President Nixon addresses Midwestern media executives in Kansas City on July 6 1971.
44 years ago, President Nixon acknowledged the harsh reality of America’s standing in the world: that it could no longer claim global hegemony in an increasingly multi-polar and competitive world.
In an address to Midwestern media executives in Kansas City on July 6 1971, largely prepared by himself on yellowpad notes, the 37th President said: “But now when we see the world in which we are about to move, the United States no longer is in the position of complete preeminence or predominance. That is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, it can be a constructive thing.”
In 1971, the United States was still the richest and most powerful nation in the world. But other power centers capable of challenging the U.S. on every front existed, and it was a reality, Nixon believed, that the country needed to face.
He specified the five “great power centers:” the United States, Western Europe, Japan, the U.S.S.R., and finally China.
His inclusion of China came perhaps as a surprise, but sparked no intense recreation at the time. Though China’s economy was sluggish–producing less than Japan, a country one-eighth its size–he noted prophetically that the Chinese “are one of the most capable people in the world.”
He continued: “That is the reason why I felt that it was essential that this Administration take the first steps toward ending the isolation of Mainland China from the world community…Mainland China, outside the world community, completely isolated, with its leaders not in communication with world leaders, would be a danger to the whole world that would be unacceptable.”
What nobody knew was that President Nixon made these allusions to the United States’ changing attitude toward China just as head NSC Adviser Henry Kissinger was embarking on a ten-day secret mission to the Far East code-named Polo I–setting the stage for President Nixon’s visit to China the following year. His remarks in Kansas City carried far greater significance than an observer at the media conference would have suspected.
President Nixon’s reflection on his Kansas City remarks in his memoirs shows his strategy at the time:
On July 6 I flew to Kansas City to address a large group of Midwestern news media executives…Kissinger was in the middle of a ten-day mission to the Far East and just days away from his secret trip to Peking. Before he got there I wanted to place on the record an outline of the reasons for approaching China. I told the gathering that the potential for China, though obscured to most American observers by its isolation, was such that no foreign policy could ignore or exclude it…Despite the recent flurry of activity (the ping-pong matches, termination of travel restrictions, and a May 31 invitation from Mao Tse-Tung) I said that I did not hold out any great hopes of rapid advances in our relations…My speech received relatively little attention in Kansas City. As we were to learn later, however, it received a great deal of attention in Peking.
American reporters were oblivious to the significance of the speech. Chinese Premier Chou Enlai, on the other hand, was not. President Nixon recalls in his memoirs:
At one point Chou asked about my Kansas City speech, and Kissinger had to admit that he had read only the press reports. The next morning at breakfast Kissinger found a copy of my speech, with Chou’s underlinings and marginal notations in Chinese, lying on the table with a note requesting that he return it because it was Chou’s only copy.