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In January 1969, just a week into his presidency, Richard Nixon set in motion a secret plan that would reverberate through the White House and throughout the world. After two decades of stony silence between the United States and China -- broken only by harsh insults and acrimonius accusations -- Nixon wanted to end what he called Chinas "angry isolation." Together with his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, the president developed an elaborate scheme to open diplomatic relations between the two nations. The covert operation would culminate in a series of events Nixon would later call "the week that changed the world."
"I recall Henry coming down from the Oval Office," says Alexander Haig, Deputy National Security Adviser. "Al, this fellow wants to open relations with China. I said, Not a cold warrior like Nixon. And Kissinger says, I think he has lost control of his senses."
Now, as Beijing celebrates a half-century of Communist rule and relations between China and the United States remain tense, "THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Nixons China Game," the story of an operation so secret that it managed to elude the international press, the members of Nixons cabinet, and even the US State Department. The documentary features never-before-seen footage of Kissingers secret mission to China, newly released transcripts of the negotiations, private diaries, Nixons own handwritten notes, and interviews with American and Chinese officials -- including those who were in on the covert plan, and those who were kept in the dark. "Nixons China Game" is produced by Brook Lapping and Norma Percy. Narration written by Bill Lattanzi. David Ogden Stiers narrates.
When the program aired in England in September 1999, "The International Herald Tribune " wrote, "The story of this extraordinary episode in U.S. foreign relations is developed with new detail." Moment by moment, the clandestine process, code-named Marco Polo, is revealed through interviews with former National Security Advisers Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig, Secretary of State Bill Rogers, and Chinese diplomats.
The story unfolds in surprising places and in unexpected ways: a disco-themed fashion show at the Yugoslavian Embassy in Warsaw; an unanticipated invitation to visit China extended to an American ping-pong team; and a banquet in Pakistan, a nation friendly to both the United States and China, where the secret plan was put into action.
While a decoy stood in for Kissinger in one location, the real Kissinger headed for a military airfield, where a jet waited to spirit him to China. He had just forty-eight hours to lay the groundwork for the presidents visit to China. But in his haste, Kissinger had forgotten to pack extra clothing; he wore a borrowed shirt -- ironically made in Taiwan -- throughout his mission.
The delegation worked through the night to find the right words to announce the historic event. Winston Lord, a member of Kissingers small China team, recalls, "The Chinese wanted this brief announcement to say President Nixon was dying to go to China, and were gracious enough to let him come. The United States wanted to say China would like to have Nixon come; Nixons delighted to accept their invitation."
The announcement to the world came on July 15, 1971, at news conferences held simultaneously in Washington and Beijing. Reaction was swift. Taiwans ambassador accused Nixon of selling out his country, Americas longtime ally. Nixon tried to reassure Taiwan and quiet the critics within his own party. He persuaded conservative leader Barry Goldwater to support the trip, and sent California Governor Ronald Reagan to explain the new policy to Taiwans leader, Chiang Kai-shek. In the Soviet Union, the news hit the Central Committee "like a bolt from the blue," says Georgii Arbatov. "My colleagues said, America will be Chinas ally
when Nixon visits Beijing, anything could happen. Where will it end?"
So far, Nixons bold gamble was working. Just four days after the announcement, the Kremlin invited the president to Moscow. Long-stalled arms talks were reopened. But when Mao Tse-tungs hand-picked successor was killed in a plane crash after an alleged coup attempt, Washington worried that the upheaval would jeopardize Nixons visit. To test the waters, a dress rehearsal of Nixons China visit was mounted in January 1972. Once again, the president bypassed the State Department, selecting Alexander Haig to act as the presidents stand-in. Nixons chief of staff Bob Haldemann and his aide, Dwight Chapin, took home movies of the trip, seen here for the first time.
Upon arrival in Shanghai, Haig immediately encountered anti-American protesters, and at the welcoming ceremony, he was snubbed by hard-line party leadership. The frosty reception threatened to derail the mission -- until Mao himself stepped in and ordered full cooperation. The Chairmans last-minute intervention saved the day; the hardliners attempt to foil Nixons visit had failed.
On February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon set out on his historic trip to China, accompanied by a hand-picked group of journalists and television crews. "Nixon wanted a television spectacular," says writer Stanley Karnow. "It was an election year. He wanted to advertise his great triumph."
But even as they headed toward Beijing, no one knew if there would even be a meeting with Chairman Mao. "We were embarking on a voyage of philosophical discovery as uncertain, and in some ways as perilous," Nixon remembered, "as the voyages of geographical discovery of an earlier time."
The Chinese surprised Nixon almost immediately. Taken to the governments guest house to rest, Nixon was interrupted just as he was about to enter the shower: Chairman Mao wanted to meet the president. Mao and Nixon joked about their unlikely encounter, with Nixon telling the Chairman, "Youre quite aware of my sentiments with regards to Communism. Im considered to be a rightist." Mao responded, "Oh, I like rightists." To which Nixon countered, "Sometimes those on the right can do things which those on the left can only talk about."
That evenings welcoming banquet in the Great Hall of the People was televised live in the U.S. The next day, Nixon visited the Great Wall. Chairman Mao challenged Nixon, recalls Tan Longbin, teasing that "Youre not a man until youve climbed to the top." Nixon responded, "We will not climb to the top today. We are already meeting at the summit -- in Beijing."
Americans, who had shared the presidents historic journey on television, supported Nixons breakthrough. Gradually, the success of Nixons new course could be seen in the signing of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, in Chinas new place in the world community -- even in Taiwans economic health. But within months, Nixons journey to China was overshadowed by Watergate, as the scandal that would bring down his presidency began to unfold.