Kissinger & the Emperor

From the moment when they first began to keep historical records, the Chinese showed a fascination with the complexities of diplomacy, with the give-and-take of interstate negotiation, the balancing of force and bluff, the variable powers of human words to affect the onrushing course of events. Successful examples of bargaining, whether the fruits of deceit or of moral persuasiveness, swiftly found their way into fiction, poetry, and popular drama, and thus entered the culture of the country as a whole. Such tales formed both a respite and a satisfying coda to the otherwise unremitting records of violent warfare, as China’s earliest states battled for survival, or as the emperors—after the unification of China under a single ruling house in 221 BCE—fought to fend off foreign invaders or suppress internal rivals to the throne.

One such early text describes the ending of the war between the states of Chu and Song. Chu was pressing a savage siege on the capital city of Song, but the Chu ruler and his ministers knew that the Chu forces were down to their last seven days of rations, so that unless they could clinch a speedy victory, they would have to abandon their campaign against Song. Each ruler, to try to gauge the situation of the other, sent an emissary to hold a parley on the besieged city’s walls. As the two men met, the man from Chu asked how things were going in Song. Refusing to conceal the truth, the man from Song replied, “They are terrible. Our families are exchanging children so that they can eat them, and then splitting the bones to use as fuel. A lesser man might rejoice to hear of such sufferings, but I can see you are a man of honor, who would surely feel compassion.”

You are right,” replied the man of Chu, “be tenacious in defense of your city, for our Chu armies have only seven days of supplies remaining.” And he bowed and left.

When his emissary informed him of this verbal exchange, the exasperated Chu ruler at first decided to press the siege with renewed energy. But after further discussions of the moral implications of what had taken place, the Chu ruler changed his mind. He ordered the Chu armies to withdraw, and Song was saved.1

Not, perhaps, a conventional battle story, but one with true resonance in the Chinese tradition, drawing its inspiration from an enigmatic couplet in the far earlier Book of Poetry, dating from around 800 BCE: “When a person is truly so fine/How can one respond appropriately?” In other words, when can early truthfulness pay off in desperate moments, and when can it lead to disaster? Much depends on the way people size each other up, and their relative openness to the forces of moral argument. The tension will always be there, and the chances for misreading the situation are always present. Thus for Chinese pragmatists, or those of more cynical disposition, it was generally better to try to strike at the sources of the enemy’s strength. As one of China’s leading moral thinkers of the eleventh century put it, the process was similar to that of controlling a wild boar, most vicious and unpredictable of creatures. Attempting to control the teeth and tusks of such an animal by brute strength was impossible; one still would not curb its natural ferocity or the sharpness of the teeth. Hence “the superior man follows the principle of taking away the force behind the boar’s teeth,” whether by gelding or by other means. For the superior man “knows that the evil of the world cannot be suppressed by force.” Instead, he “gets hold of its essential element, and stops up its source.”2

Not too many years after those lines were written, China in fact entered a protracted period of disastrous foreign policy miscalculation, one that first sundered and then destroyed the ruling dynasty, as emperors trying to ward off the powers of the aggressive Liao invaders in the north brought in the equally aggressive Jin state to redress the balance, and then finally succumbed altogether to the triumphant Mongol armies. Missing the “essential element” of the situation, and unable to “stop up its source,” China’s rulers found their whole culture threatened with extinction. Though by the fourteenth century Chinese rebel armies had managed to overthrow the Mongols and establish the Ming dynasty, by 1644 the center broke again, as the Manchu armies swept into Beijing and established the new (and China’s last) dynasty, the Qing.

The Qing emperors were forced, by the circumstances of changing global power relations, to adjust to a completely new set of international norms, but they did so without losing the basic premises on which Chinese foreign relations had long been based. What this means for the historian is that the Chinese diplomatic record, which had often been recorded elliptically or even allegorically, could be supplemented from that time forward by a wide range of surviving outside sources, in a multiplicity of languages. It became possible to watch Chinese senior statesmen—and often the emperors themselves—sparring with foreign emissaries over the precise meaning of terms, the short- and long-range domestic implications of each decision reached, and the effects of each decision on both friends and enemies.

Such documentation became particularly rich during the long reign of the emperor Kangxi (1661-1722), and it shows us the learning process by which he came to assess—and then to curb—the territorial and economic ambitions of the Russians on China’s northern and western borders in the 1680s, as well as the very different but equally complex demands on China raised in 1706 by papal legates seeking to gain control over the religious practices of China’s new converts to Roman Catholicism, and over the Jesuits who had converted many of them. Such sources allow one to follow not just the words and the ceremonial, but the mood at court, the tightening of lips and the gestures of anger and impatience from the negotiating parties, the repulses and returns to the fray, the onset of tiredness or infirmity, the lobbying of interested parties on the edges of the central action.

