Skip To Content
Nixon's China Game | Article

Kissinger Interview

1. How did you first hear, from the President, of the idea of a China opening? 

Henry Kissinger: I had read it in an article he had written for Foreign Affairs, and Nixon talked about a China opening in general terms in the first few weeks of the administration because he thought he could use it to bring pressure on the Soviet Union to help us in Vietnam. But it was not a very precisely formed concept other than that he would like to do it. But we had no idea how to do it and what opportunities might present themselves.

2. Why was it that you and the President decided to keep the whole initiative within the precincts of the White House and the NSC? 

Henry Kissinger: Initially we didn't keep it entirely within the White House. First of all this was during the height of the Vietnam protest and almost everything that was done through the bureaucracy leaked. Secondly, many of the bureaucracy really thought that Nixon was illegitimate. Here was a President who didn't follow the New York Times editorial direction. And that was considered against nature. So, thirdly, the bureaucracy and many of the professional foreign service officers thought that opening to China was extremely dangerous. And when we finally made some move like permitting the purchase of a hundred dollars worth of Chinese goods in Hong Kong, four senior ambassadors called on the President to warn him that he was running unacceptable risks of conflict with the Soviet Union. So for all these reasons we tried to keep it relatively within the White House. At first.

3. Could you talk about how Dubrinin described to you the gory details of what had been happening to the poor Soviet soldiers on the Chinese border? What was he getting at? 

Henry Kissinger: Well early on we started out believing the conventional wisdom, namely that the Chinese were rabid ideologues and extremely aggressive. Then one day Dubrinin came in and briefed me about a clash they had had I think near the Yusuri river, and spoke about the possibility jointly of getting this under control or getting the danger under control. And this was so uncharacteristic of the Soviets that they would brief us about disagreements they had with third parties, that he actually vastly overplayed his hand. And if I recall my correction correctly I sort of was opaque in my response in order to start him to worry. But I still believed it likely that the Chinese had been the ones who started it. And so he came in two or three more times with reports of other clashes. And we plotted those on a map and a few months later when I was in San Clemente I asked somebody from the Rand Corporation - I think his name was Alan Whiting, to come down and talk to me in general terms about China. And he said that in his view it was the Soviets who were the aggressors and not the Chinese. And then when we looked at how we had plotted it on the map a light went out up in our mind, which - because they all happened close to Soviet railheads and far from Chinese railheads. And so we concluded that probably the Soviets were the aggressors. Once that was established in our mind we concluded that in a conflict between two communist giants the rules of equilibrium which Americans usually don't recognize, but the rules of equilibrium required that we back the weaker against the stronger. It's no great insight for Britishers but in America that is not the way foreign policy is usually perceived. And then we started from then on we started moving actively and took measures to find means of contact with the Chinese.

4. Describe Ambassador Stoessel's initial contact with Chinese diplomats. 

Henry Kissinger: Well I urged Stoessel to make some contacts first. But he wouldn't do it because it was so against orthodoxy and in a sense so dangerous vis a vis the Taiwan lobby or China lobby in the Congress that he didn't want to take the responsibility on the say so of a security adviser. And for all he knew that was my own private idea. So I brought him back and took him into the President and the President instructed him to do what I'd already asked him to do, namely to stop the highest ranking Chinese diplomat he could find at the next social occasion and tell him we wanted to talk. And he finally found him at some fashion show and the Chinese were so stunned when the American approached him that he ran away. And Basil Stoessel who was one of our best diplomats incidentally pursued him, and finally cornered him and gave him the message which the Chinese noted without a word and ran away again. Then a few weeks later to the amazement of Warsaw and in a sense the amazement of our Embassy the Chinese called and said they wanted to pick up the invitation, could they come by, on very short notice. And they arrived at the front door with flags on their car I mean with the most conspicuous way possible, and started a dialogue.

5. How did the U.S. invasion of Cambodia affect the negotiations with China? 

Henry Kissinger: What happened is the Chinese actually told us they wanted us to send an emissary to Beijing. And whereupon State Department produced two huge volumes, one on substance and the other on procedure. The one on substance listed all the subjects. Frankly we in the White House weren't all that eager to talk about claims and assets and arms control, protocol questions about communications, cars I mean - to work through that would have taken forever. And then procedurally they wanted to brief seventeen nations, and I forget how many Congressmen and Senators. And it's in relation to that that President Nixon said we're gonna kill this baby before it is born, or before it grows up. Luckily from that point of view this coincided with the incursions into Cambodia, and the Chinese therefore broke off contact with us. And we didn't resume it through the State Department channels. And frankly the State Department was so scared by our, what they considered, wild behaviour that they never asked the question what happened to the Warsaw channel. It isn't that they said come on lets get going again. They were very happy not to be saddled with this tar baby.

6. How did you come to involve Pakistan in re-establishing contact with China? 

Henry Kissinger: It's giving us too much credit to say we chose Pakistan. We talked to a number of countries. In fact we first talked to some communist countries like Rumania. But the Chinese didn't trust communists. And we also talked to the Pakistanis. It wasn't me it was President Nixon who, on a trip through Pakistan in summer of ’69, arranged this with the Yahya Kahn and then nothing happened for about a year.

