There was no danger of Russian involvement, as we might have had if we had used Romania.

As we got into May and June 1971 and with messages transmitted through the Pakistanis we settled on the dates, places, and everything else. I know that we had to bring our Ambassador to Pakistan, [Joseph S.] Farland, into the preparations, and the CIA, about how we would do this. Farland came to the U.S., I believe California, for consultations. We got some special briefcases from the CIA with locks on them, and we began to get ready for the Kissinger trip to China.

Together with [Senior Staff Member for the Far East of the National Security Council John H.] Holdridge, I began feeding Kissinger with lots of briefing material, some of which we would get from the bureaucracy in innocent ways and other materials which we produced ourselves. Kissinger chose three people to go to China with him. Myself, as a sort of global sidekick, Holdridge as the Asia and China expert, and [NSC Staff Member] Dick Smyser, as the Vietnam expert. The Vietnam issue would be a significant factor in the discussions in China. Those were the four, including Kissinger himself, whom he chose to go into China, as well as two Secret Service agents.

Now, as you recall, there was a publicly announced trip that Kissinger took. It included Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. Then Kissinger was supposed to return to Washington through Paris. That was the public itinerary. However, the game plan was to go off secretly to Beijing from Pakistan and by pleading illness and the need to go to a Pakistani hill station to spend a couple of days allegedly recuperating while, in fact, Kissinger was secretly going into China.

Ironically, Kissinger came down with a real stomach-ache in India, and so he actually was sick in advance of this secret trip. He covered this up as much as possible, because he wanted to save his real illness until he arrived in Pakistan. I should point out that for the public trip the key U.S. Air Force Special Missions aircraft were taken up for one reason or another. We had a rather poor aircraft. It had no windows and was quite noisy, as I recall.

I had the rather incredible job of juggling three types of briefing memos and schedules. There were three groups of people on this flight. In one group were Kissinger, Holdridge, Smyser, and myself, who not only knew that we were going into China but also were privy to the talking points, the strategy, and all of the stuff that we needed to get ready. Not to mention the logistic details on when we would sneak out of Pakistan and how we would do it. This was all on a tightly constricted aircraft, I might add, on which we were going around to these other places. So I would have to keep those briefing memos up to date, including the logistics, the schedule, and the substance.

There was the constant harassment by Kissinger of keeping them up to date and in not too gentle a fashion. I had to make sure that only Kissinger, Smyser, and Holdridge would see certain briefing books. I’m talking about people sitting right next to each other on the plane, some of whom knew of the secret trip to China and some of whom did not.

Then there was another group. I know that it included Hal Saunders, NSC Specialist for Near Eastern Affairs, who was along because we were visiting India and Pakistan. People in this group knew that we were going into China, because they had to help cover for us. However, they had no need to know what our strategy and talking points were with the Chinese. So Hal and a couple of others had another series of briefing books. These were sanitized or excerpted copies of the other memos.

There was the third group of people who didn’t even know that we were going to China. They had to get a completely different set of logistics and non-substantive memos, as well as substantive papers on matters with which they were concerned.

“There was a Secret Service agent in a car, slumped over, who played Kissinger”

We went publicly to Pakistan. There was a public banquet the first night. We went back to the government guest house. We packed and, at about 3:00 a.m. we were driven to the Islamabad airport by the Pakistani Foreign Minister I believe — Sultan Khan. It seems that they’re all named Khan. I’ve seen him since. We went to President Yahya Khan’s plane. Apparently, there was one reporter from some news service who thought he saw us and reported this to his editor. The editor said that the reporter was crazy and spiked the story.

On that morning the story was put out that Kissinger was not feeling well and, at the invitation of the Pakistanis, he was going up to a hill station [mountain resort] to recuperate for a day.

There was a Secret Service agent in a car, slumped over. It wasn’t supposed to be an impersonation but he played Kissinger up to the hill station and, I believe, Hal Saunders was with him. So there was a motorcade going up to the hill station. All of this was done fairly early in the morning so that there were no journalists around.

Arrangements were to be made for a Pakistani doctor to attend to Kissinger at the hill station. This doesn’t make much sense to me but the way I heard this story, the Pakistanis asked one doctor: “Do you know what Henry Kissinger looks like?”

He said: “Yes.” They said: “We’re sorry, but you’re the wrong man.” So they get another one.

In addition, a couple of Pakistani cabinet ministers who were in on this charade went up to the hill station as if they were paying a call on Kissinger. Meanwhile, of course, we were in China.

