Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan








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Despite the subtitle of Margaret MacMillan’s new book, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, the 400 pages here cover more than that week in 1972 itself, and it’s in giving us the background and the follow-on that MacMillan excels. The week in 1972 is recent enough for many readers to know and understand at a high level what happened, but we need someone like MacMillan to guide us through the whys and hows, as well as the details that come from a close examination of what happened during Nixon’s visit to China. She provides a cogent history of the American relationship with China over the decades preceding and following 1972. She also gives us context and background about Nixon and Mao, as well as Henry Kissinger and Chinese premier Chou En-Lai. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 13, “Getting Ready,” pp. 208-213:


In February 1972, Ron Walker, head of the White House advance team, arrived in China with his party of nearly a hundred technicians and specialists to prepare for Nixon’s visit. They took with them tons of equipment and emergency supplies, from American toi­let paper to whiskey, to a world where there were, in those days, no ice cubes, no telexes, and no hamburgers. They found the Chinese hospitable, polite, and very concerned about making the Nixon trip a success. What exactly did the president eat for lunch? What tempera­ture would he like his villa to be?

Both sides found their new relationship challenging, occasionally difficult, and frequently bewildering. What, asked a young inter­preter who had listened to the popular American song “American Pie,” did the line about the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost mean? An American who tried to explain was startled when the interpreter said she had never heard of Jesus. From time to time, the Chinese joined the Americans to watch movies the team had brought from the United States, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. One day, to much embarrassment, a Chinese official walked in on a showing of The Graduate just as Mrs. Robinson was undressing. There were po­tentially more serious incidents, too, like the evening a homesick technician smoked too much of the marijuana and drank too much of the vodka he had brought with him and set his hotel room on fire.1

Walker, code-named Road Runner after the hyperactive cartoon character, was used to dropping in on cities and towns around the world and bullying and cajoling the locals to make sure that every de­tail for a presidential visit, including thorough press coverage, was in place. This time, he complained to Washington that he was finding it hard to get clear answers to his demands and questions. When the Chinese head of protocol demurred over a particular arrangement, Walker snapped back, “I don’t give a rat’s ass what you say, we’re go­ing to do it this way. We always do it this way.” The Chinese was puz­zled: “What’s a rat’s ass?” When it gradually dawned on him, there was a major crisis, and a senior official had to fly out from Washington to smooth everything over.2 The agreement that Nixon would visit China was the first, most important step, but there were many times in the next few months when it looked as though the visit might never take place. The minuet, in Kissinger’s description, was performed on the edge of a cliff, by dancers who were never quite sure what moves others were about to make.

After Kissinger’s first visit, the Chinese and the Americans used the Paris channel to talk about everything from refueling the American airplanes to relations with the Soviet Union.3 In October, Kissinger traveled back to Beijing to start drafting the joint communiqué that was to be issued by both sides at the conclusion of the president’s visit and to continue work on the arrangements for Nixon’s trip. “China,” Kissinger told Chou, “despite its long experience in handling out­siders, has never undergone anything like the phenomenon of a visit by an American President.”4 Kissinger flew on Air Force One so that the Chinese could get used to dealing with the president’s aircraft. He also brought a much larger party, which included communications and security experts as well as Dwight Chapin, Nixon’s appointments secretary, from the White House advance team. This time, too, there was an official representative from the State Department, an experi­enced China hand named Al Jenkins. “My task,” said Kissinger in his memoirs, “was to give him a sense of participation without letting him in on any key geopolitical discussions, especially the drafting of the communiqué.”5

Kissinger left from the United States this time and landed in Shanghai on October 20. From there two Chinese pilots took over the Controls just as they would when Nixon arrived. In their conversations in Beijing, the Chinese also insisted that Nixon should travel in a Chinese plane for part of his trip within China. It was not usual, Kissinger said, for American presidents to travel on any planes but their own. “It’s on our territory,” Chou said simply, pointing out that he himself would accompany Nixon. “We will be responsible, and your Secret Service men can also have a look in our plane because everything will be all right.”6

In Beijing, although the American party had no way of knowing it, the repercussions from Lin Biao’s flight were still causing trouble in the upper echelons of the Communist Party. Chou En-lai was much preoccupied with trying to clean up the mess and in fending off at­tacks from the radicals. At the Diaoyutai, where the Americans were again housed, a ripple from offstage reached them when they discov­ered copies in their rooms of an English-language news release con­demning American imperialists and calling on the people of the world to overthrow them. Kissinger gathered all the releases up and handed them over to a Chinese official with the comment that some previous guests must have left them behind. Chou was furious and embarrassed over what may have been an attempt by radicals in the official Chinese news agency to derail the delicate process of opening up relations with the Americans. He immediately reported the incident to Mao, who made light of it: “Tell the Americans, these are nothing but empty words.” The next day, as Kissinger was driven to the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese deputy foreign minister tried to explain that just as the Americans communicated with one another through newspa­pers, so did the Chinese through slogans. He showed Kissinger a wall where a poster denouncing the United States had been freshly covered up with a welcome for the Afro-Asian Ping-Pong Tournament.7

