Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World

February 21, 2007

Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to say how delighted we are to have Margaret MacMillan with us this morning.

She will be discussing Nixon and Mao, a book which has already hit the best-seller mark.

Great moments in history can change the world forever, though at the time they occur it may be difficult to assess their full impact. The Cold War was such a period, and one that was often marked by memorable developments. One of the most remarkable was the meeting in February 1972 between President Nixon and Chairman Mao, who were assisted by two brilliant and complex statesmen, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai. It is this meeting and the events leading up to it that are the subject of this morning's discussion.

This iconic event opened up the long-frozen relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China. This encounter was one of the turning points in history of the last century and ultimately lay the ground for the complex relationship between the two countries that we see today.

While summit conferences between heads of states are now so common that they attract little attention, this wasn't always the case. In the twenty years following the 1949 communist victory in China, there had been no relations between Beijing and Washington. At the United Nations, Taiwan held the China seat.

But that monumental meeting in 1972, during what President Nixon called "the week that changed the world," underscored that there was a new era in the long and often stormy relationship between China and the United States, and indeed between Asia and the West. The visit shook American allies, such as Japan and Taiwan; it infuriated China's few friends in the world; and it worried the Soviet Union.

In Nixon and Mao, our guest today does a marvelous job of binding together prodigious research with a balanced account of the U.S.-Chinese relationship in the twentieth century. In so doing, she casts new light on what should be one of our key relationships for the twenty-first century. By weaving together fascinating anecdotes and keen insights, she takes us behind the scenes of these negotiations, including the prelude to the Nixon-Mao meeting and the secret diplomacy that led to this visit. In the end, she crafts a richly satisfying tale.

As Dr. MacMillan did in her masterful, prize-winning study of the peace settlement after the first war, Paris 1919, in Nixon and Mao our speaker once again shows us her talent for making complex events and individuals understandable.

In 1972, few could imagine that Taiwan would today be a thriving democracy, that China would enjoy one of the biggest economic expansions in world history, that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that Vietnam would be welcoming American investors. Yet, our speaker shows how those dynamics, in varying ways and degrees, all grew from seeds planted the day Nixon's foot landed on Chinese soil. Erecting a framework in the conditions of the 1970s was a hazardous task, but, as Margaret MacMillan reminds us, one accomplished with immense skill.

With us to tell this remarkable story is the exceptionally impressive Margaret MacMillan. Thank you for joining us.

Remarks

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Thank you very much. It's a great pleasure to be here at the Carnegie Council and a great pleasure to talk to people who I think probably share my interest in history and in international relations.

I approach international relations as an historian, and I think I have some justification for doing so. I think if we don't understand the past, we don't understand what has shaped both individuals but also peoples and nations and we have very little chance of understanding what it is they are doing today, what assumptions they make about the world, and how they are likely to behave.

History, I think, will not predict the future for us—it can't do that—but what it will do is give us at least a handle on what it is that we are dealing with in the present. And so I think to understand what is a complicated and often tense relationship between the United States and China—and, indeed, between the West and China—it is necessary to go back and understand something of how that relationship has evolved over the years and how it came to the situation in which it is today.

I do history also because I am fascinated by the individuals in history. I don't mean that I believe in the great man or the great woman theory of history, but that there are moments I think in history when it is very important to understand the individuals who are the center of great events. Clearly, we need to understand the forces—whether those are economic, social, political, religious, geographic—that help to push nations in one direction or another and help to bring about the great decisions in history. But I think we also need to understand who is there at certain moments, because there are choices sometimes in human affairs and the nature of those making the choices becomes very important.

I think perhaps this has been borne in on all of us more forcibly in the last few years. I think if there had been different people in the White House advising the president, if there had been different people advising the prime minister of Great Britain at Downing Street, if we had had a different prime minister in Canada, that Canada, the United States, and Britain might well have made different choices after September the 11th about how they would respond to that catastrophic and dreadful event. And I think there has been a realization in the profession which I am in, the academic profession, that sometimes human beings actually count when they are making decisions.

I was very amused. I was at a conference just before Christmas, coincidentally, on President Nixon's foreign policy, and there were a number of political scientists there as well as a number of historians. Political scientists and historians tend to look at each other with a certain amount of suspicion. You may know what I mean. They think we don't have enough theory and we think that they have far too much.

At any rate, there was a very learned discussion going on.

One political scientist said, "Well, we're finding a new paradigm in international relations which we're finding very helpful."

I thought, Oh, this must be something I better know about.

I said, "What is this?"

He said, "Agency."

I said, "What is agency?"

He said, "Well, who's there making the decisions."

I must say, as a historian, I said, "Oh? We have known about this for some time, and that is in fact the sort of history we write."

I became very interested in the 1972 visit of President Nixon to China for a number of reasons, partly because it seemed to me one of those moments which would provide a very useful way of looking at a very important relationship. There are numbers of ways of describing important relationships in foreign relations, and one is to just do a history of them, start at the beginning and work through until the present day. Another way, which I quite like, is to take a moment which will cast a light on that relationship when you can look at what led up to it and what then came of it.

So I thought of 1972, which was so clearly a revolution in international relations. It suddenly turned the Cold War into a triangular struggle, took advantage from the point of view of the United States of that great split which had occurred between the two great communist powers at the beginning of the 1960s and made the Cold War into something quite different, which had also profound impact on the relations between the United States and the Soviet Union—and, indeed, between the United States and a number of its Asian allies, such as Japan and Taiwan—and so I thought that is a good moment to look at both the Cold War and at the relationship. I thought it was also a good moment at which to look at the reasons why it was necessary to have such a dramatic breakthrough in 1972, and then perhaps say something about what happened afterwards.

I also was fascinated by that moment, again, because of the individuals. I thought the main characters at the center of events were absolutely fascinating.

Mao Zedong, one of the great revolutionary leaders and one of the great mass murderers of the twentieth century, a century which has, alas, been very rich in mass murderers who have got themselves into positions of power. An appalling human being in many ways, but nevertheless a very clever and skilled human being, who had risen to control the most populous country in the world and whose power in that country was enormous. I think it is fair to say that no major policy decisions—and, indeed, sometimes no minor policy decisions—were made in China without the approval of Chairman Mao.

You had as his assistant Zhou Enlai, the great survivor—or one of the great survivors—of history, who always knew when to switch his support from one side to another, who was never, or very rarely, on the losing side; who survived the dreadful intra-party struggles of the Chinese Communist Party, managed to survive being close to Mao—and that was not easy. Being close to Mao was like getting too close to the sun; you could get burnt and destroyed. A number of those who got too close to Mao, like Lin Biao, his defense minister in the 1960s and his chosen successor, died because of it, not something you want to do. Zhou Enlai somehow managed to survive. And he somehow managed to keep China on some sort of even keel, even though the worst days—and they were very bad days, indeed—of the Cultural Revolution. He was also a great diplomatist. He was one of the great masters of diplomacy, with an incredible capacity to hold many threads in his head at once and an incredible capacity to negotiate.

On the other side, you had a counterpart for Zhou Enlai who I think exhibited many of the same talents as a diplomatist, and that of course is Henry Kissinger, who came out of the academic world and, unusually I think, showed an absolute aptitude for diplomacy and power. I say "unusually" simply because the academic world doesn't give you that sort of training. It gives you other sorts of training. I once talked to a professional diplomat who said in his experience Kissinger was the only nonprofessional diplomat who could master diplomacy in the way in which he did. Also an incredible negotiator, also a man of incredible stamina, and someone who was fully capable of matching up to Zhou Enlai in what were very difficult and very complicated negotiations.

And then, of course, you had Henry Kissinger's superior, President Richard Nixon. I find Nixon absolutely fascinating. I think it is partly because of my own childhood and my own youth. When I was growing up at the University of Toronto in the 1960s, Richard Nixon was not someone we admired, to put it mildly. Richard Nixon to us was a cardboard figure, someone who was deeply wrong, probably evil, and anyway was much too old. That is the attitude often, I think, of a teen-ager.

I think Richard Nixon probably didn't much care for Canadians. There's an old joke, that when Richard Nixon looked at Canada he saw 30 million Democrats. I think perhaps the feeling was mutual.

But as I began to read more about Nixon, I thought really I would have to move away from that cardboard caricature of this rather one-dimensional figure. I began to be increasingly impressed with his intellectual abilities, with his knowledge of the world.

He was, in my view, one of the best-prepared presidents in foreign policy ever to take office in the United States. He had spent a lot of time as vice president traveling the world, getting to know foreign leaders. He was always informing himself of what was going on in the world. When he was out of office in the 1960s, he continued to travel and was often received as a sort of dignitary and a head of state. He gained a lot of his information, apparently, through talking to people. He would meet diplomats, he would meet journalists, and he would pick their brains exhaustively. He wanted to know everything that they knew. I think as a result he really had an understanding of the world which was unmatched.

He is also, I think, a fascinating personality. It's very, very difficult I find to get a sense of who the real Richard Nixon was. Even those who were close to him have said that. Though many people knew him, I think few would have claimed to have known him well.

When I was doing this book, I had an opportunity to interview Dr. Kissinger. I was asking a number of questions. I said, "What was your personal relationship like with the president?"
He sort of thought for a moment and said, "I didn't have one."

That I find extraordinary, because here were two men who worked together every day, day in and day out, were on the phone to each other, had long meetings with each other, shared a tremendous responsibility for foreign relations, and shared many of the same ideas, and yet there wasn't a personal relationship there.

So I found Nixon fascinating. I also found him a person of considerable talent and quality, and I came to rethink my views of his foreign policy.

I had an argument with someone last night. I was in Harvard, talking at the Harvard Book Store. I think we were civilized because I'm a Canadian, so we never get into very violent arguments.

He said, "How can you admire Nixon's foreign policy? He was a mass murderer. Look what he did in Vietnam."

I said, "Look, what people do in wartime is not always something that one approves of. It is very difficult"—and you would know better than me at the Carnegie Council about how difficult it is—"to deal with questions of morality in war and questions of subordinating morality to a larger purpose or subordinating the larger purpose to morality."

"But," I said, "he did get the United States out of Vietnam, and I think that was very, very important. He did broker détente with the Soviet Union and he did get really significant arms control agreements with the Soviet Union. He did encourage and support the process of détente on the ground in Europe, and he did do the opening to China. So I think for all those reasons, however you think of particular aspects of his political record, I think he counts as a very important leader for the United States in the twentieth century."

I've noticed something interesting in the past couple of years since I started to work on this book, and that is that I'm not the only person in the academic world rethinking Nixon and his role. I suspect that is partly time. The further away we get from a period, the easier it is to understand it.

Partly also because a lot of the documents are now coming out. Mr. Brademas was telling me that he was responsible for the act which made it possible to see the Nixon documents, and for that I must say I am very grateful indeed, and so are most other historians. Most of the documents have been declassified now, the relevant volumes in the Foreign Relations Series are now coming out dealing with the Nixon presidency, and it is now possible to get pretty good access to the Nixon tapes.

So I think it is partly distance, partly because the material is now available. But there are a great number of books in the works about Nixon and about Kissinger. The conference I was at before Christmas was part of the preparations for a volume on Nixon's foreign policy, and there are a whole lot of people working on it, and I gather there's a lot more out there.

