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Mission to Mao

This was the week that changed the world” was Richard Nixon’s summing up at the end of his trip to China in February 1972.1 The hyperbole was justified, for this visit to China by an American president was a turning point in the cold war. Hitherto, the Soviet Union and China had been antagonists of the US. Thereafter, both Beijing and Moscow found it in their interest to come to agreements with Washington. For the Chinese it meant coming in from the cold. After the announcement of the visit in July 1971, the US effort to keep China out of the UN lost credibility: the People’s Republic of China replaced the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the Security Council that October; the US was unable even to keep Taiwan in the General Assembly. Member states that had loyally voted with the US began transferring diplomatic recognition from the Nationalist government in Taiwan to the Communist regime in Beijing.

Margaret MacMillan, a provost and a professor of history at the University of Toronto and warden-elect of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, has taken this dramatic episode as the subject of her third book. Professor MacMillan started her intellectual career, impelled by family connections, with a thesis on the British in India between 1880 and 1920, a product of which was the empathetic account of Women of the Raj (1988). Perhaps a familial imperative was again involved with her multiple-prize-winning second book, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2003), for David Lloyd-George, the British prime minister at the Versailles peace talks that ended World War I, was her great-grandfather. More importantly, she had discovered a niche which her superb narrative gifts enabled her to exploit: take an important but short, discrete historical episode and use archives and the best secondary sources to turn it into a popular history for a new generation of intelligent general readers.

This is what she endeavors to do again with Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. It is a harder task than Paris 1919; relatively few readers outside the ranks of twentieth-century historians know what happened at Versailles, except perhaps that it fueled German indignation and gave Hitler his cause. In the case of Nixon and Mao, anyone over the age of fifty probably has some memory of the visit; and since then readers of book reviews in these pages and elsewhere will have been made aware of commentary on the visit and the diplomacy leading up to it. Moreover, many of the Americans who took part in the meetings and their planning are still alive and will doubtless scan her pages to see if she has been fair to them. It’s a familiar tale, but MacMillan’s strength is that she is a great storyteller, and in Nixon and Mao she pulls together the contemporary data and memoirs along with subsequent revelations and commentary.


Nixon’s motives for the trip are well known, elaborated in his memoirs and those of Henry Kissinger, then his national security adviser. As early as his article in Foreign Affairs in October 1967, Nixon had written about his long-term goal of “pulling China back into the world community—but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution.”2 But more concretely, in the short term he hoped to persuade the Chinese to influence the North Vietnamese to agree to an honorable peace that would allow the US to withdraw from Vietnam. He had failed to get Soviet help in resolving the Vietnam War; the Chinese were the alternative. He also hoped a meeting in China would put pressure on Moscow to agree to a major arms limitation agreement. To accomplish this, Nixon, the ultra cold warrior and rabid anti-Communist, was prepared to go to Beijing. As many have pointed out, it was precisely these right-wing credentials that meant that Nixon, and only Nixon, could go to China.

Kissinger was initially skeptical. When Nixon told him in the first weeks of his presidency in early 1969 that he wanted to open up relations with China, Kissinger told his aide General Alexander Haig: “Our leader has taken leave of reality. He has just ordered me to make this flight of fantasy come true.” In the summer of 1969, Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, told Kissinger that Nixon intended to visit China before the end of his presidency. Kissinger’s smiling reply, according to Haldeman, was: “Fat chance.” But once Kissinger was convinced of Nixon’s seriousness and determination—by the end of 1969, according to MacMillan—he threw himself into the project, to the extent that in his memoirs he attempted to claim that it was a joint initiative, or, as he put it once: “I opened up China with five people.”

