Former members of the Nixon White House staff discuss First Lady Pat Nixon’s role on the 1972 trip to the People’s Republic of China.
By Will Swift, author of PAT AND DICK: The Nixons, an Intimate Portrait of a Marriage.

As Michelle Obama makes her well-publicized visit to the People’s Republic of China this week, Mrs. Obama is, according to First Lady historian Carl Anthony, the fifteenth presidential spouse to visit that country.

Former First Lady Julia Grant was the first to do so in 1879, but the most memorable visit was made by Pat Nixon who accompanied her husband on a ground-breaking trip, opening up the Chinese communist world to the West for the first time, in February 1972.

Since that time, five other incumbent presidential couples have made official visits to China, including the Fords in 1975, the Reagans in 1984, the George H.W. Bushes in 1989, the Clintons in 1998, and the George W. Bushes in 2002, who traveled there on the thirtieth anniversary of Richard and Pat Nixon’s 1972 arrival.

Michelle Obama, who is bringing her mother and her daughters Sasha and Malia, will engage in the soft, person-to-person diplomacy that Pat Nixon exemplified on her historic 1972 visit opposed to the confrontational political stance that Hillary Clinton took in 1995 when she challenged the Chinese leadership on women’s rights, human rights, and media censorship.

Pat Nixon was fully capable of tough political diplomacy as she showed during her solo multinational visit to Africa in January 1972. During her visit to China the following month, she represented America’s best attributes as a warm-hearted and open-minded emissary of her countrymen, showing that the relationship between the two countries was not just a connection between two leaders, but, most importantly, a relationship between peoples.

As Michelle Obama follows in Pat’s footsteps, touring the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, visiting schools, and stopping to see Chinese pandas, it is important to remember the precedent Pat Nixon set. Here, the precedent can be seen in an excerpt from Pat and Dick: The Nixons, An Intimate Portrait of a Marriage:

“There had been little or no direct dialogue or trade between the United States and the People’s Republic of China since the communists had taken over the mainland in 1949. During this mission to China, Pat and Dick gave their finest performance—marking their most memorable moment on the world stage—as forty million people watched them on television. The First Lady played a starring role beside her husband, without upstaging him, in a remarkable diplomatic transformation that Dick had hoped for since he assumed the presidency.

She told reporters, “Of course I wouldn’t say anything to spoil the good work Dick has done.” She and Dick and their advisors knew little about the attitudes they would encounter in China. Dick was chancing a highly visible international failure. He was risking U.S. relationships with Taiwan and the Soviet Union and jeopardizing his own political support from intensely anticommunist elements in his own party, but Dick viewed the risk as worth taking because he felt a U.S. rapprochement with China would calm the region and perhaps motivate the Soviets to help the United States wind down the Vietnam War.

The Nixons had quieted their nerves by doing intense preparation. They learned basic Chinese phrases, Chinese history, and culture,
studied Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung, known in the West as the Little Red Book, learned something about Chinese philosophy and the structure of the Communist Party, and studied sketchy biographies of the main leaders. Pat read some of Mao’s poetry. Speechwriter Pat Buchanan prepped the First Lady on how to answer reporters’ questions as she toured sites in China…Ramping up the stakes for Pat, the State Department reminded her that she had an “unprecedented opportunity . . . to influence the way in which Americans view the Chinese, Chinese women, and the social order.” On the morning of February 21, the worldwide television audience watched as the presidential plane, renamed The Spirit of ’76 for this occasion, landed at the dull, gray Capital Airport outside Beijing.

Premier Chou created a dramatic tableau by standing alone on the tarmac to greet Nixon… Columnist Hugh Sidey described the moment for readers of Life magazine. Nixon “came in vast silence. It [the small greeting party] was the only such welcome for a president in history and it was stunning. . . . The panoply of presidential power that has brought whole cities into the street cheering was shrunken to a few people.”

