Saturday, April 28, 2012

Nixon's China Policy

There is no doubt that Nixon's diplomatic overtures to China were one of the most important aspects of his foreign policy. Some applauded this outreach, others were skeptical of it, but all acknowledged that it was momentous. It is seen also in the context of Vietnam - as Chinese relationships with America warmed, Mao - who had always been somewhat reserved in his support of Ho Chi Minh - was even less enthusiastic about supporting the Hanoi government.

Nixon's trip to China stands out in history and memory, but there was a longer diplomatic run-up to that journey: it did not simply happen out of nothing. William F. Buckley, Jr., recalls:

On July 15, 1971, President Nixon helicoptered from his Western White House in San Clemente to a television studio in Burbank to make a surprise announcement: not only were we ending our ostracism of Red China, but he would himself visit China sometime before the following spring. The shock waves were everywhere palpable; but Mr. Nixon knew enough about politics to know that he might safely proceed from the television studio to a fancy restaurant in Los Angeles, there to celebrate his diplomatic triumph in a highly publicized private dinner at which the champagne corks popped in complacent harmony with the impending elation. A few precautions were taken, as if by a master electrician running his eyes over the control panel.

Among those "precautions" were domestic concerns: although China was foreign policy, Nixon needed to be assured that various key constituent groups in America were going to be comfortable with his contacts to Mao. Ronald Reagan, California's governor at the time, was watching Nixon's televised speech with friends and family at home.

The governor turned off the television after the network commentators began transmitting the delighted stupefaction of the international diplomatic community. There had been no comment in the room, save one or two of those wolfish whistles one hears when someone on one's side in politics says something daringly risque; kinky, even, gauged by the standards of the old Nixon. The television off, there was silence in the room for a second, not more - the telephone's ring reached us. The butler appeared. "Dr. Kissinger is on the line," he said to Governor Reagan, who stood up and went to the sequestered alcove where the telephone sat. He wasn't gone for very long, but even by the time he returned, somehow we knew that the question Did Richard Nixon say something he shouldn't have said? Did he undertake a course of action he should not have undertaken? was not up for review. The defloration was final. Henry Kissinger, within five minutes of the public announcement, had ready and reassured the most conspicuously

prominent governor in the country. Nixon needed key political leaders, like Reagan, to know "that the strategic intentions of the president were in total harmony with" the nation's security and interests. Nixon managed a masterful balance between establishing contact with a hostile foreign regime while assuring Americans that was acting in the nation's best interests.