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Tough Decisions

Aired December 23, 2012 - 20:00   ET


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: The great French writer Albert Camus said "Life is a sum of all your choices." We're all defined by the decisions we make every day, and we make hundreds of them. Paper or plastic, chicken or fish. Most are mundane and require little thought. But others are agonizing, often life altering. And then there are the decisions made by leaders, some of which have changed the course of history, for better and some for worse.

July 1776, the American Founding Fathers decision to declare independence. January, 1863, Abraham Lincoln's decision to emancipate all persons held as slaves. June 1941, Adolf Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union. August 1945, President Truman's decision to use an atomic bomb against Japan. Tonight, we'll examine the process of making a tough decision. We'll hear about major decisions on an international stage. About corporate decisions and personal ones. From taking down the most wanted man in the world ...


TOM DONILON: The president turned to us and said, I've made my decision. We're going to go with the raid. Write up the orders ..

ZAKARIA: To giving up a dream career.

ANNE MARIE SLAUGHTER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF POLICY PLANNING, STATE DEPARTMENT: It was a sense of almost unreality of just - I'm not sure I know who I am.

ZAKARIA: To uprooting a company culture.

PAUL O'NEILL, FORMER CEO, ALCOA: Some people actually quit.

ZAKARIA: To opening the door to a closed society.

(on camera): This was like a spy thriller.



ZAKARIA: Each of my guests has wrestled with a difficult choice. They will take us through their deliberations, their fears and how they made their tough decisions.

At 11:00 p.m. on May 1, 2011, two black hawk helicopters, 23 Navy SEALs, a translator and a dog named Cairo took off from Jalalabad Afghanistan. The mission -- to kill the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation's effort to defeat al-Qaeda.

ZAKARIA: Most have heard the incredible details of the bin Laden compound raid, but little has been revealed about the intense, month- long deliberation that led to the final decision to act. So how was the decision made? Who was told? How did they weigh the options? Tonight, we will ask the man tasked by the president to synthesize the intelligence, analyze the assessments and run the decision-making process, to act in a sense as gatekeeper of this monumental decision. I sat down with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in the secretary of war suite, of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.


ZAKARIA: When you'd come into the White House, has the trail for Osama bin Laden gone cold?

TOM DONILON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: When we came into office in the beginning of 2009, the trail had gone cold. We really hadn't had a good case as to where his whereabouts since he was at Tora Bora in 2001.

ZAKARIA: So what does the president say at that point? He tells Leon Panetta, get bin Laden.

DONILON: It is spring of 2009. The president asked to see me and Leon Panetta, Rahm Emanuel, Mike Leiter, who was the head of our National Counterterrorism Center. And he said I want to re-energize the hunt for Osama bin Laden. I want you to make this your top priority. I want to get reports every 30 days.

ZAKARIA: August 2010, Leon Panetta comes back to the president with some information, correct?

DONILON: That's correct. In the summer of 2010, the CIA led by Leon Panetta came to us and indicated they had evidence that was interesting to them at that point, that led them to believe that there was a high value person of interest at Abbottabad, Pakistan in the compound there.

ZAKARIA: And at what point did it become clear that there was a high likelihood that the person at that compound was Osama bin Laden?

DONILON: Well, you say high likelihood, Fareed, and this is part of why this was a tough decision. Even at the last principals meeting, which was on April 28th, of 2011, where the principals sat with the president and game them their view as to whether to go or not, even at that point, it was a wholly circumstantial case. There was not direct evidence that you could present to the president at that point saying we guarantee you, we have direct evidence that Osama bin Laden is at this compound. ZAKARIA: One of the things you decided to do, and it must have been the president and you, a very small number of people.


ZAKARIA: To limit access to this information and decision-making to a very tight circle ...


ZAKARIA: That excluded the secretary of state, the secretary of defense. Take us through that decision making.

DONILON: There was a decision made, because of the extreme sensitivity about this to have at the first - in the first instance have the analytical people, the - really the sole team working on this.