It may be also that people are drawing parallels between the present situation in Iraq and American involvement in Vietnam. This is an analogy which comes up quite frequently in the commentary and in the books that are now being written on the American and the Coalition involvement in Iraq. So I think there is a necessary—or not necessary, but perhaps an inevitable—comparison being made between the leadership in the period when the United States was involved in Vietnam and the leadership while the United States is involved in Iraq. So this brings Nixon, I think, more to the forefront of people's minds.

Nixon himself always thought that he would be remembered for two things, and he said this to someone very late in his life. He said, "I'm going to be remembered for the opening to China and Watergate," as he put it, "that silly, silly thing." And I think it's absolutely true. But perhaps as Watergate and what we all felt about it at the time recedes in public memory, perhaps the opening to China will become a bit more visible. And I think it really was a very important moment.

Now, you can argue that the time was ripe for it, and I think it was. The United States and China have had a very long and complicated relationship. As you know, there was virtually no relationship between 1949 and 1969, and I'd like to go back in a moment and talk about that.

But in 1969, both in China and in the United States, there were very good reasons why the two should want to make an opening to each other. So I think Nixon was able to take advantage of a change in thinking in the United States and change in thinking in China.

But he was the man who was capable of taking that advantage. Often there are moments in history when something can be done but people don't necessarily do it, even though in retrospect it turns out to have been the sensible and the right thing to have been done.

Let me just go back and say something about the relationship between China and the United States, because I think 1972 says something about it. But I think there are constants in that relationship which in curious ways keep re-emerging and I think are still here today.

On the Chinese side, I think we should never forget that the United States is seen by the Chinese as part of "the West," and the West is seen by many Chinese as that irresistible force, with its superior technology, its rapidly revolving economy, which burst into China in the nineteenth century and wreaked havoc.

Now, this was a time when China was going through one of its periodic downturns in the dynastic cycle. This was something the Chinese understood. They would get a new emperor who would grab the throne through force or guile, would set up a strong administration, and gradually over the years, over the generations, that administration would decay. It would become corrupt, it would tax the people too heavily, it would forget to maintain the banks along the Yellow River for example, it would forget to maintain the Great Wall, and China would begin to suffer, and there would be either an internal revolution which would throw up a new emperor and a new ruling family, or barbarians coming in from outside to seize the throne. So the Chinese expected this.

What made the catastrophe for China so dreadful in the nineteenth century was that they were reaching the lowest point of the dynastic cycle. In other words, the whole regime was corrupt and ramshackle, not delivering efficiently what the Chinese needed, just at a moment then the Chinese were facing a challenge really unlike any challenge they have ever faced before. And so just when they needed strong leadership they were not going to get it.

So for the Chinese, the nineteenth century is a disaster. They talk, in fact, about "a century of humiliation." They date the beginning of that century of humiliation from 1839, which was the start of the first Opium War, when the British fought a war to force their way into Chinese markets, including of course the sale of opium. They date the end of that century of humiliation in 1949, when the communists took power and gave China, for the first time in a great many years, a secure and stable government and began to allow the Chinese to get on with their lives and with rebuilding their country.

The United States is seen by the Chinese as part of that, and they remember it. If you go to China, you will probably be told the story of the park in Shanghai and the foreign concession area which had a sign saying "No Dogs, No Chinese." In fact, a scholar has actually studied the issue of the sign and has found no evidence that it ever existed. It doesn't matter. That's what the Chinese think. That, I think, symbolizes to them the humiliation which they suffered in their own country. So there's that attitude towards the United States.

But there is another one, and I think we see it today as well. The other one is the attitude that was partly fostered by the missionaries. The largest single body of missionaries in China in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century were American. They came to save souls. China was a wonderful place to save souls because there were so many of them to be saved, just as American manufacturers came to China because it was a wonderful market. They stayed on to open schools, to open medical faculties, to open universities—many of China's great universities were started as missionary schools—and they helped to introduce Western learning and Western technology into China. And so there is that side of the United States, the United States which in a way came to help, and did help.

And there is the admiration that a lot of Chinese felt, and still feel, towards the United States. They like its values. If you think back to Tiananmen Square, the Chinese students who were talking about democracy made a statue which resembled the Statue of Liberty and they called it the Goddess of Democracy. A young Mao Zedong, when he was a student in Hunan Province, had a number of foreign heroes, and two of his greatest heroes from outside were George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. And so you have the other side of China, which looks to the United States as a source of inspiration, which looks to the United States as a country which has sometimes helped China.

In the United States, I think, you get a similar mixed attitude towards China. There is the China that is to be exploited—the China with all the souls to be saved, the China with all the potential markets, the China which is a source of potential investment—there's that side. There is also the side of the China that needs to be helped, and I think that's still there. I think Americans who care deeply about human rights see China as a country which they have some obligation to and some need to be concerned about.

And there is also the China which is a source of fear. It goes back, and it is there in absurd forms, like the Dr. Fu Manchu movies, where you have a Chinese doctor and his beautiful daughter who possess unnamed but clearly very dangerous ancient wisdom who are planning to dominate the world, including of course the United States.

And you have the fears, which I think you are seeing today, that there are just too many Chinese, China is too powerful, it's going to become an enemy of the United States. It is already threatening the United States economically; it is taking away American jobs. It is damaging American interests around the world; it is challenging the United States in parts of the world that the United States has always felt to be their turf.

And so you get, I think, very, very mixed attitudes. I think it is very important to understand that, that we are not looking at a relationship that is new. This is a relationship that goes back at least to the end of the eighteenth century, and a relationship which has had many ups and downs, with suspicions and admiration and fear and memories on both sides.

Now, in 1949, when the communists took over, there was possibly a very brief window when the United States and China might have established some sort of diplomatic relationship. The British did, after all, and so did a number of American allies. My view is that it wasn't possible.

