'The Week That Changed The World': 50 Years Since Richard Nixon Visited Mao in China

Fifty years ago this coming week, President Richard Nixon ventured where no U.S. president had gone before him and carried out a state visit to China. A trip that, he humbly claimed, "changed the world."

The announcement of Nixon's trip was a bombshell. It came at the height of the Cold War when an amicable visit to one of the country's fiercest and most direct ideological rivals at the time seemed inconceivable, especially from a staunch anti-Communist like Nixon.

Such was the surprise, that the Washington Post wrote: "If Mr. Nixon had revealed he was going to the moon, he could not have flabbergasted his world audience more."

In his televised address to the nation on July 15, 1971, Nixon revealed his plans to visit communist China. "I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People's Republic of China," Nixon said.

On February 21, 1972, Nixon and his entourage touched down on the tarmac of a country they did not diplomatically recognize, and had had virtually no contact with for over two decades.

Secret Trips and Secret Meetings

Nixon was aware of the sensibility of arranging such a trip, as publicly disclosing his intentions and discussing the idea with his fellow Republicans would have likely been met with a severe backlash.

He therefore sought less conventional channels to establish contact with China, and sent hidden contact requests via Paris and Warsaw, as well as through the leaders of Romania and Pakistan.

The defining moment came in early July 1971, when Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser at the time, feigned a stomach illness while on a trip to Pakistan in order to flee the country in a private jet bound for Beijing in the middle of the night.

Nixon meets mao
President Richard Nixon meets with Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in Beijing, during his 1972 visit to China. Corbis/Getty Images

Sitting alongside Kissinger aboard the private jet was Winston Lord, a Special Assistant to Kissinger at the time and would-be Ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State.

"The stakes were high," Lord told Newsweek. "We took a public trip to South Asia to four countries before we got to Pakistan, and from there, we took a trip for 48 hours to Beijing on a Pakistani plane. That trip was designed to see whether there was a common ground to move ahead with this delicate minuet."

While secretly in China, Kissinger asked China to extend an invite for an official state visit–a wish that the Chinese leadership granted. He then conveyed his mission's success to Nixon in an enigmatic cable containing a single coded word: "Eureka."

Looking back, Lord added that there was a "manageable nervousness" about the trip and was surprised by Nixon's commitment to an efficient visit.

"I have participated in many summit meetings with many presidents, but I've never seen a president prepare as carefully as Nixon did for this trip, it was remarkable preparation," he said.

Over the course of eight days, Nixon and his team took part in carefully orchestrated visits and a series of meetings, all of which were extensively covered, documented and–most importantly–televised.

Nixon on great wall
President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State William Rogers with Chinese Deputy Premier Li Xiannian during a visit to the Great Wall of China. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) Corbis/Getty Images

The U.S. delegation knew of the importance of regular televised cover, as Kissinger wrote in his memoirs: "Pictures overrode the printed word; the public simply was not interested in the complex analyses [...] after having watched the spectacle of an American president welcomed in the capital of an erstwhile enemy."

There was one key meeting, however, which had not been scheduled into the carefully planned trip. An impromptu meeting with Mao himself, only hours after touching down in Beijing.

Lord recalled that Mao "exuded great willpower" and was a "commanding presence," despite his somewhat unorthodox behavior during the meeting.

"What we found in Mao was something completely different. He spoke in brief sentences, and was quite elusive. He was bantering and humorous–he kidded Kissinger about his dating a lot of women. But above all, he wouldn't engage in any detail on substance. So when the meeting ended, we were somewhat puzzled because the chairman hadn't really engaged us on the key issues. So it was rather strange," Lord told Newsweek.

Lord, much to his surprise, was told to sit in on the meeting and to take notes while other main figures such as the secretary of state were requested not to join. Nonetheless, he was omitted from any official photographs or communiques of the meeting.

"When the meeting concluded Nixon turned to Enlai and said: 'Mr. Lord was never at this meeting.' He did it for a good reason, because it was already humiliating for the secretary of state not to be there, but for the third person to be a 30-something-year-old assistant really was too much. For several years, the world assumed that only Kissinger and Nixon were there," Lord stated.

