Podcast: Dwight Chapin on the Planning and Execution of President Nixon’s Trip to China
President Nixon shakes hands with Premier Zhou Enlai as he steps off of Air Force One on February 21, 1972. (Richard Nixon Presidential Library)
Dwight Chapin was Acting Director of Protocol on President Nixon’s historic trip to China
This week marks the 47th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic trip to China. We often hear about the trip in a purely diplomatic context, but how was it planned, executed, and captured on television for the American people and the world to see.
To unpack this story we are again joined by Dwight Chapin. Chapin started his career in politics as a personal aide to President Nixon, and went on to serve as White House Appointments Secretary, and Deputy Assistant to the President.
He’s been at the center of some of the most monumental events of the Nixon Presidency including serving as Acting Director of Protocol during the China Trip. He also oversaw the White House Television Office and presidential travel.
Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org. This week marks the 47th anniversary of President Nixon’s historic trip to China. We often hear about the trip in a purely diplomatic context, but how was it planned, executed, and captured on television for the American people and the world to see?
To unpack the story, we are joined again by Dwight Chapin. Chapin started his career in politics as a personal aide to President Nixon and went on to serve as White House appointment secretary and deputy assistant to the President. He’s been at the center of some of the most monumental events of the Nixon presidency including serving as acting director of protocol during the China trip. He also oversaw the White House Television Office and presidential travel. Mr. Chaping, welcome.
Dwight Chapin: Hi, good morning.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to kind of start off, President Nixon announced his historic trip to China on July 15th, 1972. Where were you when he announced this, and did you have an idea?
Dwight Chapin: I had no idea he was going to be making that particular announcement, but I did go with him to The Burbank Studios in Southern California and was in the studio itself when he made the announcement to the America public.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was your reaction to it?
Dwight Chapin: We were stunned. Everybody was stunned, the media was stunned, the world was stunned. I mean, it was really, really a big deal.
Jonathan Movroydis: In terms of domestic political impact, what kind of impact do you think it had?
Dwight Chapin: Well, the impact of the trip was incredible. I mean, first of all, it was such so unexpected and then with Nixon being viewed as a conservative Republican, it made it even more surprise…there was more surprise to it, but I think it also gave a feeling of confidence among, at least, the American people that Richard Nixon wasn’t about ready to go to China and give anything away, that he was known as an anti-communist and the public at large felt very secure about his going and him representing the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: There were two or three trips before the presidential visit in February of 1972. One was the July trip that Dr. Kissinger went on and then there was an October planning trip. The July trip was dubbed Polo I and the one in October was Polo II. You went on that trip. How did you get chosen to be sort of the person on that trip?
Dwight Chapin: Yes. There were, I believe, six or seven of us that went on Polo II with Henry Kissinger and I was chosen because I was the person responsible for the advance operation which was run by Ron Walker, actually, but I oversaw that and I had been deeply involved with presidential planning for a number of years. Therefore, I think the President and Bob Haldeman, who was my immediate superior, thought I would be the right one to go and work on the logistics.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon and Kissinger were the masterminds behind the trip, but General Alexander Haig said something very poignant as you and chief advance man, Ron Walker, who you mentioned, were about to plan the trip. He said, “If we don’t do this right, then the trip itself is gonna suffer essentially the success of the whole initiative.” Outside of diplomacy, can you touch upon the critical importance of planning for such an event?
Dwight Chapin: Yes. It was imperative because of the world attention, let alone the attention by all of the media in the United States and the foreign policy community, it was critically important that everything be executed perfectly. And therefore, we did an extraordinary amount of preparation on this trip. We had the exploratory trip in October that you have mentioned and then General Haig took a group of us back in January for a follow-up trip and then we went with the President in February of 1972.
But everything, every detail had been planned out to the ultimate. We had taken over, for planning purposes, the bomb shelter that’s directly underneath the White House. We converted the conference room in the bomb shelter to a planning trip for the President’s trip to China. And basically, we used that as a headquarters for three or four months while we brought all the plans together.
Jonathan Movroydis: Haig said something interesting regarding sort of measuring every minute. He said that’s what the Chinese do. He said that, you know, the Chinese love whiskey but they measure every minute of it and sip that their American counterparts partake of. Could you touch upon China’s attention to detail and how your team responded to it?
Dwight Chapin: The Chinese took the attitude that they were learning from us. Now, have in mind that they’ve been around for thousands of years and so forth, but they put themselves into a learning mode. And indeed, our people had done more modern-day world travel and events than the Chinese had. So the Chinese looked at it as a real learning experience. So everything we did, they studied in depth. Every piece of equipment we brought over, they wanted the plans for the equipment. In fact, in many cases with the television and more technological type equipment that we took there, they wanted to buy every piece of that equipment, obviously, so that they could take and copy it and improve upon it and have it for their own general use. But it was very, very interesting how they latched on to every single thing that we did and studied it in detail.
