When considering why Richard Nixon was the President who decided to extend the hand of friendship to the People’s Republic of China, after more than twenty years of hostile relations between that country and the United States, it is important to remember that he was the first Chief Executive who was born and raised near the Pacific Ocean. As he grew up a grocer’s son in the 1920s and 1930s, in an area where Chinese-Americans and especially Japanese-Americans played a prominent role in local agriculture, he developed an interest in Asian history and culture.
That interest continued to be strong in the 1950s, as Nixon, in his capacity as Vice-President, traveled throughout the nations surrounding the Pacific and Indian Oceans. At that time, and as late as 1964 he publicly espoused the policies toward the PRC of President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, that the People’s Republic should not be admitted to the United Nations or diplomatically recognized by the United States. However, he sometimes qualified these statements by saying they applied “at this time,” and in private he gave considerable thought to the future of America’s role in the Pacific basin, and the need for the United States to one day come to terms with the world’s third-largest superpower.

In 1967, after Nixon had been a private citizen for seven years, there came the first indications of a change in his thinking about China. In July of that year, speaking to political, economic and cultural leaders at the Bohemian Grove in California, he indicated that America’s policy toward the Soviet Union had to move beyond the containment approach of the Dulles era, with the unstated implication that a new relationship with the USSR’s largest neighbor would be part of that approach.

In October 1967, in his Foreign Affairs article “Asia After Viet Nam,” Nixon, after explaining that such nations as Malaysia, Singapore and especially South Korea would soon be on the fast track to economic success, examined China’s relations with these countries and other neighbors in the Pacific, emphasizing that the United States “simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors.”

At the time, with China in the throes of the Cultural Revolution, there was no visible response by that nation’s government to these words. But in Beijing, Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai did take notice. They also noticed when, in the 1968 campaign, Nixon would occasionally talk about China in interviews with reporters, such as Harrison Salisbury, who noted in an August 1968 article in the New York Times that Nixon had spoken of the “inevitable negotiations” with the PRC, and Theodore White, who in his 1969 book The Making Of The President 1968 stated that the new President had told him there “had to be an understanding with Red China” (as the PRC was widely called in America at the time).

The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim, to the extent that we can influence events, should be to induce change. President Nixon – in his 1967 Foreign Affairs article, “Asia After Vietnam”

The first explicit moves toward a rapprochement with China came in a low-key form in July 1969, just before President Nixon traveled to Romania, the Warsaw Pact nation which had the best relations with the PRC. The State Department announced the easing of travel and trade restrictions involving China. During talks in Romania’s capital Bucharest, Nixon told that nation’s leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, that he hoped he could help establish a diplomatic channel between the United States and the PRC.

But it was in Warsaw, in January 1970, that the first substantial contact arose when a member of the Chinese embassy’s staff approached his American counterpart at a diplomatic gathering and offered to arrange secret meetings to discuss issues of concern to both governments. These meetings in Warsaw proceeded with some degree of difficulty through the year, as disagreements arose over the American military incursion into Cambodia and the question of Taiwan’s representation in the United Nations, but during the fall, the discussions became more friendly, and on December 8, the government of the PRC took the momentous step of informing President Nixon, through the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, that Mao, Zhou, and then-Vice Premier Lin Biao would welcome a Presidential envoy to Beijing.

The President and his National Security Advisor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, immediately accepted the invitation. The next month, in January 1971, the PRC government informed Nixon, through the Romanian ambassador to the United States, that it would also welcome a visit from the President. However, Nixon decided to formalize arrangements for Kissinger to travel to Beijing before making the decision about his own trip.

On April 27, 1971, Zhou, via the Pakistani Ambassador, reaffirmed that the PRC would welcome both an envoy from the President, or the President himself, to Beijing. In the weeks before this statement, the Chinese government had publicly signalled a new era in relations with the United States by inviting the American table-tennis team to play in the PRC. After a week-long visit which generated enormous excitement and publicity around the world, it was clear that most Americans wished for improved relations with China.
This process of improved relations reached a new plateau during the summer of 1971. On June 10, the President announced the end of America’s 21-year trade embargo with China. A little over three weeks later, Kissinger, during a visit to Pakistan, made a secret trip to Beijing, where he talked for several days with Zhou. And on the evening of July 15, President Nixon, in a televised address to the nation, revealed Kissinger’s trip and announced that he himself would visit China.

Apart from some angry reactions by supporters of the Taiwanese government and conservative politicians and columnists, this announcement was well received across America.

During the following months, February 1972 was finalized as the date for the President’s trip, and the planning for it began. In late October 1971, Kissinger visited Beijing for five days, carefully putting together with Zhou the groundwork and agenda for the President’s planned talks. In January 1972, a team led by Kissinger’s deputy, Gen. Alexander Haig, and including Dwight Chapin and Ron Walker from the office of White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, flew to the Chinese capital and, with their Chinese counterparts, finalized all the complex arrangements for the visit, from the choice of sites to visit, to the dinner menu, to the handling of the large group of reporters and photographers accompanying the Presidential party.

On the morning of February 17, the President left the White House and boarded Air Force One at Andrews AFB, for a journey that would bring him, at 11:30 am local time the next day, to the airport at Beijing. There, he emerged from the aircraft, descended the stairway, took a few steps, and shook the hand of Zhou Enlai. At that moment, as Nixon later wrote in his Memoirs, “one era ended and another began.” After enjoying lunch, the President and the Premier, with Kissinger, traveled to the office of Mao Zedong, where the Chairman greeted them and engaged them in friendly discussion.

The ten days that followed started with a memorable banquet in Beijing and closed with an even more memorable one in Shanghai, both of these broadcast live in the United States. President Nixon made visits to the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and other historic sites. Pat Nixon, his First Lady, visited schools, farms, and hospitals, where her natural warmth and friendliness generated lasting and cherished memories among her hosts. By the time the President, Mrs. Nixon, and their party left China, there was no doubt that the trip had been an enormous success. In the Shanghai Communique, completed and signed during the visit, Nixon and Zhou affirmed plans for the two countries to normalize relations, and this document served as the basis for the process that culminted in full diplomatic recognition of the PRC by President Carter later in the 1970s, and in the close ties enjoyed by the two nations today.

The diplomatic opening to PRC is regarded as the greatest achievement of Richard Nixon’s presidency, and the combination of vision and perseverance that produced him forms one of the most admired and enduring legacies of his Presidency.