Nicholas Griffin is a half-British, half-American writer, who, in the best transatlantic tradition, lived the first half of his life in London and the second half in New York City; he recently moved to Florida. A few weeks ago Simon & Schuster published his sixth book, Ping-Pong Diplomacy: The Secret History Behind The Game That Changed The World.
How the unpretentious game of table tennis changed the world is, to students of twentieth-century history, a well-known story, for it was in April 1971 that the United States ping-pong team toured the People’s Republic of China, playing in several cities, and thus alerted the world to the possibility of friendly relations between the governments of China and the United States – relations that were, indeed, established the following year by President Nixon’s trip to the PRC.
What sets Griffin’s book apart from previous accounts of “ping-pong diplomacy” is that he devotes considerable space to the backstory behind the trip, which goes back a number of years before the international tournament in Japan in 1971 where the PRC and US teams made the contacts resulting in the latter’s visit. He points out that the governing body of the sport, the International Table Tennis Federation, was founded in 1926, and headed for its first 41 years, by Ivor Montagu.
Montagu was raised in affluence, a scion of one of Britain’s most prominent Jewish families. As a boy he discovered table tennis and developed a passion for it which lasted a lifetime (he died in 1984). He had two other great interests: film and leftist politics. In the world of cinema, he is best known for producing such 1930s Alfred Hitchcock classics as The 39 Steps, and for co-writing the screenplay of that memorable exploration of British fortitude and courage, Scott Of The Antarctic.
Montagu’s interest in film, in turn, fed his involvement with left-wing causes. He was a close friend of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein and accompanied that filmmaker on his eventful but unproductive sojourn in Hollywood. He also was involved in the distribution of Soviet films abroad. His visits to the USSR in purpose led him to make the acquaintance of some Chinese communists, and this in turn led to his awareness that table tennis was a rapidly expanding sport in China. Therefore, after Mao Zedong’s victory over the Nationalist forces in 1949, Montague made it a point to maintain Chinese membership in table tennis’s governing body, thus giving the nation an important link to the non-communist world during decades of comparative isolation from it. When the Americans arrived in China to play ping-pong in 1971, Montagu was present at the matches – and rightly so, for his efforts had done much to bring this about.
In an excerpt from the book at Politico.com, Griffin describes the events at that tournament, culminating in the invitation to the American team to visit China, in fascinating detail. It provides a good sampler from a book which explores events pivotal in world history.