Although President Nixon’s speech on the 15th of July, 1971, only lasted three and a half minutes, it produced one of the greatest diplomatic surprises of the century. He began his speech in a Burbank, California, television studio at precisely 7:30pm. The purpose was to announce a major development in his administration’s “efforts to build a lasting peace in the world.” The speech’s primary message was to reveal the President’s intention to make an official trip to the People’s Republic of China, a message that was announced at that exact same moment in Peking, where it was 10:30AM the following morning.
President Nixon’s critics had major concerns, however, that the revelation of his trip to China would seriously injure US–Soviet relations. The announcement actually had the opposite effect, serving to bolster the ties between the two countries. Only three months after he returned from Peking, RN was scheduled to visit Moscow. In his memoirs, he fondly recollected the elation of being able to make such an unexpected announcement for it had taken two years of complex and surreptitious negotiations and signals to achieve such an outcome.
RN’s efforts began several years prior, as early as 1967, but it was not until his Foreign Policy Report to Congress in 1970 did the Chinese take his interests seriously. In the following months, much headway was made as the Chinese Ambassador to the US subtly suggested moving US-China meetings to Peking and hinted that the Chinese government would welcome high-ranking American officials. In March of that year, restrictions against travel to China slackened and in April, there was an additional easing of trade controls.
After China’s snuff at Truman’s attempts for friendly relations in 1949 and America’s humiliating affront to the Chinese at the Geneva conference in 1954, the gates of diplomacy had been shut between the two countries. The 37th President’s historical visit finally introduced the People’s Republic of China to the international stage after a quarter century of isolation.
When President Nixon arrived, Premier Chou En-lai was uneasy, unsure whether he should extend his hand for a shake. Former American Secretary of State John Dulles had publicly rejected En-lai’s proffered hand twenty years ago, an insult to the Chinese people and the Chinese were slow to forget slights and grievances. When RN extended his hand genially and with genuine pleasure, En-lai and the Chinese people understood that China was finally being treated as an equal by a truly great power.