DONILON: At the CIA. And then it moved and when we made decisions about going operational, that is you need to bring in the Special Forces that expanded a bit, but the president was insisting that it obviously be very closely held, that we have the people involved at every stage who were necessary to be involved. And why was that? Operational security in this obviously was incredibly important. And I think it was a testament, frankly to the seriousness of purpose and frankly to the character of the individuals involved in this. That not a thing linked from August 2010 until May 2011.

ZAKARIA: That's an extraordinary thing. Which is by keeping it that secret, you were able to in a sense slow down the clock, so that you had time to accumulate evidence and make a decision.

DONILON: Yeah. I think - and that's an important aspect generally of policy making in the national security realm. And that's the balance, obviously, between transparency and secrecy and confidentiality. For an operation like this where operational security is absolutely essential, keeping it small, keeping it to a group that has an absolute need to know, does give the president and decision makers more space and more time to go through the options. And in this case, of course, we considered every aspect of this. And we were able to do so, because we had had - we did have exceptional operational security.

ZAKARIA: But you also had to make a decision about when to act. Because as you said, there was never a moment where you had overwhelming evidence. And so how did you make that decision? When did it seem that you had achieved a kind of critical balance of evidence?

DONILON: Yeah. There was a point reached where the intelligence professionals came and made the determination and put it to the president, that we are not likely through whatever means we have available to us to gain any more information that's going to make this any more certain? ZAKARIA: So, now you have to decide what to do. Were all options carefully considered?

DONILON: They were carefully considered. And there were really - there were really several options, as you said. Don't act because the evidence isn't - isn't strong enough and the risks are too high. We can go through that. Have a standoff attack, work jointly with the Pakistanis on an operation, or have the unilateral raid. At the end of the day, the reason I think that the president did the unilateral raid, reasons were several fold. Number one, it allowed certainty. That there wouldn't be a debate after the operation as to whether or not, in fact, Osama bin Laden had really been taken out. We would have proof. And we just wouldn't have bought the United States a propaganda war around this.

Second, it also allowed us to limit the potential for casualties of noncombatants. And we discovered, obviously, during the course of the raid that there were close to two dozen noncombatants at the compound. Three, it allowed us to limit casualties with respect to people around the compound, completely innocent, and the president had a lot of confidence in that option for this reason -- although it was 50-50, let's say, there was only a circumstantial case, he had 100 percent confidence in the Special Forces that would do this. Then the fact that they would have the ability to get to the target, do the operation and get back. Because he had tremendous amount of experience with them. And this obviously is a unique American asset and a team of people who have been doing this for years in Afghanistan and Iraq and around the world.


ZAKARIA: Coming up, inside the situation room: the moments leading up to the final call.


DONILON: The president said "Thank you an and you'll have my decision tomorrow. And he got up and he walked out.



ZAKARIA: For nearly a year, only a handful of people closest to the president knew that he was weighing the decision to kill or capture Osama bin Laden. The risk of a leak was dimmed so great, not even the secretaries of state or defense were in the loop until the final weeks. Worries about the huge potential downside loomed large. No one wanted a repeat of the Iran hostage crisis, Desert One debacle, the high stakes mission, one of Delta Force's first, that turned into a deadly inferno when a helicopter and plane collided. Here now, more of my interview with the man tasked to run the decision-making process, President Obama's National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.


ZAKARIA: Did people worry that this was going to be Desert Two?

DONILON: Yeah, Fareed, this is why it was a difficult decision. What were the risks? There were obviously risks to the forces who were carrying out the operation. There was a risk of failure and its impact on the United States and its face to the world. There was risk to the Pakistani relationship. We were undertaking a unilateral action inside Pakistan to go after Osama bin Laden. So, all those risks were on the table and had to be considered by the president and the principals who made their recommendation. I will tell you this, in line with your question, there was a lot of history present in the room. Secretary Gates, he was National Security aide during Desert One. I was the young aide to President Carter during the time of Desert One. Vice President Biden was in the Senate at the time of the Desert One Operation. That was clearly on people's minds. Also what was in the room, it's interesting, was one of the aspects that came out of Desert One and that was a formation of a unified special operations forces command. The very troops, the forces here that would carry out this operation that had become such a unique asset of the United States.

