Nixon in China – Forty Years Later

BY JULIE DAHLGARD — Forty years ago, President Richard Nixon arrived in China. Foreign correspondent, John F. Burns, remembers the moment Nixon alighted in Peking, now Beijing. “Plain as could be, inscribed on a large posterboard at the rim of the airport apron that overlooked the cockpit of Air Force One, picked up by the television cameras relaying images of that famous handshake, were Mao Zedong’s words in Chinese, set in white on a red background in the manner of the ‘big character’ posters of the Cultural Revolution: ‘Make trouble, fail; make trouble again, fail again, until their doom. This is the logic of all imperialists and reactionaries the world over, and they cannot go against it. This is Marxist law.’” Nixon did not visit China to make trouble.

Nixon’s trip was unexpected and it was the first official contact the U.S. had with China since the communists took over in 1948. Nixon took an opportunity to suspend his anti-communism sentiments for the opportunity to make beneficial change. In his Nobel Peace Award Acceptance Speech, President Obama said “In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable — and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies.”

Nixon and Kissinger met with Chairman Mao Zedong for an hour during the peak of the Cold War. By his state visit to China, President Nixon created informal relations between the two countries. President Carter formalized these budding relations in 1979.

At the end of the visit, the U.S. and Chinese issued a joint statement, the Joint Communiqué in Shanghai. Also known as the Shanghai Communiqué, the document was necessarily vague. China was most interested in the U.S. recognizing Taiwan as part of China. The U.S. was willing to recognize the One-China policy, but not to the extent China wanted. From the U.S. point of view, “Nixon was struggling abroad as he contemplated the China move: He was bogged down in a deeply unpopular Vietnam War and looking for new ways to contain the Soviet Union. Working with his brilliant and ambitious national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, Nixon let himself think the unthinkable.” Both the U.S. and China agreed to not co-operate with the Soviet bloc. The agreement was a step toward increased peace, understanding, and trade.

What was the result of this daring political step? It is called “the week that changed the world.” According to Margaret MacMillan, author of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed The World, there was a distinct shift in global power, however the relations and trade may have been inevitable. In the following year, the death toll dropped in Vietnam, Nixon began peace talks with the Soviet Union and the SALT I treaty was signed, and the President received two panda bears, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing. Besides all the changes that may have resulted from Nixon’s historic visit, the visit will be memorialized in popular culture in the opera, Nixon in China.

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