I think blame or explanation is to be found on both sides. The Chinese leadership didn't want to talk to the United States. They saw it as the leading capitalist power. And Mao said very clearly, "China will lean to one side," and where it was going to lean was towards Moscow and towards the Soviet Union. From the point of view of the United States, the United States had committed itself in a way to Chiang Kai-shek and the defeated Nationalists and, I think, would have found it very difficult to deal immediately with the Chinese communists.

If there was ever a faint hope, that was put into the deep freeze by the Korean War, when Chinese and American troops fought, and after that it was very difficult in either country to contemplate overtures.

And so from 1949 up until 1969, there were very, very few contacts, mainly through the embassies in Warsaw, where each of the United States and China had an embassy, and occasionally they would have to talk about such things as exchanging prisoners of war or the occasional American yachtsman who would stray into Chinese waters, who the Chinese assumed was a CIA employee—and maybe he or she was—and there would have to be negotiations about how to get such people back. But there were very, very sporadic moments, very sporadic contact. Occasionally, one side or the other would make moves which suggested they were ready to break the logjam, but the time was never right on the other side.

And so in the early 1960s the Kennedy Administration began to contemplate some form of easing the tensions with China, maybe some form of low-level contact. But it became impossible when the United States got involved in Vietnam, and the Chinese simply weren't interested.

And so you had really in many ways an absurd situation, where two very large powers, both with very important interests in Asia, both very confident of themselves, did not talk to each other. They did not trade with each other. They didn't exchange embassies. They didn't exchange visitors. They didn't exchange diplomats.

You got in Hong Kong a huge American establishment, which was devoted partly to making sure that no trade came into Hong Kong and that no goods came into Hong Kong from China, which was quite legal because Hong Kong was a British colony, and then were re-exported to the United States. We look back—at least I do—and laugh at it.

I mean there was the great "chicken and egg" debate, which had to be referred to Washington: If a live chicken comes into Hong Kong from Communist China, it is clearly a Communist chicken and cannot be re-exported in any form, dead or alive, to the United States. However—and this was a great issue which occupied a lot of brains—what if the Communist chicken lays an egg in Hong Kong? Is the egg a free egg because it has been born on Hong Kong soil, or is it not? Of course, it is funny, but I think it gives you an indication of the seriousness of the rift between these two great countries.

What changed in 1969 was that both began to see very compelling reasons for talking to each other. Nixon was deeply concerned about Vietnam and what it was doing to the United States both domestically and internationally, and he did not want his presidency to be overshadowed, perhaps even destroyed, by Vietnam, like the Johnson one had been. He was determined to get the United States out of Vietnam.

But that, of course, was not an easy matter and, as we know, it was going to take him a good number of years to actually get the United States out. He hoped that an opening to China might enable him to talk to the Chinese and persuade them to put pressure on North Vietnam to negotiate more seriously. So that was one of the reasons Nixon wanted to go to China.

I think, much more importantly, he wanted to go to China because he saw it as a very useful way of putting pressure on the Soviet Union. It was quite clear that China and the Soviet Union were on very bad terms, and it seemed to him that it was foolish not to take advantage of this very visible rift.

He saw, I think, moreover, some drama in being the first American president to go there and make this great gesture. I mean Nixon, I think, like a lot of people in his position, was very conscious of his place in history.

As it happened, China, or Mao and those around him, were coming to similar conclusions at about the same time. China was very isolated and very friendless in 1969. That's partly China's own doing. The Cultural Revolution had turned China inwards and turned China upside-down. Most of China's embassies had been closed down and there were very few foreign diplomats left in Beijing.

China's main friend and furtherance supporter in the world was Albania, and that was really not much of a counterbalance to all the enemies that China had: India, with which it had fought a war; Japan, with which it was on no terms; Taiwan, of course; South Korea; and particularly the Soviet Union.

The Chinese were becoming extremely concerned about the Soviet Union by the end of 1969. The Soviets had been massing troops along the common border. In fact, there had been armed clashes in the spring and late summer of 1969 between Soviet and Chinese forces.

In the fall of 1969, the Chinese got wind that Soviet diplomats at international receptions were asking very odd questions. They would sidle up to American diplomats and say, "By the way, what would your government say if, just hypothetically, we were to drop a few nuclear bombs on China?" This, understandably, spooked the Chinese.

And so what you got was a movement in both countries recognizing that both had something to gain by an opening. Of course, I think the prime factor was the Soviet Union. Both felt they could use the other as a counterbalance to the Soviet Union.

The trouble was that, although both leaders and their advisors were reaching very similar conclusions, there was no way to communicate it to the other side, because when you have had that gulf, when you have had that level of mistrust and hostility, you can't suddenly say publicly, "Hello over there in Beijing, we didn't mean it, let's talk." The other side would regard it with great suspicion, and you might run the risk of being publicly humiliated.

And so from 1969 to 1971 there were these extremely delicate negotiations that were done secretly, mainly through Pakistan, which, as a good safe dictatorship, could be trusted, so Nixon felt, not to spill any beans unnecessarily.

They were done in a way which really, I think, would have struck Venetian diplomats in the Renaissance as perfectly understandable. They were done by emissaries. No piece of paper went from Beijing to Washington or back. It all went through Pakistan. The Pakistan foreign minister or dictator, Ayub Khan, the general who was president of Pakistan, would get a message from one of the other capitals, would make his own notes on it, and then pass it on to the recipient.

Finally, in 1971 the invitation came for Henry Kissinger to go to Beijing. In fact, it wasn't Henry Kissinger. It just said "an emissary."

There is a wonderful conversation between Nixon and Kissinger where you can see Nixon longing to send anyone else but Kissinger, of whom he is becoming rather envious and dislikes the publicity which Kissinger is getting. There is this wonderful discussion where they go through everyone who could be sent:

"Nelson Rockefeller?"