ZAKARIA: The president made one decision informed, it seems to me, by that history. Which is, he asked for two backup helicopters.

DONILON: The president asked for enough assets to ensure that the United States on its own could get in and could get out of the Abbottabad compound.

ZAKARIA: So, now take us to that moment or was it a series of meetings where we now know is that Vice President Biden voiced reservations about an actual raid as opposed to a missile strike. Secretary Gates did. Some key military leaders did. What was that like? Was it a situation where the majority of the president's advisers were urging him not to do this?

DONILON: It gets to this point, there were two dozen interagency meetings leading up to this point. But on the Thursday before the raid, it was the final principals committee meeting. A National Security Council meeting with the president and the chair having the - a discussion about -- and receiving the final briefing on the various operations, the various alternatives. And he did ask each of the members, senior members of the national security team for their views. And it was a room with divided counsel. And at the end of the day, the president said thank you, and you'll have my decision tomorrow and he got up, he walked out of the situation room, up the stairs and across that famous colonnade by the Rose Garden and went back to his residence in the mansion here, and the decision rested with him. One person on behalf of 300 million Americans making that decision.

ZAKARIA: Were you nervous - grappling with this issue, how much did it weigh on you, how much did you have take it back with you home? How much was it sort of an all-consuming issue?

DONILON: You know, we had - we were doing the rest of our business as well. It was part of the operational security. And this - the style of this president. It was very methodical. Very organized, moving through the issues one by one. And of course we thought about it a lot. And, obviously, he thought about it a lot, having to make the final decision. And he did that night and again, the next morning at around 8:00 I heard from him and he said meet me in the diplomatic room. And myself and John Brennan and Dennis McDonough and Chief of Staff Bill Daley met him and he turned to us and said, I've made my decision. We're going to go with the raid, write up the orders.

ZAKARIA: And at that point, what do you do?

DONILON: I returned to my office and drafted the orders and signed them.

ZAKARIA: And then how was it operationalized?

DONILON: We had developed prior to that literally a playbook of every step that would have to be taken from the point that the president made the decision, and we begin to implement that. We came into the office on Sunday morning and we began a ten and a half-hour principals committee meeting.

ZAKARIA: Ten and a half-hours continuously?


ZAKARIA: And you were watching the operation?


ZAKARIA: When that meeting began, how nervous were you?

DONILON: I don't know if that was nervous. You know, focused, I think is a better way to describe it.

ZAKARIA: Were there any drops in mood - when that helicopter malfunctioned?

DONILON: Yes, of course, yeah. A helicopter did malfunction, and a tail hit the wall and it came off and it had a hard landing, but contingencies had been planned for, including that contingency. And the operation just went forward without missing a beat.

ZAKARIA: When did you breathe a sigh of relief? At what point did you know that the mission was completely successful?

DONILON: Nobody breathed a sigh of relief, including the president, until we heard that all the forces were back across into Afghan air space and they were out of Pakistan air space.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: ... that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of al-Qaeda. And a terrorist who's responsible for the murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children.

DONILON: When you think about why the president made this decision, why this focus, why take this risk, this operation, is because it is important for the United States to do what it says it's going to do. And I would like to think that if there had been a C-SPAN covering of the activities of the American government leading up to and through the successful completion of the raid against Osama bin Laden, the American people would have been proud.


ZAKARIA: Up next, a very different set of parameters leading to a tough decision. It's a choice that millions of women face in the course of their lives.


SLAUGHTER: The stress was just overwhelming. I couldn't live up to that responsibility.


ZAKARIA: For a little over two years Anne Marie Slaughter held one of America's most important jobs.

HILLARY CLINTON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm going to let Anne Marie start.

SLAUGHTER: Well, the first thing I would say ...

