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Nixon's China Game | Article

The Nixon Visit


"The week that changed the world," as President Nixon called his historic 1972 visit to China, made for a eight-day television extravaganza — and a public relations coup for hosts and guests alike. For eight days and nights, American television audiences tuned in to a spectacular parade of images from China, the first they had seen in more than twenty years.

On the president's instructions, the American press corps strongly favored television over print journalists, as the medium would better capture the magnificent visuals the trip afforded -- and get back at the newspapermen Nixon so despised. On the eve of the journey, as the president studiously reviewed the briefing books, his aide H.R. Haldeman instructed Kissinger "on how to make sure Nixon would get the most flattering television shots."

Nixon deplaned in Beijing on February 21, his flair for both diplomacy and drama well in evidence. Notes Nixon biographer Stephen Ambrose, "He knew that when his old friend John Foster Dulles had refused to shake the hand of Chou En-lai in Geneva in 1954, Chou had felt insulted. He knew too that American television cameras would be at the Peking airport to film his arrival. A dozen times on the way to Peking, Nixon told Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers that they were to stay on the plane until he had descended the gangway and shaken Chou En-lai’s hand. As added insurance, a Secret Service agent blocked the aisle of Air Force One to make sure the president emerged alone."

Soon after their arrival, Nixon and Kissinger were summoned to a previously unannounced meeting with Chairman Mao, which Kissinger later referred to as their "encounter with history." Next came a formal welcome banquet hosted by Chou En-lai, broadcast live on the American morning news thanks to the 13-hour time difference. In the Great Hall of the People, as the People’s Liberation Army band played such American favorites as "America the Beautiful" and "Home on the Range," course after course was followed by seemingly endless rounds of toasts. "‘Seize the hour! Seize the day!’" Nixon quoted from Mao, raising his glass to his Chinese hosts. But beyond the pomp and spectacle, the banquets sent a clear and dramatic message to everyone watching that a new relationship was being forged.


Throughout the week, when not meeting with Chou and Chinese officials, Nixon attended cultural and athletic performances and more banquets, and toured such architectural and artistic treasures as the Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, and the Great Wall of China. "I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wall," the President observed, when pressed for comment, "and it had to be built by a great people." (Much to his chagrin, many American press reports omitted the second part of his quote.) Millions of Americans got their first glimpse of life behind the "Bamboo Curtain," as Pat Nixon toured communes, schools, factories, and hospitals, as American reporters, shut out of the substance of the official talks, also took to the tourist trail.

For their part, the Chinese media devoted unprecedented attention to the Nixon visit. While few Chinese owned sets and could follow the events on television, they listened to official radio broadcasts, and bought out copies of papers like the People's Daily, which featured front-page stories and photographs of the Nixon summit. The extraordinary publicity given to the visit by the government-controlled Chinese media was itself newsworthy, and widely featured in American television and newspaper reports.


After brief visits to Hangchow and Shanghai, where the final communiqué was announced, the presidential party returned to Washington on February 28. Any initial press and Congressional criticism of the Shanghai Communique’s "sellout" of Taiwan was soon lost in the afterglow of the historic event. Wrote Kissinger in his memoirs, "For once a White House public relations strategy succeeded, and performed a diplomatic function as well. Pictures overrode the printed word; the public simply was not interested in the complex analyses of the document after having watched the spectacle of an American President welcomed in the capital of an erstwhile enemy."


Henry Kissinger, White House Years, (Little, Brown and Co., 1979) p. 1054.
Stephen Ambrose, Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, (Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 513.
Kissinger, White House Years, p. 1092.

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