"Well," says Henry Kissinger, "no really, I think, Mr. President, he wouldn't be tough enough with the communists."

"Well, what about George Bush?" This is George Bush Sr.

"Well, he's at the UN, he's rather busy there."

"Okay."

"What about Averill Harriman?"

"Wonderful idea, Mr. President, but he's been dead for four months."

So finally, you get Nixon saying, "Henry, I think you have to go."

So Kissinger goes. There is this highly secret trip, where he is said to be suffering from a stomach ailment in Pakistan. That night at the airport in Rawalpindi, a fleet of cars drive up and a rather stout man wearing a floppy hat gets out and rushes up the steps of a Pakistan airliner.

A Reuters correspondent who happened to be there turns to one of the policemen and says, "What's going on?"

The policeman obligingly says, "Mr. Kissinger, sir, off on a secret trip to China."

At any rate, the secret does not come out because the Reuters correspondent phones London and says, "Have I got a scoop for you"—and it would have been, it would have been extraordinary. The reaction in London is, "Oh, he must be drunk again." So the story does not get out.

Kissinger goes to Beijing and it is agreed that Nixon will come to Beijing. Henry Kissinger in that trip and the subsequent trip he makes in the fall of 1971 discusses many of the issues which are going to be discussed during the Nixon trip. The communiqué is partly drafted and pretty much ready to go.

So what actually happens during Nixon's trip I think is not so important as the fact that it takes place. His meeting with Mao is not, in fact, all that substantial when you look at the transcripts. But the fact that Nixon is there, that an American president has gone to China, is standing there shaking Zhou Enlai's hand, is there on the Great Wall, is at the big banquet exchanging toasts with Zhou Enlai, toasting each other's people, that's what's really important and that's what makes the revolution.

Now, it took a long time for that opening to develop into the full-fledged relationship we see today. That was partly because there were internal political turmoils in each country—Watergate in the United States and the demise of Mao and the subsequent power struggle in China—but eventually the relationship was fully normalized under President Carter in 1979, and it has gone moving on.

But the tensions that were there and the memories that are there, I think, are still with us today. And you still have the basic problem, I think, in the relationship that you have two very different societies, two very different cultures, two countries which in some ways see themselves as a model for the rest of humanity. When you see yourselves as unique, it's not always easy, I think, to deal with another people who also sees itself as unique.

I think we are going to see in the future those tensions continuing. I think we need to understand something of what has led to the present and understand some of the memories that both sides have towards the other before we have any hope of understanding what is going to happen next.

Thanks very much.

JOANNE MYERS: I think every statesman in their waning years looks for that one moment when they will be relevant. If Nixon were alive today, he would thank you for making his visit a gift to posterity.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: In view of the political situation in the United States then, and even now, do you think it would have been possible for Nixon to go to China if he had been a Democrat?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: It's a very interesting question. I think it would have been much more difficult for a Democrat, as it was generally more difficult for Democrats to deal with the Soviet Union. Nixon had so positioned himself—and I think out of genuine conviction—as an anti-communist that no one could ever accuse him of being soft on communism.

I think the fact that it was Nixon helped to muffle, if not entirely get rid of, opposition from the right wing. He had been very careful before he went to China to talk to a number of leading people in Congress, like Senator [Walter H.] Judd, who had always been a very strong supporter of Taiwan, and had explained to them why he felt it was necessary for the United States.
So I think Nixon got away with a minimum of domestic opposition and furor. I mean there were those like Pat Buchanan, who thought it was dreadful, and William F. Buckley, but they really were not representative of the mainstream Republicans on this issue.

So I think it was a lot easier for Nixon to do it. I quite agree.

QUESTION:
The question that was just asked is also what I was about to hit. But there is another part of that. Though there was some acceptance by Senator Jackson and perhaps some opposition by Pat Buchanan and others, there was still the feeling that it was a certain betrayal of Taiwan; and also, on the part of the anti-communists, saying, "Well, you've now recognized a power that to some extent really is at variance with our own." It ended up giving more stature to the Chinese regime that many did not want it to have. So that was one part.

Does your research, on the other hand, show some, let's say, variance of opinion within the Chinese ranks, that this was a kind of caving-in by Mao to capitalism, or was it seen as another victory for Chinese communism in gaining it additional status in the international arena?

MARGARET MACMILLAN:
A very interesting question. Let me answer the first one.

I think there was concern about Taiwan—and I think there still is a feeling—but I think the very strong feeling about Taiwan was beginning to wane by this point. The Committee of One Million [a pettion drive to prevent China from entering the UN, in 1953] was no longer the force it had been. A number of the people who had been prominent in what was called the "China lobby" had passed from the scene; they were simply getting old.

And I think there was also a sense that, although the United States didn't like communism, it had in fact been dealing with Soviet communism for quite a while now, and I think there was an understanding that you might dislike everything about the regime, but in some sense you were better off at least trying to deal with them on certain issues. I think in the case of the Soviet Union, because of nuclear weapons, the American political establishment, and I think the American people, had come around largely to the view that you could dislike everything and hate everything that the Soviets stood for, but you still had to deal with them because they possessed nuclear weapons. I think once you've done that, the prospect of dealing with other communists doesn't seem so strange.

The Chinese, who did possess nuclear weapons but didn't possess the means of delivering them on the United States, were a major regional power. I think Nixon took the view—it is often called realpolitikand I think that is perhaps unfair; it gives the impression that he didn't have any morals at all on public policy—but I think he saw that it was in the interests of the United States, and that to him was the most important thing, that he would deal with China because it would benefit the United States.

He did have, in my view, a strong moral sense about the United States. He thought the United States was a positive force for good in the world and should contribute to stability and order. He saw dealing with China as part of that.

