Coming off the heels of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington, President Obama announced that two giant pandas in the Washington National Zoo – the zoo’s most famous residents – will remain in the U.S. for five more years rather than return to China as was planned. Giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian have been at the National Zoo since 2000 and will continue “to dazzle children and visitors,” the President said.

Sending pandas to America has been a Chinese tradition since the Nixons’ groundbreaking trip to China in February 1972. This “panda diplomacy” – the Chinese government loaning pandas to foreign countries as gestures of goodwill – has been occurring for hundreds of years, but took on a special significance with the United States because of the breakthrough in relations and cultural interconnections it represented. Its roots can be traced to a dinner between Zhou En-lai and the Nixon party.

As Zhou and President Nixon traded toasts at one of half a dozen official galas, the dawn of a new beginning was in the air. Seated next to the Chinese Premier, Mrs. Nixon and Zhou discussed her tours throughout Peking, specifically her visit to the Peking Zoo to see the pandas. On the table in front of her, she noticed a box of cigarettes wrapped in pink tissue and decorated with Chinese pandas. Showing it to him, she remarked how enamored she was with them: “Aren’t they cute? I love them.” “I’ll give you some,” he replied, and arrangements were made to ship two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington.

The President called his wife when the agreement was finalized, and Mrs. Nixon attended the ceremony on April 20, 1972 to dedicate the new Panda House. She appeared with the Director of the Smithsonian Institution and a Chinese government representative, quipping that “Panda-monium” was breaking out in the capital.

It was no joke, however, that even those in high levels of government were unprepared for the pandas’ popularity. Hundreds of people visited everyday, standing several rows deep to catch glimpses of Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, top attractions at the zoo until their deaths in the 1990s. They have been succeeded, though, and several other pandas were sent to the San Diego, Atlanta, and Memphis Zoos.

This often overlooked diplomatic gesture demonstrates both the political power of the First Lady and the early commitment by both nations to work together to foster improved Sino-American relations. Giving the pandas to Mrs. Nixon was one of China’s attempts to begin diplomatic relations with the United States and the eagerness surrounding the pandas was proof of improved relations.

That so much joy is brought to everyday Americans from these rare animals is a fitting testament to the First Lady, and indeed to the “week that changed the world.”