In a sense, the 1968 American Presidential campaign began in October 1967 with the publication in the journal Foreign Affairs of an article entitled Asia After Vietnam by former Vice President Richard M. Nixon; in March 1968, after he was an announced candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination, it was reprinted in an abbreviated form in The Reader’s Digest as well, reaching many more millions of voters.
He stated, “Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China…Within three to five years, China may have a significant deliverable nuclear capability. If it is outside any non-proliferation treaty that may have been signed by that time, it will be free, if it chooses, to scatter its weapons among ‘liberation’ forces anywhere in the world.”
Nor did his article go unnoticed by a likely Democratic rival for the Presidency in the Democratic column, New York US Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, in a 1967 book entitled To Seek a Newer World that contained the chapter Toward a china Policy. Indeed, in 1968, the Senator’s younger brother—Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts—also devoted a portion of his book Decisions for a Decade to the same theme.
As it happened, it was Mr. Nixon---and neither Kennedy---who was elected to the Presidency in November 1968, and he and his National Security Advisor—Dr. Henry A. Kissinger—immediately began secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Red
Chinese via the Communist Rumanians and the Pakistanis to lessen tensions between the United States and China, and also to help end the Vietnam War by hopefully playing upon the rigid relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
On July 9,1971, Dr. Kissinger made a secret trip to Peking to break the ice after 25 years of no relations at all between the two giant powers, the US and China. As he revealed in his memoirs, White House Years, he was almost not chosen to go. Those also considered were former twice GOP Presidential nominee and Governor of New York Thomas E. Dewey, future President George Bush, Elliot Richardson and even New York Gov. (and longtime Nixonian bete noire) Nelson Rockefeller, with Gen. Alexander Haig as an aide.
As the President noted in his 1978 work RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, “At 7:30 on the evening of July 15, 1971, I spoke to the nation from a television studio in Burbank, CA. I talked for only three and a half minutes, but my words produced one of the greatest diplomatic surprises of the century…I read an announcement that was being made at that very moment in Peking (now Beijing):
“’Premier Chou En-Lai and Dr. Henry Kissinger…held talks in Peking from July 9-11, 1971. Knowing of President Nixon’s expressed desire to visit the People’s Republic of China, Premier Chou En-Lai, on behalf of the government of the People’s Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate date 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.”
Ironically, the applecart was almost upset by Nixon’s own then-Vice President, former Maryland Gov. Spiro T. “Ted” Agnew, as RN recalled: “A bull in the form of Ted Agnew inadvertently careened into this diplomatic China shop….Agnew told” (reporters) “that the favorable media coverage of the (US) table tennis team’s visit to Peking had helped the Communist Chinese government score a propaganda triumph…Agnew had expressed his reservations about our trade and visa overtures to the Chinese Communists at a National Security Council meeting, but I had never imagined that he would discuss his doubts with reporters. I told (aide H.R.) Haldeman to get word to Agnew to stay off this topic.”
Kissinger adds—somewhat tongue-in-cheek—“The relationship between the President and any Vice President is never easy; it is, after all, disconcerting to have at one’s side a man whose life’s ambition will be achieved by one’s death. Nixon’s sense of being surrounded by potential antagonists needed no such encouragement. He wrote off this gaffe as another example of Agnew’s unsuitability to succeed him—a view he held about most potential candidates…” It came as no surprise, then, that later on—when Agnew faced his own political problems in 1973—Nixon did little to save him from Federal prosecutors. Indeed, had he survived them, Agnew no doubt would’ve been the GOP nominee for President in 1976.
In October, 1971, Dr. Kissinger made his second pre-Nixonian trip to China, and met again with Premier Chou, whom he described thus: “One of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met. Urbane, infinitely patient, extraordinarily intelligent, subtle, he moved through our discussions with an easy grace that penetrated to the
essence of our new relationship as if there were no sensible alternative…There was one cause of tension—Taiwan—“(that still remains as of this writing, indeed)”that permitted no rapid solution.”
