In April 1975 President Gerald Ford was asked whether he received advice on foreign policy from anyone besides Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. He replied that he was advised by the National Security Council, where decisions were made, but added that he met with Kissinger for an hour each day "on day-to-day problems." Ford's invocation of the NSC was ritualistic—there was presumed to be something reassuring to the public mind about it—and his comment was also circular, for to a hitherto unimaginable degree Kissinger was the NSC. The former Harvard professor had been chosen by president-elect Richard Nixon in 1968 to be his assistant for national security affairs. By September 1973, Kissinger so dominated foreign policy, which he had made his own, that he had won a Nobel Peace Prize (for negotiating an end to American involvement in Vietnam) and senatorial confirmation as secretary of state by an over-whelming vote. Significantly, Kissinger retained the title of assistant to the president; that was still the source of a power greater than that wielded by most other presidential advisers or even secretaries of state in American history.
During the Nixon years, it was almost always impossible to determine whether Nixon or Kissinger made foreign policy decisions, and commentators became accustomed to writing of "Nixon-Kissinger" policies. The judgment that that reflects is probably correct. The president's unlimited personal confidence in Kissinger apparently was grounded in an identity and a congeniality of their respective views of the world and of the role of the United States in it. The two men favored similar operating styles: a driving, essentially amoral stance in which the end justified the means and results were what counted, and a secretive, almost conspiratorial approach that delighted in dramatic surprises. Neither Nixon, who had built a political career on hard-line anticommunism, nor Kissinger, whose writings of a decade and a half had accepted the Cold War stereotypes, was inhibited from engineering new approaches—détente—to the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. The secrecy and then the carefully staged theatrics of the Nixon visit to China represented the epitome of Nixon-Kissinger collaboration.
Kissinger was Nixon's resident philosopher, master planner, and personal executor of foreign policy. He provided Nixon with a coherent theory of international relations that postulated the maintenance of a balance-of-power equilibrium constantly adjusted to minimize friction. The principal problem was that it was initially impossible for "revolutionary" and status quo powers to negotiate: hence the necessity for painstaking planning to reduce international insecurity and create a "legitimate" world order. A supremely self-confident perfectionist, Kissinger believed that only he had the necessary conceptual expertise and skill to manage the slow process of accommodation.
Kissinger's power depended not only on his unique relationship with the president but also on the bureaucratic machinery he created and controlled. The staff Bundy assembled in 1961 had grown steadily in size, but by 1971 Kissinger's NSC staff was three times the size of Rostow's, with more than fifty professionals and one hundred clerical employees. In addition, under Kissinger's chairmanship there was a proliferation of new groups at the undersecretary and director levels, groups that exercised operational control over every aspect of national security policy, including the most comprehensive one of all, the Defense Program Review Committee, created to review "major defense, fiscal, policy and program issues in terms of their strategic, diplomatic, political, and economic implications." When Kissinger became secretary of state, therefore, he merely acquired the added prestige of the title and direct authority over the vast Department of State bureaucracy. Little else changed, except that with the Watergate scandal Kissinger seemed to personify whatever legitimacy the sinking Nixon administration could claim.
In the post-Vietnam era much of the Kissinger structure of international relationships appeared to be coming unstuck. A coalition of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans in Congress passed the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in 1973, which stymied the policy of détente by making the legal emigration of Jews a precondition for liberalizing American trade with the Soviet Union. In late 1975, growing opposition to détente from conservative Republicans led President Ford to strip Kissinger of the position of national security adviser to the president, but he remained as secretary of state. During the 1976 presidential campaign against challenger James Earl Carter, Ford felt compelled to stop using the term "détente." Although Carter's narrow victory turned primarily on domestic issues, especially energy and inflation, the outcome clearly was a rejection of the secretive and power-oriented diplomacy practiced by Kissinger under Nixon and Ford.