Conservative in Drag: Nixon in China
Two things stand out from Richard Nixon's first term as President: the break-in at the Watergate complex and the trip to China. The first is widely known and discussed. The second remains a mystery for many reasons, among them the fact that many Americans take little note of what occurs outside of their own country. But the Nixon trip to China in July 1972 was a dramatic turning point in the relations not only between the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC), but in world affairs in the second half of the twentieth century. Due to deeply-rooted hatred in America toward the PRC, only Nixon, the politician who built his career on Red-fighting in the late 1940s and the 1950s, could go to China, much as only a man with a solidly established heterosexual identity could wear a dress in public.
Popular American View of China
In 1949, Americans were shocked as the government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fell to the Communists and Chiang himself was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan. Until then, the American view of China had been that of Pearl Buck's China: a country of good, solid, pro-American peasants rejoicing in the good earth. To find this dependable ally gone enraged the public, who felt that the Truman administration had somehow "lost" China to the Communists , despite both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman providing Chiang with as much aid as possible (Manchester, 1973). For Chiang to be exiled to a tiny island was just as shocking. For Americans, Chiang was the "crossroads character" in Asia, although largely only because of the support of the U.S. (White, 1978). From the start, popular opinion was against Chairman Mao Tsetung, leader of the PRC, and his lieutenants--a condition only exacerbated when the Chinese intervened in Korea in 1950 and began slaughtering American boys.
During the 1950s, both the American public and its government regarded the Communist world as a huge monolithic bloc seeking world revolution. And until 1960, they were correct. In mid-1960, following Chinese aggression toward the Nationalist government, the Soviets and the PRC began quarreling, ending when Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khruschev ordered all Soviet technicians and their blueprints out of China and reneged on his promise to supply the PRC with an atomic weapon (Fairbank, 1992). This created a schism between the two nations, beginning as mere propaganda attacks but which in 1969 evolved into border clashes and near-war (Kissinger, 1979). China realized that to balance its deadly Soviet enemy, it needed a strong American ally, which later allowed for Richard Nixon's historic journey.
Three years before Chiang's government in China fell, Richard Nixon, a newly retired naval lieutenant commander, began a congressional campaign in California against Jerry Voorhis, a ten-year incumbent. Nixon charged that, because of Voorhis's admitted past membership in the Socialist Party and endorsements from far-left-wing union political action committees, he was too soft on Communism to hold office. The voters of California believed him, and Richard Nixon was elected by 16,000 votes as one of dozens of new Republican representatives that year (Nixon, 1978). This virulent anti-Communism was a tactic Nixon was to use again and again.
As a Congressman, he was strongly anti-Communist. His first bill in Congress, the Nixon-Mundt Act, would have required the registration of all members of the Communist party and investigation of all Communist front organizations. Nixon supported the Marshall Plan mainly because without it, "Europe would be plunged into anarchy, revolution, and, ultimately, communism." (Nixon, 1978)
His best-known congressional anti-Communist coup was the congressional hearings of Alger Hiss. Hiss was a highly respected State Department official, who at Yalta served as a special assistant to President Roosevelt and at San Francisco in 1945 served as the Secretary General of the United Nations. Hiss was, in other words, the last person one would suspect to be a Communist. But an investigation launched by allegations from Whittaker Chambers, admittedly a former Communist courier, who said that Hiss and his wife Priscilla had served as part of a Communist spy ring in the 1930s, and spearheaded by Nixon showed that Hiss was indeed a Communist (Nixon, 1978). Recent intercepts of KGB cables from Soviet archives have confirmed this belief.
Hiss was convicted of perjury (he had lied under oath about not knowing Whittaker Chambers) and Nixon became an anti-Communist celebrity. The entire weight of the Truman administration, including Hiss's close friend and future Secretary of State Dean Acheson, had been on Hiss's side, and Nixon's victory earned him great respect among fellow Republicans (White, 1975).
