Premier Chou receives President Nixon’s extended hand upon his arrival in Peking

Walking down the steps from the “Spirit of ‘76” after landing on the small tarmac of the Peking Airport, President Nixon made it a point to extend his hand toward Premier Chou En-lai. This seemingly normal greeting held a greater significance. Recalling this moment in his memoirs, President Nixon “knew that Chou had been deeply insulted by [Eisenhower Secretary of State] Foster Dulles’s refusal to shake hands with him at the Geneva Conference in 1954.” “When our hands met,” President Nixon wrote, “one era ended and another began.”

Arriving in China today, one can only awe at the growth that the Nixon ‘era’ began. Beijing Airport has undergone nothing short of a metamorphosis. The cold and lonely runway of the outdoor airport where President Nixon landed has grown to become one of the busiest in the world. Terminal three, which was opened in 2008 after four years of construction to accommodate Olympic visitors, is the second largest worldwide with over 21 million square feet.

With the bustle of the thousands of daily international travelers surrounding us in the airport, it is difficult to imagine a time when restrictions were not only limited to travel and trade, but also formal communications between our two governments. Premier Chou noted on the difficultly President Nixon had overcome to visit China. While in the car leaving the airport, Chou turned to President Nixon and said, “Your handshake came over the vastest ocean in the world—twenty-five years of no communication.”