This April marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of a pair of Giant Pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. This followed President and Mrs. Nixon’s historic trip to the People’s Republic of China in February 1972, which set the stage for normalization of relations between the two nations.
This first example of panda diplomacy was a direct result of First Lady Pat Nixon’s encounter with Giant Pandas at the Peking Zoo. At a state banquet later in the trip she noticed a picture of pandas on a container of cigarettes and remarked to Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai, “Aren’t they cute? I love them.” He responded, “I’ll give you some.”
Just two months later a pair of Giant Pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, arrived to their new home with much fanfare. News articles remarked on the substantial security provided for the furry ambassadors. Over 20,000 people joined the First Lady to welcome the pandas to the zoo.
“Here at the National Zoo they will be enjoyed by the millions of people who come from across the country to visit the nation’s capital each year,” Mrs. Nixon said in a ceremony on April 16, 1972. Wearing a panda pin on her lapel, she declared that “Panda-monium” had broken out at the Zoo.
The First Lady was right. An estimated 1.1 million people came to visit the pandas in their first year at the zoo, and they have remained the Zoo’s top attraction for nearly 50 years.
The historic arrival of the first pandas in the United States paved the way for the National Zoo to become a leader in panda education and conservation while the panda habitat remains one of the most popular attractions in the Nation’s capital.