At the end of that day the Pakistanis put out a communiqué saying that Kissinger still didn’t feel very well and was going to stay another day at the hill station. This meant that our whole public schedule in Islamabad had to be slipped because we were supposed to leave Pakistan for Paris on the following day. So the rest of the schedule had to be slipped a day. So that was the cover on that front. I don’t how many people besides Hal Saunders knew about this, but he and Ambassador Farland were the key men in this respect.

We took off for China and we left about 4:00 a.m. Smyser, Holdridge, Kissinger, and I, plus two Secret Service agents, named Reedy and McLeod, arrived at the airport in Islamabad. Reedy was the senior Secret Service agent, and he knew where we were going as we went to the airport. The other Secret Service agent had no idea.

We boarded the plane and found four Chinese already seated there. I may be exaggerating this in retrospect but I believe that McLeod went to draw his pistol, because he was so surprised to see these Chinese on the airplane. One of the four Chinese in the plane was Zhang Wen-jin, an Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of American affairs and a key negotiator with us, just below the Foreign Minister level.

Dick Smyser and I were sitting ahead of Kissinger in the back of the plane. The air crew, of course, was composed of Pakistani cabin attendants and Pakistani pilots, navigators, and flight engineers. No American official had been in China since 1949, so we would be the first American officials to visit China in 22 years.

By my good fortune Smyser was called to the back of the plane by Kissinger for consultations just before we got to the border between China and Pakistan. All of the others, in addition to Smyser but not including me, were in the back of the plane with Kissinger. So, as we crossed the border, I was in the front of the plane. So I’ve said ever since then, in case the question should ever come up, that I was the first American official to visit China since 1949! I’ve said, on some occasions, that I deliberately raced to the front of the plane to do that, but that’s slightly gilding the lily.

Obviously, there was a great sense of drama. As the sun came up, we were passing K-2, the second highest mountain in the world. It was right outside our window, with the sun on it. Remember, we were in a Pakistani plane with the usual windows. We had left the nearly windowless KC-135 jet back at Islamabad. There was a sense of drama that we were going to the most populous country in the world, after 22 years and there were all of the geopolitical implications of that.

“Kissinger and I and the others walked around outside, because we knew that we were being bugged”

We landed at the military side of the airport outside of Beijing….We entered limousines with curtains drawn, so people couldn’t see into them. Then we drove into Beijing through Tiananmen Square and past the Great Hall of the People to a place called Dayoutai, which is the guest house compound for very important visitors.

We were then secretly ensconced there. We had a banquet that night, sitting around with Zhou En-lai. We had discussions with him which, according to Kissinger’s book, lasted for 17 hours. We were in China for a total of 49 hours.

We wanted to make it look essentially that the Chinese wanted President Nixon to come to China. The Chinese essentially wanted to make it look as if Nixon wanted to come to China and that the Chinese were gracious enough to invite him. So we went through our first, agonizing process of negotiation on that issue. At one point we broke off the negotiation, not in a huff, but just recognizing that we were at an impasse. We thought that the Chinese were coming back to the negotiations within a couple of hours.

Kissinger and I and the others walked around outside, because we knew that we were being bugged, and we couldn’t discuss strategy and tactics unless we walked outside. Probably the trees were bugged, too. Who knows? I remember that we waited for hours and hours. The Chinese were probably trying to keep us off balance and were probably working out their own position.

Finally, the Chinese came back, and we resumed the discussion and worked this issue out. I forget the exact language used in the brief communiqué which was made public. The formulation used went something like this: “Knowing of President Nixon’s interest in visiting China…” And in fact he had expressed an interest in visiting China in general. The formulation went on that the Chinese had invited him. So it wasn’t as if the Chinese wanted Nixon to come to China and were going out of their way. They used the formulation that they invited him because they had heard about his interest in visiting China. On the other hand, Nixon wasn’t begging to go to China. So it was a fair compromise.

The Chinese closed off the Forbidden City of Beijing to tourists so that we could visit it privately and on our own. It was a very hot, mid-July day. I was carrying either one or two of these very heavy briefcases. We had to take them everywhere with us. We didn’t dare leave them anywhere for security reasons. Of course, it was dramatic to see the Forbidden City all by ourselves. It was also very hot, carrying those damned briefcases around.

When we finished drafting the communiqué, we got back on the plane and returned to Pakistan. We successfully re-inserted ourselves in the charade which had been worked out in Islamabad. We then went on to Paris the next day.

It so happens, and we’ll get back to this, that while we were publicly in Paris, we secretly snuck off and met with the Vietnamese communists. Indeed, this was one of the more forthcoming meetings with them. Afterwards Kissinger and I thought, somewhat naively, that we had pulled off two, historic encounters in one trip:  the opening toward China and moving toward settling the Vietnam War.