ZAKARIA: As director of policy planning at the State Department, she worked extremely closely with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, traveling the world and providing strategic analysis and advice on the day's most complex and urgent international issues. She was the first ever woman policy planning director. It was, she said, the job she had always wanted.

SLAUGHTER: No one is happier than I am that this day is here.

ZAKARIA: But then Slaughter just gave it up, quit. Turned in her resignation letter to Secretary Clinton and left Washington. She resumed her Princeton professorship and life in New Jersey with her husband and two teenage sons. In the wake of her departure, Slaughter wrote a cover story for "The Atlantic" magazine "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." Within days, the piece became the most read in "The Atlantic's" 150-year history. Over 1 million views in the first week alone. Tonight Anne-Marie Slaughter takes us behind that personal decision that became a raging public debate.


ZAKARIA: Explain the intensity of that kind of job, because it's really much more than what many people think. This is a more intense job than very senior jobs in the private sector.

SLAUGHTER: It's certainly comparable. I mean, it's an assistant secretary level job, which means you know, you're on pretty much all the time. You're the head of the secretary of state's private think tank. And that means you cover the entire world, just as she does. And you're on for everything she needs you to do. And every sort of - the longer-term planning and you work pretty much round the clock.

ZAKARIA: So you're working probably six days a week?

SLAUGHTER: Absolutely. Now, I commuted back every weekend because I had to be with my kids in Princeton every weekend, but I would do plenty of work on the weekends. Had I been in Washington I'd probably would have been working seven days a week.

ZAKARIA: Generally speaking, you would get into the office what time in the morning and leave at what time?

SLAUGHTER: It would begin between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning and it would end around 11:00 at night.

ZAKARIA: Every day?

SLAUGHTER: Pretty much.

ZAKARIA: And many of these meetings can't be rescheduled. I mean, you have a meeting between 20 countries in Kazakhstan. And it's going to happen, it has to happen, right, if you have a personal problem, there's no way to reschedule.

SLAUGHTER: No, absolutely not. I always say you can't tell the Egyptian revolution, hold. I've got to go home. Come back on Monday. You have to respond, you have to be there.

ZAKARIA: You enjoyed the job?


ZAKARIA: This was in some ways your dream job?

SLAUGHTER: Yes. It was.

ZAKARIA: But then two years into it you decide you're going to leave?

SLAUGHTER: Yeah. Because the hard part was actually realizing I've always been somebody who wants to do these jobs. Foreign policy is my passion and yet actually I'm also a mother and I want to be at home for the last five years that my children are at home, and it was hard for me to admit that to myself. But in the end, I had to recognize both as a matter of need and want that my life was going to go in a different direction than I had always expected it would. And I had to listen to that. And I had - in the end kind of say, wow, maybe I'm not quite the same person I thought I was, but I know this is the right thing for me to do.

ZAKARIA: What was the most difficult part of your job in relation to balancing it with your role as a mother?

SLAUGHTER: It was just that sense so often where, you know, particularly my oldest son really needed me home, needed us both there and I was in another place. And I couldn't do anything about that. You know, I think that is true for millions of parents and certainly millions of women. And I realize the stress was just overwhelming of knowing that I had a child who really did need me and I couldn't respond. I couldn't live up to that responsibility. ZAKARIA: After you came to your decision, you must have talked to Secretary Clinton. She's a working woman like you. What was that conversation like?

SLAUGHTER: The first thing I just have to say, she was a fabulous boss and she fully understood the tensions of having children who are teenagers with this kind of a job. In many ways, I felt like she gave me permission to go home. I sort of thought to myself, well, if Hillary Clinton, you know, could have the kind of career she had post kids and if she understands, you know, these kinds of stresses, it's OK. You know, I can go home.

ZAKARIA: Hillary Clinton, when she was asked about your article, which, you know, obviously everyone had read, she said, look, I've always advocated for flexibility, but some women can handle this pace and others can't. What would you say about that?