Nixon rightly asserted his primacy in the endeavor. He told a journalist during the presidential campaign: “You need a President for foreign policy; no Secretary of State is really important; the President makes foreign policy.” MacMillan’s title is an implicit endorsement of Nixon’s primacy. But as Robert Dallek has written:

Nixon’s preoccupation with winning exclusive credit for the China initiative angered Kissinger…. He was as determined as the president to milk the opening to China for as much personal credit as possible.3

Coincidentally, Mao appears to have resented the international publicity that Premier Zhou Enlai got for his role in the opening to America. In mid-November 1973, despite having just granted Kissinger a cordial three-hour audience on his first visit to Beijing as secretary of state (his previous visits in 1971, 1972, and February 1973 were as national security adviser), the Chairman ordered the Politburo to attack Zhou for “rightist capitulationism” and “selling out the country” in his dealings with the United States. From November 25 to December 5, 1973, Zhou came under heavy criticism. Seizing the chance to get rid of somebody whom she saw as a barrier to her own power, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing accused the premier of trying to supplant the Chairman. Even the recently rehabilitated Deng Xiaoping, who would later preside over the expansion of Sino-American ties, had to join the witch-hunt against Zhou.4 But Mao was only reminding Zhou of who was boss. He needed Zhou, and after he had made an abject self-criticism, the premier survived.

Nixon treated Kissinger better, though they never became friends and, as MacMillan puts it, “rarely socialized with each other.” Among intimates, Kissinger was heard to refer to the President as “the madman” or “our drunken friend.” Years later, Nixon said: “I will be fair to Henry, even if he isn’t always to me.” But basically both men realized, as did Mao and Zhou seven thousand miles away, that they needed the other for the China initiative. Nixon did not trust the State Department: too bureaucratic and leak-prone. Kissinger wanted to deny Secretary of State William Rogers credit for managing the opening. According to Lawrence Eagleburger, then a Kissinger aide (later briefly secretary of state at the end of the presidency of George H.W. Bush), Nixon and Kissinger developed a “conspiratorial approach to foreign policy management.”

MacMillan uses her secondary sources to illustrate the rivalry between Nixon and Kissinger, and at appropriate places in the narrative she gives the relevant biographic details for them and for Mao and Zhou. But she herself rarely passes judgment on the four principal actors in this drama. She mainly leaves that to others.5 The meeting in China is the thing she is interested in, and the way in which the four men each contributed to its remarkable success.


MacMillan tells the familiar story in an unusual way. The first half of the book is concerned mainly with Nixon’s first day in Beijing, February 21, 1972, when the highpoint was his first meeting with Mao. The personalities of the four principals are dissected early on, along with a discussion of the Sino-Soviet dispute. The second half of the book begins with an account of how Nixon and Kissinger arranged the opening to Beijing, and then covers the rest of the actual visit. First, there were the devious attempts to send messages to Beijing without the State Department being aware of what exactly was afoot, using high-level Romanian and then Pakistani channels to signal their desire for talks. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were less scrupulous than their diplomatic colleagues. They planted a navy man as a clerk at the National Security Council; he made copies of all documents that crossed his desk and passed them to Admiral Moorer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On one occasion, this enterprising sailor got into Kissinger’s room, rifled through his suitcase and briefcases, and purloined his secret memo to Nixon about his talks with Zhou.6 Nevertheless, when we consider both the eagerness of Nixon and Kissinger to meet the Chinese leaders and the various channels they used to communicate with them, it is amazing that the project remained so secret.

In mid-April 1971, the US ping-pong team playing in the world championships in Tokyo was invited to Beijing on the personal orders of Mao. Two weeks after this breakthrough on the people-to-people front, on April 27, came the message from Beijing which Nixon and Kissinger had been impatiently awaiting, expressing the Chinese government’s willingness “to receive publicly in Peking a special envoy of the President of the US (for instance, Mr. Kissinger) or the US Sec[retar]y of State or even the President of the US himself for a direct meeting and discussions.”7 MacMillan recounts the discussions between the President and Kissinger about who should be the emissary. In their respective memoirs, both Nixon and Kissinger suggest it was a friendly discussion of all the options. But MacMillan is probably right in implying that Kissinger was on tenterhooks, wanting to go, and that Nixon, already resentful of the publicity that his national security adviser was getting, was casting about for someone else to send; in the end he conceded that Kissinger was the logical choice.8

