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Nixon in China

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Nixon’s visit to China turned out to be his greatest moment as president. He had brought about a diplomatic revolution that produced the modern diplomatic world.

On February 21, 1972, Air Force One landed in Beijing carrying President Richard Nixon. With his visit to China, a new era in Great Power diplomacy began.

It is an axiom of international politics that nations don’t have friends, they have interests. And when those interests coincide, nations act in concert regardless of old antagonisms.

Austria and France, for instance, had been antagonists since the late 15th century, contending over the Low Countries and much of what is now eastern France and western Germany. By the 18th century, with the rise of Prussia, the lineup in the endless wars of that century was Britain and Austria against France and Prussia.

But between 1748, when the War of the Austrian Succession ended, and 1756, when the Seven Years War (known as the French and Indian War in North America) began, what is remembered in European history as the “Diplomatic Revolution” took place. Suddenly, it was Britain and Prussia against France and Austria.

Something similar happened in the mid-20th century. Since shortly after the end of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union had been involved in a deep geopolitical conflict remembered as the Cold War. The United States’ main allies were western Europe and Japan. The Soviet Union dominated eastern Europe and had aided the Communist takeover in China.

Once China fell to Mao Zedong, forcing the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek, to flee to Taiwan, the United States continued to recognize the Nationalists as the legitimate government of that country. “Who Lost China?” became a stock political phrase that Republicans used to attack Democratic failures in foreign policy.

The deep antagonism between mainland China and the United States continued for 20 years. Mao was a doctrinaire Communist and the United States the most capitalist nation on earth. But by the late 1960s the tectonic plates of geopolitics were beginning to shift regardless of these antagonisms.

The Soviets had aided the Chinese Communist revolution, but not nearly enough to satisfy the Chinese. And while they supplied technology and expertise as China began to modernize, the Soviets tried to treat China as, at best, a junior partner, which the Chinese bitterly resented.

In April 1971, an American ping-pong team visited China amid great publicity. This was all that was needed to get the ball rolling.

With the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s secret anti-Stalin speech in 1956, Soviet Communism and the Chinese version began to diverge. Mao, far more doctrinaire, regarded Khrushchev’s reforms to be “Soviet revisionism.” Chinese-Soviet relations deteriorated further when clashes erupted in 1969 along the long Soviet-Chinese border. China, fearing more Soviet pressure, needed alternatives. America may have been the capitalist Satan, but the Soviets had a million troops on China’s border.

Richard Nixon, narrowly elected president in 1968, had built his political reputation as a fierce anti-Communist. But his principal interest as president was foreign policy, and he saw an opportunity to exploit the rift between the Soviet Union and the second-most powerful Communist state. He also hoped to get the Chinese to put pressure on North Vietnam to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War and, perhaps, even slow down aid to North Vietnam.

The problem, for both the Chinese and the Nixon administration, was how to signal the other that it was ready to deal. No country, seeking rapprochement with an enemy, wants to risk losing face with a direct approach that is rebuffed. So diplomacy is often a matter of nuance and even tea-leaf reading. A slight modification of vocabulary, the disappearance of a standard minor demand, or an unexpected greeting at an event on neutral ground, can mean a change in attitude that can be welcomed or ignored. Both sides began signaling, but both sides missed or ignored the other’s signals.

For instance, in 1970, at an event celebrating the Chinese National Day, Chairman Mao had alluded to the American — but very pro-Chinese — journalist Edgar Snow that better relations between China and America might be possible. But Nixon, who regarded Snow as a Communist turncoat, didn’t trust him.

Then, the following year, an American ping-pong player named Glenn Cowan missed his team bus after a practice at the 31st International Table Tennis championships in Nagoya, Japan. He had been practicing with a Chinese player, who invited him to come on the Chinese bus. There he met the three-time world champion Zhuang Zedong, who gave him a silk screen. Cowan had nothing to give him in return (he later gave him a T-shirt with a red, white, and blue peace symbol on it).

When they got off the bus, both Western and Chinese journalists and photographers were there, and even so accidental a mingling of Chinese and American athletes was, at that time, definitely news. A journalist asked Cowan if he would like to visit China. “Of course,” he replied.

When the Chinese Department of Foreign Affairs heard that the American ping-pong team would like to be invited to China, they reflexively declined. Mao, seeing opportunity to signal the Americans, reversed that decision. In April 1971, an American ping-pong team visited China amid great publicity.

This was all that was needed to get the ball rolling. In July 1971, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger made an official visit to Pakistan and, while he was there, made a secret trip to Beijing. In Beijing he arranged for President Nixon to make a state visit to China. The visit was announced in both capitals on July 15, when Nixon gave an address to the nation on the event.

The problem, for both the Chinese and the Nixon administration, was how to signal the other that it was ready to deal.

It was, to say the least, astounding political news. After all, Nixon had always been a fervent anti-Communist and now he was headed to China to shake hands and break bread with Communists who held a billion people in a ruthless tyranny. But it has long been said that only Nixon, because of his unimpeachable anti-Communist credentials, could have gone to China — even though doing so was in the interests of the United States — without suffering severe political damage.

But it turned out to be Nixon’s greatest moment as president. He had brought about a diplomatic revolution that produced the modern diplomatic world, as the Cold War began to fade away and China began to rise to take her place among the Great Powers.

John Steele Gordon has written several books on business and financial history, the latest of which is the revised edition of Hamilton's Blessing: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Our National Debt.

FURTHER READING: Gordon also writes "How Bureaucrats Captured Government" and "The Uses of Scandal."

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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