According to the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, on Monday, Feb. 21, 1972 “At 7 AM, Guam time, the President and Mrs. Nixon left Guam International Airport for Shanghai, their first stop in the People’s Republic of China. They arrived, after a four-hour flight, at Hung Chiao (Rainbow Bridge) Airport, Shanghai, at 9 AM, China time, where they were greeted by officials of the People’s Republic…
“The Presidential Party again boarded the Spirit of ‘76” (the renamed Air Force One)…for the final leg of the flight to Peking. At about 11:30 AM, China time, the party arrived at Capital Airport near Peking. Premier Chou En-lai greeted the President and members of his party, stood with the President for the playing of the national anthems of the two countries and accompanied the President in a review of the troops.”
There was much more it to than that, however, as both Dr. Kissinger and RN agreed in their respective memoirs.
Recalled HAK, “This historic moment of arrival did not go unplanned. Nixon and Haldeman had decided that the President should be alone when the television cameras filmed his first encounter with Chou En-lai. Nixon had read my account of the July visit
and Chou’s sensitivity that (former US Secretary of State John Foster) Dulles had snubbed him by refusing to shake his hand in 1954.
“The President was determined to have no other American distract the viewer’s attention while he rectified this slight. (Secretary of State William) Rogers and I were to
stay on the plane until the handshake had been accomplished. We had been instructed on this point at least a dozen times before our arrival in Peking; there was no way we could have missed the message, but Haldeman left nothing to chance. When the time came, a burly aide blocked the aisle of Air Force One. Our puzzled Chinese hosts must have wondered what happened to the rest of the official party that usually files down the steps right behind the President.
“We all appeared magically—moments after the historic Nixon-Chou handshake had been consummated in splendid solitude.”
Then there was the receiving line of the Mao-jacketed officials and the honor guard of Chinese military: “Except for the 350-man honor guard—perhaps in its rigid discipline the most impressive of any I saw on Presidential trips—it was stark to the point of austerity.”
The President agreed in 1978: “When I reached the bottom step…I made a point of extending my hand as I walked toward him (Chou). When our hands met, one era ended and another began…’The Star-Spangled Banner’ had never sounded so stirring to me as on that windswept runway in the heart of Communist China.
“The honor guard was one of the finest I have ever seen. They were big men, strong-looking, and immaculately turned out. As I walked down the long line, each man turned
his head slowly as I passed, creating an almost hypnotic sense of movement in massed ranks.”
Soon after settling in at their quarters, Dr. Kissinger came to “fetch” Nixon (his word) since the Premier had come with an urgent request: Communist Party Chairman Mao
Zedong, the undisputed ruler of the vast Chinese empire, wanted to see the President right away.
Noted Dr. Kissinger, “Our first sight was of a semi-circle of easy chairs…Except for the suddenness of the summons, there was no ceremony…I have met no one, with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, who so distilled raw, concentrated willpower…He dominated the room—not by the pomp that in most states confers a degree of majesty on the leaders, but by exuding in almost tangible form the overwhelming drive to prevail.”
Added the President, “We were escorted into a room that was not elaborate, filled with books and papers…His girl secretary helped him to his feet. When I shook his hand he said, ‘ I can’t talk very well.’ Chou later told me that he had been sick for about a month with what was described as bronchitis. This, however, was not known to the Chinese public.”
In actuality—as revealed in the 1994 memoir The Private Life of Chairman Mao by his personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui—there was much, much more to his poor health situation than that; in fact, just weeks before Nixon’s arrival, Mao almost died.
“He was still sick, rebelling against his doctors and refusing all medical treatment, several weeks before President Nixon’s historic first visit to China in February, 1972.
