45. Nixon Breaks the Deadlock

When Republican Richard M. Nixon became president of the United States in January, 1969, few persons expected him to alter the now-traditional American posture of hostility toward Red China. Nixon was a certified conservative, had been a loyal supporter of China-haters Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles during the years he was vice president and had a long and unequivocal career as an anti-Communist. Moreover, Red China was an ally of North Vietnam and aided and abetted the Communist forces in defying American attempts to drive them out of South Vietnam.

The Chinese Communists themselves were suspicious of Nixon. In part this was because of his identification with the "brinkmanship" of Eisenhower and Dulles, the most actively hostile and confrontational leaders in a string of such leaders in Washington. Beijing also detected a negative tone toward Red China in Nixon's inaugural address, although Nixon voiced his intention of shifting from "confrontation to negotiation" in world affairs.

Yet Richard Nixon, this withdrawn and contradictory man, was not at all the way he appeared. Many Americans misread him because his personal thoughts mostly remained closely guarded secrets and his official statements sounded like they had been written by a public-relations consultant. Yet President Nixon saw a fact none of his predecessors had grasped—that the policy with China the United States had been pursuing for a full generation was utterly wrong. He saw it was wrong because it excluded a great and vital nation from full participation in world affairs when such participation was vital to preserve world peace. He also saw that the United States itself would be a safer and more peaceful nation if it recognized that Communist China had never been a true enemy, but rather shared a great community of interest with the United States.

Ever since 1944 the United States had been locked in a policy that forbade any concessions to the Chinese Communists. The policy had begun because Franklin D. Roosevelt had thrown his support to the Nationalist Chinese. For much of World War II Roosevelt had nourished a dream of a great-power China ruled by the Nationalists with something like an American-style democracy that would stand with the United States as a bastion of stability and strength in the Far East. By late 1944 FDR saw that this hope was unrealistic. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists were corrupt, selfish, autocratic and unable to reform China's inequitable society or bring China out of its poverty. Roosevelt never addressed an alternative to the Nationalists.

When he died in April, 1945, his successor, Harry Truman, accepted the belief shared by a number of important Americans that the Chinese Reds were part of a great Communist conspiracy of world conquest being directed by the Kremlin. Although there was no evidence that China was part of this conspiracy, Truman never altered his views. Moreover, after the Korean War broke out in June, 1950, Truman adopted a policy of unremitting hostility to the People's Republic. Dwight Eisenhower intensified this policy, actually contemplating nuclear strikes against China and adopting as official American policy the destruction of the Chinese Communist state. John F. Kennedy, though saying little publicly, believed so firmly that the Chinese were unstable and aggressive that he tried unsuccessfully to join with the Soviet Union to find a way to destroy China's nuclear-weapons capability before it became dangerous.

Until Nixon took office in 1969, none of the American presidents after Roosevelt ever seriously examined two fundamental questions relating to China. The first was whether Red China in fact constituted a threat to the United States. The other was whether Red China actually challenged American interests in the Far East. Richard Nixon was the first American president to make this analysis. And he came up with the answers that any American president could have reached if he had been willing to look at China dispassionately. China, Nixon decided, did not threaten the U.S. And the People's Republic, though interested in expanding its influence, wanted stability in East Asia fully as much as did the United States. Upon this basis, Nixon saw, the foundations of a long and peaceful relationship could be erected.

In reaching this judgment, Richard Nixon demonstrated an insight and political courage that none of his predecessors had shown. On the contrary, American leaders in the years after World War II became so obsessed with their fear of a Communist conspiracy of world conquest that they paid inadequate attention to the nature of nation-states. These states operate in their own interests, irrespective of ideology or doctrine.

This is not to say, of course, that national leaders always make the correct judgments. They sometimes make horrendous errors which directly damage their nations' interests. In the absence of political insight or the political courage to admit mistakes on the part of leaders, these errors can persist for a long time. This is especially true when a people is possessed of some fear which obscures what otherwise would be obvious. In the case of the United States in the years after World War II, the specter of a Communist conspiracy hid for most people the real nature of China. They did not press for a rational resolution of the conflict. But American leaders, who had possession of highly sophisticated intelligence sources, had no such excuse..

Yet the aim of all nations is to adopt policies that advance their countries, and every other consideration is secondary. Western leaders had an early example of this principle as it applied to Communist states, but they did not draw the correct conclusion. The withdrawal of Yugoslavia from the Soviet bloc in 1948 was proof that Communist ideology did not supersede Yugoslavia's national interest of avoiding becoming a Soviet satellite. All of the other eastern European Soviet satellites would have done likewise had not Soviet troops prevented their defection. Yugoslavia, unoccupied by Soviet forces, was able to make good its escape. This demonstrated that every Communist state sought to advance its interests. Instead of a Communist conspiracy of conquest, what actually existed was a powerful Soviet desire to secure its frontiers against Western or other encroachment and to advance the national interests of the Soviet Union as far as possible. This attitude was practically indistinguishable from the empire-building lusts of the Russian Romanov imperial dynasty ousted in 1917. But it was not a conspiracy which wrung in other Communist states, except the Soviet satellites that had no choice. Other Communist states had far different and often conflicting aspirations.

The Soviet Union and China possessed a natural rivalry. Both sought to extend their influence over Asia at the expense of the other and both sought to secure their frontiers against encroachments of the other. The People's Republic was especially sensitive to threatened advances by the Soviet Union. Not only had Joseph Stalin insisted upon resurrecting old Russian imperialist privileges in Manchuria in 1945, but he worked right up to the day the Nationalists embarked for their exile on Taiwan to seek special Soviet privileges in China's enormous but vulnerable western region, Xinjiang province. Red China was afraid of the Soviet Union and sought the support of the United States as a counterforce. American interests were to emphasize this conflict between the two great Eurasian land powers and to encourage a split between them. In fact, President Truman and his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, did precisely the opposite.

