Dr. Kissinger with Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai.
President Nixon shocked the world when he accepted an invitation to China from Premier Chou En-Lai on national television. This event marked the beginning of the public’s awareness of administration efforts to normalize relations with China. But, as Henry Kissinger noted in his book White House Years, “behind the climax” of the President’s announcement “were thirty months of patient and deliberate preparation as each side felt its way, gingerly…”
On July 1, 1971 Kissinger embarked on the secret diplomatic mission, Polo I. The precursory stops on the trip took him through “Saigon, Bangkok, and New Delhi before landing in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan and [the] springboard to [his] real destination.” On July 9th, after feigning a stomach-ache in Islamabad, a small group of six Americans including Henry Kissinger, Winston Lord, and two secret service agents, met with the Chinese representatives, and boarded a PIA (Pakistani International Airlines) Boeing at Chaklala Airport for the trip to Peking.
On board the plane to China, Kissinger told Chang Wen-chin, head of the department that oversaw American relations for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, that the purpose of his trip was to announce a new period in the relationship between the two nations. Chang assured him that Premier Chou En-Lai “would be prepared to explore all subjects.”
Once seated across the table from Premier Chou En-Lai during their first meeting, Kissinger understood an often-overlooked aspect of opening China—the country’s domestic political implications. As he describes, for the United States this “was the beginning of an advantageous new turn in international relations. For the Chinese it had to be a personal, intellectual, and emotional crisis. They had started as a splinter group, with no hope for victory, endured the Long March, fought Japan and a civil war, opposed us in Korea and then took on the Soviets, and imposed the Cultural Revolution on themselves.” Threats to derail the diplomatic process surrounded all the proceedings.
Back in Washington, President Nixon knew that the secrecy needed to successfully carry out the Polo mission would mean that he would not receive any details of the trip until Kissinger was back in the White House. Further, all communication with the White House during Kissinger’s time in China would be completely blacked out. President Nixon began to prepare himself for any potential outcome. As he wrote in Memoirs, “Although I was confident that the Chinese were as ready for my trip as we were, I did not underestimate the tremendous problems that Taiwan and Vietnam posed for both sides, and I tried to discipline myself not to expect anything lest I begin to expect too much.”
When Kissinger arrived back in Pakistan on July 11, he cabled a single response to Washington to indicate whether his trip was a success, and a Presidential visit had been arranged.
“What’s the message?” President Nixon asked.
“Eureka,” was the reply.