Pat Nixon made her own bold statement. Wearing a fur-lined red coat, she followed her husband down the stairs. Her coat matched the airport’s red banners with their revolutionary slogans and signaled her openness to the Chinese people and her attention to their culture. Set off against the dark outfits of Communist Party officials, the coat was one of the fashion masterstrokes of the era. It looked as if she was personally bringing color and hope into a gray world. Pat knew that the color red meant good luck to the Chinese; she wore bright red coats and dresses at many of the settings she visited in China. In that moment and in the remaining days of the visit, she was catapulted into diplomatic stardom.

Pat and Dick stood at attention as they listened to a Chinese band play “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the windy and cold runway—a groundbreaking moment in the center of the communist world. The Nixons rode into central Beijing in curtained limousines along eerily deserted streets. They traveled through Tiananmen Square, the city’s main and most historic plaza, which was nearly empty, to their official guesthouse. Shortly after their arrival, Nixon and Kissinger were whisked away for a secret one-hour meeting with the ailing, epochal figure Mao Tse-tung, who pointedly grasped Nixon’s hand for a full minute. Photographers recorded their talks. Nixon was enthralled with Mao’s power and his philosophical bent… In China the president spent fifteen hours in meetings with Chou, seeking to forge a stable relationship between the two countries and working out principles of territorial integrity—the United States seemingly acknowledging Taiwan was a part of China, mutual nonaggression in Vietnam, and noninterference in each other’s internal affairs.

On their first evening in Beijing, Pat and Dick attended a banquet in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. Television networks carried it live, without commentary, for four hours. Nixon noted that more people viewed the banquet via television than had seen any previous historic event… Echoing Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, Nixon declared that the world might not remember what words would be said that evening, but that the events of the trip would be supremely memorable; he went on to quote Mao, saying, “Seize the day, seize the hour.”

While her husband was sequestered in private meetings with Premier Chou, television film crews followed Mrs. Nixon as she introduced Americans and the rest of the world to China. According to her aide Jack Brennan, the Chinese were wary of authority figures, but they were drawn to Pat’s warmth and grace. Helen Thomas, one of three female reporters allowed on the trip, remembered that when young Revolutionary Committee guides attempted to involve her in discussions of Communist Party dialectics, Pat would smile politely and say, “Yes, I am acquainted with the philosophy.”

Pat emphasized how much she enjoyed the sights, her own connections to the people and places she visited, and singled out similarities between the American and Chinese people. She trudged through the dusty gray Evergreen People’s Commune, a large community labor and living collective with its own government, in a snowfall, observed acupuncture treatments at a clinic, turning away at first, saying, “I think it’s sort of rude to watch,” hugged children at the Beijing Children’s
Hospital, and visited math and art classrooms, telling them she was a schoolteacher, and passing on a “hello from the children of America.” While she petted the commune’s pigs, she recalled she had once “raised a prize winner—second prize” during her 4-H years. When she asked about the breed of pigs she was seeing and Helen Thomas declared them to be “Male chauvinist[s],” Pat joined in the laughter. At the Beijing Glassware Factory she focused on some small green elephant figurines: “Ah, the elephant,” she declared, “the symbol of our party.” In the kitchen of the Peking Hotel, with its staff of 115 cooks, she gamely tasted a goldfish and a “fiery stuffed pickled squash,” claiming it was delicious. Wickedly, she offered a bite to a reporter, who grew pale upon tasting it.

While shopping, Pat cracked up Jack Brennan when she chose a pair of pajamas for Dick, held them up to Brennan, approximately the same size as her husband, and asked if he thought they would fit “Ricardo.” Brennan and other members of the official party were less amused with Barbara Walters, who tried to stand next to Pat at every opportunity. CBS’s Walter Cronkite and ABC’s Harry Reasoner were also in hot pursuit of television photo opportunities at Pat’s side. Even conservative political journalist William F. Buckley, who had come along on the trip although he had initially opposed the president’s overture to China, recognized that “Pat Nixon was the only show in town.” When Pat and Dick went together to the snow-covered courtyards of the Forbidden City, they saw a royal reception room where child-emperors had managed the affairs of state with “prompting from their mothers who had hid behind screens.” Nixon joked, “It’s the same
today. The women are always the back seat driver.”