In the summer of 1949, before the Reds established the People's Republic, the Communist leadership solicited a visit by the American ambassador to China, John Leighton Stuart, to demonstrate they were willing to let bygones be bygones. This effort occurred despite anger because of American support of the Nationalists in the Chinese civil war. It took place before the Chinese Communists opened negotiations with Moscow and demonstrates they were seeking an alternative to embracing the Russian bear. Dean Acheson, however, spurned the Chinese Communist advance and Truman supported him.

Truman and Acheson thereafter attempted to back out of the China morass by washing their hands of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, but without recognizing the People's Republic. The great "Communists-in-government" scare fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the outbreak of the Korean War solidified an American policy of antipathy to the People's Republic. This process closed off avenues of normal trade and intercourse by Communist China with the West. This forced Beijing into the arms of the Soviet Union as the only power willing to assist China in developing modern industry upon which its future depended. Therefore, the United States operated exactly against its own interests in rejecting the Communist Chinese overture and turning the People's Republic into an enemy and an ally of the chief American rival, the Soviet Union.

China and the Soviet Union ultimately split, due to deep conflicts between the two countries. China and Russia were natural rivals and China refused to accept the permanent leadership of the Kremlin. Before the schism occurred, however, the Sino-Soviet alliance temporarily tied the two great powers together. This alliance accentuated the East-West division and contributed to Sino-Soviet cooperation in two wars, in Korea and in Indochina. Therefore, the United States suffered directly and deeply as a result of its refusal to play China against the Soviet Union by recognizing the People's Republic and bringing it into a political and economic relationship with the West.

It is true that American presidents were distracted by a number of factors. These included charges that the United States had "lost" China because of some sinister Communist plot, as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Yet the United States never "owned" China and could scarcely have "lost" it, and that the reason the Nationalists lost it was because they were incompetent and unfit to rule. More important was the fact that American leaders found it difficult to understand that it was not Chinese aggression or conspiracy that brought on intervention in the Korean War or help to the North Vietnamese in the Indochina war. China’s motivation was fear of American aggression against China. In both cases, Beijing let Washington know well in advance that it could not bear the presence of a large (and inevitably hostile) American army against its frontiers and would fight to prevent it. Truman ignored the warning in Korea and got war with China. Johnson heeded the warning in Indochina and avoided war with China. But none of the presidents between 1945 and 1969 looked at how American actions could be viewed from Beijing as hostile to China and therefore would evoke hostile responses in return. Throughout this dismal period of self-deception, the American position remained that China was unilaterally hostile and that the United States was invariably peaceful.

The most inexplicable failure that occurred prior to Nixon's presidency was the inability of Presidents Kennedy or Johnson to move toward rapprochement with China when it became obvious, by 1961 or 1962, that China and the Soviet Union were divided and on the verge of open conflict. This was an excellent chance of drawing China into a normal, peaceful relationship with the West. The Soviet Union still represented the great challenge to the West and any move that weakened Moscow and strengthened the West was in the interest of Washington. Yet Kennedy approached Moscow, not Beijing, signing the ban against atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1963 and attempting to conspire with Khrushchev to halt Chinese nuclear-weapons development. Kennedy said his main motivation for signing the treaty was to get Soviet help against China. To Kennedy, China was irresponsible and a grave danger, when in fact China was operating with caution at all points of conflict with the United States, notably in the Taiwan Strait and in Indochina. Neither Kennedy nor Johnson made any moves to distance China from Russia, but rather perpetuated the longstanding isolation of the People's Republic.

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Nixon's radical new policy with China emerged as a dim silhouette on October, 1967, when he wrote in the October, 1967, issue of Foreign Affairs that "we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

Nixon’s foreign-security adviser, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, a former Harvard history professor, came up with a theory upon which to base Nixon's diplomatic revolution. Kissinger advanced the idea of equilibrium among states and a system of limited security rather than total security of the United States. He and Nixon abandoned a view that had ruled American thinking since World War II—that the earth was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union and other countries had to adjust to this bipolarity by revolving around one or the other or attempting to stay neutral. Instead, Kissinger and Nixon saw that five great power centers had arisen: the U.S., the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Japan and China. The aim was to establish a variation of the old British goal of a "balance of powers" to preserve peace.

Of the five power centers, only China remained isolated from the world community. Since China was necessary to check Soviet expansionism, it was imperative to bring the People's Republic into the international system. Since the United States had been the principal foe of China and had blocked its admission to the United Nations and its diplomatic recognition by a number of countries, it was Washington’s responsibility to initiate a rapprochement with Beijing. Nixon and Kissinger saw Japan, which was rising fast as an economic superpower, as a counterbalance to China.

The Nixon-Kissinger five-power division of the world had some obvious shortcomings. It left out the Third World, especially the Arab oil countries and India, and always faced the threat that two of the five powers could come together and recreate a bipolar world. A China-Russia rapprochement, however, was unlikely not only because of the inherent conflicts between the two powers but also because China would enjoy many other opportunities if it were reintegrated into the world community.

Red China, for its part, was also coming to a new position regarding foreign relations. Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai defined the Soviet Union as the principal enemy and based China's global strategy on traditional principles of national sovereignty, peaceful coexistence and friendly relations "between states with different social systems." This implied an accommodation with the United States and, though Nixon and Kissinger were not immediately aware of it, fitted perfectly with their new five-power world.

