This is one in a series of 13 Yahoo News interviews with historians about defining moments in presidential leadership. The interviews were conducted by Andrew Romano, Lisa Belkin and Sam Matthews, and the videos were produced by Sam Matthews.
Journalist and historian Evan Thomas, author of “Being Nixon: A Man Divided,” spoke to Yahoo News about Richard Nixon’s defining moment of presidential leadership: his decision to leverage his anti-communist reputation and personal diplomatic skills in order to initiate a relationship with China.
In the decades between World War II and Nixon taking office, the relationship between the United States and China was chaotic. There was just no contact.
Nixon is vilified by history, and deservedly so. Watergate was a terrible thing, and he did disgrace his office.
But going to China? That was a great act of statesmanship.
It showed America at its best — as not a country that retreats and hides but rather reaches out to the rest of the world on an equal basis.
Nixon was a fairly traditional conservative Republican with one important exception: He was an internationalist. Nixon knew that we had to be “in the world.”
Nixon always made it his business not only to know what was going on in foreign countries but to go there himself, to meet with their leaders. He did this all throughout his career, and he was good at it. He was not considered the most easygoing, popular guy, but foreign leaders liked Nixon for two reasons: He did his homework, and he did not condescend to them. He talked to them in an even way about their interests.
In 1959, President Eisenhower sent then-Vice President Nixon to Moscow to a trade fair.
It wasn’t going to be a big deal, but Nixon was lucky enough, or smart enough, to confront Nikita Khrushchev, the head of the Soviet Union, in a debate. In a model kitchen, they stood there over a dishwasher.
Americans were looking for leaders who could stand up to communists and, in the debate, Nixon stood up to Khrushchev, this blustering bully.
When Nixon comes to office in 1969, China is still in a deep freeze. There’s no relationship between China and the United States. Nixon understood that we increasingly lived in a multipolar world and that in that world, the balance of power was important. He wanted to create a world in which we could pit China against Russia or Russia against China to achieve a kind of balance of power. It was a brilliant, forward-thinking approach to foreign policy.
And so Nixon begins secret diplomacy. He begins sending messages to the Chinese through Pakistan that we would be willing to meet with them. Then, in the summer of 1970, he sends his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, on a secret mission to Beijing to set up talks.
Going to China was an incredibly elaborate exercise, partly because we hadn’t been there at all. There was always the risk that things could go wrong. But Nixon was a seasoned hand at international diplomacy; he understood the power of it, that American leaders have to go to foreign countries to make their presence felt and to represent their country.
The Nixon administration “advanced” the hell out of the trip to China. They invited every network, every major newsman, so there was tremendous advance publicity.
People were watching him, and when he came off the plane and he shook hands with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, it was a great moment. Nixon was showing with that handshake that we had entered a new age of getting along with our enemies. It was very powerful TV.
Nixon wanted to put on a show, and the Chinese wanted to put on a show, so they did. Nixon went on the Great Wall. There were endless toasts that Nixon had to be careful about or he was going to get drunk. There were endless parades, handshakes; Nixon had to sit through endless boring Chinese operas, which he didn’t like very much. But Nixon had put up with a lot, and he put up with that too.
For the Chinese, it was a chance to see a Westerner and realize that the Westerner was not a warmonger — was not some crazy capitalist imperialist but a human being.
There’s always a risk of embarrassment — of the unexpected — in personal diplomacy like this. When Nixon first got there, they weren’t absolutely sure that Chairman Mao would see him. But Nixon did go to see him right away. It ended up being a good show.
What Nixon accomplished in China was not any great treaty. He opened a diplomatic relationship that led to great economic ties between the two countries and brought China into the world.
Ultimately, Nixon was the right man to lead the United States in that time in the Cold War. He was brilliant in diplomacy with both Russia and China. But his personal insecurities undermined him and eventually destroyed him.
Most Americans have written off Nixon as a terrible president, and in some ways, he was. He was the only president to be driven from office. But he was certainly a great president when it came to opening up China. Most people have a vague memory of that. But they need to have a stronger memory of how important it was for an American president to reach out to an enemy like that and open the door.
Click below to view the rest of the 13-part series.
Cover thumbnail photo: President Richard Nixon visits China in 1972. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images, AP)