From left to right: Premier Zhou En-Lai, translator Tang Wensheng, Chairman Mao, President Nixon, and Henry Kissinger. (Not shown: National Security Advisor Winston Lord and Chinese Deputy Chief of Protocol Wang Hai-Jung.)
One of the most incredible moments in the presidency of Richard Nixon was his unanticipated meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, barely four hours after his arrival in Beijing on February 21st, 1972. President Nixon wrote in his memoirs, “I was getting ready to take a shower when Kissinger burst in with the news that Chairman Mao wanted to meet me.” When White House Press Secretary Ronald Ziegler heard about the sudden meeting, he bit off half of his tangerine, peel and all, in shock. By modern standards, the circumstances of the meeting were somewhat intimidating: only three Americans, the President, Henry Kissinger, and National Security Advisor Winston Lord, were present, while Red Army soldiers stood guard outside.
Chinese officials were also surprised at Mao’s sudden invitation, since he was in such poor health. According to translator Tang Wensheng, “Chairman Mao had been unconscious nine days before the meeting,” and as soon as the meeting ended, he “sank back feebly in his chair, with a big oxygen mask on his pale face.” Premier Zhou En-Lai kept checking his watch throughout the meeting, worried for the Chairman’s health. The Chinese kept the Chairman’s poor health secret from the American visitors, but President Nixon noted that,
“Mao was animated…but…becoming very tired.”
The conversation, supposed to last only ten minutes, lasted sixty five. The paper copy of the transcript is only ten pages long, but one of the most important documents in Sino-American history. In John Adams’ opera “Nixon in China” many of the lyrics were taken directly from the transcript, immortalizing this colossal moment in history. Although President Nixon met Premier Chou seven times during his week-long trip, he only met Mao once.
Chairman Mao steered the conversation across a variety of topics, making ironic observations and cracking jokes. For example, the participants of the conversation remarked that while American official Henry Kissinger is not eligible to run for president, Chinese official Tang Wenshang is, since she was born in New York. Much of the conversation is recorded verbatim in President Nixon’s memoirs, but the full transcript also covers topics such as Mao’s appreciation for US intelligence reports, America’s role in the India-Pakistan conflict, and Mao’s scathing opinion of former presidents. The participants referred to previous US-China conversations, such as the John Foster Dulles’ cold reception of Zhou in 1954 and Kissinger’s previous trips to China in 1971.
At one point, President Nixon justified his reasons for normalizing relations with China: “What brings us together is a recognition of a new situation in the world and a recognition on our part that what is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us.” Since President Nixon was well known as an opponent of communism, he was able to open relations with China without giving face to an “internal political philosophy” which had frightened American society for decades. Even though Chairman Mao initiated this historic conversation, President Nixon quickly overcame his surprise and spoke eloquently and forcefully about his hopes for the future of US-China relations.