Eleven members of the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics were murdered by people belonging to the Black September organization, or killed in a failed rescue attempt, on September 5, 1972. The Israeli reaction has already fueled scores of articles, books and recently Steven Spielberg's film "Munich" as well. One angle of the story remains vague: the politics and diplomacy in the wake of the terror attack.
Now the missing information has been supplied, thanks to the declassification last summer of secret documents from U.S. President Richard Nixon's administration. Some verbatim excerpts from these documents provide a rare lesson in personal and international relations, with the help of an American team then headed by President Nixon, Secretary of State William Rogers, his rival - and ultimately successor - National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, and Kissinger's deputy, General Alexander Haig.
No Hollywood producer would hire a screenwriter who dared imagine dialogue of the sort that was recorded for posterity at the White House, between the fear-ridden and crude-talking Nixon, and the obsequious and manipulative Kissinger, using the same recording system that toppled Nixon two years later. Two-and-a-half months after the burglary of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate building, two months before the elections, Nixon had a large lead over Democratic candidate George McGovern, but Nixon was not certain of his victory. The day after the Munich event, what worried him most were the possible reactions: a war of vengeance started by Israel and Jewish voters being pushed into the arms of their traditional patron, the Democratic Party.
The president's most important Jewish supporter in Washington was Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin.
'They have got to hit somebody'
September 5, 10:35 P.M. Haig reports to Nixon that all the hostages have been killed. "The Israelis are going to react," he says.
Nixon: "Who are they going to hit though?"
Haig: "Lebanon, though they will find out where based [sic]."
Nixon: "They are capable of it. They have got to hit somebody, don't you think?"
Ten minutes later, Nixon says to Haig: "Hell, what do we care about Lebanon. Think we have to be awfully tough. I want you to run that by a couple of people. Any nation that harbors or gives sanctuary to these international outlaws - we will cut off all economic support. Obviously Lebanon. Jordan's another. Don't know who else we have relations with."
Haig: "We may have some Chinese problem on this."
Nixon: "Screw the Chinese on this one. Be very tough."
At 10:55, Haig phones Rogers and tells him that Nixon plans to call a meeting at 8:30 A.M. the next day. "He has asked you to come over and sit down and see where to go on this. He's threatened to break relations with nations that harbor or give sanctuary to these guerrillas."
Rogers: "He can't do that, especially when we don't know which nations. What we are trying to do tonight, we are trying to get some protection against a JDL [Jewish Defense League] blowup."
Haig: "He always wants to do something. We have to be careful not to do something he will regret."
Five minutes later, Nixon tells Haig over the phone: "I might consider showing our position on this by flying to the Israelis' funeral. Tell them that I am here at the White House getting reports as they come in, and that I am saddened and shocked by this terrible incident and we will comment in the morning."
At 11:25 P.M. Rogers and Haig talk on the telephone. Rogers suggests that Nixon issue an executive order for a day of mourning in Washington with flags at half-mast.
'I talked to Rabin'
September 6, 1972. Morning. Nixon and Kissinger, some of the time in conversation with Rogers and Haig, some of the time with White House Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Kissinger's rival in ingratiating himself with Nixon:
Kissinger: "Now, let me say a word about the Israeli situation, Mr. President, because I feel very, very strongly about it. I look at it the way we would look at it if eight Pakistanis killed eight Indians. I think you have been a statesman ... And I don't think we should throw it away in cheap shots. And this thing could easily turn now. My great fear is, World War I started because the Austrians had been frustrated for 15 years, had the archduke assassinated; the Germans and the whole world was outraged. And they thought that for once they would have a free shot, and they were going to settle the Serbian problem once and for all."
Nixon: "The Austrians thought so?"
Kissinger: "I beg your pardon?"
Nixon: "The Austrians thought so?"
Kissinger: "The Austrians thought. Now, my worry is that if we say to the Israelis too much that the ..."
Nixon: "I talked to Rabin last night. He sure hasn't talked that way."
Kissinger: "Well I would really like to talk to Rabin in a formal way today when he comes back."
Nixon: "The thing that I would emphasize to Rabin, I hadn't thought on this, which would be a very good test for the Israelis - I don't know whether they are able to do it or not. Mrs. Meir, and she's the only one that can do it, should call upon the International Olympic Committee to go forward with those games."
Kissinger: "I agree with you."
Nixon: "But the other reason is she can say, 'Well that's what my boys would have wanted.' It will make them look good rather than ... You see, the trouble with the Jews is that they've always played these things in terms of outrage. You've got the Jewish Defense League raising hell and saying we ought to kill every Arab diplomat. What we have to do is enough here, that we're showing an interest. It's my thought that the best thing here is to let Rogers take the lead in the damn thing - rather than me ... We've got to show we care on this one because, you were in this country, well I guess you weren't, you don't really know, Henry, what the Jewish community will do on this. It's going to be the goddamnedist thing you've ever saw. Did you see both papers this morning?"
Nixon: "And you're absolutely right that that can stir it all up into something very, very ... so we've got to show the greatest understanding and sympathy and the rest so that they don't get into the hands of the extremists."