Only three weeks before Nixon was scheduled to arrive, Mao finally told me to begin treatment. His condition was so serious that a full recovery was out of the question. When Nixon arrived, Mao was still so weak he could hardly talk. His lung infection was not fully cured, and he was troubled by congestive heart failure. He was so bloated that he
had to be fitted with a larger suit
“I greeted President Nixon as his car pulled up to Mao’s residence and directed him to Mao’s study, retiring then to the corridor just outside the reception room, where I was able to hear their conversation clearly and was ready with mobile rescue equipment should Mao need it.”
The Premier had given him strict orders: “Make sure Chairman is well enough to see him.” The Chinese, too, had a lot riding on this historic meeting: recognition in the United Nations, as well as an ally against the Russian bear on their western border.
Recalled Dr. Li, “The medical team had worked around the clock to restore the Chairman’s health. His condition had improved considerably. His lung infection was under control, and his heart irregularities had subsided. His edema was better…His throat was still swollen, and he had difficulty talking. His muscles had atrophied from weeks of immobility, so we put him on an exercise routine a week before President Nixon’s arrival. He practiced sitting down and getting up, and an attendant guided him slowly around the room to get him used to walking again.”
Indeed, during Dr. Kissinger’s first secret visit in July, arrangements had been made to send American-made oxygen tanks to Red China specifically for the ill Chairman’s usage. And yet, “At first, we nearly lost Mao,” Dr. Li conceded in 1994. “In the picture
of Mao shaking hands with Nixon that was published, both were smiling broadly, and the Chinese report described Mao as energetic and glowing with health, his face flush with color.
“Many noted that Mao had gained weight and took that as a sign of good health, too.
The American press, knowing that Mao had been ill and was having trouble speaking, speculated that the Chairman had had a stroke. But the Chinese and the Americans were both wrong. Mao had not gained weight. He was bloated by edema. He had been suffering from congestive heart failure.”
Mao’s brush with death, in fact, was known by only a few within the confines of the top Party leadership, Dr. Li revealed: “Mao’s collapse was the closest call we ever had…Chou was so shocked that he lost control of his bladder and bowels, soiling his pants. He washed and changed his clothes…Mao had recovered by then.”
Nevertheless—and despite his concealed ill health—Mao was master of the occasion, even managing gently to put the President of the United States in his place, as Dr. Kissinger recalled: “When Nixon put forward a list of countries requiring common attention, Mao’s response was courteous but firm: ‘Those questions are not questions to be discussed in my place. They should be discussed with the Premier” (i.e., China’s Head of Government, Chou). “I discuss the philosophical questions.” His main concern was the threat from the Soviet Union—anything else was to him quite minor.
Mao liked Nixon, and they even joked about the Far Eastern ally of the United States and Mao’s longtime enemy, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek: “Actually, the history of our relationship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him,” recalling the time when both the Chinese Communists and Nationalists fought the Japanese, either separately or later jointly.
Recalled Nixon, “Mao walked us to the door. His walk was a slow shuffle, and he said he had not been feeling well. ‘But you look very good,” I replied. ‘Appearances ar
deceiving,” he said with a slight shrug.”
In 1979, under the Administration of President Jimmy Carter, full diplomatic relations were finally restored between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. Four years earlier, the Vietnam War had ended in a North Vietnamese Communist victory. Chou had already died, and Mao followed in 1976, with President Nixon following in 1994. Only Dr. Kissinger survives of the major characters in the drama of secrecy and high politics on the diplomatic stage regarding the1971-72 secret China diplomacy.
In 2003, The Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace at Yorba Linda, CA hosted a new exhibition entitled Journeys to Peace and Cooperation to commemorate the late President’s first trip to China (he returned in 1976). According to former Director of Communications Ms. Arianna Barrios-Lochrie, “The exhibition grew out of a spring 2002 visit to China by Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower.” Mrs. Eisenhower stated, “This exhibition (in China)…was truly a collaborative effort that reached across continents and cultures.” It was sponsored by The Reader’s Digest Foundation…
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