Thirty-eight years ago today, the White House asked the three networks to clear space in prime time for an important message from the President.
The request appeared to come out of the blue, and there was widespread speculation regarding his intentions —would he be making an announcement about the worsening economic situation, or would it be something to do with Vietnam?— and the reasons for requiring such a prominent venue.
RN —who took a certain pleasure in surprises— achieved one of the great surprises in American history. Because at 9 pm that Thursday night, he announced that he had accepted an invitation from the government of the People’s Republic of China and would visit China in February 1972.
The impact, at home and around the world, was electric. Even without the surprise element, it was a diplomatic coup of staggering proportions. The columnist Max Lerner wrote that “The politics of surprise leads through the Gates of Astonishment into the Kingdom of Hope.”
Of course that brief mid-July announcement was the end of a long and tortuous process that RN had initiated within days of being inaugurated in January 1969.
The real turning point had come two months earlier, on 10 May, after a State Dinner for President Somoza of Nicaragua. RN was going through some paper work in the Lincoln Sitting Room —still in his dinner suit— when Henry Kissinger came in out of breath (RN thought that “he must have run most of the way from the West Wing”).
Dr. Kissinger gave RN two sheets of typewritten paper conveying a message from Pakistani President Ayub Khan —who had been one of the principal intermediaries with the PRC— confirming that “Chairman Mao Tse-tung has indicated that he welcomes President Nixon’s visit and looks forward to that occasion when he may have direct conversations with His Excellency the President, in which each side would be free to raise the principle issue of concern to it.”
Kissinger said, “This is the most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II.”
Describing the scene in RN, RN continued:
For nearly an hour we talked about the China initiative — what it might mean to America and how delicately it must be handled lest we lose it. It was close to midnight before we noticed the time, and Kissinger rose to go.
“Henry, I know that, like me, you never have anything to drink after dinner, and it is very late,” I said, “but I think this is one of those occasions when we should make an exceptions. Wait here just a minute.”
I got up and walked down the corridor to the small family kitchen at the other end of the second floor. In one of the cabinets I found an unopened bottle of very old Courvoisier brandy that someone had been given us for Christmas. I tucked it under my arm and took two large snifters from the glass cupboard. As we raised our glasses, I said, “Henry, we are drinking a toast not to ourselves personally or to our success, or to our administration’s policies which have made this message and made tonight possible. Let us drink to generations to come who may have a better chance to live in peace because of what we have done.”
As I write them now, my words sound rather formal, but the moment was one not just of high personal elation, but of a profound mutual understanding that this truly was a moment of historical significance.