Now, of course, where he would have parted, and did part, company with President Carter when Carter became president is that Nixon would not have talked about human rights in China. He really accepted the notion of state sovereignty: you let states do what they want within their own borders and don't try to interfere.

Your second question—I'm sorry—was on?

QUESTIONER: Within the Chinese government, whether they saw this as a caving-in to America.

MARGARET MACMILLAN: That story is simply much less known, partly because the Chinese are still very reluctant to release records of particular sensitive subjects. When I talked to a number of international relations professionals in China, they said, "We have real trouble getting any sort of access." Probably the key documents would be in the Communist Party Archives, I suspect. So there is that.

Also, I think, the nature of the Chinese system. Mao had such extraordinary power that if Mao decided China was going to turn on a dime in its foreign policy, then it would. As far as we know, those who were close to him simply accepted the directive and accepted Mao's reasoning.

The reasoning Mao used was interesting. He said: "Look at the Soviet Union. It defended communism." The Chinese still regarded the Soviet Union as sort of in the family, although they hated it. "They made a deal with Hitler simply because it was good for the Soviet Union at the time and it bought them some time. We talked to Chiang Kai-shek at the end of the Second World War and we made a deal with him, and we made deals with him earlier on, simply because it seemed appropriate."

What Mao also was reminded of—and this, I think, was in some ways very Chinese and shows the force of Chinese culture—was the statesman who, I think it was in the third century A.D., said to his ruler who had two enemies, "I advise you to make an alliance with the enemy furthest away because if you make the alliance with the enemy close to your borders that will cause you more trouble."

So I think there were a number of reasons. There may have been some internal opposition. Some Americans at the time—and there has been some speculation since—thought that Lin Biao's sudden disappearance and then death in Outer Mongolia was tied to an inner party struggle. But the last thing I read on that suggests that Lin Biao did not challenge Mao on such issues. Lin tried never to say anything because he didn't want to run up against Mao on anything.

Clearly, there would be ideologues who didn't like it. Mao's wife we do know didn't like the United States at all and dragged the unfortunate Nixon party off to see one of her revolutionary operas and sort of muttered a lot. But Mao's wife did what Mao told her, by and large.

So yes, there were those who wouldn't have liked it, but I don't think we yet know enough about the inner struggles.

QUESTION: Margaret, I read your book with fascination. I want to confess at the outset I was a very young chairman of Nixon's campaign here in 1968, so I was involved in a lot of these discussions and I remember them vividly. I would put more emphasis than I think you did in the book on Vietnam. Nixon almost lost the election—had it gone another week, certainly—when Humphrey finally broke with LBJ on the war and the whole dynamic of the campaign changed. I remember that searing night when we all stayed up until the wee hours and Nixon won.

He realized that Vietnam was the issue. He had announced, "I have a plan." But he didn't have a plan, like most politicians, as we hear now. He didn't have a plan.

The first thing that happened the day after the election was everybody gathered in Key Biscayne and they started to cook up a plan. The plan was to try to either engage the Soviet Union or China or both in helping the United States extricate itself from Vietnam. I think at the outset that was the driving motivation.

Later on, maybe history and a sense of various things that you alluded to came into play. He didn't get any real help from the Soviet Union and in the end he didn't get any real help from China, because as it turned out Vietnam was bent on Vietnam's policies, and we never understood that all the way until the end. But I think that when the history is written, the Vietnam equation will take on a much greater centrality in this story than you hear. I'd just like to hear your comments about it.

MARGARET MACMILLAN
: I agree with you. I think from Nixon's point of view he didn't want Vietnam to be central. He wanted to get it out of the way so he could do what he felt was more important, and that was—

QUESTIONER:
But he couldn't.

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Exactly. And I think he was obsessed, rightly, with what had happened to Johnson. You know, it was very much on his mind.

Getting out of Vietnam was very difficult. He kept on saying, "I just don't want to be remembered as a president for Vietnam. I want to be able to do other things."

But you're right. I think Vietnam was the great roadblock, or the obstacle, that had to be got over before the United States could really, as Nixon saw it, begin to rebuild its damaged prestige and rebuild its position in the world.

I think you're absolutely right on that. I think he was absolutely obsessed—obsessed is perhaps too strong a word, but he saw it as something absolutely necessary. I couldn't agree more.

QUESTION:
Thank you for your wonderful book. In your book, you seem to suggest that the United States is a supreme power and China is a rising power; if they do not work together, the world will not know peace. I think everybody can agree with this assessment.

We know the characteristics of U.S. power, but a lot depends on the future of China. On that it seems that there are two religions: one is that China will remain the stabilizing force it always has been; the other is that China will have, for the first time in its history, the material resources to become a great civil power. We do not know what will happen in the future of China, but given that the dynamics of the world international relationships are changing because of the existence of a massive level of failed states and international problems, transnational problems, that will force the two powers to work together.

On the other hand, when you look at the past record of this U.S. Administration, they always start with a rather, not hostile, but competitive psychology vis-à-vis China. But at the end, the administrations always cooperate with China. So given this complexity, would you like to look into the future and predict what will happen to the relationship which is critical to the world?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: Historians always get very uneasy when you ask them to predict the future, but I will do my best.

It seems to me that human affairs can often go so badly wrong. There are so many reasons why China and the United States should work together. There were so many reasons why Britain and Germany should have worked together before the First World War, and they didn't. I mean they were each other's greatest trading partners, they had so much in common, they should have worked together. And yet, things went very, very badly wrong.

It seems to me there are real tensions in the relationship between China and the United States at the moment. I don't think things are yet in danger of going badly wrong, but we should always keep that possibility in mind.