SLAUGHTER: Well, I don't think it's a question of the pace. I actually love the pace. And I will impose that on myself, no matter how organized you are, you need more flexibility, you need the ability to step out for a while and come back in, which many women don't have, or you need the ability, particularly at lower levels, to work from home a little or to simply have more flexibility. I'm still working more than full time, but working in a way that I can get up in the morning and be with my kids and go to sleep in the morning and be with my kids and be there if they really need me. You know, I'm not the hero. The heroes are the people who don't have choices and still work to support their kids. Both Secretary Clinton and I share the same goal of getting women to the top and I think it's going to take more than just great organization to get us there.

ZAKARIA: Are your kids happy that they see a lot more of you now?

SLAUGHTER: Yes, although there would be definitely days where both their father and I are beating on them to do their homework or whatever where I think they might want to ship me back to Washington. But no, overall, there's no question this is far better, and this is the kind of family life that I had kids to have. And it's never perfect, but it is a blessing.

ZAKARIA: Up next, rescuing a company in distress. And starting with a very unusual tough decision.


O'NEILL: They were mystified. And then they were like what is this guy supposed to be talking about?


ZAKARIA: And later, Henry Kissinger on a top secret White House decision that changed history.


ZAKARIA: Paul O'Neill may be best known as secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. But it's a difficult call he made years before that that altered the course of a major American company and literally saved lives in the process.


O'NEILL: But I can't say, that you know, this is all one group or all another group.


ZAKARIA: In 1987, O'Neill became CEO of one of the largest and oldest aluminum companies in the world, Alcoa. On the eve of its centennial, the storied corporation was in trouble -- inefficient rapid expansion had left profits dwindling and morale waning. Putting O'Neill in charge was a big change. In nearly 100 years, Alcoa had never hired an out of house CEO. Someone who had not climbed through the ranks of the tightly knit management system and who was not well versed in metal making. The company was in for a surprise with the first decision O'Neill made. Executives and shareholders thought it was bizarre, unorthodox and indifferent to the bottom line. So what was that decision? Let's find out.


ZAKARIA: When you came to Alcoa, describe what was the company was like in terms of its financial situation?

O'NEILL: It was a company that was in some difficulty. They have been losing market share and their profits were not nearly good enough to cover their costs of capital.

ZAKARIA: What was the first thing you decided to do?

O'NEILL: The first day I was there, I asked the vice president, who was then in charge of safety to come and show me the facts about where Alcoa was. In those days, they were really quite good in terms of safety. Their injury rate per 100 workers per year was 1.86, almost two injuries per 100 workers that caused people to miss one day of work. At that time, the national rate in the United States was five injuries for 100 workers. So after I praised the vice president for you're really good, and you've really done great thing, I said to him, Charlie, I want you to know something because this is what I'm going to do from now on. I'm going to say publicly to everybody who will listen to me, people who work at Alcoa should never be hurt at work. We should have zero injuries.

ZAKARIA: So you come into this troubled company as this outside CEO and you say the first thing I'm going to focus on is workers safety. Did Wall Street understand you? Did your board understand? Why is this guy focusing on worker safety?

O'NEILL: Well, I'll tell you why - I'll tell you the people who had been in the organization for a long time, they didn't say it to my face, but behind my back they were saying he doesn't know anything about making aluminum. It's 2,000-degree metal flowing around the plants. They're clanging overhead cranes, there are forklift trucks racing around these massive factory floors, and he doesn't understand, but as soon as the metal prices go down, he'll shut up and we can go on being as good as we already are in health and safety.

And I knew I would have that kind of reaction. First time I came to Wall Street, they invited me to come and have a luncheon meeting with the New York financial analyst community in a big amphitheater down on Wall Street, maybe 250 people in the room. So I got up and I said to them, well, the first thing I want to talk to you about is safety. And then they were like wasn't this guy supposed to be talking about margin improvement and, you know, more aluminum in cars and all that. What is he doing talking to us about safety?

