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Easing China-US Tensions: Lessons From Nixon’s 1972 Trip

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Easing China-US Tensions: Lessons From Nixon’s 1972 Trip

Modern thinkers widely misunderstand the contemporaneous significance of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. That significance provides a blueprint for thawing the current tensions.

Easing China-US Tensions: Lessons From Nixon’s 1972 Trip
Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Despite hopes for a “reset” under President Joe Biden, the chasm between the United States and China has only widened in 2021. Today, three-in-four Americans have a negative view of China, and anti-China sentiment unites an otherwise divided and partisan body politic. This hostility toward China constrains America’s leadership. Even if Biden wanted to, he could not currently enact a policy détente without damaging his agenda and electoral prospects. How then, can Biden or a future American president reduce the public’s antipathy and place American foreign policy toward China onto a more sustainable footing?

Former President Richard Nixon’s weeklong 1972 China visit provides one blueprint.

Modern thinkers widely misunderstand the contemporaneous significance of Nixon’s 1972 trip to China. Today, many argue that the summit was significant because it produced a communiqué and a common anti-Soviet front. But nobody in 1972 saw the summit this way. Despite modern misunderstandings of the trip’s significance for policymakers in 1972, it was still perceived as historic in its own time. Why was this? Simply put, because the images of the U.S. president that were coming out of Beijing were worth more than any communiqué or alliance. They helped to shift American public opinion toward China and helped Americans to start viewing China as more than a security threat, creating a political opening for de-escalation later in the decade.

So why is the summit so often misperceived as creating an anti-Soviet front? This misperception stems mainly from the Soviets themselves. After the summit, Soviet state media talked darkly about how anti-Sovietism was pushing the United States into the arms of China, and the Soviet ambassador was “almost beside himself with protestations of goodwill.” Nixon interpreted this later to show that his trip had brought the Soviets “into a more accommodating state of mind,” and to claim that this was one of the original goals of the trip.

However, the evidence is mixed at best that Nixon’s trip made the Soviets more amenable to compromise. SALT 1 was not finalized and signed until May 1972, but its key points of contention had already been solved in 1971. Negotiations over Berlin’s links to West Germany had also been essentially concluded by the time Nixon went to Beijing. The most that can be said is that Nixon’s trip alarmed the Soviets, but this was not his intention in 1972.

At the time, Nixon actually hoped that his trip to Beijing would improve the atmosphere for his upcoming Moscow trip, American journalist Robert Kraft told the Soviet ambassador. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger even tried to arrange for Nixon to travel to Moscow before Beijing and wrote in 1971 that “the PRC… is afraid of giving Moscow a pretext for attack.” But the Soviets themselves were incredulous and dallied on setting a date for a Soviet-U.S. summit. As Kissinger explained to the Chinese, the order of Nixon’s summits was thus determined in Moscow; the Americans had no desire to seem provocative.

Nixon even took the initiative after landing in the United States to send a private message to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev: The United States remained committed to détente, and the recent trip to China was not directed against any third country. Further, Kissinger took the extraordinary step of holding a private dinner in his home three days after the trip to reassure the Soviet ambassador. It can, thus, hardly be said that Nixon’s trip to China was intended to create a new de facto Sino-American alliance against Moscow at a time when détente was Nixon’s primary foreign policy priority.

Creating a communiqué or a “one China” policy was also not even on Nixon’s radar when he traveled to Beijing. The Shanghai Communiqué is commonly cited today as the first formal American acknowledgment of its one China policy. But in its own time, both the Chinese and the Americans alike viewed the communiqué as insignificant. The New York Times editorial board referred to the communiqué as “an agreement to disagree about a great many things.” During negotiations over wording, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua even told the Americans directly that the Chinese did not need a communiqué. Kissinger understood and downplayed the communiqué as well, telling the Chinese side that its only purpose was to assuage State Department bureaucrats. Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, shared Kissinger’s view: “On TV the image of the American President received is worth a million times the effect of a communiqué.”

Nixon also warned the Chinese side: “there is no possibility in the next one and a half years for us to recognize the PRC as the sole government of China in a formal way.” This comment reflects Nixon’s penchant for avoiding commitment coupled with long-term thinking. Nixon’s original intention – and the real reason he went to Beijing – was to begin shifting American public opinion and create the conditions necessary for a better China-U.S. relationship over the long run.