Kissinger: "Mr. President, Haig and I have been on the phone half the night with the Israelis, who wanted us to do the opposite of what you suggested, which is the right thing. They wanted us to appeal to the International Olympic Committee to cancel it [the games]."
Nixon: "They're crazy. But they want to look good, don't they? ... You see, that's exactly ... the reason Mrs. Meir should do it. She's the only one that can. Is that what the terrorists want? They want to make it appear that they've stopped the games. It's like these assholes that tried to stop us running the government."
Kissinger: "I will talk to Rabin because they don't trust Rogers, but they do trust me. But I'll talk to him quietly."
Nixon: "What does Rogers think we should do?"
Kissinger: "Well, Rogers thinks we should declare a national day of mourning. I'm against even that. It's not our day of mourning, Mr. President. It's easy enough now to do a number of grandstanding ... And also, God I am Jewish. I've had 13 members of my family killed. So I can't be insensitive to this. But I think you have to think also of the anti-Semitic woes in this country. If we let our policy be run by the Jewish community ..."
Nixon: "By the radical Jewish community ..."
Kissinger: "By the radical Jewish community and declare a national ..."
Nixon: "You understand what I was talking to Haig about last night was gestures. Let's do some things here. But nothing that would make the Germans too mad and so forth ..."
Kissinger: "What I would favor, Mr. President, is to go to the UN ..."
Kissinger: "Not you. Not physically. To have the United States to go to the UN and see whether we can get some international rules on harboring guerrillas and so forth."
Nixon: "Now, I've called Rabin. I've asked him to call me this morning to get me a report. You know they have the best intelligence. You know he was so good last night ... He says I haven't got all the information."
Kissinger: "I'm really concerned that it's easy enough now there's a lot of emotion for it, but if they take Beirut, which they could, they'll do something."
Nixon: "They mustn't do that ... They can't start a war over this. You think they might?"
Kissinger: "I think they might. They're in the best position they've ever been in. No Russians there. We've got an election campaign. Now I got a promise out of Golda Meir two months ago when you asked me to that they wouldn't take military action. But this is an enormous provocation. And they are emotional. And I don't want them to think that they've got you in their hip pocket."
Nixon: "Well let me say, you have no problems with Rabin. The way he's talking, he's very rational."
Kissinger: "Rabin is the sanest guy. But they ..."
Nixon: "But he has others that are not."
Kissinger: "They have their own election campaign coming up next spring."
Nixon: "Well, you don't start a war over anything like this."
The Jewish swimmer
The continuation of the conversation, according to a memorandum from Haig:
"The president stated that the United States should not agree to drop out of the Olympics and that Israel should remain consistent with the position it announced earlier to see the games through.
"Secretary Rogers stated that all had agreed on this stand the day before since it would be a terrible slap at the Germans to precipitously withdraw. It appeared that the Germans were in deep difficulty already for their handling of the situation at the NATO air base.
"Rogers said: 'Perhaps we should send some of our athletes such as the U.S. swimmer who is of Jewish descent [Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz].' Dr. Kissinger stated that no resolution would be likely to pass. The question is how to posture ourselves. The resolution should talk about rules of conduct of those who sponsor radicals who operate across international borders. It is probable that the Peoples' Republic of China would veto ...
"Rogers stated that it would be impossible to get any kind of action. Kissinger stated that this was true, but it would serve as a deterrent to Israeli action ... Rogers stated that another advantage of the tragedy was that it will again underline the need for an overall settlement.
"The president commented that it was ironic that the German government found itself in the position of protecting Israeli athletes ... The president stated that he did not think the flag at half-mast was a good idea. Kissinger agreed. Rogers said that we would just do this in public buildings. The president stated maybe just the White House."
After Rogers and Haig leave the Oval Office, the conversation between Nixon and Kissinger continues:
Nixon: "I want to get him [Rogers] off of the other thing. As you know, he wants to have a long talk with me this morning, and [unclear] ... I don't want to get into the Russian thing, so let him do this thing."
Kissinger: "Oh, no, no ..."
Nixon: "[Unclear] Let him be the lead horse."
Kissinger: "Oh, God. The only thing I want - the Israelis distrust him so much they wouldn't do a thing without checking with us anyway ... I don't think he should go to Tel Aviv for the funeral even if he should engineer an invitation."
Nixon: "Bill? Oh, shit no."
Kissinger: "Yeah, but they might want him. That might give them some visible American support, and that would embroil us with the Arabs."
Nixon: "Listen, let me tell you something. My view - this incident blows any chance at [a peace agreement]."
Kissinger: "You are 100 percent right."
Nixon: "But the point is, let's let Bill be out in front. Your idea of going to the UN, he finally got the point ... And it will be great for him and it will be great for us." Kissinger: "Above all, it will be good for you, Mr. President ... Because if he goes up to the UN, he will be doing something concrete. Of course, nothing will come out. Nothing ever comes out. But we could make a lot of statesman-like speeches about curbing terrorism."
