The July 26, 1971 cover of Time Magazine featuring RN and Dr. Kissinger.

To a very keen observer, President Nixon’s acceptance of Premier Chou En-Lai’s invitation to China would not have had as great a shock as it did to the rest of the nation. President Nixon, in fact, began to soften the ground for a new relationship with China as soon as he entered the Oval Office.

During his first inaugural address, President Nixon alluded to his 1967 work in Foreign Affairs, Asia After Vietnam, when he stated, “We seek an open world… a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation.” In the first Foreign Policy Report President Nixon sent to Congress, he acknowledged that he may not be able to “impact China’s behavior,” or “its ideological outlook,” but he would continue taking steps “toward improved practical relations with Peking.” Also, in early 1970 the Nixon administration oversaw announcements that relaxed the official restrictions on travel and trade with China. Each of these acts were domestic indicators, starting subtly and growing more direct, of the President’s intention to begin communications with China.

President Nixon made efforts to signal China through international channels. While at dinner with President Yahya Khan of Pakistan in 1969, he gave one of his most overt diplomatic signals. During the toast, President Nixon became the first President to refer to Communist China by its official name, “the People’s Republic of China.” This was the first occasion a President had referred to China by its formal title.

Reflecting on President Nixon’s history in office, he was a prime candidate to receive such an invitation. Under President Eisenhower, Nixon was one of the most internationally traveled Vice Presidents in history, gaining unrivaled foreign relations experience. Further, only someone with anti-communist credentials as strong as Richard Nixon’s—dating back to his time in Congress and the prosecution of Alger Hiss—could have taken on such a delicate and monumental task while still maintaining political integrity. As President Nixon later told Chairman Mao, “At this time, those on the right can do what those on the left talk about.”

Still, in President Nixon’s own words, accepting the invitation to China was the “diplomatic surprise of the century.”

See President Nixon’s announcement below: