“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

The announcement was widely approved both in the US and abroad. The Senate Democratic leader, Mike Mansfield, said: “I am astounded, delighted and happy.” Businessmen began to think about the boundless Chinese market, though it would not really begin to open up until the 1980s after Mao and Zhou had died and Deng had launched the reform era. The conservatives who grumbled at a sellout to communism were relatively isolated. Anger abroad was felt by close allies—especially Japan and Britain—who were deeply offended by being kept in the dark. Prime Minister Edward Heath was reportedly incandescent because Nixon’s initiative undermined the British position in its negotiations to normalize relations with the People’s Republic. The Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan was even angrier and certainly worried. The Soviet leadership was “in a state of confusion, if not shock.”

In his memoirs, Kissinger criticizes China experts who failed to see that “the Chinese might have an incentive to move toward us without American concessions because of their need for an American counterweight to the Soviet Union.”12 The implication is that Kissinger correctly assessed the strength of the US bargaining position well before the Beijing visit. If this were so, it is difficult to understand why Kissinger, early on in his first meeting with Zhou Enlai on July 9, 1971, offered dramatic concessions on Taiwan, contradicting US policy that the issue was “unresolved”:

As for the political future of Taiwan, we are not advocating a “two Chinas” solution or a “one China, one Taiwan” solution. As a student of history, one’s prediction would have to be that the political evolution is likely to be in the direction which Prime Minister Chou En-lai indicated to me [i.e., that Taiwan “must be restored to the motherland”].13

Kissinger emphasized that in word and deed the Nixon administration would treat the Chinese regime in a very special manner which few even of its allies could expect. He reported Nixon’s very strong commitment:

Let me say now that we will never collude with other countries against the People’s Republic of China, either with our allies or with some of our opponents…the US will not take any major steps affecting your interests without discussing them with you and taking your views into account.14

The China initiative greatly affected the interests of US allies Japan and Taiwan, but no discussions about it had been held with them. Nixon and Kissinger were prepared to bend over backward to play the China card against North Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

It is not clear, however, why they would be so immediately forthcoming if they were aware at the time that Mao Zedong was equally if not more desirous of an opening to the US. The consequence was that the relationship was established on the basis of the US being the supplicant. In the thirty-five years since the Nixon opening, it has recently been argued, American presidents of both parties have displayed an overriding tendency to avoid antagonizing the Chinese leadership.15


To understand the weakness of the Chinese position as Nixon began trying to engage China in 1969, one must consider the problems Mao and his colleagues faced vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. For over ten years, Moscow and Beijing had been in contention over Communist bloc policy toward the West, with the Chinese accusing the Soviets of selling out. In 1963, the Chinese took the dispute public after the Soviets signed a partial test-ban treaty with the United States and Great Britain in a transparent but unsuccessful attempt to freeze China out of the nuclear club. All through the 1960s there were minor clashes along the Sino-Soviet frontier. The Chinese were particularly alarmed by Russia’s announcement in 1968 of the Brezhnev doctrine. Issued as a justification for the Soviet overthrow of the “liberal” Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia that summer, it claimed Moscow’s right to intervene in any country where the government was deserting the Communist path. The Chinese had no brief for the Prague Spring, but they felt the need to demonstrate that China could not be subsumed under the Brezhnev doctrine.

In March 1969, with the permission of the central authorities, the Shenyang Military Region activated a year-old plan to retaliate against Soviet incursions along the border.16 The battlefield was to be Zhenbao (Damansky) Island in the Ussuri River where there had been incidents on December 28, 1968, and January 23, 1969. The Chinese had given special training to about one thousand men drawn from three armies stationed in the region. On March 2, 1969, this force ambushed and, according to the official Chinese account, “totally annihilated” a contingent of sixty-one Soviet soldiers. According to a secret Soviet account,

During the provocation, the Chinese military committed incredibly brutal and cruel acts against the wounded Soviet border guards …the wounded were shot by the Chinese from close range [and/or] stabbed with bayonets and knives. The faces of some of the casualties were distorted beyond recognition; others had their uniforms and boots taken off by the Chinese.

Two weeks later, on March 15, the Soviets returned. The front-line Chinese forces were acting on orders received by telephone from a hotel room in Beijing, where the commanding general had gone to participate in the imminent 9th Party Congress. But when an inexperienced Chinese soldier opened fire prematurely, the Chinese lost the chance of a second ambush, and the battle was inconclusive, with losses on both sides. On March 17, the Soviets counterattacked again and in this third and final battle, never publicized by Beijing, they used their superior weaponry to deliver a devastating blow against the Chinese forces. In his memoirs, then CIA director Robert Gates recalled, on the basis of satellite intelligence, that “the Chinese side of the [Ussuri] river was so pockmarked by Soviet artillery that it looked like a ‘moonscape.'”17

Mao used the border clashes to try to unify and mobilize a population deeply divided by the three-year-old Cultural Revolution. The official People’s Daily played up the external threat in an editorial entitled “Down with the New Czars.” In secret communications, Mao and his top leaders demanded an end to military and civilian factionalism, especially in northern border areas such as Inner Mongolia. And as tension along the frontier continued, with a major clash taking place in Xinjiang in August, the worries of the Chinese leaders grew. Six divisions armed with tactical nuclear weapons were added to the Soviet border forces, two of them in the Mongolian republic. The Chinese heard rumors that the Soviets were consulting their East European allies about a possible surgical strike against Chinese nuclear weapons facilities.

Moscow was also sounding out Washington about its attitude in the event of such an attack. Had the Soviets responded positively to earlier American pleas for help with the North Vietnamese, the response of Nixon and Kissinger would likely have been to assure benevolent neutrality. But by the summer of 1969, they had given up hope of Soviet mediation with its Vietnamese ally, and the American response was that an attack on China would be a threat to peace.18 For their part, the Chinese were taking no chances and set up a People’s Air Defense Small Group under Premier Zhou Enlai to consider how to disperse citydwellers, resite factories, and stockpile grain. Shanghai became a “huge construction site, with clouds of dust in the air and piles of dirt along every road” as major cities were urged to construct underground shelters.

On September 11, 1969, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met Zhou Enlai at Beijing Airport in an attempt to defuse tension. Border talks were agreed to. But the alarm of the Chinese leadership did not diminish, principally because Mao had convinced himself that a Soviet surprise attack was imminent and that the agreement to talk was a ruse. At a Chinese Politburo meeting, Kosygin’s visit was compared to the Japanese ambassadorial negotiations that had taken place in Washington while Tokyo was planning the attack on Pearl Harbor. On September 22, Zhou told an emergency conference of People’s Liberation Army generals: “We must be prepared to fight a war. Preparing for war is the new strategic plan.” Defense spending escalated in 1969 by 34 percent. On September 27, Marshal Lin Biao, the Chinese defense minister and Mao’s official heir apparent, told a conference on war-fighting: “Examine everything, investigate everything from the viewpoint of waging war.” The reception of the conferees later that day by Mao underlined the seriousness with which the Chairman took the situation.19

On September 30, Lin Biao inspected defenses around the capital and ordered the immediate dispersal of aircraft at bases in the Beijing area—one lesson of Peal Harbor had been learned—and the placing of obstructions on runways in case of paratrooper attacks. The consensus was that a Soviet offensive would be launched on October 1 while the Chinese were celebrating their National Day.

When nothing happened on that day, Mao intuited that the attack would come on October 20 when the Chinese guard was down because a Soviet delegation would have arrived in Beijing for the border talks. The Politburo backed Mao’s plan to evacuate senior leaders from the capital. Only Zhou and military commanders remained behind. Lin Biao flew to Suzhou on October 16 and the following day issued what was billed as Vice-Chairman Lin’s First Verbal Order, “On strengthening defenses and guarding against an enemy surprise attack,” a six-point directive commanding the armed forces to be put on red alert. Three more orders followed. The resulting deployment was of enormous size: ninety-five divisions—almost a million troops—over four thousand aircraft, and six hundred naval vessels, along with considerable numbers of tanks and artillery pieces were involved.20

Lin Biao’s first order had been predicated upon Mao’s alarmist view of Soviet intentions, but the Chairman was livid when he was shown it in advance. The official interpretation of his anger is that Mao believed Lin was probing to see how much of the Chairman’s role he could usurp. This would have been a highly unlikely move by Lin, who tried to keep a low profile during the Cultural Revolution, taking no initiatives, signing off on every Mao directive, however destructive.21 More likely, in view of Mao’s long-held belief that political power grew out of the barrel of a gun,22 the Chairman was horrified that such large-scale military movements could be launched on the orders of somebody other than himself. He had to face the fact that by encouraging the Red Guards to trash the Communist Party machine and the government bureaucracy during the Cultural Revolution, he had effectively ensured that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would run the country.