We can get many of the same types of detail on the negotiations over British trade and diplomatic representation with China conducted by Lord Macartney with Emperor Qianlong in 1793, and on the desperate attempts a century later by China’s plenipotentiary Li Hongzhang to save southern Manchuria and Taiwan—to no avail—from the inflexible stance of Japan’s chief negotiator, Ito Hirobumi. Thanks to the remarkable collection of documents assembled by William Burr, we can now follow similar types of negotiations as they were conducted by Henry Kissinger (at the height of his power and self-confidence) and the Chinese leader Mao Zedong.

Henry Kissinger, according to William Burr, sought in the late 1970s to limit access to many of the more sensitive documents from his period as assistant to President Nixon for national security affairs, and subsequently as secretary of state under Nixon and President Ford. Kissinger conveyed the key documents to the Library of Congress, stipulating that they be opened only five years after his death, or in 2001, whichever was later. In the library, which has its own laws of access, the documents would be better protected from the demands of those invoking the Freedom of Information Act than if they had been deposited with the executive branch. But Burr ingeniously tracked down many of the key transcripts of dealings with China and the Soviet Union in the 1970s—and hence remarkable material on both Mao Zedong and Brezhnev—in the papers of Henry Kissinger’s long-time aide and assistant Winston Lord. Since Lord had assembled this material as a member of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, they were available from the National Archives under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. It is these Lord papers that make up the bulk of this fascinating trove of material.

The Kissinger Transcripts can be read in a number of ways. They can be taken as a fairly straightforward critical account of Henry Kissinger’s character, and his chosen mode of conducting international diplomacy. In his preface, William Burr spells out a sliding scale of responses to Kissinger: at the high end would be the sense that Kissinger was “a shrewd practitioner of balance-of-power diplomacy.” Next would come the view of Kissinger as “a transitional figure in the complex passage to a post-imperial world.” Sliding down the scale of moral evaluation, Burr gives the third response as one that sees Kissinger as “a vain and power-hungry flatterer or even a counter-revolutionary” who tolerated human rights abuses in Indochina. In fourth and last place on the scale comes the view that Kissinger was “an appeaser of totalitarian governments.” The cover photo for the book is a tough and humorless black-and-white full-face portrait of Kissinger, the only touches of color being the rose tint that has been added to the lenses of his heavy spectacles. A pale yellow image of the Soviet hammer and sickle has been superimposed over the right eye, and the yellow star of the Chinese Communist flag over the left. This not particularly subtle imagery would seem to support the view that the publishers tilt toward the fourth of Burr’s four options, that of Kissinger as a diplomat who cultivated Communist dictators.3

Burr’s own editorial and historical comments are extensive, and cover such a wide interpretative ground that they can be used to support any of the four responses at different times. But the overall feeling the reader is left with is that Burr himself tilts toward the third of the responses. He comments often on Kissinger’s passion for secrecy, his use of back-door channels of communication that would bypass not only the State Department but also his own staff, his determination to keep human rights issues separate from issues of political détente, his defense of US policy in Cambodia while trying to get the Chinese to help in settling the Southeast Asia conflict, his flattery of President Nixon and other powerful world leaders, and his obsession with his own image.

Yet at the same time, Burr spells out in detail the efforts made by Kissinger to negotiate arms limitation agreements with the Soviet Union and to establish for the first time effective contacts with the People’s Republic of China, and most of the documents presented in the volume concentrate on these critical issues. Burr notes that once they have read the transcripts, “critics may be slightly more tolerant, and boosters more critical” of Kissinger than they were before. This is not going so far as to say “critics will be more tolerant, and boosters slightly more critical,” but it is a gesture in the direction of fairness.

There is already a colossal historical and analytical literature on the Soviet détente, the opening to China (with which the US had had no relations since 1949), and the bombing of Cambodia, as well as on Kissinger’s part in shaping those events as assistant to the president for national security affairs and subsequently as secretary of state. Burr gives cross-references in his notes to many of these sources. The Kissinger Transcripts will add important material to the debates over these matters, even though scholars will be divided over whether the often long and rambling discussions between Kissinger and Brezhnev, or Kissinger and Mao, really modify the overall picture of United States cold war policy between 1971 and 1976. To a historian of China, however, these are wonderful documents, because they not only let us follow the spoken thoughts of China’s leaders with more ample evidence than was possible previously, but they enable us to put Mao Zedong and his colleagues—especially Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Huang Hua—into the longer-range perspective of China’s diplomatic history.