Then in July 1971, Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing was again a masterpiece of undercover work. On an Asian trip, Kissinger faked illness in Pakistan and was hurried away ostensibly for rest and recovery while his official plane sat on the runway; in fact he was flown on a civilian aircraft to Beijing accompanied by three aides, four senior Chinese officials, and two US Secret Service men. The latter became thoroughly alarmed at the abandonment of “Standard Operating Procedure” when they learned that they would be flying in a foreign—Pakistani—plane with Communist China as its destination.9 Arriving in the Chinese capital, the Kissinger team was escorted to the Diao Yu Tai complex of VIP guest bungalows, there to wait a few hours for Zhou Enlai.10

Zhou’s and Kissinger’s job was to prepare the way for a Nixon visit, exchanging views on all the potential issues that could break a deal. They then had to agree on the text of the announcement of Kissinger’s visit and Nixon’s forthcoming one. According to Kissinger, he rejected the first Chinese draft, which would have depicted the Americans as supplicants, but a more neutral version emerged after the Chinese had consulted with Mao. Kissinger hurried back to the US to brief Nixon in the Western White House, and on July 15, the President made his historic television announcement that he would “undertake what I deeply hope will become a journey for peace, peace not just for our generation but for future generations on this earth we share together.” To celebrate, Nixon gave his staff a rare treat, dinner at a leading Los Angeles restaurant, at which the President ordered a $600 bottle of wine.11

  1. 1

    RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon (Grosset and Dunlap, 1978), p. 580.

  2. 2

    RN, p. 285. See also Henry Kissinger, White House Years (Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 163–194.

  3. 3

    Robert Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (HarperCollins, 2007), p. 329.

  4. 4

    Gao Wenqian, Wannian Zhou Enlai (Zhou Enlai’s Later Years) (Hong Kong: Mingling chubanshe, 2003), pp. 397, 451, 464–474. For the Kissinger visit, see The Kissinger Transcripts: The Top-Secret Talks with Beijing and Moscow, edited by William Burr (New Press, 1999), pp. 166–216.

  5. 5

    There are many commentaries on the American leaders and the China initiative, some too recent for MacMillan to have consulted. See, e.g., Dallek, Nixon and Kissinger; James Mann, About Face: A History of America’s Curious Relationship with China, from Nixon to Clinton (Knopf, 1999); Patrick Tyler, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China, An Investigative History (Public Affairs, 1999); Burr, The Kissinger Transcripts; Yafeng Xia, Negotiating with the Enemy: U.S.–China Talks during the Cold War, 1949–1972 (Indiana University Press, 2006); Elizabeth Drew, Richard M. Nixon: The 37th President, 1969–1974 (Henry Holt, 2007). For the Chinese leaders, MacMillan draws upon Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao (Random House, 1994); Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (Jonathan Cape, 2005); Philip Short, Mao: A Life (Henry Holt, 1999); Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung (Penguin, 1967); Dick Wilson, Chou: The Story of Zhou Enlai, 1898–1976 (Hutchinson, 1984).

  6. 6

    Mann, About Face, p. 36.

  7. 7

    Kissinger, White House Years, p. 714.

  8. 8

    Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 715–717; RN, p. 550.

  9. 9

    Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 741–742.

  10. 10

    Kissinger once told the late Isaac Stern that at this point he was told by his escort that the bungalow was his home while he was in Beijing and that in a few hours the premier would call on him “in your home.” Stern’s appraisal was that thereafter Kissinger was in thrall to Chinese diplomacy in general and Zhou’s charm in particular. (Personal communication from Stern.)

  11. 11

    MacMillan reports that Nixon’s domestic policy czar, John Erlichman, later bargained the cost of the wine down to $300!

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