Paddling to Peking

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Sovfoto/UIG/Getty Images
Zhuang Zedong playing at the twenty-sixth World Table Tennis Championships, in which he won the men’s singles title, Beijing, 1961

For Richard Nixon’s foreign policy, 1971 was the best of years and the worst of years. He revealed his opening to China, but he connived at genocide in East Pakistan. Fortunately for him, the world marveled at the one, but was largely ignorant of the other.

The two events were connected. General Yahya Khan, the president of Pakistan, was Washington’s principal back channel to Beijing. Nixon had long admired the bluff, no-nonsense manners of the Pakistani military and the dictators it spawned, whereas he disliked the condescension he detected in Indian leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, the prime minister in 1971. Whereas the Pakistanis had willingly signed on to America’s cold war alliance structures—CENTO in the Middle East and SEATO in Asia—the Indians pursued a “neutralist” foreign policy for which Nixon had no time.

Neutralism seemed to mean friendship with the Soviet Union, whereas Pakistan’s friendship with China was more acceptable because of the split between Beijing and Moscow from the early 1960s.1 When Nixon started early in his presidency to transform the American relationship to China, Yahya emerged as his principal intermediary with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. In October 1970, Nixon asked Yahya to tell the Chinese that the Americans were prepared to send a high-level emissary to Beijing.2 There was no way he would criticize Yahya for genocide when East Pakistan fought to become Bangladesh the following year, and Yahya’s government mounted attacks against East Pakistan in which hundreds of thousands of Bengalis died, while some ten million Bengali refugees fled to India.

The outside world knew nothing about the Pakistani back channel. The State Department was kept out of the loop; only the secretary of state, William Rogers, was informed about the initial visit of Henry Kissinger, the national security adviser, to set up the Nixon trip, and then only on the day before Kissinger landed in Beijing.3 To Nixon’s proclivity for secrecy and his distrust of his nation’s diplomats was added his acute concern about the impact of an opening to China on Republican voters when he came up for reelection in 1972. Everything had to be put neatly in place, justification ready, before a Nixon visit to China could be publicized.

As it turned out, Nixon had the good fortune to learn of Americans’ views of an opening to China before he sent Kissinger to Beijing to arrange the logistics of the trip. The occasion was the people-to-people contacts of April 1971, in the form of table tennis games between Chinese and American players, described in Nicholas Griffin’s revealing and well-researched Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind the Game That Changed the World.

Griffin, a journalist and a novelist, claims too much in his subtitle. It was Nixon, playing the China card …

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  1. 1

    See Gary J. Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (Knopf, 2013), pp. ii–xv, 3–8. 

  2. 2

    Actually this suggestion was first mooted and welcomed in the SinoAmerican ambassadorial talks in Warsaw in early 1970, but a pall fell over these feelers after US troops invaded Cambodia in May 1970, an action that Mao had publicly to denounce. 

  3. 3

    William Bundy, A Tangled Web: The Making of Foreign Policy in the Nixon Presidency (Hill and Wang, 1998), p. 239.