The other thing I think is a third possibility for China. There is a lot of discussion at the moment about "whither China?" Will Hutton, the English journalist, has just written a very interesting book which I am in the process of reading [The Writing on the Wall: Why We Must Embrace China as a Partner or Face It as an Enemy]; and James Mann, who many of you may know, in Washington has just done a book which is just coming out on China [The China Fantasy: How Our Leaders Explain Away Chinese Repression].

There is a third possibility, and that is that China may have reached a level of development which it can't sustain, that the nature of the Party and its insistence on control does not really unleash the forces of capitalism properly. The Chinese have yet to build a regime in which they have a proper legal structure. They do not have the transparency. They do not encourage entrepreneurship. In fact, I think it frightens the government. They are trying to control the Internet.

One of the great strengths of the United States and other Western economies is that they are so open and they encourage people to experiment and to try new ways of doing things and reward them often for doing so. That doesn't exist in China.

There is, it seems to me, also the possibility that China could go through one of its periods of power moving increasingly to the regions. It could go through one of its periods where you get at least low-level dissent.

There is an increased number every year of demonstrations, protests, some of them violent. I think that reflects partly the strains of rapid development and the huge gulf which is growing between the rich and the poor parts of China. It seems to me there are really social and political strains in China which could have the effect of actually slowing China's progress down and causing China to have to really focus on its own internal problems.

So it seems to me it is not at all clear what is going to happen. There is a lot of alarmist talk now about China becoming a great military power. It has some of the capacity to be so, but compared to the United States it still has a long way to go.

What is worrying, of course, is when the Chinese do things like shooting down the satellite—and I'm still trying to figure out what sort of message—I think clearly the message they were trying to send with that was an unnecessarily provocative one.

So it is very difficult for me to see what is going to happen. I think China's internal problems could well grow.

And it is led by a party which has kept a very strong hand, but what does it stand for anymore? What is its motivating ideology? What is holding it together? What is the glue that is holding China together? The Party now allows capitalists to join. So is it a socialist party anymore? What does it stand for?

I think it is increasingly trying to use nationalism, which can be dangerous. But can it continue to inspire the Chinese people and can it continue to have the moral authority to lead the Chinese people when, increasingly, there are complaints from the Chinese when they are allowed to make them—and they do often make them—about the corruption, about the favoritism and nepotism within the Party.

So I think there are a lot of question marks over China. It is clearly a force to reckon with. It is clearly going to be very important in the twenty-first century. But whether its own internal strains will make it less important than we now suspect I think is a big question.

QUESTION:
Two unrelated questions. First, other historians have had trouble getting access to Henry Kissinger's papers. Was this a problem for you?

And, second, do you see a parallel situation today vis-à-vis Iran and the United States, with the possibility of a similar dramatic breakthrough at some point?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: That's such a good question.

Let me answer the Kissinger one first. I didn't try to get access to the papers which he put into the Library of Congress and limited access to. But I was really interested in the record that exists. All the transcripts of his negotiations have now been declassified, and so I was able to get all those. And I was able to get a good many of the conversations between him and President Nixon and the memos that were sent back and forth. So I felt I had enough.

I think three or four biographies of Kissinger are in the works, two authorized. One is just being done of 1972, I think, and one I gather is being done on the early years. Both of the biographers have actually told me that he is giving them access. But, presumably, he knows what's in there. I think he is very conscious of the historical record and would like to try, as we all would, make sure it is a favorable one.

On the question of Iran, I find the parallel absolutely fascinating. Someone asked me the other day what would shock us as much now as people were startled and shocked by the spectacle of Nixon in Beijing. I think if you were to see President Bush getting off the plane in Tehran and shaking—need I say more?

I think it's unlikely because I don't—well, certainly with the present president in Iran, I'm not sure there's a willingness on his part to talk, although I've noticed he has been making more conciliatory moves lately. Maybe the ayatollahs behind the scenes have told him to behave himself. But it's not clear. There's not a corresponding figure for the American president in Iran as there was in the case of China.

But it seems to me that there are very good arguments for saying that in many ways the interests of Iran and the United States coincide. Neither, I think, wants an Iraq that falls to pieces and is in absolute chaos. I mean Iran may not be playing a very helpful role at the moment, but do they really want civil war on their doorstep? I don't think they do. In fact, I think the perception in the Arab world that Iran is fueling this is already beginning to damage Iran and beginning to create resistance. I mean yes, Iran is a great Shia power, but it is also Persian, and the relations between Persians and Arabs have always been complex and not always friendly.

So I think you could argue—and I think there is a good argument for saying—that there should be dialogue between the United States and Iran to try and do something about what seems to be an ever-worsening situation in Iraq. But will such dialogue take place and will we see Air Force One landing in Tehran? I don't think so.

QUESTION: I used to hear old China hands saying China would never go communist because of its family feelings and so forth. Do you think that the reason the communists were successful was because of the total corruption of Chiang Kai-shek's forces, or that they would have been successful either way?

MARGARET MACMILLAN: It's a very interesting question. I think China went communist partly because of the Japanese invasion. The Japanese military said they were invading partly to stop communism. Well, they couldn't have given it more of a shot in the arm, quite frankly.

Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists were providing reasonably good government. I mean there was corruption, but it was not out of control as it later got. But when they were forced inland, they were forced away from their tax bases, they were forced inland to a more conservative part of China, and I think that's when the Kuomintang [Nationalists] really began to exhibit some of the extreme forms of corruption which had always been there.

I think the Chinese communists were saved, in fact, by the Japanese invasion, because Chiang Kai-shek was ready to try yet again to wipe them out. So I think that they quite literally were saved.

And they were able to position themselves very successfully as Chinese patriots fighting the Japanese. The evidence of how much fighting they did—I don't think they did all that much actually, but again it is perception.

The communists emerged at the end of the war in 1945 a lot stronger and with the support of a lot of Chinese who said: "Well, if we have a choice"—and, of course, the tragedy was the Chinese who didn't want to choose either, but in the end, because of the nature of the division in China, they had to choose.