During 1969, Nixon had little scope for his dramatic plan, and it remained locked inside his very private thoughts. Nixon's main concern was the Vietnam War which he refused to end because he, like Johnson before him, did not want to admit defeat. Although in May, 1969, he commenced the first significant withdrawal of American forces (25,000), U.S. troop strength had only fallen to 474,000 in January, 1970. In the interim, Nixon recommenced the massive American bombing of North Vietnam, which Johnson had halted in October, 1968. He also was getting nowhere in negotiations with Hanoi which had begun in May, 1968, in Paris.

Despite his concentration on Vietnam, Nixon made a few gestures toward Red China. In July, 1969, the administration eased slightly travel and trade regulations with China and in August, 1969, the secretary of state, William P. Rogers, said China had been isolated too long from international contact. In November, the U.S. Seventh Fleet quietly ended its regular patrols in the Taiwan Strait. In December, the American ambassador in Warsaw, Walter Stoessel, visited the Chinese embassy in the Polish capital, the first visit by an American diplomat since 1949 to a Chinese diplomatic residence. On January 8, 1970, the Chinese ambassador returned the visit to Stoessel at his embassy.

Nevertheless, improving Chinese Communist relations with the U.S. soured somewhat in November, 1969, when the United States agreed to return the Ryukyu islands (Okinawa) to Japan and Japan, in turn, reaffirmed its close alignment to the U.S., claiming that South Korea and Taiwan were essential to its security. The reference to Taiwan was a direct challenge to Beijing.

Red China deplored the renewed bombings of North Vietnam and continued to give substantial aid to Hanoi. But the Chinese government was itself preoccupied with two major crises—bringing the destructive Cultural Revolution to a close (including resolution of a bid for power by Lin Biao) and dealing with an ominously growing conflict with the Soviet Union.

Ever since the ideological dispute between China and Russia had reached the stage of name-calling in 1963, Moscow and Beijing had argued over the legitimacy of the former Russian empire's treaties with imperial China. These treaties, Beijing claimed, had unjustly awarded some half a million square miles of Chinese territory to Russia. Although China made no specific claim for these "lost territories" to be restored, conflicts as to exactly where the existing Chinese-Soviet border ran became commonplace. The Chinese disputed Soviet possession of some 12,000 square miles of territory in the high Pamir mountains in the extreme western reaches of Xinjiang province opposite the Tadzhik Soviet republic. But the major contention was over the precise location of the frontier in the channels of the Ussuri and Amur rivers which formed the eastern and northern boundaries of Heilongjiang province in northern Manchuria. Beijing argued for the international-law principle of talweg (German for the deepest course of a valley through which a boundary river flows). This would give to China six hundred of the seven hundred or so small islands in the two rivers. The Russians countered that the treaties showed the Soviet Union owned these bits of land. The dispute over tiny islands in the middle of streams appears more of a trumped-up reason to argue than a legitimate international concern. But as the rhetoric intensified between 1964 and 1969, the arguments about the islands in the rivers heated up

Throughout the Cultural Revolution the Soviet Union had been strengthening its forces along the Manchurian frontier and in Outer Mongolia. The People's Liberation Army had not matched the Soviet buildup. On the night of March 1, 1969, however, the Chinese decided to strike. About three-hundred Chinese soldiers crossed over to Chen-bao (Treasure) or Damansky island, a sliver of land about a mile long and a third of a mile wide in the Ussuri river occupied by a small Russian detachment.1 The next morning the two forces clashed. The Chinese killed seven Russians and took the surviving nineteen prisoner. The Soviet command moved up tanks and troops reinforcement, as did the Chinese. On March 14-15, in retaliation, the Russians assaulted Chen-bao for nine hours, resulting in sixty Russian and more than eight-hundred Chinese casualties. Both sides organized huge public demonstrations and stirred up a war scare. Subsequently, Chinese and Russian troops also clashed in small engagements at Ba-cha (Goldinsky) island in the Amur river and along the Xinjiang border.

The clashes ended as fast as they had begun. Both sides realized they could quickly escalate beyond control. But they emphasized a deeper potential conflict between China and the Soviet Union that had been building since the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact countries occupied Czechoslovakia the previous summer (August, 1968) to put an end to the liberal Communist regime that had taken charge there. China had angrily deplored the invasion (though, in the friendlier Sino-Soviet atmosphere of 1956, had supported a similar Soviet invasion of Hungary and shattering of the Hungarian revolt).

The real conflict erupted in November, 1968, however, when Leonid Brezhnev advanced the idea of "limited sovereignty." Brezhnev's theory was that, when internal developments in a Communist country "endangered the socialist community as a whole," other Communist states were justified in intervening. Lin Biao responded on April 1, 1969, saying it meant simply that other Red states' sovereignty was limited while the Soviet Union's was not. Meanwhile, Moscow commenced a war of nerves suggesting it might be necessary for the Warsaw Pact to intervene in the Sino-Soviet conflict against China.

Tensions finally eased on September 11, 1969, when the Soviet premier, Alexsei Kosygin, turned back to Beijing after flying home from the funeral of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. He talked at the airport with Zhou Enlai for three hours, where both decided to avoid force and maintain status quo on the frontiers.

