'Nixon and Mao': the handshake felt round the world

Thirty-five years ago, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger completed a diplomatic masterpiece. In 1972, after 23 years of fro-zen relations between the two nations, Nixon went to China.

This being Nixon, plenty of oddities and insecurities surrounded the week-long trip. There were no daily press briefings, a symptom of the administration's paranoid and dismissive attitude toward a media corps it nonetheless monitored with a gimlet eye. Even more oddly, Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, conspired with the President to omit secretary of State William Rogers from high-level negotiations as well as the unprecedented meeting between the American head of state and Chairman Mao Zedong.

Foreshadowing the events of Watergate that began just four months after Nixon's triumphant trip, John Chancellor of NBC News noted: "Never before had an American President traveled abroad in peacetime under such a cloak of secrecy."

In truth, the furtive machinations had begun three years earlier. On Kissinger's first, secret trip to Beijing a year earlier, he engaged in a bit of stealth international travel while on a diplomatic tour of Asia. With the assistance of Pakistani leaders, Kissinger claimed to have been taken ill and was whisked to a remote bungalow to recover. Disguised in a floppy hat and dark glasses, Kissinger sneaked away from the bungalow and was driven to the Rawalpindi airport at 3:30 a.m. There he boarded a chartered Pakistan International Airlines flight, bound for China and his first meeting with Mao's top deputy, Chou Enlai. A British newspaper stringer witnessed the scene while he was taking his mother to the airport. He dashed off a story to his London editor, who killed the piece, assuming the man had confused his facts.

Delicious anecdotes such as these fill Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, Margaret MacMillan's thorough, absorbing account of the Chinese-American rapprochement.

It is, principally, the tale of four men: Nixon and Kissinger on the American side, and Mao and Chou on the Chinese. MacMillan offers telling details that evoke life as it was at the time of Nixon's visit.

It is hard to imagine a contemporary American president dispensing complimentary cigarettes, replete with the presidential seal side by side with the surgeon general's warning, as the Nixon staff did in China. Then, too, conjuring a China dazzled by imported American office equipment – copiers and other mundanities – seems all but impossible.

It comes as little surprise that Nixon hated playing the tourist and sought to avoid as much sightseeing as he could. When he did venture out of meeting rooms, however, he saw a strange, scripted China. Citizens in Beijing were ordered first to show no interest or curiosity in the American party upon arrival, but later flooded the visitors with carefully packaged attention. The same Chinese child presented Pat Nixon with flowers at each city she visited. At the Ming Tombs, the Nixons glimpsed families adorned in new clothes picnicking and listening to revolutionary songs – on a cold February afternoon.

MacMillan sketches deft portraits of Mao and Chou, men of cruelty, cunning, and characteristic realpolitik. For all his cult of personality and far-reaching power, Mao, like the Wizard of Oz, can best be described as smaller than life offstage. His rural upbringing left a lifelong preference for rinsing his mouth with green tea in lieu of brushing his teeth. Mao gorged on sleeping pills and took acquiescent 20-something girls as sexual partners in his dotage.

The only thing that "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World" doesn't do is live up to its subtitle. MacMillan delves into the forces and personalities surrounding the summit and its delicate nature, but she fails to offer much perspective on how or why it changed the world after the initial meetings in 1972. In passing, MacMillan notes that Wal-Mart's $18 billion in Chinese imports during 2006 put a single American company ahead of Russia, Canada, and Australia as a trading partner with China. She also notes the increased travel between the two countries, but how and whether the talks between America and China altered the course of both nations in the succeeding three decades is given short shrift. When MacMillan grapples with Nixon's subsequent struggles and Mao's declining health (he died four years later), she leaves the reader with more questions than answers.

That significant shortcoming aside, "Nixon and Mao" ranks as one of the most relevant, and worthy histories published of late, especially as China's economy roars onward and it prepares for a precarious global reconsideration as the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Just this month, talks resumed in Beijing over a range of vital international Asian concerns. For many Americans longing to better understand this gargantuan global power, MacMillan's book offers a thorough primer on America's lengthy, uneasy history with China as well as insight into Chinese political tactics and its shift to Communism in 1949.

Fittingly, Mao and Chou never understood the American obsession with the Watergate break-in, its subsequent cover-up and the unraveling of Nixon's presidency. Late in life, Nixon recognized that the best legacy he could hope for was a coupling of the China trip with Watergate. MacMillan, as anyone who grapples with Nixon must, illustrates once again why the 37th president remains our most enigmatic leader.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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