“Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me”:
Quantifying Kissinger

A Computational Analysis of the DNSA's Kissinger Memcons and Telcons

By Micki Kaufman,
doctoral student in US History
at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

On December 18 1975, in a meeting with senior staff, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decided to ‘raise a little hell’. He was furious with what he called their ‘incomprehensible’ decision to include sensitive information in a diplomatic cable.

“I want to raise a little bit of hell about the Department's conduct in my absence. Until last week I thought we had a disciplined group; now we've gone to pieces completely. Take this cable on East Timor. You know my attitude and anyone who knows my position as you do must know that I would not have approved it. The only consequence is to put yourself on record. […] What possible explanation is there for it? I had told you to stop it quietly. I didn’t say you couldn’t make a recommendation orally. […] It is incomprehensible. It is wrong in substance and in procedure. It is a disgrace.”
Kissinger then went on to complain that the cable would undoubtedly leak:
“It will go to Congress too and then we will have hearings on it. [That will] leak in three months and it will come out that Kissinger overruled his pristine bureaucrats and violated the law. […] You have a responsibility to recognize that we are living in a revolutionary situation. Everything on paper will be used against me.”‘The secret life of Henry Kissinger; minutes of a 1975 meeting with Lawrence Eagleburger’ by Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation, October 29, 1990.

About the project

Scarcity of information is a common frustration for historians. This is especially true for researchers of antiquity, but not exclusively so. For students of twentieth- and twenty-first century history the opposite problem is also increasingly common — overwhelmed instead by a deluge of information and confronted by a vast field of haystacks within which they must locate the needles (and presumably, use them to knit together a valid historical interpretation), historians have already struggled with what is now understood as ‘big data’.

Exhaustive efforts by historians at approaching vast troves of information have often employed a traditional ‘close-reading’ methodology in which each author’s thesis is illustrated by hand-picked, ostensibly representative samples, presented as valid proof of the underlying argument. Ensuring such examples are indeed representative for historical interpretation is increasingly difficult as the size of the archive increases. As larger and larger archives of human cultural output are accumulated, historians are beginning to employ other tools and methods — including those developed in other fields, including computational biology and linguistics — to overcome ‘information overload’ and facilitate new historical interpretations. This paper is an application of ‘big data’ computational techniques like those employed by Michel and Nelson to research the Digital National Security Archive (DNSA)’s recently released Kissinger Collections, comprising approximately 17500 meeting memoranda (‘memcons’) and teleconference transcripts (‘telcons’) detailing Kissinger's correspondence during the period 1969-1977: it is a first effort at ‘Diplonomics’.

The declassification of the Kissinger material by the State Department and the hosting of that material on the DNSA’s Kissinger Collection web site therefore presents an opportunity and a challenge for historians. While having this large volume of information online for researchers is valuable, the restriction to a web-based ‘search’ interface can render it of limited use to researchers. The application of more sophisticated computational techniques permits a comprehensive analysis of the historical records of the Kissinger collection at the DNSA, and facilitates meaningful historical interpretations. While this new way of looking at history is based on data, unlike other methods of historical analysis (eg 'cliometrics') it is the variations of the content of the text itself, rather than economic data, that is measured.

Topic Modeling

Topic Stream Graphs

The colored streams represent each of the 40 topics of the topic models created for the memcons (top) and the telcons (bottom). The pie graph at the right of each graph shows the relative proportion of topic weight for each month of correspondence. The difference in density between the memcons (which show more activity at the end of Kissinger's tenure) and the telcons (which show more activity at the beginning) are explained in large part by his promotion to Secretary of State in 1974. Before that time, when he was National Security Advisor, Kissinger utilized telephone conversations to address most of the issues confronting him. After his promotion, he shifted to a more official forum of meetings and memoranda for most of his work.

This interactive diagram can be played back, and various months explored in more detail - for example, the largest spikes in the telcons and memcons correspond to the tming of Kissinger's promotion to Secretary of State, and to meetings regarding the October 1973 Yom Kippur War and the resultant flurry of diplomatic activity to broker agreements between the combatants in May 1974.

