Henry Kissinger meeting Chou Enlai for the first time, July 9 1971.
After two years of backchannel exchanges and subtle signals of interest, Premier Chou Enlai of the People’s Republic of China on June 2 1971 delivered, in the words of National Security Council head Henry Kissinger, the “most important communication that has come to an American President since the end of World War II:”
Premier Chou Enlai welcomes Dr. Kissinger to China as the U.S. representative who will come in advance for a preliminary secret meeting with high level Chinese officials to prepare and make necessary arrangements for President Nixon’s visit to Peking.
One month later, on July 1 1971, Kissinger embarked on an undisclosed diplomatic mission to the Far East code-named POLO I. On this trip, Kissinger was to make precursory visits to Saigon, Bangkok, and New Delhi before journeying to Islamabad in Pakistan, from there springboarding to his real destination: Beijing, China. Under the cover of a published schedule that would have Kissinger in Pakistan for 48 hours from July 8 to July 10, he would feign a stomachache upon his arrival in Islamabad.
“The Embassy dispensary would be asked for medication. My discomfort would get progressively worse until [President] Yahya [Khan] would invite me over dinner to use the Presidential rest house in Nathiagali in the mountains to recover,” Kissinger recalled of the strategy of illness in his White House memoirs, White House Years.
Under this pretext, Kissinger would be able to plead an additional day to stay in Pakistan, allowing for the opportune time to disappear to Beijing for two days. On the morning of July 9, Kissinger and his party, composed of three NSC staff members and a detail of two Secret Service agents, secretly flew out of Chaklala Airport and departed for Beijing, knowing that they would become the first U.S. officials to visit the People’s Republic of China.
The three men who knew of Kissinger’s real destination upon his arrival in Pakistan and assisted in his secret dispatch: From L-R Ambassador Joseph Farland, Foreign Secretary Sultan Khan, and Agha Hilaly, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S.
Upon their arrival, Kissinger’s party was escorted to a guest house for state visitors. Chou Enlai arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon, and the first round of an historic first step in discussions commenced. Below, read the memorandum of conversation for their first day of discussions. During their opening meeting, they covered topics relating to scheduling President Nixon’s future trip to China, the general philosophy between the Chinese and Americans and the sensitive subject of Taiwan:
Kissinger recognized that diplomatic overtures with China carried much more impact with China than it did the United States. The domestic political implications of opening relations with the United States “had to be a personal, intellectual, and emotional crisis. They had started as a splinter group, with no hope for victory, endured the Long March, fought Japan and a civil war, opposed us in Korea and then took on the Soviets, and imposed the Cultural Revolution on themselves.” Such a turn in international relations faced several prospects of failure.
Back in Washington, President Nixon also recognized the tenderness with which they must treat their preliminary discussion with the Chinese:
Although I was confident that the Chinese were as ready for my trip as we were, I did not underestimate the tremendous problems that Taiwan and Vietnam posed for both sides, and I tried to discipline myself not to expect anything lest I begin to expect too much. RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon
But Kissinger ultimately won his short time spent in Beijing. After engaging in two additional days of talks, he and Chou Enlai crafted a joint statement confirming a scheduled visit to China for President Nixon sometime before May of 1972.
Kissinger and his party are given a tour of the Forbidden City.
Even when Kissinger arrived back in Pakistan on July 11, it was still important to maintain secrecy. Before Kissinger left for Polo I, he and President Nixon agreed on the single codeword “Eureka” as an indicator for a successful trip and a scheduled presidential visit.
When Kissinger arrived back in Pakistan on July 11, he cabled a single response to Washington. Al Haig, military assistant to Kissinger, received the message and immediately phoned the President.
“What’s the message?” President Nixon asked.
“Eureka,” he replied.
Kissnger arrives in San Clemente on July 13 1971 bearing good news for the President.