In 1950, Nixon campaigned against Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Democratic Congresswoman, for a vacant Senate spot. Douglas, like Voorhis in 1946, Nixon charged, was soft on Communism. She had been hailed as a hero of the Eightieth Congress by the Daily Worker, a Communist newspaper, her voting record was suspect, and she had appeared before many meetings of organizations deemed by the Attorney General as "Communist and subversive" (Nixon, 1978). Once again, the voters accepted Nixon's argument, and elected him by the huge margin of 680,000 votes.
In 1952, Nixon was tapped to run for Vice-President on the Eisenhower ticket, largely because of his strong anti-Communism and his name recognition from the Hiss case. He continued his attacks on the Democrats on being soft on Communism, and the ticket was elected in a landslide (White, 1975). During his term as Vice-President, Nixon spread goodwill to American allies and neutral nations on trips to Asia, Europe and South America, often meeting resistance from Communists (in South America, he was twice nearly killed by Communist mobs) (Nixon, 1978). Memorably, he debated Khrushchev in a mockup of an American home in Moscow, defending democracy and capitalism and attacking the Communist way of life--the famous "kitchen debates" (Manchester, 1973)
As the Republican nominee for President in 1960, Nixon swore that Red China would never be admitted into the UN, which would give "respectability to the Communist regime...."(Manchester, 1973) Defeated, he unsuccessfully ran for governor of California in 1962, and then retreated to a partnership in a New York law firm, where he made several trips abroad to deal with international clients. In 1967 on a trip to Europe, he met with West German Chancellor Konrad Adenaurer, who urged, along with French President Charles de Gaulle, a U.S. policy tilted toward Communist China to counter the Soviet threat (Nixon, 1978). In an article in the quarterly Foreign Affairs, Nixon himself urged bringing the PRC into the community of nations--something that, after his razor-thin victory in the 1968 presidential race, became a priority (Kissinger, 1979). He and his new National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, became concerned with doing just that. After the inauguration, the pair saw the Sino-Soviet split, ignored in the West because of the fixed idea of Communism as monolithic, as the opportunity to make Nixon's goal a reality (Kissinger, 1994).
The United States and the People's Republic approached the issue of opening negotiations cautiously but with an air of ineveitablity. Both sides had overwhelming advantages to be reaped if a rapprochement could be achieved. The United States, in Kissinger and Nixon's view, achieved three great advantages . First, it would curb Soviet intransigence, since once the USSR could not count on U.S.-PRC hostility, the Soviets would be forced to become more flexible (Kissinger, 1994). Second, it permanently deprived the USSR of an ally in China (Thatcher, 1994). Third, more allies would equal a greater range of options for the United States. The PRC would achieve three similar goals. First, the Soviets could not attack the Chinese along the border if the PRC had the U.S. as an ally. Second, the PRC could challenge the Soviets for ideological supremacy over all Communists. And third, becoming the third anchor to a triangle would prevent the U.S. and the USSR from forming a ruling condominium and conspiring to keep China out (Kissinger, 1979).
Despite the huge rewards to be gained, both sides had to face opposition at home. And while Chairman Mao and his chief lieutenant Chou Enlai could simply kill or otherwise eliminate their opponents, Nixon was not that lucky. Because of the insistence of many members of the "Taiwan Lobby" (those who favored Taipei as the only true China) on no recognition of the PRC the negotiations had to be conducted in secret (Nixon, 1978). The negotiations were carried out at first through third parties, like President Yahya Khan of Pakistan. The "Yahya channel" would bear fruit in the form of being the major conduit for U.S.-PRC talks (Kissinger, 1979).