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The clash with the Soviet Union came at an awkward time for China. The Cultural Revolution had left the Chinese leadership cut to pieces, demoralized and most of its survivors anxious for the future. Mao Zedong had won out over the murdered Liu Shaoqi and other moderates and had reasserted his principle of "perpetual" revolution. But revolution was already showing itself to be no substitute for solid economic progress. And the chaos that had consumed China for three years had left deep wounds among the people and within the leadership. These would take many years to heal.

When all the rhetoric and slogans of the Cultural Revolution were wiped away, what remained was a new version of a familiar old Chinese power struggle for access to the throne and for a chance at succeeding the ruler. The treachery, deceit and bids for power that had gone on throughout the Cultural Revolution would have been perfectly in keeping with the intrigues and cabals that burdened the worst years of the old imperial dynasties. The promises of a new democratically based political order modeled on the Paris Commune of 1871 had been forgotten. The party reestablished its power and transformed into bureaucratic organs the revolutionary committees that had been set up, using them to carry out party orders.2

Although Mao Zedong emerged as the supreme leader of China in April, 1969, when the Communist party held its first congress since 1958, Lin Biao also gained immensely. The congress elected Mao chairman of the party and the central committee and declared Mao's thought as the guiding policy of the party and state. It thus appeared that Mao's apotheosis was complete. But the congress also named Lin Biao vice chairman and designated Lin as Mao's successor. This was the first time in the party's history that it had designated a successor and signified not only the great power that Lin brought out of the Cultural Revolution but also Mao's patronage of him.

The membership of the central committee and the Politburo also demonstrated Lin Biao's rise. Of the enlarged central committee of 170 regular and 109 alternate members, four out of ten were military officers, most of them presumably backers of Lin. On the twenty-one-member Politburo were ten military leaders and Lin's wife, Ye Qun. A new leadership group had come to power. Apart from Mao, Lin and Zhou Enlai, the top leaders were all Maoists: Chen Boda, Kang Sheng, Jiang Qing (Mao's wife), Yao Wenyuan and Xie Fuzhi, the security chief.

Astute observers recognized that Lin Biao was making a bid for supreme power. The question was whether he would wait for Mao to die or retire or whether he would attempt what came to be called a "Bonapartist" coup, or a military takeover as Napoleon Bonaparte had seized the government of France in 1799 after the French Revolution. Both Mao and Zhou Enlai saw the danger and sought to restore the power of the party in order to end an unexpected, but logical, outcome of the Cultural Revolution—the domination by the PLA of the political life of the nation. In 1927 Mao Zedong had laid down his most famous maxim: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." But he insisted that "the party commands the gun and the gun will never be allowed to command the party."3 The issue now was which would prevail, party or army.

Although Lin Biao, as minister of defense, is usually pictured as a "Bonapartist" backed by the army and attempting to take over the country from the Communist party, the situation was much more complicated. As Maurice Meisner describes it, Lin was "closely associated with many of those who attacked the PLA during the most turbulent and radical phases" of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou Enlai, on the other hand, had defended the PLA during this period. Consequently, many army commanders were angry with Lin and supportive of Zhou and Mao. Though Lin had his backers in the PLA, they were far fewer than those who backed Mao and Zhou.4

Mao became increasingly distrustful of Lin. In March, 1970, he decided to abolish the post of state chairman, a high, though ceremonial, post, from which Liu Shaoqi had been removed. Mao did not want Lin to gain this post for fear of undermining Zhou Enlai's supremacy over the state administration. Lin sensed he was being set up for disinheritance and demanded that the position be retained. Mao refused. The issue came to a head at another central committee conference at Lu Shan, in August, 1970.

The Mao-Zhou group had drafted a new constitution which omitted the state chairmanship. Lin Biao and his ally, Chen Boda, supported it, along with a group of prominent military figures. Lin Biao lost. The conference did not appoint him chairman of the republic, and criticized Lin and Chen Boda for obstructing the reconstruction of the party. This marked the downfall of Chen Boda, Mao's long-time personal secretary and Maoist theoretician, charged with "ultra-leftist" deviations and finally excommunicated. It was more difficult to get rid of Lin Biao. He was second only to Mao in status, and moreover might control significant parts of the military. Though the Lu Shan conference marked the open split between Mao and Lin, Mao and Zhou were unable to move swiftly against Lin.

However, Mao set out to undermine Lin Biao's position. He infiltrated the important military-affairs committee with his own men to spy on Lin and reorganized the Beijing military region in January, 1971, to weaken Lin's power base. Meanwhile, Mao and Zhou rebuilt the party committees in all the provinces, thereby subordinating the provincial revolutionary committees left over from the Cultural Revolution.

The Lin Biao issue reached denouement on September 13, 1971. According to a government announcement issued after the fact, Lin Biao, his son and wife and six others seized a jet aircraft after an attempted coup to topple Mao failed and tried to fly to safety in the Soviet Union. The report said that the aircraft, which was loaded with insufficient fuel, crashed in Outer Mongolia and all aboard perished. Afterward the alleged plotters confessed and were punished. The story is strange and hides as much as it discloses. A noted scholar of Communist China, Maurice Meisner, notes that there was apparently no attempt on Mao's life and the alleged plot was never attempted. Lin's death and the purge of his followers removed the last barriers to the consolidation of the post-Cultural Revolution and Mao's and Zhou's control.5 Nevertheless the disorders and disruptions of the Cultural Revolution produced repercussions for years to come.