Nixon instructs Kissinger to get Rabin on the phone, and says: "Would you tell him that ... let me put it this way: Tell him, 'Look, Mr. Ambassador, the president wants to get Rogers on the right side of this issue.' And second, tell him it will be good to put the goddamn UN on the spot. We want to put them on the spot on this issue, because we think we got them by the balls here. For him to urge Rogers to go to the UN. Would you tell him the president would like for him to do that? ...
"Also, tell Rabin that I consider it very statesmanlike, Mrs. Meir's statement. Would he please convey that to her. Particularly with regard to going forward with the games. That I had independently reached that conclusion, but did not want, of course, to suggest it. But I think that's exactly the kind of thing that will make tremendous points in the world by not trying to knock off the games. That's what the athletes would have wanted. Third point is that now that they're in this good position, don't blow it. Tell him, 'Don't blow it.' [Unclear] You've got to remember that the president is their friend. Now we've got some world opinion for them. But don't ... these things can turn very fast."
Kissinger: "You're right."
Nixon: "I don't want them to go conquer Beirut. I don't mind them going in and knocking off a few camps, but even that's bad right now."
Kissinger: "I think ..."
Nixon: "They would be very well to be the injured, play the injured martyr."
Kissinger: "But if we can get to the UN within the next 24 hours. Now this statement here will hold us for 24 hours."
Nixon: "What statement?"
Kissinger: "Well, where we say we've consulted with other governments. Frankly, I wouldn't consult because if you do it, they'll say no. And if we go ..."
Nixon: "All right." (Turns to Bob Haldeman.) "You see, Bob, of course nobody understands what the president is trying to do here. I'm trying to get Bill doing something! As I told you last night on the phone, Bob, rather than farting around whether Henry sees [British Prime Minister Edward] Heath, or [West German Chancellor Willy] Brandt, or some other. Now Brandt may pose a problem at this point."
Haldeman: "The UN thing is an ideal thing."
Nixon: "Let's talk a little about lowering the flag. What I'm concerned about is that you can be sure as hell that [New York City Mayor John] Lindsay [a former Nixon rival in the race for the Republican nomination] is going to lower the flag, Congress is going to call for lowering the flag ... Here's the point. [Unclear] Why don't you order the flag when some Irish nationalists get killed?"
Kissinger: "That's right. What will Irishmen say if you didn't lower it when the school children got killed in Belfast ..."
Nixon: "That's right. It really hits the point that the flag ought to be low all the time."
Haldeman: "You didn't lower it when the guys [from the Japanese Red Army, which launched a terror attack on Lod Airport in May 1972] went in the airport and shot up the people."
Nixon: "Well, it's the Olympics. The Olympics, they're international and all that business. Suppose, for example, somebody went in and machine-gunned the UN and killed six Arabs there."
Kissinger: "My instinct is - sure, right now you'll get a lot of indignation. But whether more people won't feel that this is the president of all the people ... "
Nixon: "Going too far?"
Kissinger: "But Bob would have a better judgment than I."
Nixon: "Yeah. Now the idea of the church thing appeals to me if I do it my way. My way would be I call upon all Americans to go to church and a moment of silence. But I think, in my way, I quietly slip out of this damn door ..."
Kissinger: "That doesn't bother me. "
Nixon: "... and pick maybe that little church across the way without ... any notice of it. I just walk round, sit in the church for five minutes and walk out. Get my point? That's my moment of silence."
Kissinger: "That I think, that has meaning. That has human compassion. You show where you stand, but you don't involve the presidency of the United States in an official act."
Setback for the Arab cause
The Rogers-Rabin conversation, from a telegram from the Department of State to the U.S. Embassy in Israel (GOI is bureaucratic jargon for "government of Israel" and USG is "United States government"):
"Rabin then turned to question of cancelation of Olympic Games. He described GOI position carefully: Israeli view in view of what had happened at Olympic Games was that games should not continue. GOI did not want to turn and present request to others to withdraw from Olympic Games, but if U.S. team would have cut its presence there, Israel would have welcomed this. Therefore, this was way Israel was putting it officially. All other formulations of Israeli position on this matter USG might have heard were irrelevant ... What Rabin was expressing was GOI feeling rather than firm operational request. Secretary [Rogers] commented on idiotic and insane nature of atrocity at Munich. Games had been going so well and now one result was that Arab cause in eyes of world had suffered setback. Perhaps one day those who died would be considered martyrs in cause of peace.
"Rabin said notion he sensed in some media comment was that Munich incident would stimulate efforts for peace. Israel believed there was need for peace, but assumption that atrocities should bring new political initiatives only plays into hand of those who commit atrocities .... Rabin said that feeling in Israel was if there were groups like this in Arab world, who could guarantee to Israel once there was political statement, that Israel would not be in worse position? At present Arab options were limited because of military positions Israel held, but imagine if there were terrorist incidents like this after an interim agreement. What would happen?
"Secretary [Rogers] asked if Rabin knew where terrorists had been based. Rabin replied in negative, commenting this was problem in which security services could have done better."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now