President Nixon's Trip to China: Fifty Years Later
On the anniversary of President Nixon's February 1972 trip to China, our panelists examine the significance of the trip and its influence on U.S. foreign policy, how U.S.-China relations have fared in the fifty years since the visit, and the challenges ahead for the two countries.
The Lessons From History Series uses historical analysis as a critical tool for understanding modern foreign policy challenges by hearing from practitioners who played an important role in a consequential historical event or from experts and historians. This series is made possible through the generous support of David M. Rubenstein.
BRINKLEY: Good afternoon, everybody. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History Series. This meeting is going to be about “President Nixon’s Trip to China—Fifty Years Later.” This Lessons from History Series was made possible by the generous support, as always, of David M. Rubenstein. I’m Douglas Brinkley. I’m a professor of history at Rice University. I write books on U.S. Foreign Policy and on presidents. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion, which is quite exciting because it’s fifty years of President Nixon’s historic breakthrough with Henry Kissinger and Winston Lord to China, and the beginning of a new era between the two countries. And so I want to begin today by introducing Winston Lord, Ambassador Lord, as I prefer to call him. Who was, of course, our ambassador to China, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former special assistant to the National Security Council, still a CFR member. Good afternoon, Ambassador Lord.
LORD: Nice to see you, Doug.
BRINKLEY: I wanted to begin by just give us the background, just lay it out for us, what it was like in 1971 when you started doing the preliminary work for what becomes the historic meeting with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai—series of meetings.
LORD: First, let me acknowledge that I almost never got involved in China at all. In 1962 I wanted to marry a girl named Bette Bao Lord. I had to get permission from the State Department because she was a Chinese citizen. So Mr. Zwock (ph), a GS-15 of the State Department, interviewed her. Said, you can go to the president, but if I don’t approve this marriage, you can’t get married, putting her at ease. And then he grilled her for an hour and a half. I’m not making up this. His first question is, who is Vardis Fisher? Other questions included, how do you make a Death in the Afternoon cocktail, name the first thirteen colonies and the order in which they entered the union, and then one of the final questions was: Name the starting offensive line of the Green Bay Packers. (Laughter.) Now, Betty, of course, handled all these with ease, although I think she got the left guard of the Packer’s wrong. I cite this because I never thought I’d work on China, but I got my revenge nine years later. Mr. Zwock (ph) posed the final question to my wife and said: What’s Winston going to do if I say if he goes ahead with this marriage he’ll never work on China? And she said, he can find other countries, but he’ll never find another girl like me. So nine years later, I ended up being the first person into China, ahead of Kissinger, of course, because as we went secretly—you mentioned July ’71—on that first trip in a Pakistani plane, I was in the front of the plane and Henry was in the back. Now, how did we get there? When Nixon and Kissinger came into office the landscape at home and abroad was full of turmoil. At home, we had a president who had just resigned. We had the Vietnam War demonstrations, race riots, assassinations, uneasy relationship with a nuclear superpower, no relationship with one-fifth of humanity, bogged down in our diplomacy because of Vietnam, and a fatigued and upset American domestic public. In this context, both Nixon and Kissinger came into office wanting to open up relations with China. Nixon’s emphasis was on world stability. Henry’s emphasis was more balance of power, but they both agreed. So Nixon sent a memo one week after the inauguration to Kissinger saying, get in touch with the Chinese. We had two challenges, public and private: publicly to signal to various audiences our new direction—we did that with relaxing some economic restrictions and some speeches and reports—and then privately to get in touch with the Chinese after twenty-two years. We ended up using the Pakistani channel. We exchanged notes with Zhou Enlai through the Pakistani ambassador in Washington. Henry and I would draft responses to Zhou Enlai, et cetera. And the big issue here before we agreed on the secret visit was to make sure the agenda was much broader than Taiwan, which China wanted. Once that was settled, we agreed on the visit and we took off in July ’71. Henry thought it was a public trip to cover the private trip we went to South Asia. Henry told me in advance I couldn’t share this with my wife because if it leaked we’d be suspected. I promised him I wouldn’t, and, of course, I had planned to. So I squared that circle as I was packing my bag the night before the public trip. In those days, Beijing was known as Peking. And I looked out the window and I said to my wife: I think I see a Peking Tom. So we went on the trip and we got to Pakistan and snorkel up in the airplane. And this, of