How was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972? How important was his meeting with Mao Zedong?

How was Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972? How important was his meeting with Mao Zedong?

“It was a week that changed the world,” U.S. President Richard Nixon said of his visit to the People’s Republic of China in 1972. Fifty-one years have now passed since that first rapprochement between the superpower that was and the country that was awakening to be, as Napoleon predicted.

We are reminded of it these days by the premiere of the opera Nixon in Chinaby John Adams, at the Teatro Real in Madrid. It was last Monday when the curtain rose in Spain on this work that has become one of the icons of contemporary opera. More appreciated and represented in Europe than in the U.S., the work imagines a moment of Nixon’s historic visit and his interview with Mao Zedong.

“It was a week that changed the world,” Nixon said some time afterward

On his return home, the American president spoke of that “week that changed the world.” But was it that big a deal? Did that trip really change relations between East and West? Because of the Watergate case -which expelled him from the White House-, Nixon is in the history of the United States something like our Ferdinand VII, but in front of those shadows, these lights.

In the house of the enemy

U.S. diplomacy proved highly effective during Nixon’s presidency. It improved relations with the Soviet Union and also with Mao’s China. With the indispensable support of Henry Kissinger, all this has been to the credit of the president who had to resign from office in 1974.

Nixon and his wife on their arrival in Beijing, greeted by Premier,Zhou Enlai.
Nixon and his wife on arrival in Peking, received by Zhou Enlai.
WIKIPEDIA/Byron Schumaker

It was the first time an American president visited communist China. which, like the USSR, considered the US one of its main enemies. It could be said that, in reality, hunger and the desire to eat came together. The Chinese regime’s hunger to open up to the outside world and Washington’s desire to eat.

Nixon was going to Peking as a route out of Vietnam.”

After World War II, the Americans’ number one enemy was the USSR. In this Cold War context, in 1960-62, the USSR arrived. China’s break with the Soviets. Mao did not accept material and much less ideological tutelage. They felt that they were the “true Marxist state”. That is the circumstance that Nixon wanted to take advantage of.

Kissinger prepared the ground

Kissinger, National Security Advisor at the time, was. preparing the diplomatic rapprochement and Beijing was receptive.. First, after an exchange of good gestures between athletes from the two countries who met in Nagoya (Japan), China invited a group of American table tennis players.

Nixon in China in 1972, having lunch with Premier Zhou Enlai.
Nixon in China in 1972, having lunch with Premier Zhou Enlai.
WIKIPEDIA/Byron Schumaker

With the parties predisposed to dialogue, Kissinger took the first step with what became known as Operation Marco Polo. In July 1971 he was visiting Pakistan. He said he was feeling unwell and was retiring to a private residence to recuperate. In reality, he took a flight from Islamabad to Beijing. There he met Zhou Enlai, Mao’s premier, to whom he expressed the U.S. desire to normalize diplomatic relations. China could not be “ignored any longer,” Kissinger said.

It was a classic case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend'”

More context. This is a time when both Nixon and Mao have their backyards pretty much turned upside down. China was stringing together famine after famine.its economy worsened severely and the terrible “cultural revolution” had generated a climate of terror in the country with its constant persecutions and “eliminations”. In addition, Mao’s health was deteriorating.

The USSR, a common enemy

Opposite, the U.S. was still a prisoner of war in Vietnam.. “Nixon was going to Beijing as a route out of Vietnam,” he notes to the BBC historian Margaret MacMillan, author of the book Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed The World.

Nixon in China in 1972, visiting the Great Wall with his wife Pat.
Nixon, visiting the Great Wall with his wife Pat.
WIKIPEDIA/Byron Schumaker

The handshake photo was good for both of them. On the one hand, to further isolate Russia, an enemy of both for different reasons, and on the other to distract their fellow citizens from other problems. “It was a classic case of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.”has written Richard Hass, president of the Council on Foreign Relationsa Washington-based think tank.

Nixon and Mao sought the same thing: to counter the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.”

“Nixon and Mao sought the same thing: to counter the Soviet Union in the midst of the Cold War.. Nixon’s idea was that in a triangular relationship you want to be closer to the other two sides than they are to each other. His fundamental objective was the USSR,” he has told the BBC Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center.

Nixon lands in Peking.

That week that Nixon would later say changed the world. was February 21-28, 1972.. Accompanied almost always by his wife Pat, the American president visited Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai. The meeting with Mao Zedong took place on the first day, by surprise and in the Chinese capital. It was the only one between the two leaders.

Nixon and Mao, meeting on February 21, 1972.
Handshake between Nixon and Mao, February 21, 1972.
WIKIPEDIA/White House Photo Office

The Chinese leader had just come from spending nine days in bed.He was suffering from double pneumonia, heart and kidney failure, and circulatory problems. Such was his condition that a nurse was present at his side during the entire interview. Mao would die four years later.

Later that week, the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China issued the Shanghai Communiqué. The document laid the groundwork for the new Sino-US bilateral relations. It set out their views on foreign policy and promised to work for a “complete normalization” of their diplomatic relations.which came in 1977.

The cropped photo of the interview

  • At the historic interview, Nixon was accompanied by only one other American, Winston Lord, National Security Advisor, later ambassador to China. At the request of the Chinese delegates, Secretary of State William P. Rogers was excluded. Later, so as not to embarrass Rogers, Lord was cut out of the official photographs of the meeting.

Also, Washington officially accepted the postulate of “One China.” which the Beijing government had already formulated to substantiate its sovereignty claims over Taiwan. Kissinger announced that they would withdraw their military forces from the island, but without renouncing its military alliance with that regime (support that continues today 50 years later).

But Nixon also believed that his trip to Peking was going to put pressure on the USSR.. And so it did, because relations with the Kremlin also improved, to the point that Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev also invited the American president to visit Moscow.

A moment from “Nixon in China,” John Adams’ opera.

“How much of what we did was good?”

Adams’ opera ends with the protagonists of the famous interview in their respective beds. It is the last night of the American delegation in Beijing. Beyond the historical aspect of their meeting, Nixon and Mao wonder whether they have fulfilled their youthful dreams.. At the end, Zhou Enlai, Mao’s right-hand man, asks, “How much of what we did was good?”

It was very important because of its symbolism. It showed that two countries that had nothing to do with each other were getting closer.”

Offstage, in reality, it does not seem that Nixon could sleep very well because of his handling of the war in Vietnam or because of how he went to great lengths to stay in power, for example with the Democrats, spying on them in their offices in the Watergate building. But there does seem to be a consensus that his trip to China was, if not revolutionary, then remarkably positive. for all parties.

“It was very important because of its symbolism. It showed that two countries whose relations had frozen and no longer had anything to do with each other were moving closer together, which opened up a lot of possibilities,” says MacMillan.

Kayleigh Williams