As we watch the conversations unfold, we can try to assess for ourselves the extent to which the Chinese were successfully manipulating Kissinger (and through him United States policy as a whole), or whether he was bending them to his will, or at least to his world view. Most importantly, did Kissinger yield more than he needed to just because he was so eager to keep the relations cordial and the personal channels with China’s leaders open?

There are several other documentary collections now available in English that give us transcripts of Mao’s conversations with foreign statesmen, and these provide a useful cross-check of the general plausibility of The Kissinger Transcripts. Recently available materials include the full transcript of Mao’s conversations with Stalin just after the Chinese Communist victory in late 1949, and Mao’s long talks with the North Vietnamese leader Pham Van Dong in November 1968.4 Such transcripts let us both watch Mao’s patterns of careful deference and underlying obstinacy as he talks with someone as awesomely powerful as Stalin (whom he was meeting for the first time), and listen to Mao as he roams across time, history, and rev-olutionary theory with the Vietnamese, who were still involved in a life-and-death struggle. Here Mao was often patronizing, but also can be seen admitting past tactical mistakes, and trying to visualize the future. For instance, Mao mused aloud as follows with the Vietnamese leaders in 1968:

Mao Zedong: If you were American presidents, what would you think? I never thought that they would attack North Vietnam. But my prediction was wrong when they bombed the North. But now, when they stop, my prediction is proven right. If, in the future, they resume bombing, I will be wrong again. Anyway, I will be right one day.

It is good, nevertheless, that you have prepared for several alternatives. For all the years of fighting, the US armies have not attacked the North, Haiphong port has not been blockaded, and the streets of Hanoi have not been bombed. It shows that the US is keeping a card in reserve. At one time, they warned [that they would] pursue your planes to your air bases. But in fact, they did not. This shows that their warnings were empty.

Pham Van Dong: We have noticed this.

Mao Zedong: Later, they did not reiterate this warning. They did not mention the movement of your planes. They also know how many Chinese people are working in Vietnam, but do not mention this, just ignoring it. Maybe we should withdraw the [Chinese] troops which are not needed. Have you discussed that matter?

Zhou Enlai: We shall discuss this with Comrade Ly Ban, with our Ambassador and military experts.

Mao Zedong: In case they come, we will be back. There will be no big deal.

Pham Van Dong: Let us think again.

Mao Zedong: You do think again. Keep what you still need and we withdraw what you no longer need or do not yet need. In the future, when you need [assistance], we shall be back. The same will be with your air force: if you need China’s air bases, you just use them; if you do not need them, you do not use them.

We agree with your slogan of fighting while negotiating. Some comrades worry that the US will deceive you. But I tell them not to [worry]. Negotiations are just like fighting. You have drawn experience, understood the rules. But sometimes they can deceive you. As you said, the US did not keep their word.

Pham Van Dong: They are very wicked.

Mao Zedong: They in many cases even said that the signed treaties were worthless. But things have their rules. The Americans cannot do this all the time. Will you negotiate with them for 100 years? Our Comrade Prime Minister said: If Nixon cannot solve the problem in two years’ time, he will be in trouble.

The ability to make comparison with such other records is important, because of the striking fact that, according to Burr, during his entire tenure as national security assistant to the president, Kissinger never used professional American interpreters when talking with either the Soviets or the Chinese. Apparently his passion for secrecy and his fears over leaks that might damage his carefully laid plans led him to this decision. The result was that the versions we have in the earlier and most interesting of these Kissinger transcripts—including major policy statements by Chairman Mao—are the English-language notes taken by Kissinger’s staff from the English renderings made by the Chinese Communists’ own translators.5

In many cases, these were women, like the American-born Nancy Tang, with immense ability as translators, who nevertheless had their own political agendas, and may well have regularly tidied up the language or the logic of the leaders they were translating. A nice example would be their initial rendering of Mao’s remark to Kissinger that Watergate was a “nonsensical” issue that had become an obsession with the American people. After some whispering and laughter by the interpreters, and an interjection by Premier Zhou Enlai, it became clear that what Mao had said was more like either “piddling” or “farting.” Though this attempt at clarification continues to show some physiological and linguistic confusion, either term gives a better sense of Mao’s contempt for the whole Watergate procedure than the word “nonsensical.”

