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Tags: Nixon's Trip to China Remembered After 40 Years

Nixon's Trip to China Remembered After 40 Years

Thursday, 16 February 2012 05:11 PM EST

I write from Beijing. I arrived from Seattle yesterday night having left the day before from Denver and then transferring in Seattle to join Edward Nixon, the President’s brother. My wife, Dianne, and I were invited along with Nixon to attend the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic visit to the People’s Republic of China in February, 1972. With the 81-year old brother, we are representing the United States at the week-long celebrations in Beijing, Huangzhou and Shanghai, the places President Nixon visited in 1972.

We were last in China in 1998 with Dr. Jarvis Ryals of Pueblo, again with Edward Nixon. In 2009, Dr. Ryals and I published our account of our trip, ONLY NIXON. The title referred to the conclusion by Ambassador Ji Chaozhu, the one-time interpreter for Chou En Lai and Mao, that only Nixon, a Republican and anti-Communist, could have pulled off this diplomatic coup of the century.

A central theme of ONLY NIXON was that contrary to popular wisdom, the China initiative originated with Nixon. Henry Kissinger, at the National Security Council, was vehemently opposed to the President’s going to China. In Kissinger’s view such negotiating by Nixon would destroy any possible détente with the Soviets.

I can personally attest that Nixon’s interest in going to China began in December, 1959, long before he ever heard the name of Kissinger, much less met him. It was at a staff Christmas party on December 21st of that year at the Vice President’s house on Forest Lane in Washington. Nixon was nibbling at some chicken dumplings that were part of the party fare. He mumbled in my direction, “Someday I’m going to China.” “Formosa,” I queried? That was the island where the Chinese Nationalist forces established themselves in 1949 after their routing from the mainland by the Reds. Nixon frowned and said curtly, “I said China, didn’t I?”

Some weeks later, George Dixon, a columnist who had attended that Christmas reception, planted an item in the Washington “Star” mentioning that Nixon had told him of his desire to go to China. President Eisenhower would dismiss the notion in a question later at a press conference. The idea, however, continued to germinate in the Nixon mind.

An ancient Chinese proverb states, “A long journey begins with a single step.” Nixon, a diplomatic strategist, used to cite the maxim. His first step was one sentence that was missed by the Washington media and America-China watchers.

In an article written in “Foreign Affairs” magazine in 1967 Nixon wrote, “The U.S. cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” A year later, Nixon would recruit Henry Kissinger, a Soviet expert from Governor Rockefeller’s staff. Kissinger, however, had no inkling of Nixon’s idea on China. After he became President, Nixon had our ambassador float in Poland the idea of a Nixon visit at the fruitless Warsaw talks between the U.S. and the P.R.C. It was rudely squelched. The State Department, as well as Sinologists at Harvard, Princeton and Georgetown all stated their firm opinion that China would not think of ever negotiating until the Vietnam War had ended.

Nixon privately disagreed. The sticking point with China would be Taiwan. In his words, “China didn’t give a rat’s ass about Vietnam. Vietnam was Russia’s surrogate,” said Nixon.

Nixon’s next subtle signal to China was at a state dinner in a toast to Romanian President Nicolae Ceausceu in 1970, calling him “a friend of the People’s Republic of China.” Until that time the world’s largest nation was referred to as “Red China” by Americans.

The first inkling that China had grasped Nixon’s cue was in a photograph of the October 1, 1970 national holiday parade in Beijing. The American writer, Edgar Snow, appeared next to Chairman Mao. The State Department didn’t catch the significance, but Nixon did.

Nixon responded by lifting all travel restrictions for travel to China. If this exchange of volleys across the Pacific suggest a game of ping pong, it would be following that the Chinese Reds first would surface publicly by an invitation to the U.S. Ping Pong team that was competing in Japan in April 1971 to come to Beijing the next week.

In Washington, Vice President Spiro Agnew denounced the “ping pong” invitation as a propaganda stunt. Agnew was told to shut his mouth. Then in June, the Pakistan Ambassador in Washington relayed this message to Nixon. It came from China through its president Yahya Khan. Chou-En-Lai added this: “This is the first time a proposal has come from a head of Government through a head of Government to a head of Government.”

The unscheduled trip in July, 1971, by Henry Kissinger from Islamabad to Beijing would follow and was shrouded in secrecy during a time it was announced that he was ill. But the fact is that Kissinger opposed the trip until Nixon said he would send Secretary of State Rogers in his place. Kissinger then changed his mind. In Beijing plans would then be secretly laid for the Nixon trip in February.

Just after Kissinger left on his many-countries Asian trip that reportedly would end in Pakistan, Nixon, in Kansas City, departed from a prepared text to state, “The goal of the U.S. policy must be in the long-term ending the isolation of Main Land China and a normalization of our relations with Main Land China.” When Kissinger arrived in Beijing, he was shown Nixon’s remarks. Kissinger was stunned and was embarrassed that he could not answer questions about the new Nixon policy announced by Chou En Lai which Kissinger had no idea of.

In 1998, Dr. Ryals, Mr. Edward Nixon and I went to China top meet with Chinese Foreign Office staff who had helped plan the preparations for the Nixon visit in 1972. These Chinese diplomats confirmed that their own intelligence had informed them at that time that Kissinger was against the Nixon mission. They knew it was Nixon alone who conceived the Chinese trip.

That February 19th, President Nixon would descend the airplane staircase to the tarmac with his hand extended for Chou En Lai who had seethed when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to take the Chinese diplomat’s hand in Geneva in 1954. For her part, on this frigid February day, Pat Nixon wore a red coat as she alit from the airplane. She knew red was an auspicious color for Chinese.

It is significant that Kissinger, the avowed disciple of Bismarkian realpolitik, would dismiss Nixon’s China notion as chimerical nonsense.

As Al Haig, Deputy to Kissinger and later Secretary of State, said to me in New York in 2001, “Henry said to me ‘the President’s gone crazy; he has this obsession with China. It will ruin détente.’”

But for Nixon, it was not some wild idealistic fantasy; it was diplomatic hardball. The U.S. would be driving a wedge between the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic. That fact of life, Nixon figured, would drive Russia to the negotiating table. It did and a new détente in the cold war between America and Russia would be achieved.

With Edward Nixon, I helped draft words for a plaque to be presented to the Chinese government to commemorate this 40th anniversary of his brother’s visit to China: “These words memorialize the handshake between Richard Nixon and Chou En Lai that headlined the front pages of international news and inaugurated ‘the week that changed the world.’ February 19, 2012.”


James Humes was a presidential speechwriter for Nixon and later served in his State Department. He is co-author of the book, ONLY NIXON: HIS TRIP TO CHINA REVISITED AND RESTUDIED.

© Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

I write from Beijing. I arrived from Seattle yesterday night having left the day before from Denver and then transferring in Seattle to join Edward Nixon, the President’s brother. My wife, Dianne, and I were invited along with Nixon to attend the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic v
Nixon's Trip to China Remembered After 40 Years
Thursday, 16 February 2012 05:11 PM
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