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Nixon’s first visit to China, its drama, his legacy
NIXON AND MAO: THE WEEK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
By Margaret MacMillan
Random House, $27.95, 404 pages
REVIEWED BY JOHN R. COYNE JR.
On his last trip to China in 1993, Margaret MacMillan tells us, Richard Nixon observed, "I will be known historically for
two things. Watergate and the opening to China. . . . I don't mean to be pessimistic, but Watergate, that silly, silly thing is going to rank up there historically with what I did here."
And so it has, as an aging generation of journalists and historians with axes to grind publish excerpts from the tapes, reinforcing those stock caricatures of Richard Nixon. Those tapes, said Bob Woodward, are a gift that keeps giving. They are. And what they give, primarily, is another chance for Nixon's critics to kick him around, while ignoring or downplaying his considerable accomplishments.
However, in among this spate of stereotyped Nixon studies, works are surfacing by a new generation of authors like Ms. MacMillan, both an accomplished historian ("Paris 1919") and a superb writer, free from those archetypical preconceptions. (It may also help that Ms. MacMillan is Canadian, uninfected by some of our more virulent ideological biases.)
Ms. MacMillan speaks to the problem. "Even historians who disapprove of psychohistory," she writes, "find themselves tempted irresistibly when it comes to Richard Nixon." Critics, she says, attacking his rhetoric of peace, speak of "Nixon's cynical attempt to conceal his own moral vacuum." But, says Ms. MacMiIllan, "That is wrong. Nixon did many immoral things in his life, but he longed to be good. In notes he wrote endlessly to himself on his favorite yellow legal pads, he exhorted himself to provide moral leadership, to be the national conscience of his country." (As Bill Gavin, one of Nixon's first and best writers put it, "He was a better man than he thought he was.")
With quick strokes, Ms. MacMillan touches on Nixon's strengths and weaknesses, as she does with Mao Tse-tung, Henry Kissinger and Chou En-lai, the lead players in the high drama of the first visit by an American president to China. That visit, beginning on Feb. 21 and ending on Feb. 28, 1972, frames Ms. MacMillan's book.
The emphasis throughout is on the interactions among the four principals, with mini-histories, biographies and flashbacks sandwiched between meetings, machinations and events of the week. Ms. MacMillan writes with wit, grace and precision, covering an extraordinary amount of material in tightly packed pages.
Her set pieces are superb — the banquet at the Great Hall of the People, for instance, where the People's Liberation Army band played "Turkey in the Straw" and "Oh! Susanna" and a flushed Nixon toasted Communist functionaries individually, apparently fueled by a particularly potent variety of Chinese white lightning — a performance that caused Bill Buckley to write a brilliantly scathing critque of Nixon's behavior.
Nor does Ms. MacMillian neglect the quirks — Nixon's inability to make small talk, for instance. At the Shanghai Industrial Exhibition, Nixon observed: "'Machinery could be dangerous . . . Sometimes when you push the button it does not turn out all right . . . Nixon looked up at the giant portraits of Communist luminaries. 'We don't see many pictures of Engels in America,' he said." Occasionally, it's too much — tired and cranky, being entertained by the courtly Chou (Nixon always treats Chou with great courtesy), who calls his attention to pictures of Chinese life. "Nixon tried to ignore him, but was eventually forced to look. His smile grew strained, then disappeared. 'What the hell are you talking about?' he snapped."
Interestingly, although he found Jiang Qing, the dreaded wife of Mao, "unpleasantly abrasive and aggressive," he apparently thoroughly enjoyed "The Red Detachment of Women," the opera she made him sit through. (Staff speculation was that the screaming relieved him of the need to make small talk.)
In Shanghai, at the end of the extraordinary trip, Nixon made a final toast. "We have been here a week," he said. "This was the week that changed the world."
And it did. At the very least, says Ms. MacMillan, "The breakthrough of the 1970's, most would agree now . . . was good for both countries, and their new relationship had great potential — which still remains — to act as a stabilizing force in world politics."
"For Nixon and the Americans," she writes, "the visit was a bold and dramatic move that placed Nixon himself in the center of great events and the United States as the pivotal power between China and the Soviet Union."
"For the Chinese . . . the visit was an acknowledgment of China's importance in the world and marked the end to the isolation of the 1960s. Although the legacy of the Cultural Revolution was to lie heavily until Mao's death, the beginnings of the reawakening and revitalization of China after 1976 lie in this period."
It's now generally accepted that rapprochement between the United States and China was inevitable, that, as Ms. MacMillan puts it, "the gap between 1979 and 1941 was an aberration that could not last . . . Nixon's visit occurred because both sides came to the conclusion at the same time it was a good idea. Yet it took individuals — four men, in this case, to make it happen — Nixon and Mao, Mr. Kissinger and Chou. Two men who, for all their faults, possessed the necessary vision and determination and two men who had the talent, the patience, and the skill to make the vision a reality."
As for the particulars of that vision, which were largely to shape and inform the subsequent Shanghai Communique, Ms. MacMillan writes:
"A couple of days before he left Washington, Nixon jotted down his key ideas on one of his ever-present yellow legal pads:
'What they want:
1.Build up their world credentials
3.Get U.S. out of Asia
'What we want:
1. Indo-China (?)
2. Communication To restrain Chinese expansion in Asia
3. In future Reduce threat of confrontation by China Super Power
'What we both want:
1.Reduce danger of confrontation & conflict
2.A more stable Asia
3.A restraint on U.S.S.R.'"
What did we get? A new relationship with the Mainland while maintaining support for Taiwan. The Soviets were thrown badly off balance, which was to prove lasting. As for Indochina, Mao did take some steps to discourage the North Vietnamese, and later Nixon and Mr. Kissinger would engineer a successful end to the war, a result ultimately negated by Watergate.
As a result of that week in 1972, there was a distinct shift in the global balance of power — a rare and remarkable example of a statesmanlike vision successfully shaping reality. And at that particular moment in history, only Richard Nixon — with Mr. Kissinger — could have carried it off.
In one of their conversations, Ms. Macmillan reports, Chou told Mr. Kissinger of an old Chinese proverb: "'The helmsman who knows how to guide the boat will guide it well through the waves. Otherwise he will be submerged by the waves. A far-sighted man will know how to till the helm.'"
"Or," adds Ms. Macmillan, "as Mr. Spock will say aboard his spaceship many centuries from now, quoting an old Vulcan proverb: 'Only Nixon can go to China.'"
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement," published by Wiley.
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