1972 visit by Richard Nixon to China

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The 1972 visit by United States President Richard Nixon to the People's Republic of China (PRC) was an important strategic and diplomatic overture that marked the culmination of the Nixon administration's resumption of harmonious relations between the United States and mainland China after years of diplomatic isolation. The seven-day official visit to three Chinese cities was the first time a U.S. president had visited the PRC; Nixon's arrival in Beijing ended 25 years of no communication or diplomatic ties between the two countries and was the key step in normalizing relations between the U.S. and the PRC. Nixon visited the PRC to gain more leverage over relations with the Soviet Union. The normalization of ties culminated in 1979, when the U.S. established full diplomatic relations with the PRC.


  • Winston Lord, Kissinger’s deputy at the National Security Council, stressed to investigators the internal rationalization developed within the upper echelons of the Administration. Lord told [the staff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] “We had to demonstrate to China we were a reliable government to deal with. We had to show China that we respect a mutual friend.” How, after two decades of belligerent animosity with the People’s Republic, mere support for Pakistan in its bloody civil war was supposed to demonstrate to China that the US “was a reliable government to deal with” was a mystifying proposition which more cynical observers of the events, both in and outside the US government, consider to have been an excuse justifying the simple convenience of the Islamabad link—a link which Washington had no overriding desire to shift.
    • Winston Lord quoted by Lawrence Lifschultz, quoted from Christopher Hitchens, The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2002)
  • We now know of one reason why the general was so favored, at a time when he had made himself—and his patrons—responsible for the grossest war crimes and crimes against humanity. In April 1971, a United States ping-pong team had accepted a surprise invitation to compete in Beijing and by the end of that month, using the Pakistani ambassador as an intermediary, the Chinese authorities had forwarded a letter inviting Nixon to send an envoy. Thus there was one motive of realpolitik for the shame that Nixon and Kissinger were to visit on their own country for its complicity in the extermination of the Bengalis.... It cannot possibly be argued, in any case, that the saving of Kissinger’s private correspondence with China was worth the deliberate sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Bengali civilians.
  • If history is the judge to which we appeal, then it can also find against us. It can highlight our mistakes by reminding us of those who, at other times, faced similar problems but who made different, perhaps better, decisions. President Bush refused to deal with Iran, even though it has huge influence in the Middle East and, in particular, in Iraq. His critics remembered when another American president faced a situation where the United States was bogged down in an unwinnable war and was losing much of its authority in the world. President Richard Nixon decided that he had to get the United States out of Vietnam and rebuild American prestige, and that the key to doing both lay in Beijing. Even though the United States and the People’s Republic were bitter enemies that had had virtually no contact with each other for decades, he boldly embarked on an initiative to bring about mutual recognition and, so he hoped, mutual help. When I was lecturing in the United States about Nixon in China, my book on the president’s 1972 trip to China, a question I was asked repeatedly was, if Nixon were president today, would he be going to Teheran for help in getting the United States out of Iraq?
  • Let me also say this: The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach – condemnation without discussion – can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door. In light of the Cultural Revolution’s horrors, Nixon’s meeting with Mao appeared inexcusable – and yet it surely helped set China on a path where millions of its citizens have been lifted from poverty and connected to open societies. Pope John Paul’s engagement with Poland created space not just for the Catholic Church, but for labor leaders like Lech Walesa. Ronald Reagan’s efforts on arms control and embrace of perestroika not only improved relations with the Soviet Union, but empowered dissidents throughout Eastern Europe. There’s no simple formula here. But we must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement, pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time.
  • The social systems of China and the United States are fundamentally different, and there exist great differences between the Chinese Government and the United States Government. However, these differences should not hinder China and the United States from establishing normal state relations on the basis of the Five Principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence; still less should they lead to war. As early as 1955 the Chinese Government publicly stated that the Chinese people do not want to have a war with the United States and that the Chinese Government is willing to sit down and enter into negotiations with the United States Government. This is a policy which we have pursued consistently. We have taken note of the fact that in his speech before setting out for China President Nixon on his part said that “what we must do is to find a way to see that we can have differences without being enemies in war.” We hope that, through a frank exchange of views between our two sides to gain a clearer notion of our differences and make efforts to find common ground, a new start can be made in the relations between our two countries.
    • Zhou Enlai, February 21, 1972, as quoted in Historic Documents of 1972. Washington, DC: CQ Press.