As they came to know Kissinger, the Chinese translators would sometimes interject asides of their own, in effect steering the conversation, and would even offer to supply Kissinger with copies of English-language materials that he had not read. One example was Drew Middleton’s book Can America Win the Next War?; another was Senator Barry Goldwater’s Senate speech of June 3, 1975, on how the United States forces were becoming the “nuclear mercenaries” for Western Europe.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that some of the interpreters, along with others in the inner circles of the discussions with Kissinger, were also confidants of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing, one of the key leaders of the Cultural Revolution still convulsing China, who had formerly been absolutely against a rapprochement with the United States (and perhaps still was in 1972 and 1973). Perhaps because he knew of these links, on at least two occasions Mao referred to these female participants in the talks as “spies.” In his conversations with the Americans, Mao made few references to the Cultural Revolution, even indirectly, though he pointed out that even his own intelligence agencies had not known about Lin Biao’s potential treason. And when Nixon jocularly said that Mao’s interpreter Nancy Tang might be the first woman US president, Mao, as will be seen later, replied sharply, “It would be very dangerous if you have such a candidate.”

Among the various transcripts recorded in Burr’s volume are those of four substantial discussion sessions with Mao Zedong that took place between February 1972 and October 1975. These are immensely useful sources, since each of them has a slightly different flavor, and serves to show different sides of Mao’s character. The first, in February 1972, is probably the best known, thanks to the extensive discussion of it in both Nixon’s and Kissinger’s memoirs. The meeting came as the climax to more than a year of secret diplomacy that brought President Nixon to China, and led to the Shanghai communiqué, setting China and the United States on the road to mutual and full diplomatic recognition, and commencing the United States’ formal shift away from support for Taiwan. The US did so by rejecting any form of a “two-China policy” or support for a “One China-Taiwan” formula, and promising to cut steadily back on the military support for Taiwan.

With this more extensive transcript we can better see the steps by which the full discussion proceeded, and watch the way that both Kissinger and Nixon inserted their carefully prepared remarks—which they had clearly designed for posterity—into the apparently random flow of pleasantries, as for example in this exchange:

Chairman Mao: (Checking the time with Zhou) Do you think we have covered enough today?

President Nixon: Yes. I would like to say as we finish, Mr. Chairman, we know you and the Prime Minister have taken great risks in inviting us here. For us also it was a difficult decision. But having read some of the Chairman’s statements, I know he is one who sees when an opportunity comes, that you must seize the hour and seize the day.

I would also like to say in a personal sense—and this to you Mr. Prime Minister—you do not know me. Since you do not know me, you shouldn’t trust me. You will find I never say something I cannot do. And I always will do more than I can say. On this basis I want to have frank talks with the Chairman and, of course, with the Prime Minister.

Chairman Mao: (Pointing to Dr. Kissinger) “Seize the hour and seize the day.” I think that, generally speaking, people like me sound a lot of big cannons. (Zhou laughs.) That is, things like “the whole world should unite and defeat imperialism, revisionism, and all reactionaries, and establish socialism.”

President Nixon: Like me. And bandits.

Chairman Mao: But perhaps you as an individual may not be among those to be overthrown. They say that he [Dr. Kissinger] is also among those not to be overthrown personally. And if all of you are overthrown we wouldn’t have any more friends left.

Now that we know from other sources that Mao had been seriously ill just before the meeting, and had to take physical therapy so that he was even able to rise from his chair, his determination to end the long years of division between the two nations becomes all the more impressive. The fuller transcript of this meeting also makes it clear how tenaciously both Nixon and Kissinger pushed the theme of potential Soviet aggression against China as an incentive for a new US- China relationship.

President Nixon: …Mr. Chairman, it is interesting to note that most nations would approve of this meeting, but the Soviets disapprove, the Japanese have doubts which they express, and the Indians disapprove. So we must examine why, and determine how our policies should develop to deal with the whole world, as well as the immediate problems such as Korea, Vietnam, and, of course, Taiwan.

Chairman Mao: Yes, I agree.

President Nixon:: We, for example, must ask ourselves—again in the confines of this room—why the Soviets have more forces on the border facing you than on the border facing Western Europe. We must ask ourselves, what is the future of Japan? Is it better—here I know we have disagreements—is it better for Japan to be neutral, totally defenseless, or is it better for a time for Japan to have some relations with the United States? The point being—I am talking now in the realm of philosophy—in international relations there are no good choices. One thing is sure—we can leave no vacuums, because they can be filled. The Prime Minister, for example, has pointed out that the United States reaches out its hands and that the Soviet Union reaches out its hands. The question is which danger the People’s Republic faces, whether it is the danger of American aggression or Soviet aggression. These are hard questions, but we have to discuss them.

The transcript also shows how Kissinger reinforced this theme in a translated aside to Nixon—that the “left” in the United States was both “pro-Soviet” and against the opening up to China that the visit seemed to portend—a view that would have come as a surprise to many American leftists.

