BOOK REVIEW When the US made the right moves
Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao by Margaret
Reviewed by Fraser Newham
Richard Nixon was never known for his easy charm. His week-long visit to China
started well, as Nixon enthusiastically toasted his hosts and, in his speeches,
quoted back chunks of chairman
Mao Zedong's poetry. But by Day 4 he was showing the strain - and by Day 6,
off-camera at least, he could barely manage a smile.
The party was waiting to board the plane for Shanghai, and in Beijing airport
Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was trying to talk the US president through the
photos of beautiful China decorating the departure-lounge wall. "What the hell
are you talking about?" Nixon snapped.
Sometimes the self-proclaimed voice of America's "silent majority" was far from
pretty - but, as Margaret MacMillan's admirable new history of the event
demonstrates, the Nixon visit and his handshake with an aging Mao Zedong
transformed geopolitics, re-establishing Sino-US relations and laying the
foundations for China's eager participation in international trade today.
When Nixon first won the White House in 1968, the United States and communist
China had been determinedly not speaking to each other for almost 20 years;
Washington instead recognized Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan as the legitimate
government of China.
That the Americans proved willing to hang their friends in Taipei out to dry
(as certainly it appeared they were doing) reflected hard-nosed foreign-policy
considerations. A friendly China, Nixon reasoned, could help negotiate the
United States out of Vietnam and, potentially, gang up with the US against the
Soviet Union (with which the Chinese were themselves beginning to have serious
At first, the two sides communicated at arm's length, through their diplomats
in Warsaw and the efforts of president Yahya Khan of Pakistan, tentative early
signals that gradually evolved into a recognition of mutual interests. In April
1971, an American ping-pong team competing in Japan was suddenly invited to
China; two months later, unknown to the world's media, Henry Kissinger (then
White House national security adviser) was meeting with Zhou Enlai in Beijing.
Nixon himself would travel to China a mere seven months later, this time in the
full glare of the media spotlight - the White House Press Office even laid on a
second plane to accommodate the journalistic mob. Nixon met Mao at his home in
Beijing's Zhongnanhai, attended and hosted banquets in the Great Hall of the
People and paid his respects at tourist sites such as the Great Wall and
Hangzhou's West Lake. Key moments such as the first evening banquet were
broadcast live in the morning on US television.
And no question about it, TV audiences were witnessing history as they buttered
their toast - the Shanghai Communique, issued after seven days of intensive
negotiation between Kissinger and his opposite number Qiao Guanhua,
acknowledged mutual interests and the benefits of dialogue and, to account for
the formidable obstacle of Taiwan, forged the tortuous "one China - wherever
that might be" formulation that sustains Sino-US friendship to this day.
Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan won the British Broadcasting Corp's
Samuel Johnson Prize for Peacemakers, a magisterial account of the Paris
Peace Conference of 1919, and once again she tells the story brilliantly. She
integrates thoroughly grown-up background information and perspective -
Sino-Soviet relations, the Taiwan question, the morass that was American
Vietnam - with fast-paced narrative, gossipy, judgmental and tragic in all the
At times her account reads like something from the US television series The West
Wing. She relates Henry Kissinger's clandestine late-night departure
for China while on government business in Pakistan, setting off for a first
meeting with Zhou Enlai so hush-hush that even his immediate companions were
unaware of the real purpose of their trip:
"At 3:30 in the morning,
Kissinger, disguised in a floppy hat and dark glasses, was whisked off through
deserted streets to the Rawalpindi airport in a small blue car driven by
Pakistan's foreign minister ... The Pakistan International Airlines plane
waited, its engines already running. At the top of the stairs, a party of
Chinese officials, among them Nancy Tang, Mao's personal interpreter, waited to
greet the Americans, much to the shock of the Secret Service agents ... One
started to reach for his gun ..."
No doubt Nixon and Kissinger
were taking a huge risk, politically if not in fact personally - and MacMillan
throughout asserts the role of individuals in effecting change. There was
nothing inevitable about China and the United States coming to terms, she
argues. Rather it came about because of decisions made and chances taken by
Nixon, Kissinger, Mao and Zhou.
And accordingly, with all eyes on the individual, Nixon's fate has never seemed
so Shakespearean as it does here; his sheer lack of collegiality, his instinct
for secrecy - attributes that would first light and then fan the flames of the
Watergate scandal, leading to his very public downfall - here help change the
His gift for secrecy and intrigue, and his instinct to go it alone, were,
MacMillan argues, just what allowed him to outmaneuver the conservative China
lobby in the US and those in the State Department who would have joylessly
sucked the life from any Beijing initiative had he given them just half a
By the same token, the Nixon-Kissinger relationship - the co-dependency and
awkward love of these two competitive, haunted men - has never seemed so alive.
For all the point-scoring and sniping behind each other's back - "our drunken
friend", Kissinger used to call his boss, over drinks with the Washington
cocktail set - they were in it together until the end.
In a scene as powerful as anything seen in President Bartlett's fictional West
Wing, Nixon ends on his knees, as on one final late night of his imploding
presidency, in a gesture of two lives intertwined, he invites Kissinger to join
him the prayer there in the White House; deeply moved, Kissinger assents, and
the men pray side by side on the carpet of the Oval Office.
From beginning to end, MacMillan writes well of Nixon's conflicted (and
elsewhere much analyzed) personality. "If he often behaved like his father, who
was a loudmouthed and opinionated bully, he wished to be more like his saintly
mother," she tells us at one stage.
By contrast, the characters of Mao and Zhou seem less epicly drawn. Mao is
cunning and self-indulgent; Zhou is the skillful conduit, charming and
difficult as the situation (or, most likely, his master Mao) demands. MacMillan
makes good use of Chinese sources, and ably depicts the Chinese point of view.
That said, much of the narrative is interpreted through Westernized eyes, based
on the recollections of American participants.
Also, many of the juiciest tidbits she feeds us about Mao come either from Jung
Chang's recent biography or the memoirs of Mao's old doctor, Li Zhisui.
Certainly both texts have contributed powerfully to one modern image of the
Great Helmsman - a Mao who sometimes showed more interest in his own sexual
peccadilloes than the human toll of his economic policies. But both require at
least some consideration of possible bias.
And as for the significance of the meeting? The US finally recognized the
legitimacy of Mao's regime; and US objections that had until then prevented
Beijing from taking its seat on the United Nations Security Council were
removed. From Nixon's point of view, his priorities in China were always
pragmatic - Cold War maneuvering to pressure the Soviet Union and, more
urgently, part of an exit strategy to get out of Vietnam. In retrospect he
overestimated Chinese influence in Hanoi; and while today we might highlight
the development of economic partnership, that was a prospect Nixon and
Kissinger never really entertained.
We might argue that the US made the right move without at the time realizing
exactly why. Perhaps. But it is certainly true that both sides visualized the
possibility of a planet big enough to accommodate China and the Western world,
each comfortable with the other's existence. Sometimes, it seems, it is better
to talk to the bad guys, whoever they might be in the popular mind at that
time. We can after all only speculate what might have happened, if Beijing had
been left to go the way of Pyongyang.
Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao by Margaret MacMillan. John Murray,
October 2006. ISBN: 9780719565229. Price US$38, 384 pages.
Fraser Newham is a UK-based freelance journalist specializing in China .