An unpopular president, struggling with corruption allegations and a foreign policy agenda based around the appearance of unpredictability. No, it’s not 2017. It’s 1972. Richard Nixon is President of the United States. He and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, are about to undertake an initiative that will change the balance of the Cold War.
The saying “only Nixon could go to China” has passed into popular usage in American politics and society. Mr. Spock quotes it as “an old Vulcan proverb” in Star Trek VI. Only a notorious anti-Communist like Nixon could go to China, because if anyone else did so, they would be seen as being soft on Communism. Opening up ties to ‘Red China,’ as American anti-Communists called it, was unthinkable. China was a Communist adversary, whose troops had fought against Americans in the Korean War. However, the People’s Republic of China was also far from friendly with the Soviet Union.
At the time, the United States recognised the Kuomintang government of Taiwan (which called itself the Republic of China) as the legitimate government of China, rather than the People’s Republic of China.
“The American and Chinese table tennis teams visited each other’s countries in a practice nicknamed ‘ping pong diplomacy’.”
Richard Nixon, even by the standards of ’50s America, was noted for his militant public opposition to Communism. He had made his name initially in 1948 as a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, pursuing State Department official Alger Hiss over allegations that Hiss was a Soviet spy. Nixon’s rise continued when he was elected as a Senator for California in 1950 in a remarkably nasty campaign, breaking many unwritten rules of political decorum along the way (sound familiar?). Two years later, Dwight Eisenhower chose then-Senator Nixon as his Vice President because of his public image as an anti-Communist, at a time when America was gripped by the Red Scare. Infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy held televised hearings where he berated government officials for supposed Communist sympathies, and numerous Hollywood actors faced similar accusations. However, when Nixon ran for the presidency himself in 1960 as Eisenhower’s successor, he lost to John F. Kennedy in one of the closest elections in American history. It’s fair to say he also wasn’t helped by the fact that Eisenhower, in a scene worthy of HBO’s Veep, quipped, “give me a week and I’ll think of something” when asked at a press conference to name a major contribution that Nixon had made to his administration.
After years in the political wilderness, Nixon returned in 1968, winning the presidency in what was quite possibly the most dramatic year in American post-war history (although 2017 might just top that if it continues at this pace). Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were both assassinated, and the Vietnam War continued to divide a nation. Nixon’s message of law and order appealed to a “silent majority” of Americans, which ultimately won him a bitter and tight election victory (ring any bells?).
In office, Nixon focused more on foreign policy, dismissing domestic policy considerations as amounting to “building outhouses in Peoria” (Peoria is a city in Illinois that serves as a byword for ordinary suburban America – think a particularly dreary outer suburb of Melbourne). The administration gradually laid the groundwork for US-China relations through secret channels, culminating in Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971. Publicly, Kissinger was said to be in London meeting with the British Prime Minister. The British Embassy successfully created a fictional account of Kissinger’s supposed London trip from 9 July to 11 July 1971 to serve as a believable alibi. In an age when news operated very differently, such secrets could be kept.
Reaching out to China had multiple benefits for Nixon and the US. Aside from extending a hand of diplomacy to the world’s most populous country, this also was a strategy prompted by the need for an end to the Vietnam War. Nixon had told the American people in 1968 he had a secret plan to end the war, but as of 1972 had not achieved this. By reaching out to China, Nixon and Kissinger aimed to pressure North Vietnam to come to the negotiating table.
Kissinger’s visit was just one part of a wider policy of warming US-China relations prior to Nixon’s visit. Restrictions on Americans visiting mainland China were removed and the American and Chinese table tennis teams visited each other’s countries in a practice nicknamed ‘ping pong diplomacy’. The announcement of Nixon’s trip to China, only a few days after Kissinger’s secret Beijing mission, stunned the nation. The reaction from press and the general public alike was one of shock. The anti-Communist firebrand of the 1950s had now become an advocate for diplomacy and strengthening bilateral relations with an ideological adversary. However, the initial shock of this news was gradually replaced by praise, and Nixon’s approval ratings enjoyed a bounce in what, after all, was an election year.
It must be noted, however, that Nixon was not the first prominent Westerner to visit Communist China. That honour belongs to Australia’s very own Gough Whitlam, who visited Beijing in 1971 as Opposition Leader. Whitlam visited again in late 1972 after his election as Prime Minister, and also formally recognised the People’s Republic as the rightful government of China. Incidentally, for all their mutual interest in reaching out to Beijing, Nixon and Whitlam loathed one another. Whitlam’s opposition to the Vietnam War and his public condemnation of the US bombing of Cambodia enraged the President.
As he and Kissinger had promised, Nixon landed in Beijing in February 1972, the first American president to do so. He, his wife Pat and his advisers toured the Great Wall, while also visiting Shanghai and Hangzhou. The US publicly declared it would remove troops from Taiwan, albeit maintaining relations with the government of Taiwan (which would continue until 1979). Nixon called it “the week that changed the world”. The visit became so enshrined in the popular imagination that it later inspired an American opera, titled Nixon in China, dramatising the proceedings of the visit. (Nixon is played by a baritone, while Mao is a tenor and Kissinger a bass.)
Nixon’s historical legacy is complicated, to say the least. His name has now become a by-word for scandal courtesy of Watergate, which is reflected in his portrayal in popular culture (the appearance of Nixon’s head as a Futurama character being the most prominent example of this). However, Nixon’s most lasting legacy is arguably the creation of what would become normal relations between the world’s largest economy and the world’s most populous country. The US maintains an official ‘One China’ policy, no longer recognising the government in Taiwan. This, incidentally, is why Donald Trump’s phone call with Taiwan’s President in December proved so controversial. Previously, no American president or president-elect had spoken to a Taiwanese leader directly since the US cut ties in 1979. It’s hard to imagine Donald Trump managing any diplomatic feat on the level of Nixon in 1972.
But, then again, only Nixon could go to China.