The Munich Olympics – Nixon’s reaction to the massacre

How Nixon got shot of Munich 

 

By Amir
Oren 

 

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. 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. 

 

‘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?” 

 

Kissinger: “Yes.” 

 

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 …” 

 

Nixon: “Me?” 

 

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.”

 

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