Obviously, we were very excited when we got back to Washington. I recall the awkwardness, and I did feel bad about that, when we were flying out from Washington to meet with President Nixon at San Clemente, California, a day or two before the announcement about the Nixon trip, and I was sitting on the plane with U. Alexis Johnson, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. He didn’t know anything about the trip which we had made to China.

To be flying out with him, knowing that in the next two days there was going to be an announcement on China, and he didn’t even know about it, left me feeling very awkward indeed. I still remember that.

We got out to San Clemente and worked on Nixon’s announcement. Nixon’s inclination, and I think that he was entirely right, was to keep his remarks very short. It was so dramatic that he didn’t need to elaborate. He could get away with a few sentences or a few paragraphs. The eventual announcement was only a few hundred words long.

Nixon announced in advance that he would be making a statement. Most of the press speculated that it was going to be on Vietnam, as they figured that almost anything would be on Vietnam. None of them knew that it was going to be on China. So we had some tense moments during the 24 hours or 48 hours out in San Clemente, putting together this announcement and, also, the game plan for informing, rather belatedly, countries around the world, not to mention our own government.

We did this at the last minute. So that was a dramatic time. Then, of course, Nixon went on TV and made the announcement. Everyone knows what a dramatic impact it had.

“People didn’t even know that there were secret negotiations going on”

Along with the first, secret trip to China…the secret trips to Paris to negotiate with the Vietnamese communists and try to negotiate an end to the anguish of this war were clearly dramatic highlights in my experience. There were the national interest and the James Bond aspects of these contacts, the secrecy and the high level of the negotiations, as well as the emotional aspects involved of trying to end a long and bloody war with all the domestic trauma as well.

In 1970 and 1971, and in January 1972, these meetings were secret and never announced. People didn’t even know that there were secret negotiations going on — not only the public but also other agencies. Meanwhile, there were sterile public talks with the North Vietnamese in Paris that were essentially propaganda exchanges.

In January 1972, President Nixon made a major speech in which he revealed that secret negotiations were going on with the Vietnamese communists. After that, we didn’t announce in advance that we were going to meet with the Vietnamese communists, because we didn’t want to have people locking themselves into public positions and raising expectations.

However, once we had announced in January 1972, that a secret channel was being used, from then on immediately after meetings, we made an announcement that we had met again with the Vietnamese communists and made some general statement about making some progress — or the lack of it.

I went to Paris with Kissinger to negotiate with the Vietnamese communists. Generally, the negotiating team consisted of Kissinger, myself, a Vietnam expert (Dick Smyser, in 1970-1971, and John Negroponte in 1971-1972), plus, at times, Peter Rodman, who was also on Kissinger’s staff. Usually, that was about it.

The other person who participated from the American side was Major General Vernon Walters (pictured with General Eisenhower), who had a distinguished career later in many other respects, including that of Ambassador to the UN and Ambassador to Germany. He was there as an interpreter, in the sense that in the early going we would present our views in English, Walters would translate them into French, and the North Vietnamese would translate the French into Vietnamese.

We finally reached the point where we had an American interpreter (David Engle) who could translate our views directly into Vietnamese. This saved some time and avoided some of the possibilities of inaccuracies resulting from trilateral language use (English to French to Vietnamese and vice versa).

[The South Vietnamese] were not there. We would keep them informed afterwards, through a secret channel through Ellsworth Bunker, our Ambassador to Vietnam in Saigon. This involved double encoding, using a back channel from the White House to Saigon, but only Ambassador Bunker, one Special Assistant, and one communicator knew about it. It was very carefully encrypted and handled on a very close-hold basis. Ambassador Bunker would report to South Vietnamese President Thieu, also on a close-hold basis, on what had happened.

These were general reports. In fact, we did not go into a lot of detail, but it was enough to keep the South Vietnamese generally posted on what was going on. So those were the only people who were aware of these contacts. Our negotiators in Paris who were handling the public sessions were not aware of the secret talks.

“When a secret negotiation was set up, I would leave the NSC late on a Friday evening, after my usual 80- to 100-hour work week”

For the secret negotiations I would usually leave my NSC office on Friday evening. Without exception, I believe, these sessions took place on weekends and/or public holidays. For example, July 4, Labor Day, and so forth. Otherwise, we handled them on Saturdays and Sundays, that is, the regular weekends.

The obvious point was that, since these sessions were secret, we didn’t want people wondering where Kissinger was. There would obviously be less notice of his absence over a weekend than in the middle of the week. Al Haig would always cover for Kissinger, saying that he couldn’t bother Henry with inquiries during the weekend. So the secret negotiations were always held on the weekend. Only the President, Al Haig (pictured), the Deputy Security Adviser; H. R. Haldemann, the President’s Chief of Staff, and a few others on the NSC would know about Kissinger’s absence.