ZAKARIA: You decide to focus on worker safety really as a path of changing the culture of the place and showing that you can always improve at anything. What were you thinking?

O'NEILL: I believe that human beings have what I call discretionary energy that they can give you or not. And I don't think they will give it to you if they don't feel that they're treated with dignity and respect every day. If people can say, I'm treated with dignity and respect. A down payment on that is nobody ever gets hurt here, because we care about our own commitment to our safety, and we care about the people we work with. And it swells up to into everything you do, so it creates the sense of pride about the organization you're involved in.

ZAKARIA: And then you start asking them for increased productivity and increased - and ...

O'NEILL: They give it to you. You don't actually have to ask for it. You need to turn them loose.

ZAKARIA: Describe how Alcoa did over the course of your tenure.

O'NEILL: Well, we went from 1.86 per 100 workers per year having an injury that caused them to miss a lost work day. We got to 0.13. To give you a reference point, the number in health medical care institution in the United States is five, right?

ZAKARIA: And now describe what happened to Alcoa commercially, financially under your tenure?

O'NEILL: Well, we -- I think we improved the market capitalization of the company 900 percent while I was there. So, we went from basically a company that the market valued at $4 billion to $28 billion in 13 years.

ZAKARIA: And you attribute that to - you know, the start of it was that decision?

O'NEILL: It was - it was bringing people together and releasing their energy in a positive way.

ZAKARIA: So then they believed in you?


ZAKARIA: Up next, perhaps the most consequential decision in American foreign policy of the last 50 years.


KISSINGER: We had no way of knowing who was on the other side.



DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Don Lemon. Here are tonight's headlines: the last of the victims of the Connecticut mass shooting are laid to rest. Funerals for three little girls were held today. But as families say their final good-byes, the debate over gun control is just heating up. President Obama has vowed reforms to reform gun laws. But on Friday, the National Rifle Association weighed in, calling for armed guards in schools.

The fiscal cliff, just ten days away with no deal in sight. In fact, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are literally thousands of miles away from each other. Both men left Washington for the holidays and President Obama and family, they are in his native Hawaii for a short Christmas break. He returns to Washington after the holiday.

In Egypt, the vice president is stepping down. This man Mahmoud Mekki announced today that political life does not agree with him and he will go back to being a judge. It's the same day the Egyptian people are voting for a second straight weekend on proposed changes to the country's new Islamist-backed constitution. Protests erupted last month when Egypt's new president gave himself near absolute power. Those are your headlines this hour. I'm Don Lemon, keeping your informed. CNN, the most trusted name in news.

ZAKARIA: It was one of the most important diplomatic missions in history. Also one of the most clandestine and risky. Four decades ago, Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon's national security adviser secretly flew to China, beginning a string of meetings that would eventually open that isolated eastern nation to the Western world. That opening checked Soviet expansionism and in the sense was the beginning of the end of the Cold War.


RICHARD NIXON, PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.: This was the week that changed the world.


ZAKARIA: It was also the beginning of China's entry into the world economy, which has resulted in that country becoming the world's second largest economy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Red China's battle plan.


ZAKARIA: But back then, the idea of a rapprochement with China would have been rejected as pure fantasy. China was a radical revolutionary Communist regime that had been fighting America and its allies across the globe. How did the decision come about in the midst of such intense opposition? What were the internal maneuverings that paved the way? The secret dealings that made it actually happen? Who better to ask than the man himself, Dr. Henry Kissinger.


ZAKARIA: This is what the world looked like when you enter into the White House with Richard Nixon. The United States has had no relations with China. We have been implacably opposed to this regime. We fought against them, American soldiers died in the Korean War fighting the Chinese. We fought them indirectly in Vietnam. We recognize Taiwan as the Republic of China, and you come into office and within three years, you open relations to China, agree to withdraw American troops from Taiwan. What made you make that decision?

KISSINGER: The conviction was that a country of the magnitude of China could not be kicked out of the international system indefinitely. And would distort (ph) the international system also. Also, we thought that if the Soviet Union, which had just occupied Czechoslovakia, could now do the same to China, that would change the psychological and (inaudible) strategic position in the world.

