When Nixon Visited China and Changed the Cold War Balance of Power

On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation on a live television broadcast to make an unexpected announcement: he had accepted an invitation from Beijing to become the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China. , a communist nation of 750 million people. which, next to the Soviet Union, was America’s fiercest adversary during the Cold War.

“I took this action out of my deep belief that all nations will benefit from a reduction in tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China,” Nixon said in his speech.

The surprise announcement is the result of months of top-secret diplomacy between the Nixon White House and Beijing. Nixon, ever a fan of the “big play,” had high hopes that his trip to China would be the kind of seismic geopolitical event that would change the course of history.

In many ways he was right. In the words of one of his ambassadors, Nixon’s eight-day visit in February 1972 was “the week that changed the world” and dramatically shifted the balance of power between the United States, China and Soviet Union.

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Sino-US relations were frosty

President Nixon meets with his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, en route to China, 1972.

When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, it marked the 20th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and 20 years of frozen diplomatic relations between the United States and communist China. The two sides had not spoken in decades and the United States was at war with the North Vietnamese communists in China’s backyard.

Nixon himself had gained early political fame as an anti-Communist hawk with his pursuit of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union.

The closest diplomatic contact between the United States and China was 15 years earlier, in 1954, when senior officials from both countries attended the Geneva Convention to negotiate new political borders between North Korea and South Korea, and North and South Vietnam. At the conference, John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State under Dwight D. Eisenhower, notoriously refused to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier and chief negotiator.

But in the tumultuous late 1960s, the Nixon administration faced several major challenges: a disastrous war in Vietnam, social unrest at home, and stalled nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets.

While Nixon publicly presented himself as a die-hard populist, he was an attentive reader of history and a shrewd strategist. Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger came to believe that by thawing relations with the Chinese and bringing them into the “league of nations”, America could gain a powerful new ally in its negotiations with the North Vietnamese and the Soviets.

READ MORE: Timeline of Communism

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

It turned out that the Chinese had their own strategic reasons for reopening dialogue with the United States. Despite their common communist ideology, there was a great deal of mistrust between the PRC and the Soviet Union. PRC leaders feared that their well-armed Soviet neighbors intended to expand their territory into Asia. By the late 1960s, frequent border skirmishes between the Soviets and Chinese were on the verge of all-out war.

“Nixon and Kissinger concocted this idea of ​​pitting the Soviet Union and China against the United States as a third corner of the triangle to create a stable balance of power,” says Evan Thomas, journalist and author of Being Nixon: A Divided Man. “‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ was a very Nixonian idea.”

Since direct diplomatic relations between China and the United States were severed, Nixon had to go through private channels in Pakistan and Romania to make overtures to the Chinese, who proved receptive. In a rare public acknowledgment of the warming relationship, the PRC invited the U.S. table tennis team to a series of exhibition games in Beijing in 1971, a cultural exchange that became known as “diplomacy of the ping-pong”.

READ MORE: How ping pong diplomacy unfroze the Cold War

The biggest blow was Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in July 1971 to meet face to face with Chinese leader Chou Enlai. While on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger faked a stomach illness that would keep him locked in his hotel room for several days. Under cover of night, Kissinger boarded a private Pakistani jet bound for Beijing, where he personally asked PRC leaders to approve an official state visit by the US president.

In a coded cable sent back to the White House, Kissinger shared the good news with Nixon in a nutshell:Eureka.”

The handshake that shook the world

President Nixon shaking hands with Prime Minister Chou Enlai at the foot of Air Force One's stair railing, while First Lady Pat Nixon and Chinese officials stand nearby, February 21, 1972.

President Nixon shaking hands with Prime Minister Chou Enlai at the foot of Air Force One’s stair railing, while First Lady Pat Nixon and Chinese officials stand nearby, February 21, 1972.

Nixon’s announcement of his upcoming trip to China came as a shock to most Americans, but the bold political move quickly won popular support. The sharpest criticism of the visit came not from Nixon’s liberal opposition, but from conservatives in his own party who believed it was a betrayal of Taiwan, where the anti-Communist Chinese government had fled. after losing the civil war.

But talking about Taiwan would have to wait. Nixon’s intention with his visit was to project goodwill and cooperation, and to let the world know that the United States recognized a third superpower on the world stage, one that could be an important economic ally and strategic foil. in negotiations with the Soviets.

Every moment of the week-long visit was carefully orchestrated and staged, with television cameras broadcasting the whole thing to delight audiences around the world. And Nixon knew that no moment made for television was more important than the first time he met Chou Enlai, the same man the US Secretary of State had publicly snubbed in 1954.

On February 21, 1972, Air Force One lands in Beijing. Ordering the rest of his envoy to wait on the plane, Nixon first descended the stairs with his wife Patty – who wore a long red coat, a color of great importance to the PRC – and impatiently extended his hand to greet the Prime Minister of the PRC.

“The United States had literally turned a cold shoulder on Chou in 1954,” Thomas explains. “For Nixon, reaching out was a clear signal that times had changed and America was ready to embrace the Chinese. It was brilliant staging.

Shortly after Nixon checked into his hotel, he was told that Mao Zedong, the aging “chairman” of the communist revolution wanted to meet him. Although Mao was ill, the two men chatted for an hour as cameras captured the world leaders smiling and joking with each other.

“Both men were aware of the historical significance of what they were doing,” says Thomas, “and they were both showmen in their own way.”

The Soviets come to the table

Nixon’s historic visit to China was the culmination of a later presidency marred by the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974. While the visit was a public relations boon to both nations, Nixon and Kissinger did not failed to get China’s help to end the war in Vietnam. , and no real progress has been made on Taiwan’s status.

But the visit helped achieve Nixon’s larger political goal of realigning the balance of power on the world stage. The Soviets, who had previously rejected calls to limit their nuclear arsenal, changed their tune when Nixon reopened talks with China. Just two months after returning from Beijing, Nixon departed again for Moscow, where he and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and made plans for a joint US-USSR spaceflight in 1975.

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