Reflecting upon his February 1972 China trip, President Nixon declared that his one of his most vivid impressions was the “unique personality” of Premier Zhou Enlai. The President had gleaned only a limited insight to the personality of the ailing Chairman Mao from their single meeting. Conversely, the President spent hours with the Premier in frank policy discussion and light-hearted banter over seven meetings and numerous social occasions. Premier Zhou’s expansive knowledge of history, philosophy, and poetry deeply impressed the President.
During these seven meetings, Zhou carried a small book of the poetry of Chairman Mao in his pocket, which he would occasionally pull out and read. During their February 23rd meeting, Zhou related two of these poems to President Nixon’s journey. The last line of a poem about Lushan Mountain read, “The beauty lies at the top of the mountain,” to which President Nixon replied, “We are at the top of the mountain now.” This meeting between the leaders of America and China was a powerful achievement on its own; their diplomatic preparations had been as profound as a mountain climber’s daunting task.
The second poem Zhou selected, “Ode to a Plum Blossom,” concerns a sadder theme: the one who takes an initiative may not have the opportunity to see his own success. President Nixon appreciated the beauty and the message of the poem. He strongly believed that developing relations with China was an essential, bipartisan task: “I want to be sure that whether a Democrat or a Republican occupies the presidency [after elections], this beginning we have made is carried forward. It is bigger than any one party or any one man.” President Nixon’s time in the Oval Office may have been fleeting as a plum blossom, but his legacy of stronger relations with China has proven to be as long-lasting as a mountain.
In his discussions with the Premier, President Nixon revealed his own desire to understand things in a deeper way, a side of his personality that is not often portrayed in the media.
“I believe it is very useful to think in philosophic terms. Too often we look at problems in the world from the point of view of tactics. We take the short view…It is essential to look at the world not just in terms of immediate diplomatic battles and decisions but the great forces that move the world. Maybe we have some disagreements, but we know there will be changes… [The] world can be a better and more peaceful place.”
The greatest driver of President Nixon’s philosophy was his desire for peace. As he drolly told the Premier during their February 22nd meeting, “By religion, I am a Quaker, although not a very good one, and I believe in peace.” His most profound impression of the world was optimistic, a deep-rooted belief that the “great forces of the world” would ultimately change for good. If one truly engages in understanding President Nixon and his legacy, one cannot help but discover he was profound and interesting person.