During a live television and radio broadcast, President Richard Nixon stuns the nation by announcing that he will visit communist China the following year. The statement marked a dramatic turning point in U.S.-Chinese relations.
At first glance, Nixon seemed like the last American president who would ever consider a visit to the People’s Republic of China. Since the communists came to power in China in 1949, Nixon had been one of the most vociferous critics of American efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese. He was known as a fervent Cold Warrior, and had been one of the leading figures in the post-World War II Red Scare, during which the U.S. government launched massive investigations into possible communist subversion in America. By 1971, however, a number of factors pushed the anticommunist Nixon to make the dramatic decision to begin a rapprochement with communist China. First and foremost was the Vietnam War. In 1969, shortly after taking office, Nixon promised the American people “peace with honor” in Vietnam. Two years later, and with thousands more Americans having been killed in the conflict, peace seemed no closer than before. The United States was also aware that the Chinese were eager to improve relations. The Chinese split with Russia in the mid-1960s left the Chinese communists looking for new allies, and diplomatic relations with America would mean increased trade possibilities, something the growing Chinese economy desperately wanted.
Following the advice of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, Nixon hoped to use the promise of closer relations with the United States to convince the Chinese to put increased pressure on North Vietnam–a Chinese ally–to reach an acceptable peace settlement in the war. Other factors encouraging the visit included the constant demands of U.S. businesses for diplomatic relations with China so that its markets would open to American trade and investment; Nixon’s need for a dramatic act to revive his sagging popularity with the American people; and Kissinger’s hope that closer relations with China would make the Soviet Union more receptive to U.S. diplomatic initiatives. It was with these ideas in mind that Nixon announced on July 15, 1971, that he was going to make a “journey for peace” to communist China in May 1972, at the invitation of the Chinese government.
Nixon undertook his historic visit to China the following year, thus beginning a long and slow process of normalization of relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. The immediate diplomatic and political rewards of Nixon’s initiative were not readily apparent. The war in Vietnam dragged on until January 1973, with the Chinese apparently having little, if any, impact on North Vietnam’s negotiating stance. Nixon’s trip to China did inspire a good deal of anxiety in Moscow, but whether the policy of detente was helped or not is debatable. The 1972 trip was certainly front-page news in the United States, and may have been one small factor in Nixon’s resounding victory in the presidential election of that year.