Jonathan Movroydis: Could you take us a little bit through the sort of strategic planning and setup? This is a little bit different of a state visit. You weren’t working through an embassy, there was no U.S. Embassy in China. There was a new relationship, so there wasn’t that much, at least no diplomatic protocol between the U.S. and China as well as, you know, consistent communication. What went into setting this up with such bare-bones sort of communication infrastructure?
Dwight Chapin: Well, the Nixon team was known for its in-depth planning and ensuring that all of the I’s were dotted and the T’s were crossed. President Nixon personally made it clear to us that we were to take into account all of the requests that the Chinese made. One of the most serious examples from a Secret Service point of view was the Chinese wanted us to fly on a Chinese airplane. The President never had flown on another nation’s aircraft and we succumbed to doing that in China because the President wanted to make sure that we did not do anything where it would interrupt the saving of their face, you know, the posturing of things to the world. So Nixon had a real touch for this. He knew that many of our rules on those kinds of things that we demanded had to be kind of shuffled to the back on this particular trip.
Jonathan Movroydis: And this was a new frontier, you’d mentioned the flying on the Chinese plane, what sort of pitfalls did the White House team try to avoid?
Dwight Chapin: Well, our main pitfall, if you can call it that, was we tried to work with the Chinese to make sure that there were the minimum number of surprises, the minimum number of changes to the calendar, to the schedule. My counterpart, his name was Huang Zhen, he later became the first ambassador to the United States when we had formal relationships. And Huang Zhen and I would go back and forth constantly on what the plans were going to be. To the Chinese credit, they never ever told us something and then later changed their mind. They maybe wouldn’t tell us what was going to happen on a given day and we were frustrated beyond belief by the fact that we did not know exactly what was going to happen, but once they told us, we could be assured that it would happen exactly the way they told us it was going to happen. So in terms of our planning, some of the stops that we made and the activities at those stops, we did not know until shortly before we left the United States for China.
Jonathan Movroydis: Can you tell us a little bit about the sort of musical play that Nixon went to, “The Red
Detachment of Women…”
Dwight Chapin: Right. Yeah. “The Red Detachment of Women,” it was one of the evenings, I forget which evening that was, but it was a very aggressive Chinese propaganda play and the President sat there, took it in, clapped, and so forth, but it was obviously the posturing of Chinese propaganda to the nth degree that night.
Jonathan Movroydis: One of the iconic photos of the…or the most iconic photo of the trip is President Nixon stepping off Air Force One and leading with his hand to shake the hand of Premier Zhou Enlai. This was a gesture made to counter Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles’ refusal to shake Premier Chou’s hand during the Geneva conference of 1954. How were you all able to capture that photo? Can you take us through that event?
Dwight Chapin: Well, first of all, the President was well aware of the sensitivities of that Premier Zhou Enlai had and the embarrassment of John Foster Dulles not shaking his hand. So as the President came down the steps of Air Force One, and I do not believe…maybe other than Henry Kissinger, I don’t know that he discussed it with anyone else. But as he got to the bottom step and started towards Premier Zhou, his hand is out. If you look at a video of it or a motion picture view of it, you’ll see that he put his hand forward far in advance of what you’d normally would do when you are greeting someone. And that made it possible for the photographers to get the great photos of that that they got in and for that message of warmth to be well documented.
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re talking a little bit about surprises. One of the surprises that Dr. Kissinger and Ambassador Winston Lord often talked about was meeting Chairman Mao. Could you talk a little bit about how this event unfolded?
Dwight Chapin: Yeah. Well, it’s a good story because we had just finished lunch in the guesthouse. We had just arrived, gone to the guesthouse, had a little by deed, everybody was going to kind of take a break for a couple of hours before the first event. And I was walking through the front of the guesthouse where the President was staying, and the doors came open and there was Premier Chou and he was with Huang Zhen, my counterpart. And Huang Zhen said, “We would like to take President Nixon to meet Chairman Mao.” This was completely unexpected.
So I went down the hall, I found Bob Haldeman. I said, “Premier Zhou and Huang is here and he wants to take the President to go meet Chairman Mao.” So everybody kind of went into rapid mode and we got Mr. Nixon, the President, who was in a sport code in his room with Mrs. Nixon and he immediately put on his suit jacket, came out and off they went in a motorcade. I mean, maybe Premier Zhou had to wait at the maximum five minutes before they were off and on their way to see Chairman Mao. It was completely unexpected in terms of timing.
