Margaret MacMillan is one of the best known pop historians today. Her previous work, Paris, 1919, about the Treaty of Versailles, was well received by academics and readers alike. She follows up in the book’s success with a very accessible study of one of America’s greatest foreign policy achievements, the opening of China by Richard Nixon in February 1972.
In Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed The World, MacMillan illustrates the carefully choreography of diplomacy in a way that leaves the reader on the edge of his seat. Most episodes, such as the endless state banquets and private talks between President Nixon and Chinese Prime Minister Chou Enlai would be painfully boring in the hands of another author. But MacMillan handles these events with a deft style that captures the mood of all the major players as well as the mood of the banquet atmosphere. For example, her description of the first state banquet hosted for Nixon captures the apprehension of the US and Chinese officials in attendance, but also the unbridled optimism of Nixon and Chou. While both were guarded in their statements to each other and their respective parties, the deep-seated desire of both for the visit to be a success comes across. During another banquet later in the trip, the weariness of both parties is apparent. Both Nixon and Chou are exhausted from near constant negotiations and sightseeing, both are tired of the other’s company. But both do their best to continue the success of the visit realizing the precarious nature of the visit.
Indeed, Nixon’s visit to China was a massive risk, a gamble really. Richard Nixon had made his name during the McCarthy era finding alleged communists in the Federal Government and elsewhere. Very conservative by nature, his trip to China should have been political suicide. America’s allies, especially Taiwan, were worried about the blowback from such a visit. The Soviet Union worried that the US was going to use China as leverage in the upcoming SALT I talks. Even the European allies were worried that US commitment in Europe would be undermined by a new relationship with China. Domestically, Nixon was in a tough spot. Vietnam was still raging and negotiations with the North Vietnamese over a US withdrawal were stalled literally by the shape of the negotiating table. He was risking alienating conservatives, his political base, who still were afraid of the Communist threat and were still pro-Taiwan. He was also coming up on an election year. The 1972 election would be one of the most hotly contested races in memory. While Nixon eventually won in a landslide, his victory was bolstered by the success of his China trip.
The success of Nixon’s trip to China certainly would not have been possible without one man. Henry Kissinger. Kissinger spent countless hours secretly negotiating with the Chinese through back channel communiques and in person during several secret trips to China proper. If ever one man can be credited with changing the world, it is Henry Kissinger. As America’s most successful, and most controversial, diplomat, he and Nixon were a match made in heaven. Both believed in Realpolitik. Both saw the cracks and differences among the communist powers. Both also saw great potential in a close relationship with China, despite their being Communist. Both Kissinger and Nixon believed that a good working relationship with China would make the US, and the World, a safer more prosperous place. It was this desire for peace that drove Nixon and Kissinger to approach China. Kissinger, like Nixon, had a tendency towards secrecy, which made him the perfect man to conduct negotiations prior to Nixon’s visit. In a break with convention, Nixon deliberately cut the State Department out of any discussions about China and put Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, in charge of all the planning. He could not have done a better job. MacMillan points out that the Chinese have a long memory and the US-China relationship had been strained before the Communist take over in 1949. Kissinger had to make up for many of these perceived slights before any headway could be made on an actual visit. He also had to overcome the traditional Chinese mentality that outsiders should visit China as supplicants, not equals. All of this he did with the practiced hand of a diplomat and the cunning of a commensurate politician.
Richard Nixon encountered a world very different from that in virtually any other country when he visited China. By 1972 Mao Tsedong was very ill, having suffered a stroke, possibly Alzheimer’s, and numerous STDs. In keeping with his peasant roots, Mao refused medical treatment for any of his ailments. He rarely was seen in public. In fact, when Nixon arrived in China, it was not even clear if he would be able to meet with Mao. At almost the last second on his first day there, Nixon was informed that he would be able to meet with Mao. Nixon and Mao spoke for nearly an hour, but the discussions lacked substance. Mao delighted in meeting Nixon and Kissinger, which was a good sign for the rest of the trip. After the meeting, the Nixon team and the Chinese team thought there would a second meeting with Mao later in the week, but this never took place. Mao was content to trust in Chou Enlai to conduct all of the business. This was probably for the best. The Cultural Revolution was still happening in the countryside, one of Mao’s senile, half-baked ideas for constant revolution. Had he personally conducted most of the business during Nixon’s trip, there is no telling what kind of crazy things would have taken place. Mao, however, was surprisingly lucid in his thinking about the Nixon trip. He realized that China had been isolated too long thanks to their firebrand Communism, the Great Leap Forward (or how to destroy an economy overnight), and the Cultural Revolution (or kill all the educated people). China was in desperate need of allies. They were facing a simmering armed confrontation with the Soviets and India, they were in danger of collapsing internally due to the Cultural Revolution, and they had virtually no economic output. These very real needs fueled Mao’s enthusiastic support for Nixon’s trip.
In the wake of the Watergate Scandal, it is easy to forget Richard Nixon was more than just a crooked politician whose nickname was “Tricky Dick.” He was also an idealist and internationalist who focused his presidency on foreign policy. He wanted to make the world more peaceful and safer, not just for the US, but for all. Nixon’s foreign policy was bold and risky. But by reaching out to China he was able to make Asia and the world safer and more stable. Perhaps the thawing of US-Chinese relations was inevitable. But for Nixon, waiting for a natural thaw was not an option. His success in China is a testament to his bold vision for the future of the US in the world. Nixon may not be America’s greatest president, but, in the wake of Vietnam, he did more to save American prestige abroad than any could have predicted. For that alone, he should be admired.