ZAKARIA: And it was here in the growing wedge between the two communist powers that Nixon and Kissinger saw an opening. They would lean towards China. Trouble was, how to contact a regime whose very existence the United States denied.

KISSINGER: We came up with the idea that our ambassador in Warsaw should walk up to the Chinese ambassador at the next social event, in which they were both present and ask for a meeting. And say, he want -- we wanted to talk.

ZAKARIA: This is like a spy thriller.

KISSINGER: Absolutely. So there was a Yugolslav fashion show. And they were both there. Our ambassador walked over to the Chinese and our ambassador chased him down the hallway and finally cornered him long enough to say we wanted to talk. Two weeks later, a Chinese car flying the Chinese flag arrived at our embassy and brings the ambassador saying OK, I'm ready to talk.

ZAKARIA (voice over): But the meetings met with little progress. In the summer of 1969, with lower bureaucratic channels broken down, Kissinger and Nixon devised a plan to go straight to the top, right to Chairman Mao. During a trip to Pakistan, they asked President Yahya Khan to arrange the China connection. KISSINGER: Nothing happened for six months, and then we got a message from the Chinese via Pakistan, and basically it said we should start talking, but in a very convoluted way. Between each of these communications there was about three months because they were hand carried, handwritten. It was 19th century style diplomacy.

ZAKARIA (on camera): So untraceable in case it was found.

KISSINGER: Somewhat deniable. Somewhat less embarrassing. We had no way of knowing who was on the other side.

SECRETARY: Dr. Kissinger, Mr. President.



ZAKARIA (voice over): Nixon and Kissinger knew that one misunderstanding, one slip-up could derail these initial contacts.

PRESIDENT NIXON : I think our Chinese game, Henry, should be played exactly as it's being played, very cool and aloof and yet the door is open. Now you walk in, kids, and it's your move.

ZAKARIA: In 1971, during a lag in dispatches, the lob of a tiny ball nearly derailed the detente.

KISSINGER: The Chinese on their own, to our intense confusion, invited the United States ping-pong team to China, which they did as a warning to us, which in effect said you'd better hurry up with your answer, because if you don't do it, in the time that we're talking now, we may go public. It was an intense difficulty for us, because none in our government knew about the private channel. Literally no one except Nixon and me and one or two people who were technicians.

ZAKARIA: But let me ask you about the risks here, because the Chinese are a complete black box to you. All you know is that they're pretty crazy, at least seemingly so, from the Cultural Revolution.

KISSINGER: Absolutely.

ZAKARIA: The revolutions they're fermenting everywhere. So this whole thing if exposed could have been a disaster?

KISSINGER: And therefore it was to the enormous credit of Nixon that he would take those risks.

ZAKARIA: Did he worry about the risks when you would talk about them?

KISSINGER: You know, Nixon on issues of national interest was enormously courageous. And what was even more remarkable is that Nixon was inherently a pessimist. And even when taking these risks had a certain sense of doom. That they might not really work. But he felt this was the move that had to be made to unfreeze the situation.

ZAKARIA: So he decides that you will go to China. KISSINGER: Yes.


ZAKARIA: When we come back, the secrets and the stealth diplomacy that made it all happen.


KISSINGER: They went to Mao and he said who cares who invited whom.


ZAKARIA: In April 1971, after months of secret diplomacy, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon received the dispatch they had been waiting for. The Chinese premier requested the presence of a United States representative in Beijing, then known as Peking. The news could not have been bigger or more top secret. Not even the vice president nor the secretary of state knew about Kissinger and Nixon's attempts to reopen relations with China. As I continue my conversation with Henry Kissinger tonight, he takes us behind the scenes of the decision that changed history.


ZAKARIA: So he decides that you will go to China?

KISSINGER: Yes. First he has to go through it in his mind, whom is he going to send. The trouble was whoever went would be alone in Beijing with no communication. And therefore if he didn't know Nixon's mind, he might do foolish things. And so by that process, Nixon came to the conclusion that he had to send me because I had worked with him intimately hours every day.

