On July 15, 1971, President Richard Nixon addressed the nation in a live televised broadcast to make an unexpected announcement: he had accepted an invitation from Beijing to become the first U.S. president to visit the People’s Republic of China, a Communist nation of 750 million that, next to the Soviet Union, was America’s fiercest adversary in the Cold War.
“I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China,” said Nixon in his address.
The surprise announcement was the result of months of top-secret diplomacy between the Nixon White House and Beijing. Nixon, always a fan of the “big play,” had high hopes that his trip to China would be the kind of seismic geopolitical event that changed the course of history.
In many ways, he was right. In the words of one of his ambassadors, Nixon’s eight-day visit in February of 1972 was “the week that changed the world” and substantially altered the balance of power between the United States, China and the Soviet Union.
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China-U.S. Relations Were Ice Cold
When Richard Nixon took office in 1969, it marked the 20th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Republic of China, and 20 years of frozen diplomatic relations between the United States and Communist China. The two sides hadn’t spoken for decades, and the United States was at war with the Communist North Vietnamese in China’s backyard.
Nixon himself had won early political fame as an anti-communist hawk with his pursuit of Alger Hiss, a former State Department official accused of spying for the Soviet Union.
The closest the U.S. and China had come to diplomatic contact was 15 years earlier in 1954, when top officials from both nations attended the Geneva Convention to negotiate new political boundaries between North and South Korea, and North and South Vietnam. At the conference, John Foster Dulles, then secretary of state under Dwight D. Eisenhower, had famously refused to shake hands with Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier and lead negotiator.
But as the tumultuous 1960s came to a close, the Nixon administration was facing several major challenges: a disastrous war in Vietnam, social strife at home, and stalled nuclear arms negotiations with the Soviets.
While Nixon publicly portrayed himself as a populist hardliner, he was a close reader of history and a shrewd strategist. Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger came to believe that by thawing relations with the Chinese and bringing them into the “society of nations,” America could gain a powerful new ally in its negotiations with both the North Vietnamese and the Soviets.
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The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Friend
The Chinese, it turned out, had their own strategic reasons to re-open dialogue with the United States. Despite their shared Communist ideology, there was plenty of mistrust between the PRC and the Soviet Union. The PRC leadership worried that their well-armed Soviet neighbors had designs on expanding their territory into Asia. By the late 1960s, frequent border skirmishes between the Soviets and the Chinese verged on all-out war.
“Nixon and Kissinger cooked up this idea of pitting the Soviet Union and China against each other with the United States as a third corner of the triangle to create a stable balance of power,” says Evan Thomas, journalist and author of Being Nixon: A Man Divided. “‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ was a very Nixonian idea.”
Since direct diplomatic ties between China and the U.S. were severed, Nixon had to work through private back channels in Pakistan and Romania to make overtures to the Chinese, who proved receptive. In a rare public acknowledgement of the warming relationship, the PRC invited the U.S. ping pong team to a series of exhibition games in Beijing in 1971, a cultural exchange that became known as “ping-pong diplomacy.”
READ MORE: How Ping-Pong Diplomacy Thawed the Cold War
The biggest coup was Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in July 1971 to meet face-to-face with the Chinese leader Chou Enlai. While on a diplomatic trip to Pakistan, Kissinger feigned a stomach illness that would keep him locked away in his hotel room for several days. Under the cover of night, Kissinger boarded a private Pakistani jet to Beijing, where he personally asked the PRC leadership to approve an official state visit from the American president.
In a coded cable sent back to the White House, Kissinger shared the good news with Nixon in one word: “Eureka.”
The Handshake That Shook the World
Nixon’s announcement of his upcoming trip to China was a shock to most Americans, but the bold political gesture quickly won popular support. The sharpest criticism of the visit didn’t come from Nixon’s liberal opposition, but from conservatives from his own party who thought it was a betrayal of Taiwan, where the anti-communist Chinese government had fled after losing the civil war.
But talk of Taiwan would have to wait. Nixon’s intention with his visit was to project goodwill and cooperation, and make it known to the world that the U.S. recognized a third superpower on the world stage, one that could be an important economic ally and a strategic foil in negotiations with the Soviets.
Every moment of the weeklong visit was carefully orchestrated and staged, with TV cameras broadcasting it all to rapt audiences worldwide. And Nixon knew that no single made-for-TV moment was more important than the first time that he met face-to-face with Chou Enlai, the same man whom the U.S. Secretary of State had publicly snubbed in 1954.
On February 21, 1972, Air Force One landed in Beijing. Instructing the rest of his envoy to wait onboard the plane, Nixon descended the stairway first with his wife Patty—who wore a long red coat, a color of great significance to the PRC—and eagerly extended his hand to greet the PRC premier.
“The U.S. had literally turned a cold shoulder to Chou in 1954,” says Thomas. “For Nixon to hold out his hand was a clear signal that times had changed and that America was ready to embrace the Chinese. It was brilliant stagecraft.”
Soon after Nixon settled into his hotel, he was told that Mao Zedong, the aging “chairman” of the Communist revolution wanted to meet with him. Although Mao was ill, the two chatted for an hour while cameras captured the world leaders smiling and joking with one another.
“Both men were aware of the historic significance of what they were doing,” says Thomas, “and they were both showmen in their own way.”
The Soviets Come to the Table
Nixon’s historic visit to China was the high point of a presidency later stained by the Watergate scandal and his resignation in 1974. While the visit was a public relations boon for both nations, Nixon and Kissinger failed to secure China’s help in ending the war in Vietnam, and no real progress was made on the status of Taiwan.
But the visit helped to achieve Nixon’s larger political goal of realigning the balance of power on the global stage. The Soviets, who previously rejected calls for limiting their nuclear arsenal, changed their tune when Nixon reopened talks with China. Just two months after Nixon returned from Beijing, he set off again for Moscow, where he and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) and made plans for a joint U.S.-U.S.S.R. space flight in 1975.