“There is an old Vulcan saying: ‘Only Nixon could go to China.’”
– Leonard Nimoy as “Mr. Spock” in “Star Trek VI – the Undiscovered Country.”
“China fascinated Nixon then because of its mystery, its seeming impenetrability, and the political-diplomatic vistas it opened to him. As the man in the early fifties who condemned “appeasers” in the state department who “lost” China, and who called upon President Truman to ban all free world trade with the communists there, Nixon saw himself as uniquely qualified to re-establish relations with that isolated corner of the world. The irony of his political flip-flop did not escape him, but his own changed view was natural and realistic after a generation of Communist legitimacy, and Nixon knew that he was the political figure best able to hold the conservatives in the United States in line in an opening to the east.”
– William Safire in “Before the Fall”.
On this date, July 15 in 1971 President Richard M. Nixon announced to the world what was effectively a political-diplomatic revolution: he would be making an official state visit to the People’s Republic of China. This was truly remarkable state craft on the part of our nation’s 37’th president, and it was indeed as Mssrs. Spock and Safire state above, something that “only Nixon” could have done. At that point in time, the Communist government on Mainland China remained diplomatically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world. For reasons that Mr. Safire states – that Nixon was the old fire-breathing anti-communist lion, only he could make the opening to the populous rising power that China was. That is why when “Star Trek VI” was made in 1991, the line about Nixon was inserted as the perfect metaphor for that film’s story about an unlikely diplomatic opening being made to an ancient enemy. But it was Nixon’s desire for secrecy in making this opening that gave fertile soil to what Safire would call the “Seeds of Destruction” to Nixon’s own presidency.
Nixon and Kissinger Work on Nixon’s Idea
Nixon had for a long time before being elected president in November of 1968 been interested in the possibility of a rapprochement with what was then commonly called “Red China”. His national Security Adviser, and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (below) shared his
fascination with the idea. But contrary to what some revisionist historians would assert, it was Nixon’s idea to make the move, not an idea that Kissinger sprung on him. In an article in “Foreign Affairs”, a diplomatic periodical, written in 1967, Nixon wrote:
“Taking the long view, we simply cannot forever afford to leave China 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.”
But before he could go ahead and make the trip, before the Chinese government of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung would even invite him for such a visit, a great deal of ground work and very delicate diplomatic negotiations had to be conducted. As President Nixon himself said in his autobiography, behind his surprise announcement “…lay two years of complex, subtle and determined signals and negotiations. Despite the almost miraculous secrecy we had been able to maintain, the China initiative was one of the most publicly prepared surprises in history.”
A Breakthrough On…. “Ping-Pong”!!
The President then goes on to explain in considerable detail the delicate diplomatic dance via intermediaries, and odd sports teams that characterized the lead-up to his July 15 announcement. First he sent a Foreign Policy Report to Congress that used new language referring to the Chinese as “a great and vital people who not should remain isolated from the international community….” This was noticed by the Chinese who reciprocated by having their ambassador to Poland in Warsaw tell the American Ambassador to Poland, Walter Stoessel that they would like to have talks with a high level American official take place in Peking. This went on through contacts via President Yahya of Pakistan and even further contacts made via Nicolai Ceaucescu, the dictator of Rumania, both of these nations having diplomatic relations with China and thus being able to pass messages quietly to and from them. There followed the relaxation of various trade and economic restrictions. And then an odd turn occurred with an invitation to the American Table Tennis Team which was then playing in Japan to play some exhibition matches in China. Nixon wrote:
“I was as surprised as pleased by this news. I had never expected the China initiative would come to fruition in the form of a Ping-Pong team. We immediately approved the acceptance of the invitation, and the Chinese responded by granting visas to several Western newspapermen to cover the team’s tour.”
Nixon Grows to be Obsessed With Secrecy
All of this diplomatic wrangling was coming to fruition about the same time that the explosive story of “the Pentagon Papers” was splashing onto Americas front pages. These documents were an exhaustive look into the origins of American policy in Indochina. The secret papers mostly covered the deliberations of Johnson administration officials, but they were a very public revelation of American secrets at a time when in the estimation of Nixon, secrecy was of the utmost importance. In his negotiations with the Chinese, he was convinced that their desire for secrecy was such that one slip could blow the entire process out of the water. His desire to route out and find whoever might have been behind the leak of “the Pentagon Papers” lead to an obsession with secrecy. As Safire (below) observed:
“Nixon was beside himself at the press’s arrogance at deciding for itself what was secret and what was not; worried that if the press got away with this, they would feel free to reveal any secret at all; and convinced that a supine acceptance of this stripping away of the U.S. government’s ability to deal confidentially was harmful to his summit negotiations.”
The future of a peaceful world was at stake in Nixon’s view, and he simply could not sit by and allow it to be put at risk by a press with an agenda of it’s own being abetted by unnamed individuals within his own administration who wanted to show how important they were by leaking classified information to reporters. As Safire concluded:
“Nixon was faced with the real opposition of powerful groups and voices, and he joined the battle with them emotionally, culturally, politically, and intellectually. Fighting that “good fight,” he made a couple of bad mistakes. First, he placed the need for secrecy far ahead of the need to protect civil liberty, and second, the President – in the most powerful position in the world – allowed himself the luxury of wanting to beat “them” as much as they wanted to beat him.
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“RN — The Memoirs of Richard Nixon” by Richard Nixon, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1978.
“Before the Fall” by William Safire, Doubleday & Co. Inc., New York, 1975.
“Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” – Paramount Pictures, Directed by Nicholas Meyer, 1991.