Mao in turn discussed the opposition he had himself encountered, including that of Lin Biao (the minister of defense, who had allegedly tried to assassinate Mao the year before, and been killed in a plane crash while fleeing) and even the Chinese ambassador in Pakistan. Mao’s side comment that some Chinese considered President Johnson to have been a “gangster,” and that the Chinese in general disliked the Democratic presidents from Truman to Johnson (he did not specifically mention President Kennedy) gives a more intelligible context to Mao’s celebrated remark to Nixon at the same meeting that he “like[d] rightists” but also to Mao’s comment that if the Democrats did win the next election “we cannot avoid contacting them.” The full passage shows how these various ideas flowed together:

President Nixon: Anyone who uses pretty girls as a cover must be the greatest diplomat of all time.

Chairman Mao: So your girls are very often made use of?

President Nixon: His girls, not mine. It would get me into great trouble if I used girls as a cover.

Prime Minister Zhou: (Laughs.) Especially during elections. (Kissinger laughs.) Dr. Kissinger doesn’t run for President because he wasn’t born a citizen of the United States.

Dr. Kissinger: Miss Tang is eligible to be President of the United States.

President Nixon: She would be the first woman President. There’s our candidate.

Chairman Mao: It would be very dangerous if you have such a candidate. But let us speak the truth. As for the Democratic Party, if they come into office again, we cannot avoid contacting them.

President Nixon: We understand. We will hope that we don’t give you that problem.

Chairman Mao: Those questions are not questions to be discussed in my place. They should be discussed with the Premier. I discuss philosophical questions. That is to say, I voted for you during your election. There is an American here called Mr. Frank Coe, and he wrote an article precisely at the time when your country was in havoc, during your last electoral campaign. He said you were going to be elected President. I appreciated that article very much. But now he is against the visit.

President Nixon: When the Chairman says he voted for me he voted for the lesser of two evils.

Chairman Mao: I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican Party is to the right, that Prime Minister [Edward] Heath is also to the right.

President Nixon: And General de Gaulle.

Chairman Mao: De Gaulle is a different question. They also say the Christian Democratic Party of West Germany is also to the right. I am comparatively happy when these people on the right come into power.

President Nixon: I think the important thing to note is that in America, at least this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.

Those who believe that Kissinger at times may have offered more concessions than necessary to the Chinese will probably find their strongest support in the conversation that Kissinger held with China’s UN permanent representative Huang Hua, apparently at a CIA “safehouse” on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on December 10, 1971.6 The context for this meeting was the President’s upcoming visit to China, but also the India-Pakistan War, which seemed then to be at its bitterest and most dangerous stage.

Burr comments that though the American public sympathized more with India in the conflict, Kissinger was convinced that India was acting as the Soviet Union’s “proxy,” and he and Nixon accordingly “secretly and deceptively tilted policy toward Pakistan.” In his conversation with Huang Hua, Kissinger gave a summary of American naval movements in the Indian Ocean, reinforcing this information with a map of Soviet naval dispositions, based on data collected via satellite. He offered more information on Soviet forces if the Chinese needed it, promising to deliver the material “wherever you wish and in an absolutely secure way.”

Then in an astonishing couple of sentences, which presumably were transcribed verbatim by Kissinger’s staff and translated literally into Chinese by the Chinese translators Tang and Shi (no American translator being present), Kissinger told Huang Hua:

…The President wants you to know that it’s, of course, up to the People’s Republic to decide its own course of action in this situation, but if the People’s Republic were to consider the situation on the Indian subcontinent a threat to its security, and if it took measures to protect its security, the US would oppose efforts of others to interfere with the People’s Republic. We are not recommending any particular steps; we are simply informing you about the actions of others.

Despite this disclaimer, some minutes later in the conversation Kissinger told Huang that “when I asked for this meeting, I did so to suggest Chinese military help, to be quite honest.” Just what this last statement means is ambiguous, but an interpretation is suggested by Kissinger’s remark earlier in the same meeting that “we want to keep the pressure on India both militarily and politically.”

In other, more jocular, remarks, Kissinger handed a copy of parts of a recent letter from Brezhnev to Pakistani president Yahya to the interpreter Nancy Tang and Huang Hua with the comment: “You don’t need a master spy. We give you everything.” (The previous August, Kissinger had reassured Soviet ambassador Dobrynin that “nothing that we have handled in the White House has ever leaked.”) And again, in further talks in the same safehouse after returning from China, Kissinger shared numerous details of the ongoing Soviet-American nuclear arms limitation talks with Huang Hua.