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President Nixon's efforts to end the war in Vietnam took a new and ominous turn on April 30, 1970, when U.S. and South Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia to eliminate Hanoi's supply sanctuaries and to destroy North Vietnamese troops lurking in the country. The invasion of Cambodia set off violent protests in the United States and gained little more than capture of Communist supplies. North Vietnamese troops retreated westward, spreading the war into central Cambodia. The U.S. had supported a rightist coup in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh on March 18, 1970, but the new pro-American regime showed little strength and Cambodia became a major battlefield in 1970-71. Nixon resumed heavy bombing of North Vietnam to warn Hanoi what would happen if it launched an all-out attack against the Saigon government.

The invasion of Cambodia brought condemnation from Beijing for "American imperialism," but no threat of active Chinese assistance to Cambodia. It also brought the Soviet Union and China to patch up their differences. They agreed to set their questions about ideology and frontier lines aside for separate talks and to resume ordinary diplomatic and trade relations. The two countries also signed a new trade agreement. In addition, Beijing cooled toward Washington when Japan renewed its security treaty with the United States in June, 1970, with no hint of moving out on an independent course of its own.

In the fall of 1970, however, President Nixon decided to make his move to seek rapprochement with the People's Republic. Washington sent several inquiries to Beijing asking if the president or one of his representatives would be received in China. In December, 1970, Mao told the writer, Edgar Snow, that Sino-American difficulties could be solved only through direct negotiations and that he would welcome a visit by Nixon, either as president or tourist. Snow relayed the news to Washington. Meanwhile, Zhou agreed to Washington's request to resume Chinese-American ambassadorial talks, but Zhou suggested they be held at a different site than Warsaw. The site agreed upon was, astonishingly, Beijing itself.

A mood of great expectation and hope in both capitals faded quickly on February 8, 1971, when South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu announced that his forces, supported by American aircraft and helicopters, had crossed into Laos with the aim of cutting the Ho Chi Minh supply trail between North and South Vietnam. American ground forces deployed along the Laotian border as a backup force. Despite the fact that Nixon on February 25 called for removal of "needless obstacles" and more frequent contact with Red China in his "state-of-the-world" address, Beijing viewed the U.S.-supported invasion of Laos with alarm. It feared the United States was moving the war northward and alerted thirty PLA divisions in Yunnan province. Communist forces badly mauled the South Vietnamese troops, however, and in March they hurried out of Laos in disorderly retreat. The U.S. did not send in American forces to rescue the South Vietnamese and this convinced Beijing that Washington was committed to reducing its forces in southeast Asia. On May 31, the U.S. also renewed secret negotiations in Paris with North Vietnam. Recommencing these unannounced talks (which had begun in 1969) further eased Chinese anxieties.

On April 7, 1971, the Chinese made a startling and remarkable move. The Chinese table-tennis team, in Nagoya, Japan, for the international table-tennis championship games, invited the American team, also at the games, to visit China for seven days to play with other Chinese Ping-Pong teams. The American team president, after getting an excited approval from Washington, accepted. The fifteen Americans arrived in China on April 10 and received enthusiastic welcomes wherever they played in China. The visit was a subtle and effective initiative on the part of the Chinese government, an "unofficial" gesture which nevertheless was laden with political overtones. Zhou Enlai received the players and told them their trip to Red China had "opened a new page in the relations of the Chinese and American people." He asked the team members to extend the regards of the Chinese people to the American people. It was an astute move that got headlines all over the U.S.: people to people, ignoring the decades of diatribe and hostility that had divided both governments. The American team, supported by Washington, asked the Chinese to pay a return visit to the United States in 1972.

"Ping-Pong diplomacy" was the breakthrough President Nixon was waiting for. On April 14, 1971, he relaxed the twenty-year embargo on trade with Communist China, ordered visas for visitors from the People's Republic to be expedited, relaxed currency controls to permit China to use U.S. dollars and authorized U.S. vessels and aircraft to carry Chinese cargoes.

The public-relations-conscious Nixon administration surveyed the reaction to the president's démarche. It was overwhelmingly favorable, a sign not only that Nixon had sensed changed attitudes about China among the American public but that such a move was long overdue.

Nixon now made another bold move, though, not for the moment, public: he sent his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, to Beijing on July 9-11 to ask Zhou Enlai whether Beijing would welcome a visit by Nixon himself to China. On July 15, 1971, Nixon stunned the world with the announcement that Zhou Enlai had "extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate time before May, 1972. President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure. The meeting between the leaders of China and the United States is to seek the normalization of relations between the two countries and also to exchange views on questions of concern to the two sides." Beijing simultaneously issued a statement inviting Nixon.

Nixon's announcement, made over a national television, emphasized that "our action, in seeking a new relationship with the People's Republic of China, will not be at the expense of our old friends. It is not directed against any other nation. We seek friendly relations with all nations. Any nation can be our friend without being any other nation's enemy. I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from the reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China."

Nixon's announcement was notable not only for the complete absence of any reference to Nationalist China but to the fact that when he referred to "China" he meant the People's Republic. Nxon at last had laid to rest the fiction that the Nationalist rump on Taiwan represented China. However, Nixon wrote Chiang Kai-shek assuring him that the U.S. would maintain its commitment to the 1954 mutual-defense treaty and "give continuing support" for Taiwan's international position.

The White House added up public reaction and found both astonishment and enthusiasm. John Chancellor of National Broadcasting Company (NBC) news, said Nixon's move was "one of the most stunning events in foreign affairs in my memory." Most newspapers and other television news commentators had similar surprised and positive reactions.