In 1972, Nixon did not have explicit goals, such as creating a “one China” policy or an anti-Soviet alliance. As he told Mao:

Too often we look at problems of the world from the point of view of tactics. We take the short view … It is essential to look at the world not just in terms of immediate diplomatic battles and decisions but the great forces that move the world. Maybe we have some disagreements, but we know there will be changes, and we know that there can be a better, and I trust safer, world for our two peoples.

This also comports with off-the-cuff 5 a.m. remarks that Nixon made to anti-war protesters during one of his notorious late-night episodes. In those remarks, he encouraged the protesters to travel and said that his great hope was for “the great mainland of China to be opened up so that we could know the 700 million people who live in China and are one of the most remarkable people on earth.”

So what lessons can we draw from Nixon’s trip that might help to thaw China-U.S. relations today? First, Nixon was willing to take a great political gamble in trying to appeal to the American people’s emotional ethos. As he recalled: “Congressman John Schmitz of California charged me with ‘surrendering to international Communism’ by accepting the invitation. George Wallace… told reporters that he suspected the trip was actually a diversionary tactic to get people’s minds off ‘inflation and the high cost of pork chops’ …” Even those supportive of Nixon’s trip, mostly Democrats, the president wrote, “temper[ed] their praise with speculation that my motives had been political.” To improve relations with China today may require an equally bold move and a willingness to sacrifice popularity for a safer world.

Second, Nixon – despite his reputation as emotionally disconnected to those closest to him – fundamentally understood the collective emotional ethos of the American people. As he told Kissinger: “It really was a question of the American people being hopelessly and naively for peace.” As American involvement in Afghanistan ends, the question remains: Is the same true today?

Nixon also instinctively understood the importance of images in shifting public opinion. His recollection of the “most moving” moment from the summit highlights this: “The transcript of the conversation [with Mao] may not have caught probably the most moving moment, when [Mao] reached out his hand, and I reached out mine, and he held it for about a minute.”

Nixon partly understood the role of images in shaping emotion through his own racialized view of the world, as is clear from his February 1972 comments – shocking in their bluntness – on the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam:

From a political standpoint, we should have flushed them [the South Vietnamese] down the drain three years ago. … Sure, the North Vietnamese would’ve slaughtered and castrated two million South Vietnamese Catholics, but nobody [in the U.S.] would have cared. These little brown people, so far away, we don’t know them very well, naturally you would say.

Perhaps not despite his flaws but because of them, Nixon understood the importance of familiarity and “understanding” between peoples as well as any modern politician. On his China trip, he was attempting to build the sort of “understanding” of the Chinese people that he instinctively knew was required to win public support for a better relationship.

Nixon also understood the power of images from his own life. Television images played an important role in his first failed presidential bid in 1960, and afterward, Nixon became obsessed with the new medium. He thus made staged photo-ops a priority in China. As John Chancellor of NBC News put it, the trip was “a theatrical accomplishment of the first magnitude for its producers, the American and Chinese governments.” He added: “Who needs circuses when you’ve got China?” Nixon even conscripted his wife Pat to use as a – in his own words – “prop” for when he would have to sneak away from the press for official business. Any modern politician must, like Nixon, understand the value of images as well as communiqués, agreements, and speeches.

In conclusion, it’s difficult to understate the impact of Nixon’s trip on American public opinion about China. In 1968, Pew had surveyed Americans about “the Chinese people;” most held them in low regard. (Less than 0.5 percent of Americans, for example, thought Chinese were “honest.”) But in 1972, after Nixon’s trip, Americans were well on their way to having positive opinions of the ordinary Chinese.

As tensions rise between the United States and China today, how can we put relations back on a more positive footing? Nixon’s “week that changed the world” might offer one possible answer.

Guest Author

Max Plithides

Max Plithides is currently a research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He holds an MA in Political Science from UCLA with a concentration in International Relations. His master's thesis, “Is an Image Worth a Hundred Communiqués? Experimental Evidence on the Role of Photo Op Summits in Diplomacy,” and the accompanying policy brief published by the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, examine the role of photo ops in palliating public pressure for conflict.