Huang Hua made it clear that China saw the United States and Soviet Union’s détente policy, when linked to the nuclear nonproliferation treaties, to be a blatant attempt to establish a two-state “hegemony” and “monopolize nuclear weapons, maintain nuclear superiority and make nuclear threats against countries with few nuclear weapons” such as China. After several minutes of intense Chinese pressure, Kissinger gave Huang Hua what sounds like an assurance about US intentions: “We will not make any move which you are not aware of and have not had a chance to make a comment on. You can assure the Prime Minister now that we will not accept the Soviet proposal.” Huang Hua responded drily, “I will report this to the Premier,” namely to Zhou Enlai.

Kissinger’s goal in this was to reassure the Chinese that the détente with the Soviet Union was in no way designed to isolate China, or to render it more vulnerable; but even given this important motivation, one can question the need for making quite so assertive a statement of cooperation with China.

Since Huang Hua was sending reports of these conversations with Kissinger directly to Premier Zhou Enlai, this intimate pattern of diplomatic “tilting” toward China may have been partly or even largely responsible for the cordial air around Kissinger’s next visit to Mao, which ran from 11:30 PM on February 17, 1973, until 1:20 AM the following morning. Mao was famous for his erratic hours of working, and this time he appeared lively, and far fitter than the previous year, though he had to be helped from his chair by an attendant. Some key sections of the extensive conversation centered around the problem of Soviet intentions and American long-range goals. Mao wanted clarification from Kissinger over

whether or not you are now pushing West Germany to make peace with Russia, and then push Russia eastward. I suspect the whole of the West has such an idea, that is to push Russia eastward, mainly against us and also Japan.

Half an hour or so later, Mao repeated the idea that Europe and the United States might “think that it would be a fine thing if it were that the ill water would flow toward China.” Kissinger replied that the Europeans “cannot do anything anyway. They are basically irrelevant.” Whereas “what we think is that if the Soviet Union overruns China, this would dislocate the security of all other countries and will lead to our own isolation.” Mao laughed, observing shrewdly, “How will that happen? How would that be?”

These moments from the two men’s long conversations can be read in various ways: as a deadly serious record of a crucial international debate, or as the inconsequential ramblings of an aging dictator and an eager diplomatic suitor, pleased to be in the presence of such power. The difficulty of deciding something so basic lies in assessing the weight of such personal moments in the longer span of Chinese and US policymaking. Like Chinese rulers negotiating in the past, Mao constantly shifted the conversation between light and heavy modes, reflecting on China’s response to a possible Russian invasion one moment, or on Hitler’s strategy against Britain and the Soviet Union during World War II, and then switching abruptly to reflections on the difficulties of language learning, and the possibility of sending ten million Chinese women to the United States so as to destabilize American society by sharply increasing the population. This latter passage runs as follows:

Chairman Mao: Do you want our Chinese women? We can give you ten million. (laughter, particularly among the women)

Dr. Kissinger: The Chairman is improving his offer.

Chairman Mao: By doing so we can let them flood your country with disaster and therefore impair your interests. In our country we have too many women, and they have a way of doing things. They give birth to children and our children are too many. (laughter)

Dr. Kissinger: It is such a novel proposition, we will have to study it.

Chairman Mao: You can set up a committee to study the issue. That is how your visit to China is settling the population question. (laughter)

Dr. Kissinger: We will study utilization and allocation.

Chairman Mao: If we ask them to go I think they would be willing.

Prime Minister Zhou: Not necessarily.

Chairman Mao: That’s because of their feudal ideas, big nation chauvinism.

Dr. Kissinger: We are certainly willing to receive them.

Chairman Mao: The Chinese are very alien-excluding. For instance, in your country you can let in so many nationalities, yet in China how many foreigners do you see?

Prime Minister Zhou: Very few.

Dr. Kissinger: Very few.

Chairman Mao: You have about 600,000 Chinese in the United States. We probably don’t even have 60 Americans here. I would like to study the problem. I don’t know the reason.

Miss Tang: Mr. Lord’s wife is Chinese.

Chairman Mao: Oh?

Mr. Lord: Yes.

