Andre Malraux, French Minister of Information and Culture

Andre Malraux, French Minister of Information and Culture

After accepting the invitation to visit China, President Nixon began to prepare himself for exchanges with the Chinese leadership. One of the most important, and most difficult, aspects of the preparation was learning about Chairman Mao. As the leader of China and the Communist Party, Mao had become deified. No Americans could provide insight into his character or thinking. Furthermore, as a consequence of the Cultural Revolution Mao had severed his foreign relationships. Facing this predicament President Nixon turned to Andre Malraux, author and former French Minister of Information and Culture, who had a long-standing relationship with Mao prior to the Cultural Revolution.

On February 14, 1972, President Nixon hosted a dinner in the White House Residence to honor Andre Malraux, to help lift the veil of confusion and seeming inconsistencies that marked Chinese politics and culture. President Nixon knew that having a foundational of understanding of the Chairman’s philosophy was necessary for the success of the person-to-person diplomacy. Having already read Malraux’s Anti-Memoirs, the President considered it “among the most valuable and fascinating reading” he had done in preparation for his trip.

Malraux, however, did not appear to be forthcoming in all of his answers to the President’s questions. He would respond with specifics when generalities were called for, and fit ted his answers to the premise of questions never asked. For example, when the President asked if China had an ‘expansionist’ foreign policy, Malraux replied for Mao, saying that China was a continent, and that actions viewed in the West as the execution of foreign policy were, in fact, only extensions of Chinese domestic policies. These types of responses frustrated John Scali—Special Consultant to the President—who later described Malraux in a memo as “confusing, contradictory and too single minded in his viewpoint when it was understandable, and too reminiscent of French intellectuals who believe they are ordained with the divine answer to baffling questions.”

President Nixon was able to discern Mao’s mentality from the conversation, but he was still unsure about his greater motivation hosting an American diplomatic delegation. Malraux described Mao’s motivation as stemming from his domestic policies, which “for the past 20 years” was not a “revolutionary policy at all, but one of raising the standard of living.” To achieve this would require the industrialization of the agricultural sector, which in turn would require heavy machinery only the United States could supply. When President Nixon pointed out that this was contradictory to the Chinese philosophy of self-reliance, Malraux replied, “That would depend on the President’s dialogue with the Chinese.”

The success or failure of the President’s trip would be contingent upon his conversations with the Chinese leaders, epitomizing the importance of people-to-people diplomacy. There were no compelling market forces, or international imperatives forcing a union between the United States and China. If the talks fell apart, Malraux contended the Chinese would say exactly what they said about their relationship with the Russians, “All right, we’ll do it all alone.” If this was the outcome, it would constitute a failure.

Understanding the difficulty President Nixon had taken on, Malraux channeled the French leader DeGaulle, saying, “If he were here, he would say, ‘All men who understand what you are embarking upon salute you!’”