From the Memoirs of Richard Nixon Volume Two:
On February 17, 1972 at 10:35 A.M. we left Andrews Air Force Base for Peking. As the plane gathered speed and then took to the air, I thought of Malraux’s words. We were embarking upon a voyage of philosophical discovery as uncertain, and in some respects as perilous, as the voyages of geographical discovery of a much early time.
As Henry and Bob both pointed out on the plane, there was almost a religious feeling to the messages we received from all over the country, wishing us well. I told Henry that I thought it was really a question of the American people being hopelessly and almost naively for peace, even at any price. He felt that perhaps there was also some ingredient of excitement about the boldness of the move, and visiting a land that was unknown to so many Americans.
We stopped briefly in Shanghai to take aboard Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and a Chinese navigator; an hour and a half we prepared to land in Peking. I looked out the window. It was winter, and the countryside was drab and gray. The small towns and villages looked like pictures I had seen of towns in the Middle Ages.
Our plane landed smoothly, and a few minutes later we came to a stop in front of the terminal. The door was opened, and Pat and I stepped out.
Chou En-lai stood at the foot of the ramp, hatless in the cold. Even a heavy overcoat did not hide the thinness of his frail body. When we were about halfway down the steps, he began to clap. I paused for a moment and then returned the gesture, according to the Chinese custom.
I knew that Chou had been deeply insulted by Foster Dulle’s refusal to shake hands with him at the Geneva Conference in 1954. When I reached the bottom step, therefore, I made a point of extending my hand as I walked toward him. When out hands met, one era ended and another began.
After being introduced to all the Chinese officials, I stood on Chou’s left while the band played the anthems. “The Star-Spangled Banner” had never sounded so stirring to me as on that windswept runway in the heart of Communist China.
The honor guard was one of the finest I have ever seen. They were big men, strong-looking, and immaculately turned out. As I walked down the long line, each man turned his head slowly as I passed, creating an almost hypnotic sense of movement in the massed ranks.
Chou and I rode into the city in a curtained car. As we left the airport, he said, “Your handshake came over the vastest ocean in the world — twenty-five years of no communication.”