Memcons/Telcons Interactive Topic Model Area Graphs

Topic Area Graphs

The capability to go beyond merely counting word frequency to measuring the correlations in frequency between words is a powerful tool for computational historical research. This technique, called ‘topic modeling,’ relies upon complex probabilistic mathematics beyond the capabilities of most historians. Using a variant of MALLET (open-source topic modeling software), I have assembled topic models of the Kissinger collections. The initial results of this process resulted in a 40-category list for both the memcons and telcons collections. By compiling the topic modeling data and graphing each topic’s frequency data into an x/y line/area graph, a contextual, historical timeline emerges for each of the 40 Kissinger memcon and telcon topics. Peaks in the graphs indicate the dates of documents that contain the highest cumulative ‘weighting,' or relevance, to that respective topic. Immediately, the data graphed on the timeline evokes questions: many of the peaks on the topic graphs synchronize well with related events in the historical record. Examining each topic graph in relation to these historical timelines is in itself a useful exercise for researchers in finding content related to a particular topic.

For example, those interested in reading documents most closely associated with the wars in Indochina and Kissinger’s Paris Peace Conference talks with Le Duc Tho and Xuan Thuy, Chairman Mao and Chou En-lai, the Cambodia Campaign and resulting public outcry in May 1970, the ‘Backchannel’ and SALT talks with Dobrynin, Gromyko, Brezhnev, or other topic areas of Kissinger’s activity can use these graphs to locate the relevant dates and documentation for their topics much more easily than by consulting a traditional index.

Memcons: Interactive Topic Model Area Graphs

Telcons: Interactive Topic Model Area Graphs

Topic Force Graphs

Instead of a more traditional x/y axis graph, each memcon in the archive and their relation to the 40 topics of the topic model are represented here using a 'force-directed' diagram. More than prior figures, this graph is off-putting at first and requires a bit of orientation to understand. Here each document is represented by one of a network of small circles, connected by lines and placed at a distance from the larger circles (the topics) according to their respective association to each topic. The size of the topic circles and their textual labels reflects the total weight afforded to them by the documents in the archive, and the color of the small documents’ circles and connecting lines reflects the classification status of each document.

This graph elegantly demonstrates in one view the interrelated ‘clusters’ of documents by proximity, their classification status, and the complex ways in which all documents relate to their constituent topic(s) and to one another. Even more than the line/area graphs, this image synthesizes the information gathered through metadata analysis, n-gram counting, and topic modeling to present inter-relationships not always readily apparent from a tabular view of the underlying data.

The blue dots/lines represent documents with ‘Top Secret’ classification status, the yellow dots are ‘Secret,’ the pink dots are ‘Unclassified’ and the 40 topics of the topic model are displayed as grey circles with text. Documents sharing similar topic weightings are clustered together, and placed at a relative distance from those topics. The placement of documents and topics related to matters of high military or national security significance among the bluish upper left region is unsurprising, as is the placement of ‘laughter’ so far on the other side of the graph. It is also notable that this upper left hand area of the graph contains those countries at the heart of Nixon and Kissinger’s vaunted “triangular diplomacy.” The topics concerning Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, and related topics are all placed in close proximity to one another occupying a close-knit area of the graph, suggesting that when those topics were mentioned they were often mentioned together. There is another fascinating topic in this topic model revealed by this graph, one with a unique significance. The “Laughter” topic is based upon those documents in which the transcriber literally placed the phrase “[laughter]," representing jovial, lighthearted moments of Kissinger’s correspondence in which the participants had a chuckle. A historian would expect these sorts of emotional expressions to occur in inverse proportion to the gravity of their respective topics (for example, the least ‘laughter’ during those negotiations in which relations were at their most sensitive, tense and/or adversarial), and the placement of the “Laughter” topic at the furthest possible point from topics relating to the Soviet Union, China and Vietnam negotiations validates this interpretation.