These remarks on women, accompanied by other comments on women’s disruptive nature, clearly irritated Mao’s own interpreters. Nancy Tang even snapped back at him that there were detachments of Chinese women fully able to fight, to which Mao replied cuttingly, “They are only on stage. In reality if there is a fight you would flee very quickly and run into underground shelters.” It is possible that Mao was here playing with a passage from Confucius’s Analects, a book on which he had been raised as a child in the late Qing dynasty and that cited the sending of beautiful women to a rival ruler’s court as one of the immoral but effective ways of unsettling your rival’s government.7

Here Kissinger, for his part, was echoing, probably unwittingly, the deepest sentiments of Confucius’s bantering opponent Zhuang Zi, who wrote that when talking to a tyrant, “if he wants to be a child, be a child with him. If he wants to follow erratic ways, follow erratic ways with him.” He also reminded his readers that the tiger trainers of the world had long ago learned that

tigers are a different breed from men, and yet you can train them to be gentle with their keepers by following along with them. The men who get killed are the ones who go against them.8

The same unsettling rhythm was maintained during Kissinger’s third visit, in November 1973, as new concerns such as conflicts in the Middle East were added to the preoccupations with the Soviet Union, and both were interspersed with quizzes on German language and philosophy from Mao.

Chairman Mao: Do you pay attention or not to one of the subjects of Hegel’s philosophy, that is the unity of opposites.

Secretary Kissinger: Very much. I was much influenced by Hegel in my philosophic thinking.

Chairman Mao: Both Hegel and Feuerbach who came a little later after him. They were both great thinkers. And Marxism came partially from them. They were predecessors of Marx. If it were not for Hegel and Feuerbach there would not be Marxism.

Secretary Kissinger: Yes, Marx reversed the tendency of Hegel, but he adopted the basic theory.

Chairman Mao: What kind of doctor are you? Are you a doctor of philosophy?

Secretary Kissinger: Yes. (laughter)

Chairman Mao: Yes, well, then won’t you give me a lecture?

Secretary Kissinger: I think the Chairman knows much more philosophy than I. And he has written profoundly about philosophy. I used to shock my colleagues, Mr. Chairman, by assigning essays from your collected works, in my courses in the 1960s at Harvard.

Chairman Mao: I, myself, am not satisfied with myself. The main thing is that I don’t understand foreign languages and, therefore, I am unable to read books of Germans or Englishmen or Americans.

Secretary Kissinger: I can’t read German in its original form. I must translate into English, because it is too complicated in its original form. This is quite true. Some of the points of Hegel—quite seriously—I understand better in English than in German, even though German is my mother language.

The last glimpses of Mao and Kissinger in Burr’s book come in the transcripts of their fourth talk, held in the early evening of October 21, 1975. Mao, at almost eighty-two, was ill and weak with Lou Gehrig’s disease compounded by heart problems—he died just under a year later. For the first time, Mao showed his irritation with Kissinger, embarking on what he himself called a “quarrel” over the fact that the United States only placed China fourth among its global priorities, after the Soviet Union, Europe, and Japan.

Secretary Kissinger: We come to Beijing because we have a common opponent and because we think your perception of the world situation is the clearest of any country we deal with and with which we agree on some…many points.

Chairman Mao: That’s not reliable. Those words are not reliable. Those words are not reliable because according to your priorities the first is the Soviet Union, the second is Europe and the third is Japan.

Secretary Kissinger: That is not correct.

Chairman Mao: It is in my view. (Counting with his fingers) America, the Soviet Union, Europe, Japan, China. You see, five (holding up his five fingers).

Secretary Kissinger: That’s not correct.

Chairman Mao: So then we quarrel.

Secretary Kissinger: We quarrel. The Soviet Union is a great danger for us, but not a high priority.

Chairman Mao: That’s not correct. It is a superpower. There are only two superpowers in the world (counting on his fingers). We are backward (counting on his fingers). America, the Soviet Union, Europe, Japan, China. We come last. America, Soviet Union, Europe, Japan, China—look.

Secretary Kissinger: I know I almost never disagree with the Chairman, but he is not correct on this point—only because it is a matter of our priority.

Chairman Mao: (Tapping both his shoulders) We see that what you are doing is leaping to Moscow by way of our shoulders, and these shoulders are now useless. You see, we are the fifth. We are the small finger.

Though Kissinger tried to deny this—much of his policy had been geared to giving the Chinese the sense of how important they were to the United States’ strategic thinking—Mao was not to be deflected. He angrily told the Americans that they could keep Taiwan, there was nothing there but a “huge bunch of counter-revolutionaries.” And banging on the arm of his chair for emphasis, Mao said that he enjoyed being cursed, that the Soviets said he was nothing but a warlord and a bureaucrat, while the Americans said he was a warmonger and an aggressor.

But the conversation also had its moments of humor, as when Mao suddenly told Kissinger that he knew that Kissinger’s constant traveling was an inevitable part of how the world had to be: “You cannot keep from being so busy. When the wind and rain are coming, the swallows are busy.” Deadpan in the face of this inscrutable aphorism, Kissinger replied, “It will take me several days to understand the full significance of that.”

