Once in a while, there are times in an ambitious politician’s career when the rhetoric actually does hit the mark for real. Richard M Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, exactly 45 years ago, was one such event. The then US president called it “the week that changed the world”, and the fact that the vast majority of journalists who accompanied him were fully in agreement can only suggest that he was absolutely right.
Certainly, the flight of a fiercely anti-communist Republican president to the People’s Republic of China can’t easily be dismissed as just another newspaper-friendly photo-op. It was the start of the first genuine attempt to thaw out the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and (though this would take some time to work out) the beginning of the “opening up” of the People’s Republic to an increasingly globalised world economy.
The Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis is one of many writers who laud the bold move:
With this single act, Nixon and Kissinger dazzled their domestic critics, rattled the Soviet Union, impressed allies (despite their exasperation at not having been consulted) and set up an exit strategy for a war that had become unwinnable: the United States might indeed “lose” South Vietnam, but it would “gain” China. Despite its implications for the unfortunate Vietnamese, this was an outcome with which it was hard to argue.
Nixon himself is in a protracted process of rehabilitation, with attention on his long career no longer fixed principally on Watergate and Vietnam. Even cynical rock stars like the Manic Street Preachers have (literally) sung his praises: in their 2004 hit The Love of Richard Nixon they make the case for his under-appreciated greatness:
The love of Richard Nixon, death without assassination
The love of Richard Nixon, yeah they all betrayed you
People forget China and your war on cancer
Yeah, they all betrayed you
Yeah, and your country too
The historic China trip on 21 February 1972 came amid a difficult time for the United States: the war in Vietnam was going badly, with tens of thousands of American soldiers dying (as well as several million Vietnamese civilians perishing), and the American “advisers” evidently, and publicly, failing in their objectives. Nixon and his cabinet knew the war was as good as lost, but obviously had to be careful how they communicated their thoughts to the American public: he had to bring the troops home in as face-saving a way as could be managed. With the assistance of his controversial Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, he therefore initiated the process of détente, beginning with the visit to Chairman Mao and his Prime Minister, Zhou Enlai.
The plan was to persuade the Chinese to drop their support for the communist National Liberation Front (or Vietcong) in South Vietnam, in return for the US agreeing to recognise the People’s Republic (as opposed to the Republic of China in Taiwan, established in 1949 by the last supporters of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek) as the only legitimate government of China.
The initiation for the Beijing visit was actually begun by Mao in 1971, as he invited some American table-tennis players to go the Chinese capital to play against that country’s top players. This in turn led to Kissinger holding secret meetings with the Communist government. Certainly, Mao and his government had their reasons for turning to America: the Cultural Revolution (a disaster of Mao’s own making – as was the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s) had led to nothing but chaos, the economy was in a shaky state with much need for outside investment, and a series of border incidents since the mid-60s had led to the spectre of a possible war with the Soviet Union. If Mao could come to an agreement with the historic American enemy, this would certainly help his government in its ongoing trial of strength with Moscow…
For all the success of the February ’72 visit, it would be a stretch to suggest that Nixon and Mao emerged from the experience as friends, but they certainly forged a mutual respect: Nixon apparently found it “moving” how firmly the Communist leader gripped his hand in their iconic handshake, while Mao made a revealing comment about his conversation with the the American president:
I like to deal with rightists… They say what they really think — not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.
It was arguably the first example of how sometimes you can really only achieve anything in diplomacy by making bold and unexpected moves.
In the end, Nixon and his team, on returning to Washington in early March 1972, could point to very few tangible benefits of the China visit: Beijing had very little (if any) leverage on the North Vietnamese regime (which was very much a Soviet, rather than a Chinese, ally). Arguably, more was achieved over the Vietnam issue when Nixon met Brezhnev for the first-ever talks on arms limitation later in 1972. Nonetheless, it was the start of increasingly positive and productive (if not exactly friendly) relations between the US and China, and the memories of the ’72 trip would prove influential in Mao’s successors (such as Deng Xiaoping) turning to America when they began to open China up to foreign investment from 1978 onwards.
Fast-forward 45 years, and from the point of view of many Americans Nixon may well have done his work too well: the effects of China’s rise and rise in world trade tables were an important factor in deciding last year’s presidential election, with the ultimate victor Donald Trump accusing the Chinese of “raping” the American economy. Also, however their diplomatic links play out in the years and decades to come, the two superpowers (and it surely is worth referring to China as such by now) will always remain rivals, and often fierce ones at that. One can only hope that the successors to Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Zhou can keep their diplomatic wheels well oiled – for, as the late radical British politician Tony Benn reminded us, the result of a failure in diplomacy is war…