The placement of the ‘Cambodia’ topic outside that military arc, much closer to ‘Laughter’ than, say, ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Soviet,’ is very interesting, suggesting that the archive may contain only those documents of a less contentious or generic nature compared to those other topics.The “Cambodia” topic’s comparative proximity to the Laughter topic, clearly visible in this graph, reflects an uncharacteristically ‘jovial’ slant of the content of the documents in the Cambodia topic in comparison to those from the other topics of similarly grave military importance. It is an odd result that supports other findings that the archive’s “Cambodia” material on which this topic is based is likely a hand-picked, sanitized and non-representative selection of only the more congenial exchanges regarding Cambodia, specifically excluding tense and difficult situations. Memoranda detailing planning and execution of disavowed military incursions, involvement in the installation of the Lon Nol regime, and other incidents are largely absent from the archive. Computational techniques here combined with a subjective historian’s assessment of the inapplicability of ‘laughter’ to topics like Cambodia, have thus uncovered a strong relationship between a document’s classification status and its subject matter. Further interpretations of the proximity of the 'laughter' topic (among others) to these geopolitical foci are detailed in greater depth in the written paper.

Topic Modeling performed using 'MALLET Topic Modeling Toolkit.'

Memcons: Static Topic Model Force Graph

Memcons: Interactive Topic Model Force Graph

Telcons: Interactive Topic Model Force Graph (may take a while to load)

Individual/Organizational Influence

This radial diagram is essentially 40 bar graphs (one for each of the topics in the memcons topic model), with the most influential individuals represented by the largest circles at the outermost edge of each spoke. Associated individuals are ranked by the frequency with which they are mentioned in documents related to each of the 40 topic models. Individuals related to more than one topic are grouped according to the topic to which they are most heavily weighted, and are connected by lines indicating the other topics to which they are also related. In essence, this provides a ranked visualization of individual and organizational association with each of the 40 topics of the topic model.

Click on the image for a zoomed-in view.

'Individual/Organizations' Influence Force Graph

Word Correlation

Word Correlation Force Graphs


This study has uncovered new quantitative evidence suggesting a possible absence of material regarding a number of controversial military topics in the DNSA’s Kissinger Memcons and Telcons collections. This evidence is the result of comparisons between linguistic patterns in the memcons and the telephone transcripts that have illuminated a number of significant discrepancies. First and perhaps most strikingly, the statistical frequency of the words “Cambodia” and “Vietnam” when measured in correlation with the word “bombing” differs greatly between the two channels of communication. When Kissinger and his associates were using the word 'bombing' in official meetings, it was associated much more with words related to 'Vietnam' than in the telephone conversations, in which 'bombing' was seen in greater statistical correlation with the names of other countries in Indochina (Laos, Thailand and Cambodia).

Click on the image for a zoomed-in view.

'Bombing' Word Correlation Force-Directed Graph

This is an interactive 'd3' version of the force-directed word correlation analysis of the word 'Bombing'. Currently, the diagram does not take 'edge weights' into account, so the nodes within each cluster are placed inexactly.

Until 'edge weight' code is completed, static graph above is far more accurate and 'stable'.

'Bombing' Word Correlation Interactive Force-Directed Graph


In addition, words related to violence (bombing, attack, invade, etc.) were more likely to be seen in correlation with the word "Cambodia" in the Telcons than in the Memcons, which displayed a greater correlation frequency between 'Cambodia' and words related to laughter.

Click on the image for a zoomed-in view.

Word Correlation Analysis performed using 'AntConc' by Laurence Anthony.

'Cambodia' Word Correlation Force-Directed Graph

Sentiment Analysis

Sentiment Analysis Line Graphs


In these two graphs the percentage of past, present and future tense is displayed. Despite the reputation Kissinger maintains as a forward-looking diplomatic master, it was in fact the past tense that predominated in language at the beginning of the administration in both forms of correspondence, Later, ‘present tense’ became more prevalent, with the crossover happening nearly simultaneously at the end of 1969 in both forms of correspondence. At no time did the use of ‘future tense’ predominate.


In these two graphs the levels of ‘anger’, ‘anxiety’ and ‘sadness’ are displayed. Notably, the level of ‘anger’ reached a simultaneous peak in both correspondences during the latter quarter of 1973 as Watergate loomed, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned and the “Saturday Night Massacre” resulted in the resignation of Elliot Richardson, unwilling to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. There are a few other peaks of ‘anger’ visible in the meeting memoranda, one occurring in late 1975 at the time of the fall of Saigon and Phnom Penh as well as a slow swell occurring from 1969-1972.

Sentiment Analysis performed using 'LIWC2007' by James Pennebaker, et al.

This project has been generously supported from 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 by a Provost's Digital Innovation Grant from the Provost's Office of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.