Albion Monitor /Commentary

"... Respectfully, Dick"

by Lucy Komisar

(AR) WASHINGTON -- There is an epistolary genre, not unknown in Washington, which is best described as -- forgive the crudeness -- "the sucking up letter." It is a tool of the trade of speaking flattery to power.

In the course of research in the Nixon files at the National Archives, I came across these seven perfect examples which deserve a prominent place in the canon of this genre.

Leaving notes at Nixon's place at NSC meetings

They were written by then CIA Director Richard Helms to President Richard Nixon. Helms, you will recall, had a difficult time in the Nixon administration. He'd been invited, as CIA chief, to attend Johnson administration NSC meetings, but Henry Kissinger informed him that under the new regime he would have to leave the room after giving his intelligence briefings. Helms got the order reversed, but it was clear that he needed to forge links to the President to counter the threat from Henry.

However, Helms, like everyone else, found it difficult to get past H.R. Haldeman's Oval Office blockade. So, he got in the habit of leaving notes at Nixon's place at NSC meetings. An early example of the canon came just after Kissinger's initial threat to his status and power.

On March 4, 1969, Helms wrote: "My dear Mr. President: After hearing you this morning and reading incoming reports from Western Europe, may I say what a remarkable personal tour de force you achieved on your trip ... I feel compelled to tell you that your approach to the real world is a most reassuring one. I do not mean to sound gratuitous; I just want you to know how I see it. Respectfully, Dick. "

And a week later, March 10, 1969: "My dear Mr. President: Again I want to thank you for visiting the Agency Friday. From the standpoint of our people, it was everything that one could have desired. I know you could sense the lift in morale even while you were on the premises. Your warm friendliness has brought nothing but glowing remarks, even from those 'cynics' who believe they have seen it all ... Your words about me were humbling. I need not assure you that I will do everything I can to justify them ... Respectfully, Dick."

Then, as sometimes happens, the power relationships turned

Thomas Powers, Helms' biographer, remarked that Helms never managed to win Nixon's confidence. "At times, Nixon's treatment of him in meetings seemed harsh to the point of cruelty. He frequently interrupted Helms with a comment or correction, sometimes in a tone which witnesses could only describe as spiteful or snide."

But Helms kept the adulatory notes coming. This from November 4, 1969: "My dear Mr. President: May I say how impressed I was with your speech last evening. It constituted national leadership at its best. From my vantage point, I would opine that a sigh of relief went through free Asia and that its leaders quietly offered thanks for your courage and statesmanship ... Respectfully, Dick."

Nixon did not think Helms was doing a good job. By 1970, he was blaming him for what he thought was faulty intelligence that was gumming up the Vietnam war effort. Helms persevered. On January 9, 1970, he wrote: "My dear Mr. President: This brings warmest birthday greetings from all of us in the Agency. Long may you prosper ... Respectfully, Dick."

By the fall of that year, Helms was immersed in Chile policy. The CIA's efforts had not prevented Salvador Allende's victory in the presidential election and then had failed to get the President, Eduardo Frei, or the army commander to go along with a plan for a coup to block Allende's selection by the parliament. On the afternoon of September 15, Nixon and Kissinger met in the Oval Office with Helms and told him to move to promote a coup in Chile. With Helms carrying out Nixon's passionately-desired policy, the president became somewhat generous (or maybe the flattering notes were paying off).

On October 5, 1970, Helms wrote: "My dear Mr. President: It was most thoughtful of you to offer me the use of Camp David and the SEQUOIA during your absence. Circumstances did not work out so that this could be done, but perhaps it will be possible to have an opportunity some other time ... Respectfully, Dick."

He hardly had the time for boat rides or visits to the country. The CIA was in the midst of trying to aid a plot by a renegade army officer, Roberto Viaux, who would soon after organize the assassination of the Chilean army commander.

By 1971, Allende was in office and the CIA was funding opposition political parties, media and business groups. Helms could only hope that Nixon was not thinking about his failure to keep Allende from power. On January 5, 1971, he wrote him: "My dear Mr. President: Without I hope being thought presumptuous, may I say how effective I found your appearance on television last evening. You were persuasive and constructive, all in a "real world" context, and it came over as a most impressive performance in the best Presidential tradition. It gave even me a big lift ... "

Then, as sometimes happens, the power relationships turned and put Richard Nixon in Helms' debt. On June 17, 1972, five men were arrested for breaking into the Watergate headquarters of the Democratic National Committee. Two of them had false ID papers; they also had hotel keys that led police to former CIA agent Howard Hunt.

Nixon asked Helms to use the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation of the Watergate money trail on grounds of national security. Helms didn't do it. But if he had revealed publicly that the CIA had prepared the phony ID's for Hunt to use in other Nixon campaign shenanigans, the scandal would have blown up in Nixon's face before the November election. Nixon needed Helms' silence desperately.

Now, Helms was a cosseted guest. On October 2, 1972, he wrote the last letter in the file: "My dear Mr. President: May I thank you most warmly for including me in one of the most pleasant dinners I have ever attended at the White House. You were in such good form Friday evening that, even if we had not had the delicious dinner in the Blue Room, it still would have been a memorable occasion ... Respectfully, Richard Helms."

Lucy Komisar is a New York journalist who is working on a book about US efforts to influence the internal affairs of other countries in the 1970's and '80's

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Albion Monitor July 4, 1996 (

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