The Debate

Nixon’s China Sell-Out

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The Debate

Nixon’s China Sell-Out

Nixon’s China opening had little regards for American and allied troops in Vietnam.

Nixon’s China Sell-Out
Credit: U.S. National Archives

As Winston Lord relates in his oral history given to the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, former President Richard Nixon had three key goals in changing American policy toward the People’s Republic of China.

First, says Lord, opening China would give the United States “more flexibility on the world scene.” This would allow Washington to deal separately with Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. By peeling China away, the Communist Bloc would indeed be “no longer a bloc.”

Second, “we would catch Russia’s attention and get more leverage on them.” This, states Lord, worked “dramatically” well after Kissinger secretly went to China in July 1971.

And third, Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, “wanted to get help in resolving the Vietnam War.” But Lord states that the “maximum” that the United States was looking for was “to slow down the provision of aid to North Vietnam somewhat.”

“More realistically,” Lord continues, “we sought to persuade Russia and China to encourage Hanoi to make a deal with the United States and give Hanoi a sense of isolation because their two, big patrons were dealing with us.”

In other words, Nixon’s opening to China was less about confronting major suppliers of aid to arms to North Vietnam than it was about enhancing diplomatic and geopolitical positioning and leverage for the United States around the world.

In the seven years just prior to Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, 56,907 young American men had been killed in Vietnam. This figure does not take into account the dead and wounded from the many nations, such as South Korea and Australia, who were allied with the United States in the Vietnam conflict. Nor does it begin to address the hundreds of thousands of civilians throughout Southeast Asia, on both sides of the war, who lost either their lives, or if they were lucky, only their livelihoods, as “collateral” damage.

China had materially contributed to the deaths of the young soldiers for whom Nixon was not just president, but commander-in-chief. China’s support for North Vietnam made China culpable for many of the lives lost in Vietnam on the U.S. and allied side.

And many Chinese were, of course, proud of it. I remember well a 700-kilometer road trip in 1992 from Kunming to Lincang in Yunnan Province. This wild drive partly paralleled the Lancang River, better known outside of China as the Mekong. The driver had been requisitioned by local telecoms authorities in Lincang to transport us into the beautiful but drug-ridden Chinese portion of Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle. As we came out of the mountains into the valley through which the Lancang flows south into Laos, the driver announced, “This is where I used to carry guns for Vietnam. We drove them along this road and floated them along that river. Those guns killed your American boys.”

From arms, to training, to the repair of roads and bridges, China provided assistance to Ho Chi Minh that ultimately helped to decide the war in his favor.

Yet in his outreach to China, Vietnam was less on Nixon’s mind than realigning the world’s balance of power. This was clear even before Nixon assumed the presidency. Nixon wrote in Foreign Affairs in October 1967:

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.

Fifteen months later, and only two days into his presidency, Nixon wrote, “Chinese Communists: Short range—no change. Long range—we do not want 800,000,000 living in angry isolation. We want contact … [want] China—cooperative member of international community and member of Pacific community.”

Nothing here about ending the Vietnam War. In that year alone, 1969, 11,780 Americans would die in Vietnam, even while Nixon was devising a strategy to help China, who was aiding and abetting the American enemy, become a “cooperative member” of the international community.

Secret, back-door negotiations to meet the Chinese marched forward. Nixon and Henry Kissinger spoke by phone on April 17, 1971. In a long conversation discussing who should be sent first to meet with the Chinese, any idea of including Vietnam as a discussion point in that meeting is either rejected or ignored by Nixon.

Nixon says, referring to David Bruce, lead negotiator in the Paris talks on Vietnam, as a potential envoy to China, “the Bruce thing… seems to me may pose a difficult problem because of him being directly involved in the Vietnam negotiations.”

Later in the conversation, Henry Kissinger approaches the subject of Vietnam again. “Mr. President, I have not said this before, but I think if we get this thing working, we will end Vietnam this year.”

Nixon continues as if he hadn’t heard the comment. “Another thing, of course, our little problem of time.”

This is not the say Vietnam was not a consideration at all. In 1999, James Mann, in his book, About Face, quoted notes that Nixon made for himself in Beijing in February 1972, as he was getting ready to meet with Zhou Enlai. “Taiwan = Vietnam = tradeoff,” Nixon wrote, and “Won’t support Taiwan independence.” This was meant to indicate that Nixon was prepared to sacrifice Taiwan for help with ending the war in Vietnam, something not stated in the Shanghai Communique.

In fact Kissinger had already had this discussion with Zhou Enlai during his secret meeting in July 1971. Winston Lord’s July 29, 1971 record of the Kissinger-Zhou meeting was released on April 5, 2001, along with tens of thousands of pages of other Nixon papers. Lord’s memo includes the assessment of Zhou Enlai, “On Indochina [I.e. Vietnam], his language was relatively restrained, but he gave firm support to his friends [I.e. the North Vietnamese] and a hands-off attitude, even while recognizing the link you were establishing between this issue and Taiwan [emphasis added].”

Apparently China’s unwillingness to give up Vietnam did not deter Nixon or Kissinger. By February 1972, the process and the preparations were complete, and Nixon made his China visit. The Shanghai Communique said nothing about Vietnam.

Instead, Nixon and Kissinger gave China nearly everything that they could have asked for. The most important of these concessions was the “one China” policy, in which 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.”

Nixon’s decision to bring China out of isolation, and to magnanimously give China a door to the outside world, came with costs. The most obvious cost was the position of Taiwan in the world. But another, less often-discussed, cost was the lives and welfare of U.S. and allied soldiers in Vietnam. China was not forced to publicly renounce their role in supplying arms and assistance to North Vietnam, while the United States unilaterally gave up Taiwan. Mao Zedong got his one China policy, his special relationship with the United States, and a continued free hand if he wanted it in his relationship with North Vietnam.

The one China policy has been the bedrock of the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China for 46 years now. At the time of its declaration, it can be argued, the policy’s primary proponent, the president of the United States, should have negotiated primarily for the welfare and well-being of his troops, who were in harm’s way. Instead, the result of Nixon’s negotiations were one-sided deals that benefited men who had helped to kill over 50,000 of his nation’s youth, thousands under his command at the time.