As an initial overture, Nixon took the radical step of lifting trade and travel restrictions to the PRC in 1971. In return, the People's Republic invited an American Ping-Pong team to a world exhibition (Manchester,1973). On April 27, 1971, Chou Enlai sent a message through Yahya, endorsed by Mao, saying that Nixon's personal envoy would be welcome in Beijing for talks. Kissinger was sent. His trip became quasi-legendary. To get into China undetected, he mysteriously came down with a stomachache (reporters called it "Dehli belly") in Pakistan, which he was visiting on a pretense of talks with President Yahya. From Pakistan, Kissinger was flown to Beijing in secret. The July 9-11 meeting between himself and Chou ended with Kissinger sending a single word back to Nixon: "Eureka", the signal that a Presidential visit had been approved. On July 15 at 7:30, Nixon announced to America that "I will go to China."(Nixon, 1978).
Here Nixon's anti-Communist credentials became useful. Conservatives called him soft on Communism, but the charges could not stick. A politician with a Cold Warrior record like Nixon's could simply not be pro-Communist; thus, the public accepted it, and hatred of Red China began to seem old-fashioned (if Nixon could deal with them, the reasoning went, they could not be that bad) (Kissinger, 1979). Kissinger departed to China for a second trip, this one requiring no stomachache or secret plane trip, to work out the preparations for the summit. During Kissinger's second visit, China's position became stronger, as the UN voted 76 to 35 to install the PRC as China's government and expel Taiwan (Nixon, 1978).
Finally, it was Nixon's turn. On February 21, 1972, he landed at the Beijing airport. In Washington before leaving, he had reflected on how at the 1954 Geneva Conference on Vietnam, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had refused to shake Chou's hand, earning him Chou's enmity. Nixon's first act on disembarking was to shake the premier's hand, proving that, as Nixon was to later remark to Chou, "We have broken out of the old pattern" (Nixon, 1978) Indeed they had. During a brief meeting with Mao, Nixon, Chou, and Kissinger, the Number One Imperialist Dog (Nixon) shook hands with the Number One International Bandit (Mao). The picture ran on the front page of the People's Daily the next morning, proving that the meeting had the Chairman's blessing (Manchester, 1973). At the end-of-the-summit-banquet, Nixon offered a toast: "We have been here a week. This was the week that changed the world."(Kissinger, 1979)
The effects of the Nixon visit were many. First, it achieved a lessening of the border tensions between the PRC and the USSR--one of the reasons the Chinese had began talks. Second, it showed the American people that their government was still capable of creative policies, despite the Orwellian war with no clear goal that never seemed to end that Johnson and Kennedy had created in Vietnam (Kissinger, 1979). Third, it brought China back into the "community of nations", something Nixon had promised to do since his Foreign Affairs article (Nixon, 1978).
Most importantly, it created something Kissinger termed "triangular diplomacy". Unlike the interpretation of some analysts, triangular diplomacy was not and could not be a crude attempt to play China against the Soviets. The "China card" was not America's to play; the Sino-Soviet hostility had gone its own way, with neither help nor hindrance from the United States. "We could not exploit' that rivalry; it exploited itself." Any attempt to manipulate Beijing could possibly send China back to the Soviet Union, and any attempt to move against the Soviets could lead to increased Sino-Soviet hostility (Kissinger, 1979). Nixon's trip to China was not a new Manhattan Project. China was not a weapon like an atomic bomb to be used indiscriminately. Instead, the new Sino-American relationship was something to be used to build a "lasting structure of peace", in Kissinger's phrase.
Nixon's trip to China was a brilliant stroke. China needed an ally to protect itself from the Soviets, and the United States needed an ally to counterbalance the growing Soviet threat. Although the opportunity existed during the 1960s under Johnson and Kennedy, the two presidents neither knew of the Sino-Soviet split nor could they have acted on it had they known without being denounced as soft on Communism. Therefore, someone with an unassailable Red-fighting record was needed, someone the public knew as a Cold Warrior, simply because the public hated China, the ultimate Communist country and a top foe of the United States. Richard Nixon fit the qualifications, and in his trip to China he set the course for U.S. policy during the rest of the Cold War. The United States would no longer base its foreign policy on strong anti-Communism, but on its national interest instead. In many ways, then , the U.S. victory in the Cold War is owed to Nixon, the only man who could go to China.
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