Nixon Lord Mao Meeting
A picture depicting the unscheduled meeting between Mao Tse-Tung (third from left) and US President Richard Nixon (fourth from right) and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger (third from right) in Beijing on February 21, 1972. Then-Special Assistant toKissinger, Winston Lord (second from right) secretly attended the meeting, and his presence was omitted from any official photos or communiques at the time. Courtesy of Winston Lord

Geopolitical Aims Of The Trip

Nixon had long standing diplomatic ambitions in Asia, and with China in particular. He had written an article in Foreign Affairs in 1967, where he argued: "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."

Nonetheless, the President's ambitions were not as selfless and globalist as he made them seem. He was not merely trying to help China onto the global stage and allow it to shake off the shackles of Communism, he had other political aims.

The Cold War was in full swing and the U.S. was keeping a close eye on their public enemy number one: the Soviet Union. At the time, friction had started to emerge between the two Communist colossi, and Nixon saw the possibility of establishing ties with China as a way of simultaneously weakening the USSR. The Nixon administration opted to follow the old adage 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend.'

"This was dramatic and exciting, it was going to be a geopolitical earthquake. We had high hopes not only for opening up with one fifth of the world's people, but also inducing the Soviet Union to be more cooperative. We also wanted to get some help on ending the Vietnam War. Showing a world that we could act with decisiveness despite being bogged down in Vietnam and lifting the morale of the American people with a dramatic initiative," Lord said.

Additionally, the president also had a re-election campaign on the horizon, and sought to harness the trip as a way of reinforcing his candidacy.

"Nixon clearly wanted to do this, he saw this as something that would improve his image and create a legacy for him in terms of the political history of the United States," Yukon Huang, a senior fellow in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment and former China Director at the World Bank, told Newsweek.

The decision to build bridges with China was met with some concern and skepticism, not from Nixon's critics but rather from certain hard-line factions within his own Republican camp.

Opponents of the plan believed that a state visit would entail a betrayal to Taiwan, who the U.S recognized at the time as the formal representative of the Chinese government. Additionally, some feared that establishing relations with China would enable the Communist state to develop and grow in a way that would be detrimental to the U.S.

Nixon Enlai toast
US President Richard Nixon toasts with Chinese Prime minister Zhou Enlai during a banquet in Beijing on February, 1972 during an official visit in China. AFP/Getty Images

However, Nixon's devoted anti-Communism worked in his favor in this particular case.

"Nixon was in a good position to actually engage with China, because he was seen as a strong anti-Communist. You could not have had someone who was seen as soft on Communism engaging," Huang said.

China, however, also had stakes in the game, as Huang explained they had two main objectives.

"They had two major objectives. Firstly, to be able to re-engage with the world to hopefully reverse their economic problems. China was coming out of the Cultural Revolution and economically it was far worse off than it had been, its prospects were pretty dim. And also to move forward in terms of getting [diplomatic] recognition over Taiwan, that was really important," Huang told Newsweek.

Agree To Disagree

The trip culminated in the signing of the Shanghai Communique, a bipartisan agreement where both countries outlined their fundamental differences and agreed to set them aside in order to foster a more prosperous relationship for the two.

"The genius of the communique was the fact that both sides agreed to postpone intractable issues. The Shanghai communique is a unique document, it was a very unorthodox approach, but a very successful one. It represented the wisdom of both sides to compartmentalize differences that couldn't be resolved for now, but not let that stand in the way of progress in other areas.

"Even as we 'engaged' China we never assumed that we were going to become great friends. We maintain strong alliances. We never assumed that we were going to become close, and we had no other alternative really to what we did." Lord stated.

Despite the undeniable progress China has made in the decades since and its growth on the global stage as an economic, technological and diplomatic powerhouse, Huang pointed out that China remains a tough nut to crack, regardless of Nixon's efforts.

"We've never had the full confidence to decide what was going on in China. Certainly when Nixon went out there, no one knew the consequences, and in fact it took decades. Here we are 50 years later and that relationship is still evolving. If someone wants the judgment as to whether it was worth it, frankly, we're probably not going to be able to tell that for another several decades."