The American party stayed in Beijing for a week trying to work out the details, both small and large, of Nixon’s visit. (To guard against Chinese listening devices, they played a tape of Johnny Cash songs; whenever they wanted anything like a cup of tea from the Chinese, they turned the music off and spoke loudly.)8 The Americans toured some of the sights Nixon would see: the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Summer Palace. Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, put on one of her famous revolutionary operas for them. Interestingly, the pro­gram also contained a performance of a Beethoven symphony by the Beijing Philharmonic, which was appearing for the first time since the Cultural Revolution had started. The communications experts met, trying to reconcile the huge demands of the Americans for rapid communications with the antiquated state of the Chinese telephone system and to make arrangements for satellite transmission. The Americans wanted to bring the president’s special armored limousine; the Chinese insisted that he would be perfectly safe in one of their cars. The issue was finally settled when Nixon said he did not care about which car he used. The American chief of security bewildered the Chinese when he asked them to round up all the usual trouble­makers before Nixon arrived. His Chinese counterpart complained about the American’s arrogant manner.9

The Americans, Kissinger told Chou, would bring their own in­terpreters; but, he said, “in private meetings between the Chairman and the President we may want to rely on your interpreters in order to guarantee security.” He could not, Kissinger claimed, trust American interpreters not to talk to the newspapers. The Chinese agreed with understandable alacrity. Using their interpreters would give them greater control over the record of Nixon’s conversations. Finding enough English speakers was something of a problem, however; the Chinese brought them in from all over the country, often from the farms where they had been sent during the Cultural Revolution.10

On the whole, Kissinger and Chou concentrated on the big po­litical issues: the Soviet Union, the tension in South Asia, Japan, Korea, and the United Nations. Taiwan was at the top of China’s list, Vietnam on the Americans’. Kissinger was usually accompanied only by Winston Lord. He did not want, he told Chou, to share the discus­sions of major issues “with colleagues not in my own office.”11 Jenkins from the State Department was therefore sent off to talk to one of Chou’s subordinates about issues Kissinger considered less important, such as trade, or was kept occupied with trips to see an oil refinery and a chemical plant. With Chou, Kissinger said, it was as though the two of them were resuming a seamless conversation: “Everything ever said to me by any Chinese of any station was part of an intricate design— even when with my slower Occidental mind it took me a while to catch on.” 12

In their twenty-five hours of conversations, Kissinger and Chou covered much of the world and much past history, but they kept com­ing back to Taiwan. And it was Taiwan that caused them the most trouble when they came to drafting the communiqué for the conclu­sion of Nixon’s trip. Kissinger had come prepared with a detailed draft, which he handed over to the Chinese on October 22. “It is such a long one,” commented Chou. The draft contained much fine lan­guage about how the Chinese and Americans recognized each other’s differences but how they wanted to work together for international peace and security. Neither side was seeking hegemony—a favorite accusation of the Chinese against the superpowers. The draft also skated over the key areas of dispute, such as Taiwan, expressing the hope that the issue could be settled peacefully. It was the sort of stan­dard communiqué issued when nations still had important matters to work out. Mao disliked it intensely, perhaps because as an old revolu­tionary who still dreamed of leading a world revolution, he was put off by the idea of subscribing to something so bland and conventional. The United States, he told Chou later that night, was talking about peace and security. “We have to emphasize revolution, liberating the oppressed nations and peoples in the world,” he said. It was all empty talk, Mao went on, when the Americans said they would not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs and swore that they were not seeking to dominate the world: “If they did not seek hegemony, how could America expand from 13 states to 50 states?” Chou should tell the Americans that it was better for everyone to speak frankly. Anything short of that would be “improper.”13

Chou duly complied with his instructions. On the morning of October 24, he told Kissinger that they must face the fact that there were significant differences between the positions of their respective countries. To do otherwise would be dishonest, the sort of thing the Soviet Union might do. The Americans, Chou lectured Kissinger, were behaving like Metternich had after the Napoleonic Wars: trying to suppress revolution and maintain order by relying on old friends. Metternich had failed in the end because he could not hold off revo­lution forever. The Americans were facing something similar in the present: “This awakening consciousness of the people is promoting changes in the world, or we might call it turmoil.” Look at Vietnam, at the rest of Asia, at Africa, at Latin America, even Europe, he said. The Americans should understand the power of revolution; after all, they had once been revolutionary themselves, when they fought for their independence. Both the United States and China wanted peace but, Chou demanded, “shall this generation of peace be based on hopes for the future or on old friends?” That was a fundamental dif­ference between their two countries. If the United States preferred to behave like Metternich once had, it would also find itself facing revo­lutionary challenges after a few years. “Of course,” Chou concluded blandly, “perhaps limited by your system, you are unable to make any greater changes, while we, due to our philosophy, foresee such a thing. 14


In many respects, the meeting between Nixon and Mao in 1972 changed the world. Thanks to MacMillan, readers of Nixon and Mao can examine more closely the importance of what happened, and why and how it all came about.


Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2007



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