Astute observers recognized that the administration was positioning itself for the United Nations session beginning in the fall. The critical issue for the People's Republic was not Nixon's visit, as important as it would be to transform the Western view of Red China. The most important event necessary to bring China fully into the world community was a vote in the United Nations admitting Red China and ousting Nationalist China. For years American opposition had been the only factor keeping Red China out of the UN and the Nationalists in. Despite Nixon's démarche to Beijing, it made little sense that Zhou Enlai would invite Nixon to visit China without resolving the issue of UN representation. No dispute (other than American protection of the Nationalist occupation of Taiwan) exercised the Chinese Communist leadership more than this. And no American leader had any doubt about Beijing's determination never to allow "two Chinas" to sit in the UN. For Beijing there was only one China. It much preferred leaving the Nationalists in their seat than to create a legal basis for Taiwan's independence by joining the UN while Nationalist China-Taiwan remained in it.

Events showed that Kissinger had made an agreement with Zhou Enlai that Washington would fight only a mock battle in the UN to preserve Nationalist China's membership and that Red China was a shoo-in.

The U.S. supported assigning to Beijing China's seat on the Security Council, but pledged to fight to retain Taiwan's place in the General Assembly. Washington knew full well that for Beijing UN membership was an either-or situation. Supporting Beijing on the one hand and Taiwan on the other made no sense except as a public-relations gesture, reassuring friends of Nationalist China that the U.S. was making every effort to help its old friend. George H.W. Bush, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, made a strong post-mortem argument along this line in the New York Times, stating implausibly that the crux of the issue was that "these two questions should be separate."

The Americans appeared to fight hard for "two Chinas," but the United Nations on October 25, 1971, voted to seat the People's Republic and exclude Taiwan by seventy-six votes in favor, thirty-five against and seventeen abstentions. The U.S. had preserved its reputation as a defender of the Nationalists but the People's Republic, which ruled some 800 million Chinese, at last had gained the right to represent China in place of the Nationalists, who ruled some 15 million. Beijing took its seat a few days later.

On November 30, 1971, the White House and Beijing simultaneously announced that President Nixon, accompanied by Mrs. Nixon, Secretary Rogers and Dr. Kissinger, would visit China from February 21 to 28, 1972. In a press conference the next day, newsmen queried Kissinger about whether Nixon and Zhou Enlai would try to reach a resolution about Taiwan. In answering, Kissinger signaled a new direction in American policy. "Our position," Kissinger said, "is that the ultimate disposition, the ultimate relationship of Taiwan to the People's Republic of China, should be settled by direct negotiations between Taiwan and the People's Republic of China."

It was a dramatic statement. But the tough Washington press corps was not going to let Kissinger slide past the issue that had nearly brought the United States and Red China to open conflict several times. The real question was whether the United States now maintained that Taiwan was a part of China and therefore the Taiwan dispute was, as Beijing had always contended, an internal Chinese matter. Only a few weeks before the UN had formally ousted Taiwan. And now the president of the United States was going to call upon the leaders of the People's Republic. A newsman nailed Kissinger with the crucial question: did the United States recognize the People's Republic as the legitimate government of China? Kissinger waffled. He knew the American relationship to Taiwan was going to be the thorniest problem that would come up in the Nixon visit. He would not speculate publicly on the outcome. He told the newsmen: "Both Chinese governments maintain that they represent all of China. We maintain diplomatic relations with the government of Taiwan. I will not go beyond that."

When President Nixon's freshly painted blue-and-white airliner, "the Spirit of '76," arrived at Beijing on February 21, 1972, Premier Zhou Enlai and a group of Chinese dignitaries were at the airport to greet him. Mao was not there. Nor were there any crowds or members of the diplomatic corps. The greeting was low-keyed and restrained. But as Nixon stepped down from the airplane, he heartily extended his hand to Zhou. For both Americans and Chinese, this gesture was symbolic of far more than courtesy. It was a sign of the final abandonment of the fierce and intransigent American policy of isolation and hate for Red China.

The Chinese lodged the Americans at a state guest house five miles west of the center of Beijing. There they hoisted an American flag, the first to fly in Red China in twenty-two years. A few hours after Nixon and the American party arrived, Mao called Nixon and Kissinger to his study for an unscheduled meeting that lasted an hour. Although Zhou attended, he remained silent. Mao's wit, confidence and authority made a deep impression on both Nixon and Kissinger. But the significance of Mao's receiving Nixon was to convey to the Chinese leadership that Mao endorsed détente with the United States. From then on the subdued Chinese attitude toward the Americans became warm and enthusiastic.

At a grand state banquet that followed in Beijing's Great Hall of the People, the mood became ebullient. Zhou, in his welcome to the Americans, stressed the traditional friendship of the American and Chinese people and announced that "the gates to friendly contact have finally been opened." Nixon responded with Mao's famous expression for people to "seize the day, seize the hour." He urged that the American and Chinese people commence a "long march" together on "different roads leading to the same goal," a world of peace and justice. He asserted that each nation has a right to determine its own form of government free of outside interference or domination and that "neither of us seeks domination of the other."

The two sides talked hard in secret negotiations. But Nixon had time to visit the Great Wall, the Ming tombs, scenic West Lake and industrial exhibitions in Shanghai. Mrs. Nixon toured schools, hospitals and shops. Everywhere the Chinese welcomed the president and Mrs. Nixon. The president responded with enthusiasm and as an appreciative guest. The president's friendliness and the response of the Chinese people, from rulers on down, demonstrated that good will begets good will.