At the 9th Party Congress in April 1969, PLA representation on the Central Committee and the Politburo rose considerably. As provincial Party committees were formed thereafter, the PLA supplied twenty-two of the twenty-nine first secretaries.23 If Lin Biao were to succeed Mao, it was now clear, it would almost certainly mean a reversal of another of the Chairman’s favorite dictums, that the Party must command the gun, not the gun the Party.24 Yet in light of the Soviet military threat which Mao had trumpeted, having a distinguished revolutionary general as heir apparent could have seemed logical to Party colleagues.

Mao now had two reasons for seeking an accommodation with Washington: he hoped that an opening to the US would deter any plan the Soviet Union might have to attack China; and that the consequent reduction of the military threat would diminish the importance of the PLA to the Chinese polity. Moreover, he had high-level backing from heroes of the revolution for any move he might make to improve Sino-American relations. While Lin Biao’s clique of generals had been preparing the country for war, four marshals of Mao’s generation were taking a more sanguine view of the international situation than the Chairman. Mao had appointed this group before the Ussuri River clashes to make an independent assessment of international relations. Led by the former foreign minister Chen Yi, the marshals had not taken their task very seriously at first, conscious doubtless that all important foreign policy decisions were made by Mao. But spurred on by Zhou they met sixteen times between June and mid-September, sending the premier three reports in all.

They focused on two questions: Which was China’s main enemy, the US or the Soviet Union? Was war likely? Their conclusion was that despite their anti-Chinese rhetoric neither superpower was likely to attack China; Europe was still the focus of their rivalry. Moreover, the Soviet leadership feared the diplomatic and political consequences of an attack on China. Marshal Chen Yi went further, hinting in conversation with Zhou that he considered the US the lesser threat. Chen expressed the view that since a decade of Sino-American ambassadorial talks had produced nothing, perhaps it was time for the two countries to meet at the ministerial level or even higher. Here was how Mao might extricate himself from his security and political dilemmas.25 Mao needed the US, but fortunately for him, Nixon wanted China more. So there was no necessity for any conciliatory gestures from Beijing toward Washington. Mao could allow the Americans to come to him.


When Nixon was taken to see Mao upon his arrival in Beijing on February 21, 1972, the latter hinted that his one-time heir apparent Marshal Lin Biao had opposed the opening to America.26 By that time Lin had been dead for five months, killed in an air crash in Mongolia, according to the official account. He had allegedly been fleeing to the Soviet Union after a botched plot by his son to kill Mao. The limited evidence available suggests that while Lin never opposed the Nixon visit in Party councils—that was never his style with Mao—he may indeed have expressed doubts about the policy to members of his family. It is not hard to imagine why he might have done so. The Cultural Revolution had been launched by Mao with the aim of preventing China from sliding into Soviet “revisionism,” of which a principal expression was improving relations with the US.

The Soviet position had long been that détente with the US was necessary to prevent the mutual destruction of a nuclear exchange, an explanation that the Chinese had rejected as a cowardly and unprincipled lurch toward expediency. Now the Chinese themselves were seeking an expedient détente with the US. Doubtless there were some members of the Chinese Communist Party who could not understand why, if there were a danger from the Soviet Union, Beijing did not settle its disputes with the fraternal Communist Party in Moscow rather than make advances to the leaders of the capitalist, imperialist West.

The truth about the anti-Mao plot will probably have to await the opening of the Chinese Politburo archives. The evidence and the memoirs already available suggest that Mao prepared a trap for Lin and was trying to hound him out of office as he had done with other colleagues in the past.27 This could not have been because of any skepticism Lin may have felt about the opening to America because Mao did not learn about his alleged views until after his death.28 Rather Mao was repenting his choice of a marshal as his heir and setting out to eradicate excessive military representation in the top councils of the Party.29

By the time Nixon got to Beijing, the alleged treachery of a man who had been at Mao’s side for over four decades and had been personally chosen by him as his heir had disillusioned many of those who continued to believe in the Cultural Revolution. Why had the omniscient Chairman not seen through this traitor earlier? Mao himself may have wondered that he had not anticipated Lin’s flight. His health, never great, declined precipitously in the wake of the Lin Biao affair. The doctors had to work hard to enable him to be in a fit condition to receive the American president.30