Jonathan Movroydis: In the previous podcast, we talked about the importance of a President’s time and the most important thing the President has is his time to think, plan, and execute. On this trip, how was the President’s time effectively managed?
Dwight Chapin: Well, as I said, the President, who would normally probably stake out more private personal time for thinking and reading his briefing books and so forth, he acquiesced to the request of the Chinese for various events. So we probably had more on the schedule than we would have if we had been totally in charge of the trip ourselves. But he did use the time between events to do his note-taking, he took extensive notes, he did his diary, he read his briefing books and prepared for whatever the next event was and he would meet with Dr. Kissinger, and regarding the trip, Secretary Rogers, and then he would meet with Bob Haldeman regarding matters of state for which he was still responsible. Even though we were in China, things had to still keep running back in America.
Jonathan Movroydis: You were in the capacity of acting director of protocol, but you were also Head of the White House Television Office, can you tell us a little bit about the television strategy behind the trip?
Dwight Chapin: Yes. This is one of the single most important aspects of the whole trip. Basically, Nixon went to China but the entire country went with him. And that was done by television. There was a 12-hour difference between China and the United States. So in China when it was evening, it was morning in the United States. So on the morning shows, you would have the night-time events in China and conversely, you would have, when it was morning in China, the President was off to do something like go to the Great Wall of China, it would be night-time in the United States and all over the networks, at that time, there were no cable networks so all of the three prime networks were carrying the China trip morning and night. A big time. I mean, I’m talking about three or four-hour blocks twice a day.
And the other thing that’s so important on the television is that the American public had really never seen China and they were seeing it the first time by going along on this journey with the President and Mrs. Nixon. And I should underscore that Mrs. Nixon’s various trips, when she was there, various visits to historic sites, to schools, and so forth, they weren’t equal to President Nixon’s but they carried a great deal of interest too because she was into a lot of the cultural-type things at schools and so forth that brought a human side to the whole trip.
Jonathan Movroydis: Talking a little bit about media, much has been written about President Nixon’s complex relationship with the press, the media. How was that complex relationship or how did that relationship play out on the trip to China?
Dwight Chapin: Well, first of all, the President had a very rocky relationship with the media. It goes back historically to pre-Eisenhower days, then Nixon being the political touchstone during the Eisenhower years. He was running against the media favorite, Jack Kennedy, for the presidency in 1960. His defeat in California and the obituary that wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore. I mean, he had been written off by the media several different times and he kept popping back and I think that kinda agitated the media.
On the other side, they did acknowledge his extensive knowledge and his terrific skill in the foreign policy area. And the surprise of the announcement of going to China and the mystery of it all, virtually, all of the media wanted to go to China with Nixon. And at the outset, I can remember him in a meeting we had in the Oval Office. He said, “I think I’ll take like 10 or 12 media people, kind of a pool rather than taking out, you know, a whole contingency.” Well, as you may know, it ended up being I think close to 150, maybe 200 media that were credentialed to go with us. And so the media were really brought in to the trip. They were not mesmerized but they were caught up in it and it was a new thing for them too and for the most part, they were very supportive and gave a very fair coverage to President Nixon on the whole journey.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talked a little bit about the element of surprise. I mean, it surprised the American people, it surprised conservatives within the Republican Party, many of which did not like it, but in the wake of a presidential campaign in 1972, what did this trip convey to the American people?
Dwight Chapin: Well, it conveyed to the American people that they had a President that was highly competent, that was cautiously opening up to China. It conveyed, and you just hit the nail on the head, the fact that there was a conservative element that opposed the trip to China but that Nixon went ahead, that probably drew in a great number of independents and Democrats who were questioning whether Nixon was too conservative, but the fact that he reached out to do this trip probably helped him significantly in 1972.
Jonathan Movroydis: Looking back, now it’s 47 years on, do you think there’ll ever be anything like this ever again?
Dwight Chapin: Never. We went to Russia in May of 1972, but it could not begin to…equally excitement and the suspense, the mystery, the newness or the opening of China. There has been, other than the recent visit that President Trump had with the leader of North Korea, that’s the only thing that even kinda touches near it, but it did not have near the magnitude that Nixon’s trip to China had.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Dwight Chapin, personal aide, appointment secretary and deputy assistant to President Nixon. Our topic was the planning and execution behind President Nixon’s historic trip to China. Mr. Chapin, thank you so much for joining us.
Dwight Chapin: Thank you, Jonathan.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcast at nixonfoundation.org or your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.