Richard M. Nixon
On February 17, 1972, a crowd of thousands gathered on the White House lawn for a historic send-off. For Richard Milhous Nixon, the trip to Beijing would be the journey of a lifetime. He would be the first U.S. president to go to China. "He knew that for this flight," wrote Max Frankel in the New York Times, "no matter what else occurred, he would always be remembered."
Born in Yorba Linda, CA in 1913 into a working-class Quaker family, Nixon enjoyed a meteoric early political career. After a stint in the Navy in WWII, he served two consecutive terms in the U.S. House of Representatives as a Republican from California. A member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, he rose to national prominence for his role in the Alger Hiss espionage case, quickly establishing his reputation as a hard-line anti-Communist. It is no small irony that the man who accused the Truman administration of "losing" China to the Communists in 1949 would be responsible for establishing friendly relations with the People's Republic of China some 20 years later.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950, Nixon was chosen by Dwight D. Eisenhower as his vice-presidential running mate. The ticket swept into office in 1952, and was re-elected four years later. As vice-president, Nixon traveled extensively and took an active interest in U.S. foreign affairs.
But his political career was headed for a downturn. Nixon's loss in 1960 to John F. Kennedy -- in the closest presidential race in U.S. history-- was followed by a stinging defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election. He announced his retirement from politics with the characteristic combativeness and distrust of media which were to plague his later career. "Think of all you'll be missing," he told a surprised press. "You won't have Richard Nixon to kick around anymore." The pronouncement proved premature.
In 1968 Nixon became the nation's 37th president, elected largely on his campaign promise of a speedy end to the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam. He hoped to get American troops out in six months. In the end, it took more than four years; Nixon's critics accused him of widening and prolonging the conflict in Southeast Asia. While the U.S. did ultimately withdraw from Vietnam during Nixon's tenure, the resolution was far from the "peace with honor" he had promised.
Nixon entered the White House in 1969 eager to create a more responsive, more efficient system of government at home and a new role for the U.S. abroad. In the domestic sphere, he called for a "New Federalism," a movement of money and power toward states and municipalities and away from the federal government. In the foreign policy arena, Nixon sought to establish a more stable triangular balance of power arrangement with the Soviet Union and China. An unlikely architect of rapprochement, Nixon's reputation as a hard-line Cold Warrior gave him political cover. After all, who could accuse Richard Nixon of being "soft on Communism?" Along with his national security adviser Henry Kissinger, Nixon's pursuit of détente with the USSR ultimately paid off in the SALT I nuclear arms control agreement of 1972.
Nixon had had his eye on China for some time. In 1967, writing in Foreign Affairs, the presidential hopeful cautioned that continuing to ignore China was both unrealistic and unwise: " . . . we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates, and threaten its neighbors."
In 1969 U.S.-China relations consisted of mutual non-recognition and hurled insults. Upon assuming office, Nixon began signaling a thaw in U.S. attitudes toward China. Hehad Secretary of State William Rogers announce that the U.S. favored increased cultural and scientific exchanges with the PRC, loosened trade and visa restrictions, and began pulling U.S. troops out of Vietnam and military bases near China. In case the message was lost on the Chinese audience, he made his intentions even clearer. "If there is anything I want to do before I die," he told Time magazine in October 1970, "it is to go to China."
Still more explicit overtures were relayed secretly to China via third party nations, such as Romania and Pakistan. After much back-and-forth negotiation -- most notably Kissinger's secret July 1971 meeting with Chou En-lai -- Nixon announced that the following year, he would visit the People's Republic of China. The highly televised mission in February 1972 was the crown jewel of the president's career -- and his most lasting success. "The week that changed the world," as he called it, was enormously popular with the American public, and helped Nixon net a landslide re-election in 1972.
Nixon's China initiatives were soon "hamstrung" by the Watergate scandal. On August 9, 1974, with an impeachment trial imminent, Nixon became the only president in American history to resign from office. It took until 1979, with the establishment of full U.S. diplomatic relations with China, to see Nixon's groundwork brought to fruition.