Despite Nixon’s attempts to raise contentious issues with Mao, at their meeting the Chairman refused to discuss anything but “philosophy,” insisting on leaving practical negotiations to Zhou Enlai. It was thus up to Zhou and Kissinger, on the basis of the talks between Zhou and Nixon, to hammer out a final joint statement, the so-called Shanghai Communiqué. Already on his two-and-a-half-day second visit to Beijing in October 1971, four months prior to Nixon’s, Kissinger had spent eleven hours negotiating his way through seven drafts of a communiqué. Because of the disagreements between the two sides, the aim, Kissinger wrote to Nixon, was to produce an unusual document

that clearly states differences as well as common ground between the two countries and reassures the friends of both sides rather than raising anxieties because of the compromise language…. A communique along these lines should portray your conversations with Mao and Chou as being between leaders who stuck by their principles but had the largeness of perspective to move relations forward despite profound disagreements.31

During the Nixon visit, Kissinger and Zhou and their aides worked hard to come up with a final version, acceptable to both sides. Kissinger might be prepared to indicate privately his views on the long-term future of Taiwan, but for the sake of Nixon’s right-wing constituency in a presidential election year, there could be no public hint of selling Taiwan down the river. The final version of the communiqué was not finished until Nixon’s visit was drawing to a close and the Chinese flew their guests to experience the beauties of Hangzhou, prior to their stopping off in Shanghai and then going home.

Up to this point, Secretary of State Rogers and his aides, who had been in Beijing, had been effectively left out of the negotiations, and Rogers saw the final document only on the plane to Hangzhou. His aides immediately noticed flaws. In particular it mentioned the US defense commitments to Japan and South Korea but not its treaty with Taiwan. Kissinger, furious at these objections, had to renegotiate the issue into the small hours with Zhou’s principal deputy and future foreign minister, Qiao Guanhua. Qiao expressed anger, but as MacMillan points out, both countries “now had a vested interest in demonstrating that they had taken a major step toward a more normal relationship.” Qiao agreed to the key changes, and Mao, Zhou, and Nixon signed off on them. Kissinger took the precaution of planting an appropriate question about Taiwan—why had US treaty commitments to Taiwan not been reaffirmed?—with a friendly journalist to prevent the issue turning sour at his press briefing. (Kissinger replied that, as Nixon had earlier said, the US was maintaining the treaty with Taiwan, and that he would appreciate it if journalists did not pursue the subject.) In the official party only a White House aide, Patrick Buchanan, and Nixon’s loyal but very conservative secretary, Rose Mary Woods, called the communiqué a sellout.

Professor MacMillan concludes, however, that the breakthrough made by the Nixon visit was good for both countries and had great potential to act as a stabilizing force in world politics. But she too recognizes the origins of American official behavior vis-à-vis China. She asks if the US was too eager and whether it gave away too much:

Should, for example, Nixon have visited China first, without knowing whether or not he would see Mao, and without a firm agreement on the Shanghai communiqué? Should the Americans have handed over quite so much confidential material about the Soviets and, moreover, given the impression that the United States was eager to have an alliance with China against the Soviet Union? … Did Kissinger have to be quite so deferential, even, at times, obsequious?

She points out that in the aftermath both sides had their disappointments. Nixon and Kissinger “went too far, for example, in making assurances to China about withdrawing American forces from Taiwan, which they were not, in the end, able to keep.” As for the “China card”—the additional leverage that the new détente with China was supposed to give to the US—the Americans found that it did not lead to the North Vietnamese either ending the war or giving ground in the Paris peace talks. Nixon’s visit occurred, she argues, because both sides came to the conclusion at the same time that it was a promising idea. In the end it was the will of just four men to begin the week that changed history. Macmillan puts it this way:

Nixon and Mao, Kissinger and Chou. Two men who, for all their faults, possessed the necessary vision and determination and two men who had the talent, the patience, and the skill to make the vision reality.

All four men have rightly had their detractors over the years since 1972. It is the strength of MacMillan’s work that its cool judgment allows one to ignore their flaws in other settings and to see them as actors in top form superbly playing out the drama of the Nixon visit.

This Issue

June 28, 2007