The American people, through the eyes of a horde of television cameras and commentators and newspaper reporters who accompanied the official party, saw the cordiality of the Chinese people and looked as fully as the camera lens and reporters' descriptions could penetrate into the life of the People's Republic. The glimpse they got into this country, cut off for a generation from ordinary contact with the United States, encouraged them greatly. The appearance of an open and amiable people, not a sinister enemy, broke most of the residual barriers of apprehension and mistrust. For the majority of Americans, Nixon's visit signified a dismantling of the "bamboo curtain" which previous American leaders had erected and marked a readiness to treat the Chinese Communists as ordinary human beings. In a country which displayed its Marxist ideology openly but which remained a palpably poor land, the threat China was supposed to present to the United States appeared much overblown.

Getting agreement on a joint communiqué was not easy, however. Nixon, Rogers and Kissinger were unable to work out their greatest differences with Zhou and other Chinese leaders until the final hours of the visit. They issued the communiqué in Shanghai on February 28, the last day of the visit.

The Shanghai communiqué was a historic document. It by no means resolved all of the problems outstanding between the U.S. and China. Yet it was remarkably open in acknowledging differences and made a sincere start toward establishing procedures to find solutions over time. For a dramatic start, it dismantled the greatest barriers and opened the way not only for rapprochement but for a positive, almost open relationship that promised much hope for the future.

The communiqué acknowledged "there are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies." But the two sides agreed formally that "countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, nonaggression against other states, noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence."

China and the U.S. agreed to work toward normalization of relations and affirmed that neither should "seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region" and opposed any third country or group of countries seeking similar hegemony. The two sides acknowledged that "the Taiwan question is the crucial question obstructing the normalization of relations." China stated its position that Taiwan was a province of China and its liberation an internal affair. It stated that "all U.S. forces and military installations must be withdrawn from Taiwan." The United States acknowledged "that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States does not challenge that position." The U.S. declared its objective was to withdraw all U.S. forces from Taiwan and announced it would progressively do so "as the tension in the area diminishes."

In a press conference in Shanghai to discuss the communiqué, Kissinger said both sides decided to express their conflicting views in the statement. The two sides agreed they "would not pretend to an agreement that did not exist," he explained. Kissinger added that the U.S. treaty commitment to Taiwan would be maintained and that the communiqué did not change that. The exact degree of American commitment to Taiwan was obviously a tender point because Kissinger asked the newsmen that he not be queried further about it "in these circumstances." Kissinger also was indefinite about how Beijing and Washington would maintain contact in the future, since a Nationalist Chinese ambassador was resident in Washington. But he said a U.S. representative would visit Beijing "as the need arises" and that a "contact point" would be arranged for joint U.S.-Chinese discussions.

Though the Shanghai communiqué left much unresolved, it pointed to the resolution of a number of dangerous conflicts and promised a peaceful future between two countries whose relations had been among the most confrontational of any after World War II. The United States at last endorsed Zhou Enlai's famous "five principles of peaceful coexistence." The American opposition to any power seeking hegemony in Asia and the Pacific limited the likelihood of a Soviet attack on China. Thus, China gained a large degree of security from attack by the two superpowers which it had never enjoyed before. In regard to Taiwan, China achieved stunning success, only just short of complete victory. The United States accepted the "one China" premise upon which Beijing's relationship with Taiwan had rested from the beginning. It also promised to withdraw its troops and military installations from the island. Although the U.S. did not promise to cancel its security pact with Taiwan, the outline of future recognition of Beijing and withdrawal of recognition of the Nationalists already showed on the horizon. Opening of ordinary trade between China and the U.S. gave the People's Republic access to an immense range of modern technology which it had found difficult to obtain.

For the United States, the gains from the Nixon visit were less immediately tangible but extremely important. Not the least most important was the final putting to rest of twenty-six years of overt animosity and opposition to the Chinese Communists. This hostility had consumed an enormous amount of American attention and had been the fundamental reason why the two countries actually went to war in 1950 and reached the brink of war on several occasions thereafter. The détente with China, therefore, exchanged the ever-present threat of war with broad prospects of peace. In addition, the rapprochement with China lessened the chances that the Soviet Union would press its disagreements with Beijing to the point of war. Nixon's and Kissinger's concept of the world consisting of five great powers balanced against each other and interacting together depended upon bringing the one outside power into the fold, and this Nixon had achieved. Finally, the U.S. gained materially by vastly increasing its exports to China.

The Nixon visit galvanized Japan into reaching an accommodation of its own with China. For China reconciliation with Japan in some ways was more difficult than with the United States. Although the U.S. had spent a generation in hostility to the Chinese Communists, the people of China appreciated the long history of friendship that the United States had demonstrated to them. Japan, however, had a contrary history of aggression and had undertaken a determined, vicious and long-enduring effort to conquer China.

When the Japanese premier, Tanaka Kakuei, and his official party arrived in Beijing on September 25, 1972, they were tense and ill at ease. At the state dinner, Zhou Enlai spoke briefly of Japanese aggression, but quickly added that "the Chinese people make a strict distinction between the very few militarists and the broad masses of the Japanese people." The time had come, he said, "to accomplish this historic task of restoration of diplomatic relations." Zhou's generous gesture broke the tension. And Tanaka in his toast carried out the one gesture that, to the Chinese, was obligatory before the two countries could ever reconcile: the formal acknowledgment of Japanese mistakes and the premier's official apology for them. Tanaka did this: "It is regrettable that for several decades in the past the relations between Japan and China had unfortunate experiences. During that time our country gave great troubles to the Chinese people, for which I once again make profound self-examination." This was not a fulsome apology. In the joint communiqué the Japanese penance was a bit more specific, though still not adequate: "The Japanese side is keenly aware of Japan's responsibility for causing enormous damage in the past to the Chinese people through war and deeply reproaches itself." Japan found it impossible to acknowledge its entire guilt for its oppression of the Chinese people. The unresolved issue still rankled on into the twenty-first century. In spring 2005, for example, China severely criticized Japan because public school textbooks still did not admit to Japanese guilt in the wars against China.

