Avowed anti-communist opened China to the world
"Congratulations on a magnificent breakthrough!" Donald Rumsfeld wrote to Richard Nixon after his announcement that he would visit the People's Republic of China. Left-liberals praised their archenemy. Senate Democrat leader Mike Mansfield said he was "flabbergasted, delighted and happy" and was "looking forward to a new day".
According to most historians, the rapprochement was the 37th president's finest hour. But Nixon's visit to Peking (now Beijing) also angered American conservatives, the last of the true believers in isolating "Red China".
William F. Buckley Jr, editor of National Review, complained that the US had "lost - irretrievably - any remaining sense of moral mission in the world". Publisher William Rusher called Nixon's volte face "one of the greatest doublecrosses of all time" while movie actor John Wayne deplored the week-long trip as a "real shocker".
Still, there is no denying the merits of the China opening 40 years ago next week. It was probably the most significant diplomatic initiative since the launching of the Marshall Plan and creation of NATO in the late 1940s. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, exploited the Sino-Soviet split in order to create a global balance of power. By breaking a 23-year-old taboo on negotiating with the leaders of the world's most populous nation, they helped the Chinese people wake up to the modern world and gradually move away from the nightmares of the Cultural Revolution.
Nixon's overtures to the Middle Kingdom have been the subject of a large scholarly literature, not to mention a plethora of operas and plays. Yet historians have failed to explain satisfactorily how a staunch anti-communist in the 50s and 60s suddenly became a sophisticated exponent of realpolitik in the 70s. Instead, they promote one of the great myths: that only a Nixon could go to China without causing a domestic backlash.
"The reason there was no outcry about the reversal," distinguished commentator Walter Lippmann remarked, "was that it was made under the auspices of a certified anti-communist like Nixon."
The argument goes like this: just as the Tories, not the Liberals, enfranchised the masses of people in England in the 19th century, and just as a Labor prime minister in Bob Hawke, not a Liberal, deregulated the Australian economy, so too only a US political figure with impeccable anti-communist credentials could sup with the devil.
The conventional wisdom is wrong. Why? Because the American consensus to isolate communist China had collapsed by 1966, more than five years before Nixon's visit. So swiftly had the political climate changed that even a liberal Democrat president could have negotiated with Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai in 1972 without arousing the anger of middle America. Moreover, it was in 1966 when the pliant Nixon had begun his own ideological odyssey.
To understand this drama, it is worth putting the China opening in its proper context. From the enunciation of president Harry Truman's doctrine of containment in 1947 until president Lyndon B. Johnson's prosecution of the Vietnam war two decades later, an anti-communist policy agenda dominated US politics.
Washington had isolated Mao's communist regime on the mainland (no trade, no UN seat, no recognition) and instead recognised Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist regime on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan).
Any proposals to exploit Sino-Soviet tensions and play Peking off against Moscow were shunned. And the Cold War crusade was waged from Korea to Indochina, ostensibly to counter Chinese aggression.
No political figure better reflected the prevailing wisdom than Nixon. As congressman (1947-51), senator (1951-53) and vice president (1953-61), he maintained that the Nationalists in "Free China" (Formosa) were the true representatives of the Chinese people while "Red China" was an "outlaw nation".
He even endorsed Joe McCarthy's charge that treasonous US diplomats had "lost China".
The role of US foreign policy, he urged, "must be nothing less than to bring freedom to the communist world." Otherwise, "Mao might welcome a third world war as a means of spreading communism."
After losing the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy and then the 1962 race for California governor, Nixon remained in the public arena.
During the "wilderness years" - the five years between his defeat in 1962 and his second presidential run in 1968 - Nixon made numerous trips around the world, including five to Asia where he met leading figures.
A close study of his private notes of those meetings is revealing. Written on his trademark yellow pads, the notes highlight Nixon's keen, analytical mind. He read omnivorously and functioned always as an enquiring scholar.
These notes reveal his command of not only contemporary strategic issues, but also the thoughts of the major players in Asian politics. They also reveal Nixon's changing views on China.
Take his meetings with Charles de Gaulle in 1963 and Muhammad Ayub Khan in 1964. The French and Pakistan presidents told Nixon the Sino-Soviet split was "real", and "driven by nationalism" (not ideological differences, as cold warriors argued), and Washington should "exploit the split by playing China off against Moscow".
In public, however, Nixon would continue to denounce such arguments when they were made by Democrats in the US. "How can anyone in a responsible policy-making position say that the Cold War is thawing?" Nixon argued in November 1964. "The Cold War is not thawing; it is burning with a deadly heat. Communism is not changing; it is, as always, plotting, scheming, working, fighting."
On relaxing US opposition to communist China: no accommodation, no compromise, only total victory.
Yet by early 1967, when Nixon again met de Gaulle and Ayub (as well as other leaders such as Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew and West Germany's Konrad Adenauer), it was the old cold warrior who privately championed engagement with China. During a March 1967 meeting with Nicolae Ceausescu, Nixon spent most of the two-hour talk broaching the subject. Needless to say, the communist dictator of Romania appeared perplexed.
In the October 1967 issue of Foreign Affairs, Nixon wrote: "Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations." To be sure, the case for ending China's isolation was qualified, lest he upset the Republican Party's conservative base on the eve of the 1968 presidential primaries. Still, Nixon had changed his tune.
This raises an important question: if the Sino-Soviet split shaped the new Nixon's China thinking in the late 60s and early 70s, as most scholars suggest, why didn't he advocate rapprochement in 1963-65 when de Gaulle and Ayub told him that the US should exploit the evident cracks in the Peking-Moscow alliance?
The answer lies in understanding the broader US reconsideration of China policy. In 1966, as serious doubts emerged about the Vietnam war, a great debate began. Opinion leaders - politicians, journalists, business, think tanks - began to criticise the two-decades-old policy of isolating Peking. Even the Sinophiles who had been dismissed as academic fringe-dwellers had suddenly gained a new legitimacy in congressional hearings.
It was widely agreed that China, far from being a reckless dragon bent on world revolution, had been more moderate and cautious; and that Washington should make every effort to integrate Peking into the world community.
In 1966, the hitherto hard-line New York Times published no fewer than 20 editorials calling for a new policy. Polls showed wide and increasing public support for negotiating with Peking, easing the travel ban and supporting China's admission into the UN. President Johnson gave a nationwide address in July to advocate "reconciliation" with the mainland.
Clearly, a new era in US understanding of China had begun in 1966. Meanwhile, Nixon was uncharacteristically silent. From August 1966 until the second half of 1967, there is no evidence to suggest he had said anything publicly about China policy. Nothing. The silence was significant.
From the summer of 1949 to the summer of 1966, Nixon had frequently condemned any proposal to accommodate communist China. But here was Nixon, with a wet finger to the wind, clearly catching the significance of the changing climate. Not for him any more red baiting.
Why, then, did it take another five years before the door was opened? The answer has more to do with China's xenophobic stance during the Cultural Revolution than any hostility on Washington's part.
Indeed, when Nixon announced his decision to visit China - done in the absence of any public concessions by the communist leaders - the amazing thing is that America and the world were amazed. Long gone were the days when mainstream US politicians felt compelled to outlaw and blacklist anything Chinese.
Again, none of this is to dismiss the significance of Nixon's opening to China. It's just that the circumstances did not need a Nixon to make a rapprochement succeed 40 years ago.