The trumpets will blare and the blue —or at least bluish— skies will smile down on the Olympic Games in Beijing. But before the command to “Let the games begin” is given, might I suggest taking just a moment to remember the man but for whom none of this would be happening today?
To be sure, the restoration of US-PRC relations was inevitable. If RN hadn’t done it, another American President would sooner or later have made the move — either on his or her own or reacting to events. But it happened thanks to RN and on his watch, and there can be no doubt that the timing and the man made a major difference then and since. If Richard Nixon hadn’t gone to China in ’72 there couldn’t have been any Olympics in Beijing by ’08.
As things turned out, the next practical window of opportunity wouldn’t have come until the 1980s (on the principle that it would take a president whose anti-communist credentials were in order to grease the necessary domestic political skids). By having begun the process with the imprimaturs —indeed the participation— of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, RN gave Sino-American relations the kind of present-at-the-creation pedigree that has accounted for many of the successes —and helped smooth over many of the differences— that have ensued.
The road to Beijing began in the mid-1960s in the book-lined study of an apartment overlooking Central Park at 810 Fifth Avenue. That is where RN sat late into many nights, in his favorite beige velvet armchair with his feet up on the matching ottoman*, wearing his usual jacket and tie regardless of the time or the season, churning out scores of yellow pads and planning his comeback.
He made notes about the world as it was, paralyzed by the war in Vietnam that was preventing any creative maneuvering in the relations between the USA and the USSR; and he made notes about the world as it might be with him sitting in the Oval Office.
In the 1967 Autumn issue of Foreign Affairs, he published “Asia after Viet Nam” — the Ur document in the development of US-Chinese relations — in which he wrote that “Any American policy toward Asia must come urgently to grips with the reality of China….Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors.”
From his first week as President, RN started sending up trial balloons regarding his intentions to recast relations with the PRC. Before very long, the change in direction was hiding in plain sight, with RN dropping hints like Easter eggs on the White House lawn.
In October 1970 he told a Time interviewer, “If there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China.” A few months later, his second annual State of the World address to Congress affirmed that “The United States is prepared to see the People’s Republic of China play a constructive role in the family of nations.” In the places where these things matter, it was noted that this was the first time an American President had referred to the mainland regime by its official name.
In April 1971 the U.S. table tennis team arrived in China and initiated Ping Pong diplomacy. RN told the American Society of Newspapers Editors, meeting in Kansas City, that he hoped to visit China himself some day. Two weeks later he told reporters, “I hope and, as a matter of fact, I expect to visit mainland China sometime in some capacity.”
But media attention remained resolutely fixed on Vietnam and the USSR, and, short of clubbing them over the head with the news about his new China policy, there wasn’t much more RN could do until he was ready to make the actual announcement. That was on July 15th when he asked for nationwide TV time and caught everyone flatfooted with his announcement that he would be visiting China early in 1972.
China! Well, of all things! Who would have guessed? RN, who loved firsts and surprises (not to mention surprising the media with a first), thoroughly enjoyed his moment.
The China trip —22-27 February 1972— turned out to be a triumph of vision backed up with preparation, organization, tenacity, publicity, determination, and some exceptionally good luck. It was the first of three China trips RN made before his death in 1994. He returned at the invitation of the Chinese government in 1976, and as a private citizen in 1984.
Thirty-six years later, and with some serious differences between the two nations resisting resolution, is there any legacy left of those late nights on 5th Avenue and that “week that changed the world” in 1972 (RN’s own description of that first, for which he was widely accused of hyperbole)?
We have the example of the conception and execution of a revolution in foreign policy thanks to the vision, persistence, and skill of a statesman. We have a cautionary case study demonstrating the importance of secrecy for the successful practice of diplomacy. We have going on four decades of association, and sometimes even friendship, where none had existed before, with what RN called a billion of this small planet’s potentially most able people.
And, of course, we have the XXIX Olympiad which begins later today —- in which, as it has been since 1988, Ping Pong will be an Olympic sport.