PRESIDENT NIXON: I'm just going to finesse all questions on China.

ZAKARIA (voice over): Pulling the trip off would also require keeping the press entirely in the dark.

PRESIDENT NIXON: Just be enigmatic as hell.

KISSINGER: That would be the best possible position to take, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT NIXON: And let them thump around and squirrel and squeal as they will.

ZAKARIA: Even the smallest lead could shut down this ambitious plan. The two men schemed to play into reporters' queries. Sending them with Kissinger on a series of phony diplomatic meetings in Asia.

KISSINGER: It's a cover.

ZAKARIA (on camera): Right.

KISSINGER: For a trip to .... ZAKARIA: And you go to Pakistan?

KISSINGER: It started out in Vietnam, go to Thailand, go to India, go to Pakistan, with an excruciatingly boring program at each trip. Having a lot of technical discussions, having absolutely nothing to announce, and losing news men at every trip. We were down to one Associated Press reporter by the time we left India.

ZAKARIA: By design. Because you were making it so boring that the press would ...

KISSINGER: By design, yes.

ZAKARIA: In Pakistan, you feign illness. What did you say was wrong with you?

KISSINGER: They said that I had some intestinal problem and they were taking me to a day of rest.

ZAKARIA: But, in fact, what happens? You were on ...

KISSINGER: In fact what happens is that at 4:00 o'clock in the morning, I enter the Pakistan plane (ph), and there are four Chinese sitting there to welcome me and to escort me into China.

ZAKARIA (voice over): When Kissinger arrived in Peking, he had only 48 hours to arrange the crucial meeting between Nixon and Mao in China. Any longer before returning to Pakistan and his cover might be blown. For the first few hours, the Chinese stalled, taking him sightseeing, insisting that he nap. Finally, with only a few hours left, Henry Kissinger met face to face with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai.

KISSINGER: At the end of the second day, about 18 hours before my departure, Zhou Enlai said what are we going to say about the trip?

And I said what trip are you talking about?

And he says both trips.

So, they had made that move.

ZAKARIA: Both trip meanings your trip and ....

KISSINGER: And Nixon's trip.

ZAKARIA: The president's upcoming trip.

KISSINGER: Which had not actually ever been stated, but that was implied.

ZAKARIA (voice over): With time running out, the men began drafting an official announcement. But they deadlocked on one key point.

KISSINGER: The issue was who had invited whom. The Chinese wanted to say that we had invited ourselves. We wanted to say that the Chinese had invited us. So between 2:00 at night and 10:00 in the morning, we didn't know what was going to happen. What we now know is that they went to Mao and he said, who cares who invited whom. Why don't we say they invited each other?

NIXON: The announcement I shall now read is being issued simultaneously in Peking and in the United States. Knowing of President Nixon's express desire to visit the People's Republic of China, Premier Zhou Enlai on behalf of the government of the People's Republic of China has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate date before May, 1972. President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure.

ZAKARIA: A few months later in February 1972, as the world watched, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon touched down in China. Few trips in history have been as consequential or controversial. Particularly on the American right, which saw China as evil, Taiwan as the true China, and now Richard Nixon as a traitor.

(on camera): When Nixon did it, do you think he felt that he would manage to calm the right down? Or was it a price he was willing to pay?

KISSINGER: It was the price he was willing to pay.

NIXON: This was the week that changed the world.

ZAKARIA : Richard Nixon said when he went to China with you, of course, in '72, the week that he was there, he said this is the week that changed the world.

KISSINGER: He was right.


ZAKARIA: Well, those were some of the tough decisions we wanted to analyze. Do you agree with the choices these people made? What are the toughest decisions you have made? Join in the conversation online. #toughdecisions on Twitter or We'll highlight the most interesting ones on our Website. Thank you for joining us tonight. We hope your decision to watch our show was not a tough one.