In an amazing turn of events, President Richard Nixon takes a dramatic first step toward normalizing relations with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) by traveling to Beijing for a week of talks. Nixon’s historic visit began the slow process of the re-establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and communist China.
Still mired in the unpopular and frustrating Vietnam War in 1971, Nixon surprised the American people by announcing a planned trip to the PRC in 1972. The United States had never stopped formally recognizing the PRC after Mao Zedong’s successful communist revolution of 1949. In fact, the two nations had been bitter enemies. PRC and U.S. troops fought in Korea during the early-1950s, and Chinese aid and advisors supported North Vietnam in its war against the United States.
Nixon seemed an unlikely candidate to thaw those chilly relations. During the 1940s and 1950s, he had been a vocal cold warrior and had condemned the Democratic administration of Harry S. Truman for “losing” China to the communists in 1949. The situation had changed dramatically since that time, though. In Vietnam, the Soviets, not the Chinese, had become the most significant supporters of the North Vietnamese regime. And the war in Vietnam was not going well. The American people were impatient for an end to the conflict, and it was becoming increasingly apparent that the United States might not be able to save its ally, South Vietnam, from its communist aggressors. The American fear of a monolithic communist bloc had been modified, as a war of words—and occasional border conflicts—erupted between the Soviet Union and the PRC in the 1960s. Nixon, and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger saw a unique opportunity in these circumstances—diplomatic overtures to the PRC might make the Soviet Union more malleable to U.S. policy requests (such as pressuring the North Vietnamese to sign a peace treaty acceptable to the United States). In fact, Nixon was scheduled to travel to meet Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev shortly after completing his visit to China.
Nixon’s trip to China, therefore, was a move calculated to drive an even deeper wedge between the two most significant communist powers. The United States could use closer diplomatic relations with China as leverage in dealing with the Soviets, particularly on the issue of Vietnam. In addition, the United States might be able to make use of the Chinese as a counterweight to North Vietnam. Despite their claims of socialist solidarity, the PRC and North Vietnam were, at best, strongly suspicious allies. As historian Walter LaFeber said, “Instead of using Vietnam to contain China, Nixon concluded that he had better use China to contain Vietnam.” For its part, the PRC was desirous of another ally in its increasingly tense relationship with the Soviet Union and certainly welcomed the possibility of increased U.S.-China trade.