Japan went much further than the United States in accommodating the People's Republic in 1972. It recognized Beijing as the sole legal government of China and announced it "fully understands and respects" Beijing's statement that Taiwan was an "inalienable part of the territory of the People's Republic." China in turn renounced its demand for war indemnities from Japan. The outcome solved most of Japan's difficulties. Although it "respected" Beijing's claim to Taiwan, Japan did not officially acknowledge Taiwan as a part of the People's Republic and thus gained uncontested right to continue its lucrative economic relations with Taiwan.

The Tanaka visit to Beijing finally brought to a historic close three-quarters of a century of conflict and war between the two greatest peoples of East Asia. World history had been altered by this gigantic confrontation. Now the two countries could go forward in something close to concert. Japan had put aside militarism in favor of economic advancement. Japan's economic competition was formidable and growing at an astonishing rate, as the United States and Western Europe were beginning to comprehend. But for underdeveloped China, at least in the short run, access to the advanced technology and enormous economic advantages of Japan next door were tremendous assets. China and Japan turned into trading partners, benefitting both countries and ironically proving that Japan could have achieved this same result generations before if it had embarked on a peaceful path of trade instead of the destructive road to conquest it did take.

For the United States, reaching full diplomatic relations with China took longer. One reason was the virtual absorption of the American people and government in the great Watergate political scandal that followed only months after Nixon's return from China. This scandal grew out of charges that in June, 1972, that agents of the Committee for the Re-election of the President burglarized and wiretapped national Democratic party headquarters at Watergate, an office and apartment hotel complex in the capital. As a result of the revelations that followed, Richard Nixon resigned as president on August 9, 1974.

Nixon's successors, Vice President Gerald R. Ford and the Democratic victor in the 1976 presidential election, Jimmy Carter, were preoccupied with other issues and did not press forward with recognition of China. President Carter was slow to move as the principal problems with China had been solved by Nixon's visit and he could find no easy solution to the Taiwan issue. It was January 1, 1979, before the U.S. and China agreed formally to establish diplomatic relations, beginning March 1, 1979. President Carter announced the U.S. would break official relations with Taiwan, recognize Taiwan as a part of China and on January 1, 1980, abrogate the 1954 mutual-defense treaty with the Nationalists. However, Carter pledged that Taiwan "won't be sacrificed," and apparently had received assurances from Beijing that it would resolve its differences peacefully with the Nationalists and raise no objections to continued American commercial and cultural ties and arms sales to Taiwan.

By this time all of the three great players in the dramas that marked China's rise were gone from the stage. Chiang Kai-shek was the first to depart, dying in exile on Taiwan on April 5, 1975, at the age of 87. Next was Zhou Enlai, who passed away on January 8, 1976, aged 78. When Mao Zedong died on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82, the great era of China’s revolution finally came to an end.

But the reconciliation of the American and the Chinese people had occurred in 1972 when Nixon stood up in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and urged that both people start a long march toward a world of peace and justice. The American government and its people had themselves been on a long march to reach this point. The march had begun in the ambivalent days of the Open Door at the turn of the century. It had continued in friendship but hesitation to stop Japan's aggression from the teens through the thirties. The friendship had blossomed during the early years of the Pacific war when the United States thought it had a real ally in Chiang Kai-shek but it had wilted by the end when Chiang had demonstrated his incompetence and inability to reform his country. From that point the march had passed through dark valleys of distrust and anger as the Communists demonstrated their ability to motivate the people to overthrow the Nationalists while the Americans chafed at the shattering of their unrealistic dreams of keeping Chiang in power.

At the Great Hall of the People the long journey toward friendship with Red China finally came to an end. To most Americans it no longer seemed sensible for their government to attempt to impose its ideologies on China or any other nation. The American people had not felt an obligation to bring about the downfall of the People's Republic, despite the adoption in the Eisenhower administration of a Chinese form of Carthego delenda est, or the Chinese Communists must be destroyed. American adventures in trying to force other peoples to think like they did finally reached a dead end as a result of the Vietnam War.

By the time Nixon returned to the United States in late February, 1972, the transformation was virtually complete. The only heated argument that broke out after the trip revolved around which American city would get the two giant pandas that Red China presented as a gift to the United States. A number of cities wanted the pandas for their zoos and advanced loud claims, backed up by intense political pressure. President Nixon finally gave the pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution. Somehow, a great national debate about pandas seemed an eminently sensible way to lay to rest a generation of hostility to China.


1. It's located at 46 degrees, 51 minutes N and 133 degrees, 51 minutes E.

2. Meisner, Mao’s China, 354. Mao specifically rejected a commune form of government that had been set up in Shanghai and replaced it with a military-dominated revolutionary committee, a pattern he followed from February, 1967, onward throughout China. For an analysis of the Shanghai Commune, see ibid., pp. 317-24.

3. Mao Tse-tung, Selected Military Writings (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1963), 272.

4. Meisner, Mao’s China, 364-65; Hsü, pp. 712, 715.

5. For an analysis of the Lin Biao case, see Hsü, pp. 711-29; Meisner, Mao’s China, 367-70; Yao Ming-le (a pseudonym), The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983). The English-language Beijing Review, May 23-29, 1988, 23-30, contains two articles by Xu Wenyi, ambassador to Outer Mongolia at the time, which back up the official version of Lin Biao's fate.