7. Describe how you learned of China's invitation to Nixon. 

Henry Kissinger: Hilali came with a handwritten piece of paper which he was not permitted to leave with us. So it was very mysterious and secretive. And that first communication made it quite clear that they wanted to talk, and wanted to talk at a very high level and that they were also prepared to invite Nixon to China.

We replied that we could not talk only about Taiwan that we were willing to raise - that we wanted to talk about the whole range of issues that could affect Sino-American relations. And we were prepared to let each side raise whatever issues they wanted, but we could not go primarily or exclusively to talk about Taiwan.

8. Why were you chosen to go to China to make arrangements for Nixon's visit? To some it seemed as though Nixon was, almost, playing with you. 

Henry Kissinger: Oh yea. Playing, this was a minor league game by Nixon's standards. And actually, in fairness, he was quite capable of playing games. I don't think he originally intended to send me. The irony is that he thought - he - we went over a number of names jointly, and every time he considered one it was obvious that whoever went would become a major public figure and would therefore get some of the credit for the China opening, which Nixon was absolutely determined not to share. So he thought sending his adviser whom he didn't permit to be on television and who could not control his own press relations was the safest way for him not to have to compete on this. And also the easiest way for him to keep control of it. This is why I think he didn't come to this right away to send me.

9. Talk about how you found out about the final ok you received from China. 

Henry Kissinger: We received this communication and I think I brought to him in the Lincoln sitting room if I remember correctly. And we never knew exactly when one of these communications was going to come. And I, I did tell him that I thought this was a diplomatic revolution and maybe I used the phrase it's the most important communication since World War Two. And he opened a bottle of Courvoisier and we had a drink on that. But we recognized - I mean we realized that this might break the back of the Vietnam war and certainly would change the nature of our relationship with the Soviet Union. Assuming they weren't playing games, but we never thought that it was likely or even conceivable that they would drag the President's top aide to Beijing to humiliate me.

10. Can you describe your plans to travel to Pakistan? 

Henry Kissinger: Well I had scheduled a trip through Asia and I had made it as boring as it was possible to be in order to shake press attention, so by the time we got to Islamabad the word was out that this was really a loser this trip, and so we had only one journalist left who was covering us, and the Yahya invited us to dinner and in the course of the dinner I allegedly fell ill and he allegedly urged me to go to the mountain station he had for recuperation. And we announced to the press that I would spend a couple of days in the mountains. And we even sent off a convoy of cars that they could see. In fact I got up very early in the morning, just before five o'clock, we took off very early. And went to a Pakistan air force airplane, actually was a PIA plane, to take us to Beijing. It was not a, it was a commercial plane used for this purpose. And when I got on the plane and I had the Secret Service with me as I always did in those days we found four Chinese in Mao suits sitting there, whom Chou En-lai had sent to escort me into China, but we didn't know this. And our Secret Service people nearly had a heart attack when they saw what this was.

11. Can you describe what you call the saga of your shirts? 

Henry Kissinger: One of the problems on these high level trips is little things like where do you get your motorcade and what do you do with your shirts. Do you have enough shirts along and do you dare to get it washed in the various local places and without having it shrunk to a point that you can't use it any more. Well anyway I put I think two or three shirts aside, put them in a separate bag, carefully preserved. But then my aide left it in Pakistan, so I not only had, I had simply had not shirt. And one of my associates who is about six feet three gave me his shirt, which made me look as if I had no neck. And top of everything else was made in Taiwan and had a label made in Taiwan. And I used to joke that when I said to the Chinese on that trip that Taiwan was close to me I really meant it.

12. Could you give your impression of Chou En-lai?

Henry Kissinger: Chou En-lai was elegant, intelligent, professional, charming, and he seemed to have unlimited time for these conversations. I used to tell him that I couldn't spare that much time for the second coming. And he would - we would start then and in all subsequent visits, he didn't like to work in the morning, but we'd start at three and go on to two, three the next morning without him ever being interrupted. Nobody ever brought him a note, obviously never any phone calls. He acted as if he absolutely had no other assignment in the world except to deal with his American counterpart. Very tough. Very good negotiator. One of the ablest people that I met and one of the nicest on a day to day basis.

13. How difficult was it to negotiate how Nixon would be invited? Please tell us about this discussion. 

Henry Kissinger: We literally had only one weekend when I could come. They had a State visit from Kimil Sun which they didn't know how to cancel. And so Chou En-lai had to divide his time between us and Kimil Sun. So we began the communication on the communiqué and the Chinese taught me a lesson in the sense that I was used to dealing with the Soviets and there was a tendency to state your maximum terms and negotiated backward from that. The Chinese said lets not have any agreement, lets not put anything down just tell us what you need and we'll tell you what we need and then lets draft something. But Chou En-lai had to go to this dinner. He couldn't tell us what the reason was. So we had a preliminary discussion then he disappeared and so we didn't know why he had disappeared and here we were all alone in the State guesthouse complex there was no-one around us. And so you didn't know what might happen next. Then somebody came and said - then Wong Wa showed up the later Foreign Minister, a trusted aide of Chou. And we went through a discussion but we still had no test. Next morning we met with Wong Wa again and he produced a text and we had a text. Luckily for me I let him produce his text first, which was better for us than our text. And we actually accepted it with I think one word change. And at that point Chou En-lai showed up again and we concluded the meeting. Because we had to leave at a fixed hour since I had to be back in Paris by midnight Paris time for a reason that I know forget.

Support Provided by: Learn More