To many who had watched Richard M. Nixon build his political career as a Communist fighter, it must have seemed the ultimate irony. On July 15, 1971, Nixon announced on national television that he would become the first president ever to visit the People's Republic of China, a nation which had remained isolated from the West since the Communist revolution in 1949.
For Nixon, however, his upcoming visit represented the ultimate diplomatic triumph. Although he had publicly condemned the Chinese Communists, he had proposed a more relaxed attitude toward the People's Republic as early as 1954. In 1967, as a presidential candidate, he had written in the magazine Foreign Affairs, "We simply cannot afford to leave China outside the family of nations."
Nixon envisioned a future in which more cordial relations among the major world powers -- the United States, the Soviet Union, China, Western Europe, and Japan -- would allow for ventures profitable to all. Through international cooperation, these nations might reduce revenue-draining defense expenditures and prevent the occurrence of costly Third World conflicts such as the Vietnam War.
Perhaps because engagement with the Communist world represented such a turnabout from past U.S. policy, but also because he distrusted the diplomatic bureaucracy, Nixon tightly controlled his foreign policy. His main operative was National Security Council director Henry Kissinger -- his favorite mode of operation was secret, back-channel diplomacy. Frequently, the two men acted without the permission or the knowledge of the State Department.
Nixon began to woo China in February 1969, by sending covert signals of rapprochement through third party nations such as Pakistan and Romania. Publicly, the president took a less dramatic approach, asking Secretary of State William Rogers to announce that the U.S. favored increased cultural and scientific exchanges with the People's Republic.
Initially, the president's overtures bore little fruit, but he persisted. During the spring and summer of 1969, Soviet and Chinese troops clashed repeatedly along the border between the two nations. Kissinger believed that the Chinese feared the Soviets, and that these clashes might help push China toward the United States and may help contain the Soviet Union.
Nixon and Kissinger were playing global power politics. In effect, they were balancing China against the U.S.S.R and intimidating both of them.
Nixon, however, recognized that he would have to make concessions if he wanted rapprochement with China. Early on, he took steps to tone down the anti-China rhetoric coming from the White House, loosened trade and visa restrictions between China and the U.S., and began troop reductions in both Vietnam and on bases near China.
On July 25, on a stopover in Guam, the president announced what would become known as the Nixon Doctrine, a cornerstone of his foreign policy. The United States, he said, would support democratic third world nations by providing them with financial and military aid, but not troops. In October of that year, Nixon called for a cease fire in Vietnam and a unilateral withdrawal of American troops. Hanoi refused his overture, but Nixon continued with "Vietnamization" -- supporting South Vietnam with equipment and money while gradually withdrawing American troops from the war.
By the start of 1970, Nixon's concessions had begun to thaw China's icy demeanor. The two nations began covert talks in Warsaw in January, but China canceled further discussions over the defection to the West of a Chinese diplomat and the extension of U.S. troops into Cambodia. That spring, Nixon resumed sending positive messages through Romania and Pakistan -- by the end of the year China had responded.
In March 1971, the public face of Sino-American relations took a negative turn when Chinese premier Chou en Lai visited Hanoi, the capital of Communist North Vietnam. Just as quickly, however, relations turned toward the positive, when in April, American ping-pong players traveled to China.
The meeting of American and Chinese athletes marked the first significant cultural exchanged between the two nations since 1949. "Ping-pong diplomacy" delighted Americans, and improved Nixon's chances of selling better relations with China to the average voter. Perhaps more importantly, the warming trend in Chinese-U.S. relations helped convince the Soviets to warm up their own relationship with the United States.
From the time that the Soviets developed their own atomic bomb in 1949, they had engaged with the United States in a race for nuclear superiority. In 1963, John F. Kennedy sealed an agreement with the Russians and Great Britain to limit atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons, but no other meaningful arms treaty had been signed.
As an alternative to the arms race, Nixon proposed to the Soviets that the two nations settle for a "strategic parity" in nuclear weapons. If each side possessed enough weapons to guarantee the destruction of the other, neither would dare to start war, and the peace would hold.
Since the start of Nixon's administration, however, progress in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) had been sluggish. Working largely through back channels, and largely through Kissinger, Nixon tried repeatedly to forge an agreement with the Soviets -- with little success. But as U.S.-China relations warmed, the Soviets began to fear what might happen if a strong Sino-American alliance were forged. Just a month after the excitement of ping-pong diplomacy, Nixon announced another victory -- the Soviets had agreed to work out an antiballistic missile treaty within one year.
Meanwhile, Nixon built on his success with the Chinese. On July 9, 1971, he sent Henry Kissinger on a secret visit to Peking, to meet with Premier Chou en Lai. Kissinger's goal was to arrange a China visit for his president, and he returned to Washington triumphant. On July 15, Nixon spoke to the nation, announcing that he would visit China the following year.
In the first half of 1972, Nixon became the world statesman he had always dreamed he would be. For a week in February, he met with Chou en Lai in China. The two leaders signed no specific agreements -- the opening of relations itself was a dramatic achievement. From May 22 to 26, Nixon met in summit with Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow, where the two signed ten formal agreements, including an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) treaty, an interim SALT treaty and a billion-dollar trade agreement. Nixon basked in international glory, but still one diplomatic coup eluded him -- an end to the war in Vietnam.
Publicly, Nixon had promised that he would "win the peace" in Vietnam. Privately, he assured himself that he would not be the first American president to lose a war. To do so would not only be damaging to his image, but would encourage further aggression by the Soviets and the Chinese. He held on, hoping for an exit which would allow America at least the appearance of victory.
Nixon coupled his policy of Vietnamization with hard-hitting attacks on North Vietnamese bases in Laos and Cambodia, but could not bludgeon Hanoi into an agreement. The official peace talks in Paris stalled repeatedly, and the covert dialogue between Kissinger and North Vietnam dragged on with little progress. At home, antiwar activists filled the streets. Nixon had hoped that improved relations with the Chinese and the Soviets would spur a quick exit from Vietnam. But the summits did little to push the war toward its end.
Following his reelection in 1972, Nixon temporarily abandoned diplomacy. For 12 days in December, the U.S. unleashed a ferocious bombing attack on the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. Nixon gave no explanation for the bombing -- he wanted to appear irrational, desperate, willing to do anything to get what he wanted.
The president's "madman" strategy paid off. In January 1973, the United States and North Vietnam negotiated a peace. Sadly, the terms were little better than the ones proposed by North Vietnam in 1969. More than 25,000 American lives had been lost in the interim. Nixon had gained little by delaying withdrawal.
By the start of 1973, the wheels of the Watergate scandal had begun turning faster. Nixon would never realize his plan to peacefully unite the world's superpowers. The Soviet-American détente collapsed shortly after Nixon's resignation. Sino-American relations improved slowly over the ensuing years, hampered by the Taiwan issue and by differences of opinion over human rights. Most Americans would remember Nixon's foreign policy not for its successes, but for its greatest failure -- the inability to achieve a rapid end to the war in Vietnam.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?