On their second night Pat and Dick sat alongside Mao’s grim, vengeful wife, Chiang Ching, who had avidly purged the Communist Party and spearheaded the burning of books during the Cultural Revolution beginning in 1966, a social and political movement designed to enforce communism and eradicate capitalist elements in Chinese culture and society. It was only now abating. The Nixons watched the interminable proletarian ballet Ching had created and staged, The Red Detachment of Women, which told the story of a peasant who was tortured by a landlord, ran off to join communists, and came back with her colleagues to kill her tormentor. Correspondent Bernard Kalb quoted another correspondent who said it “took revolutionary patience to sit through the first act.”

In the key public moment of their visit, on a cold, sunny day, the Nixons traveled to the Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, begun three centuries before the birth of Jesus and stretching from the Yellow Sea to the Gobi Desert—a stretch of more than three thousand miles. For Pat, the most exciting moment of the trip was standing on a wall that was “so graceful winding up the mountain like a dragon’s back.” According to historian Gil Troy, photographs of the smiling Nixons standing “on the enduring symbol of Chinese xenophobia” symbolized their historic “breakthrough.”

Chou En-lai and his wife, Deng Yingchao, captivated Pat, who described him as “a charmer” with a “delightful sense of humor.” Sitting beside Chou at a dinner, Pat mentioned her visit to see the giant pandas at the Beijing Zoo. She picked up one of the packs of Panda Cigarettes set by each place at the table. “Aren’t they cute? I love them,” she said, referring to the drawings on bright pink paper of two pandas cavorting with each other. Chou responded, “I’ll give you some.” She thought he meant the cigarettes, but he was offering her pandas. Less than two months later, on April 16, 1972, Pat officially welcomed two giant pandas (Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing) and the Chinese delegation that brought them to Washington. The two pandas caused what Pat called “panda-monium,” attracting hundreds of millions of visitors over the years, until their deaths in the 1990s. In return, the United States government gave the Chinese people two North American musk oxen named Milton and Matilda. These shaggy beasts with curled tusks—native to North America and the arctic region—developed mange and did not attract the same level of adulation in China.

At a banquet on February 28, Nixon hyperbolically called his visit “the week that changed the world.” The Nixons’ trip contributed to the eventual Westernization of China and shifted the balance of power, placing the United States in a cardinal position between China and the Soviet Union, at least until Watergate diluted Nixon’s diplomatic influence. It may also have helped the president resolve the Vietnam War. U.S. editorial responses to the visit were cautious, but generally positive. “A smiling dragon is a big improvement over one spitting, but it is still a dragon,” opined an editorial in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.

The trip…certainly proved them to be one of the most powerful couples on the world stage. Kandy Stroud of Women’s Wear Daily was struck that Nixon “seems to have taken a second look at his wife.” The man who had ignored or sniped at his wife in public suddenly seemed “genuinely attentive and gentle.” Stroud noticed that he coaxed her to his side when she fell back to let him garner the attention.

No one was trendier that year than Pat Nixon in her red wool coat on the far side of the world. Chicago Today wondered in a February 24 editorial whether historians might conclude that while Dick conducted business, Pat did “the important work,” establishing “direct and friendly contact with the Chinese people on a normal human level” through her “unfailing warm, gracious conduct.” White House correspondent and columnist Robert Thompson editorialized that Pat had achieved a perfect balance between playing “a vital role in world affairs” and maintaining a “feminine manner.”

In the diplomatic arena Pat had become a woman truly of the early 1970s—someone who balanced significant achievement with a domestic and family focus.”