In the long march of Chinese diplomacy, age had often been no impediment to the ruler’s effectiveness as a negotiator. Emperor Qianlong had also been eighty-two at the time of his talks with Lord Macartney in 1793, and had no trouble at all seeing the point of British demands, and rejecting them. Qianlong appeared to the British hale and robust, and was at pains to underline that image. Mao, however, despite his enormous political power, liked to dwell on his own infirmities, and regularly told foreign visitors that he was “going to heaven soon” or had received “an invitation from God.” He had also told the North Vietnamese Pham Van Dong when they met in 1968 that “it is time to go to Heaven.” Though the Vietnamese had not commented, Kissinger, when told the same thing in 1975, replied gracefully that he hoped the Chairman would not accept such an invitation “for a long while.”

As with so much else that appears in this absorbing book, every reader has to try to decide if such exchanges are merely banal or hold within themselves the implication of something deeper. William Burr, indefatigable in tracking sources and transcripts for so many of Kissinger’s meetings with Mao and others, is, alas, not interested in the details of the last visit Kissinger had with Mao, this time in the company of President Ford on December 2, 1975, though the Chinese always remembered that Mao had received Kissinger five times, not just four. Burr cites one participant as claiming that it was “one of the dullest meetings he had ever attended,” and perhaps for that reason gives no full transcript of what took place. I was told a few years ago that at that December 1975 meeting Chairman Mao repeated that he would soon be going to heaven, and that Kissinger replied, as he had often in the past, that the Chairman should not even think of such a thing. At which President Ford allegedly said to Mao, pointing to Kissinger the while: “Take no notice of him, Mr. Chairman. You just go ahead and do whatever you like.”

If there are lessons to be learned from The Kissinger Transcripts, they are on the whole ambiguous ones. Cumulatively, despite the plentiful evidence they provide of Kissinger’s quickness and enormous intellectual grasp of complex issues, they tend to reinforce the feeling that personal diplomacy is a delicate matter, and self-deception and an exaggerated sense of one’s importance are surely part of the perils of going it alone. Bypassing established bureaucratic structures can also be arrogant and even dangerous; but sometimes it helps to make a breakthrough in an intransigent situation, and the longstanding American policy of nonrecognition of Communist China was certainly such a situation. When skillfully conducted, personal diplomacy can end silence, and make the previously unmentionable a topic for free and open discussion, and this in an important sense is what Kissinger achieved with the Chinese.

Yet on the other hand the Chinese, despite the terrible state of their country at the time, were fitting Kissinger and his schemes into their own historical memory, and became adept at using him as a conduit for their own needs and ideas. They could give the appearance of speaking with self-revelatory frankness, but in so doing they were constantly pressuring the United States to form its policies in ways that would be of long-range benefit to China’s own security. Many earlier Chinese diplomats would have approved. These were the men of Song, and by being frank about their own weaknesses, perhaps they helped to end the siege by the Americans of Chu.


Talking with Mao: An Exchange March 18, 1999

  1. 1

    Hanshi waizhuan (outer chapters of Mr. Han’s commentary on the Book of Poetry, Taipei, Taiwan Commercial Press, 1972), chapter 2, p. 37.

  2. 2

    The philosopher Ch’eng I, as quoted by Monika Ubelhör in William Theodore de Bary and John W. Chaffee, editors, Neo-Confucian Education: The Formative Stage (University of California Press, 1989), p. 371. The reference to the boar is drawn from The Book of Changes, Hexagram number 26.

  3. 3

    The book is issued under the auspices of the Fund for Peace, through the self-styled National Security Archive at George Washington University. The archive maintains a Website at, on which can be found, according to The Kissinger Transcripts, the portions of the transcripts that are omitted in the book.

  4. 4

    For Stalin, see the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, issues 6 and 7, “The Cold War in Asia,” pp. 5-9. For Vietnam, see Cold War International History Project, Working Paper no. 22, “77 conversations between Chinese and foreign leaders on the wars in Indochina, 1964-1977,” pp. 140-154. Both are distributed by the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, D.C.

  5. 5

    See p. 52 and p. 80 note 45 of The Kissinger Transcripts for an important error caused by mistranslating “Pakistani armor” as “Pakistani army.”

  6. 6

    On this safehouse, Burr adds the engaging detail that the secrecy aspects were rather modified by the arrival of large limousines at the safehouse, from which leapt Secret Service agents who busily blocked traffic.

  7. 7

    See Analects, translated by D.C. Lau (Penguin, 1979), book 18, section 4.

  8. 8

    The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, translated by Burton Watson (Columbia University Press, 1968), pp. 62-63.