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This Day in History: Only Nixon could go to China

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs.

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China and the Ming tombs. Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration. Photo by Byron E. Schumaker. PD.

On this day in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his entourage, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers, landed in Beijing for an historic trip to China. It was "The week that changed the world," as President Nixon called his eight-day trip that included official meetings, cultural visits, and sightseeing in Beijing, Hangchow, and Shanghai. According to 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.

The trip was widely televised and viewed. On February 27, the U.S. and China issued a joint communiqué, later known as the Shanghai Communiqué, which pledged both countries to work for "normalization" of relations, and to expand "people-to-people contacts" and trade opportunities and for the United States to withdraw gradually from Taiwan.

In October 1967, when he was running for president, Nixon wrote in a Foreign Affairs piece:

Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations. There is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation.

But the depth of Nixon’s commitment to a new relationship with China was difficult to judge. During his first years in office, Nixon sensed an opportunity as relations between the Soviet Union and China continued to deteriorate. Reversing Cold War precedent, he publicly referred to the country by its official name, the People's Republic of China.

In Spring 1971, Mao Zedong invited an American table tennis team to China for some exhibition matches. Following the breakthrough of sorts, Nixon sent Kissinger to China to engage in secret meetings with Chinese officials, thus laying the ground for Nixon’s trip the following year.

As one of the most anti-Communist politicians of the Cold War, Nixon was in a unique position to launch a diplomatic opening to China, leading to the birth of a new political maxim: "Only Nixon could go to China." It was only a first step, but a decisive one, in the budding rapprochement between the two countries.

Read more about Nixon’s presidency, including his trip to China, here.

 

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