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. 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 …

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