And a lot of Chinese who were not communists said: "Look, we have a choice. Who is going to do more for China? It's the communists. They are less corrupt, they are more efficient, they're talking"—and the communists were talking about how we need all you intellectuals, we need all you businessmen, and so on. So I think a lot of people just threw their lot in with the communists because they looked like the ones who would do something for China, and also they looked like they were going to win. The communists benefited a lot from that.

As far as the family structure goes, I think the communists and history have done a lot to destroy many of the underpinnings of the old Chinese society. One of the unintended consequences, perhaps, of the Cultural Revolution was that never again will the Chinese have quite as much respect for authority, including that of the Communist Party.

There is a very interesting little book which I read a couple of years ago, called Wild Grass by Ian Johnson. It's about the people at the grassroots in China who are simply defying the authorities. He argues quite convincingly that people simply got used to defying the authorities during the Cultural Revolution and really no longer respect them in the way that they might have done.

So I think there will be very interesting developments in China. I think there's a level of cynicism about the Party, even within the Party. That's what really brought the Soviet Union down. It was eaten away from within.

I talked to a young Chinese member of the Party—he had to be a member because he was in a government position—and he said, more or less: "Oh Lord, I have to go off and do my thought reform. We all have to do it." The Party had a big push to make everyone become good communists a couple of summers ago. He sort of said, "Ho hum, I have to spend a week doing this."

Apparently, one of the things you had to do was write a self-criticism, which is an old communist technique. Within about a day of this being announced, model self-criticisms were being circulated on the Internet. The authorities then had to say: "You must not take your self-criticism off the Internet. You must really write it yourself."

It seems to me so much is going on under the surface in China. It's really fascinating.

QUESTION: I'm curious. What message did it send to the world community that Nixon went to China rather than Mao coming to the United States?

MARGARET MACMILLAN:
Now, that's a good question.

There has been much debate about it ever since. There are those who argue, like James Mann, that Nixon should not have gone to China, that it should have been Mao coming to the United States. Mao, I think, would have been incapable of traveling. Or that it should have been Zhou Enlai coming to the United States and that it put the United States in the position of the barbarian going to the Middle Kingdom.

I think from Nixon's point of view—and I think it was brave decision, and actually a correct one—he thought something was needed to break through it and it was highly unlikely the Chinese would come. I think he also, for domestic political reasons, because it was an election year, liked the idea of himself being there with all that wonderful television footage and all those photographs. In fact, it was, I think, watched widely in the United States, often live on television. It really helped Nixon, I think. You know, it showed him as the statesman making this great breakthrough.

The whole wording of the invitation, as you may know, was very tricky, because the Chinese wanted to say President Nixon asked to come to China—there was actually a communiqué on this—and the Americans wanted to say the Chinese invited Nixon. The final formulation which was made public was that the Chinese, knowing of President Nixon's often-expressed interest in coming to China, have invited him. These things are important in diplomacy.

I don't think it actually sent that bad a message. I think it was a very dramatic moment. I think it showed Nixon perhaps at his best, as a statesman who was prepared to do something.

It reminds me of Anwar Sadat going to Israel. I don't think it hurt Sadat. It certainly hurt him with some of his own people, but I think for a lot of us—when I watched that, I thought, "What a brave thing to do, and he is trying to break through this logjam." I think that was the reaction, at least certainly of a lot of people, to Nixon's trip to China.

QUESTION:
One of the things the ambassador brought up is the satellite and the accuracy with which the weather satellite was taken down. The reaction of the United States seemingly is to arm India to the teeth: nuclear power, these unbelievable fighter jets. I mean right now India has become such an ally.

What is China's position on us arming India to such an extent? Are we afraid of this satellite situation that was taken down unexpectedly, with such accuracy? I don't know if people are aware of the distance that satellite was sitting in space to be taken down. What is China's reaction and how are they handling it?

MARGARET MACMILLAN:
I don't know. It's really one of those fascinating questions. I'm not sure I can answer it.

I gather that actually to shoot down a satellite, at least so the reaction has been among defense specialists, is not that tricky, because it is a stationary orbit, so that you can shoot it down if you have a fairly sophisticated level of missiles.

The Chinese sometimes complain that they are ringed by the United States, that the United States is adopting a containment policy, just as it did with the Soviet Union. If you look at it from the Chinese perspective, it does indeed seem so, because you still have the Americans selling weapons to Taiwan, you have American troops in Japan and South Korea, you have the United States getting closer to India. But that one I'll believe it when I see it—maybe in a few years.

The United States and India have had such a complicated relationship. They tend to irritate each other, rub each other the wrong way. So it may well be that that relationship will develop a bit but maybe no more.

I suppose from the point of view of the United States they are trying to find a substitute for Pakistan if Pakistan goes haywire, which is always a possibility.

I am finding it very difficult—there are probably others here who can assess it better than me—to really know what the Chinese are up to at the moment. I sometimes think that Chinese diplomacy is inept—I don't think "ept" is a word.

We tend to think that the Chinese are immensely subtle in all those centuries of statecraft, but sometimes I think—a very good analogy I heard from an international banker was that they are like a teen-ager who's got all sorts of muscles but is a bit uncoordinated in actually using them yet. It sometimes seems to me that Chinese foreign policy is in fact not all that sophisticated and subtle and that they sometimes put their foot in it without really understanding why.

I mean I think their policy on the Sudan has unnecessarily alienated a lot of people. It is clearly driven by a need for oil. But I think it has portrayed China as thinking only of its own interest in a way which I think in the long run is not helpful to China.

So I'm afraid I can go no further than that. It's not a very satisfactory answer.

JOANNE MYERS:
Thank you for an extraordinarily satisfactory presentation.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less