So when a secret negotiation was set up, I would leave the NSC office late on a Friday evening, after my usual 80- to 100-hour work week, say goodbye to my colleagues, in effect making the case that I wasn’t coming into work the next day for I always came in to work on Saturdays. I would then go home.

Early on Saturday morning, a White House car would come to my house in Washington, pick me up, and take me to Andrews Air Force Base, where one of the U.S. Air Force Special Mission aircraft would be waiting…. Kissinger, Dick Smyser or later John Negroponte, and sometimes Peter Rodman (latter stages) would also be there. (You can also read Philip Habib’s account of the secret negotiations.)

We would get on the plane…. On the way over to Paris we continued to discuss the agenda. Keep in mind that I had already put in an 80- to 100-hour week at the NSC and helped to prepare the briefing books with Dick Smyser or John Negroponte. Kissinger always asked for revisions to these briefing books during the week.…Kissinger would always work on this before he left but would also rework these papers on the way. So we would work all the way over to Paris on the plane.

We would fly into an airfield in central France. It was in the middle of France, not in the Paris area. First, flying into Paris would be too obvious. Secondly, the cover for these flights was that they were training flights for the Air Force. We probably landed at a French military air base for that reason.

We would get out of Air Force Two, walk a few steps, and transfer to a smaller French military jet. We would be met at that point by General Walters, who was the Military Attaché in the Embassy in Paris. He was the go between us and the French Government for these flights. He would make arrangements with a man named Jobert, who was a Special Assistant to French President Pompidou, and later Foreign Minister. The French military jet that we used was, in fact, one of president Pompidou’s aircraft. So we would get into the French president’s executive jet with General Walters and fly into a French airport in the Paris area.

“We had codenames…”

On arrival in Paris we got into Walters’ car, which was a rental car, not his own car with diplomatic license plates. We drove to his apartment, where we spent the rest of the night. We had code names, because sometimes Walters’ French cleaning woman would come in. Luckily, she didn’t recognize Kissinger in the morning when we would get up. I forget what his code name was. I had some Jewish code name. I believe it was Lowenstein, for I reasons I can’t recall.

We would arrive at General Walters’ apartment. I don’t remember the exact time, but there was a time difference; we had left Washington early on a Saturday morning. There is a six-hour time difference between Washington and Paris. By the time we got to Walters’ apartment, it would be close to midnight, Paris time, so we would pretty much have to go to bed.

With the six-hour time difference, by then it was late afternoon, Washington time, on Saturday, so we would go to bed, I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t dare take a sleeping pill. I would usually lie awake and then get to sleep an hour or two before the alarm would go off. We would have to get up at 7:00 a.m., Paris time, on the Sunday. That was about 1:00 a.m. Washington time, or very early on Sunday morning, so it was murder to get up then.

We would then drive to a safe house in one of the suburbs of Paris. The North Vietnamese would be there, waiting for us. We would then have meetings, for never less than three or four hours and sometimes as much as ten hours, during which Smyser and I, and later on, Negroponte, would have to take verbatim notes. We didn’t have a secretary with us. We should have taken a stenographer, and I think that we did for some of the later meetings. We also had some help from Peter Rodman when he was on the later trips. (Peter Rodman and John Negroponte en route to Paris, January 1973. White House Photo)

So we took verbatim notes. As I mentioned previously, Kissinger really wanted verbatim notes, including his jokes and everything else. Luckily, the translations, even if just from English to Vietnamese and vice versa, gave us some time to catch up in keeping the verbatim notes.

Then, when we finished, we would drive back to the Paris airport, get into the French President’s plane, fly to the air base in central France, pick up Air Force Two, and fly back to Washington. On the way back we worked the entire time, first writing a memo for President Nixon, reporting what had happened, and, perhaps, suggesting where do we go from here. Then we would begin to transcribe our verbatim notes on the meeting.

We would get back to Andrews Air Force Base between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m., Washington time, on Sunday. Of course, by now it was early Monday morning, Paris time. So I would go home and come into the NSC office on Monday morning, Washington time. By then I was absolutely exhausted. Ostensibly, I not only had not worked throughout the weekend but had had a nice, 48-hour break! I somehow had to look bright and lively as someone would who had had a free weekend off.

These trips almost always messed up weekends and holidays, although a couple of times we had secret talks as part of public trips elsewhere. Once we went to London for other reasons, and we flew across the English Channel, secretly, to Paris to negotiate with the Vietnamese. Then we flew back to London. On another occasion, in July 1971, we were in Paris on our way back from a secret trip to China. Not only did the world not know about our secret trip to China, but, while we were publicly in Paris, we had secret negotiations again with the North Vietnamese.