course, was the dramatic moment for all of us and, particularly, for me. We had the second highest mountain in the world, K2, snowcapped at dawn outside our window. We were unleashing a political earthquake meeting Chinese leaders, and, for me, the fact that my wife was born in Shanghai gave extra drama. Henry was more concerned about his shirts. He didn’t have any. His staff assistant didn’t pack any. So I told Henry: You haven’t even negotiated with Zhou Enlai, yet you’ve already lost your shirt. But he borrowed one from somebody else on the trip much taller, went around looking like a penguin, and the label on the shirt said: “Made in Taiwan.” (Laughter.) So we got to Beijing, met by a high-level delegation, and then whisked secretly to a guesthouse, and we spent forty-nine hours trying to accomplish two things: one, was there enough common ground for us to move ahead with the presidential visit, and secondly, to negotiate a communiqué announcing that visit. In the midst of this, we had an extraordinary event where we went to the Forbidden City, which was closed off because we were there secretly, and then had a Peking duck lunch with Zhou Enlai, who recounted the Cultural Revolution, showing his skill, making the point he himself had suffered and it really was chaotic and disastrous, but proclaiming that Mao had the foresight to shake up the bureaucracy and not be another Soviet Union. So he could send a transcript to Mao saying he praised him, but he also was explaining to us it was a disaster. We succeeded on the trip, flew back to Pakistan, went back via Paris where we had secret negotiations with the Vietnamese and thought we had made a breakthrough there as well. Got home and made the announcement in San Clemente, which shook up the world. Now, I would argue that this announcement plus, of course, the trip was the single hinge of Nixon’s entire foreign policy for the next four years. Keep in mind the landscape I sketched. Within eighteen months of this announcement, we opened up with China. We would not be dealing with—only with just one spokesman, namely, Moscow and the communist world. We immediately improved relations with the Soviets on the main negotiation, arms control. They agreed to a summit. We got help on the Vietnam War. We established ourselves as being more credible on the world stage, not bogged down by a war, and it lifted the morale of the American people. Those were our goals. The Chinese goals were to break out of their diplomatic isolation—they were still in the Culture Revolution—and to balance the threat from the north from the Soviets. Spoiler alert: As a result of the president trip, all these goals were met. So let me get to the president’s trip in the time we have remaining. We had another public trip in October ’71 where we went back with the White House staff to set up, on the one hand, the logistic, security, itinerary, media arrangements for the trip but also to go over the agenda for the president and to begin a communique. We provided Zhou Enlai with a rather traditional communique. It wasn’t naive—we were enemies—but we indicated areas of progress. Zhou came back the next day and almost threw it on the floor. He said, this is not credible; we’ve been enemies for twenty-two years; we fought each other in Korea; let’s have a different kind of communique in which each side sets out its own position, so on philosophy and ideology and on concrete issues; then, where we can agree, it will have more credibility; this will reassure our allies and friends, and it will reassure our domestic audiences which are used to hostility. We were taken aback by this, but we had no choice; we had two days left. Kissinger had me redraft the communique until 4:00 a.m.; he took it over from there. We negotiated the rest of it except—and a big exception, of course—the Taiwan issue, as we left in October. Then we went on the presidential visit. I’ve worked with several presidents; I’ve never seen any president work as hard for a summit. I was in charge of the briefing books. We had six of them that were about a foot high. I know he read almost every page because they were all marked up, and as we flew on Air Force One through Guam and Hawaii, he was still asking us, in the back of Air Force One, for more information. So we got to China and, within an hour, Zhou Enlai told Kissinger that Mao wanted to see the president. We were delighted because this put his stamp of approval on the visit at the very beginning to the various audiences; he usually waited till the end. Kissinger asked me to go after Nixon asked Kissinger. And I’ll get to the substance in just a minute, but it was interesting because at the conclusion of the meeting, Nixon turned to Zhou and said, Mr. Lord was never at this meeting, cut him out of the pictures and the communique. He didn’t want to humiliate Secretary Rogers, who was not there, any further, so I understood that. I’m happy to say a few months later we went back to China and Zhou Enlai gave me a photo, which I think is among those who were in the chat room, proving I was there. The trip—the visit with Mao itself—about an hour in a very modest dwelling filled with manuscripts and books and so on—was a little puzzling to us because we were used to Zhou Enlai’s elegant banter and presentations. What we got from Mao was discursive, random, brief brush strokes deflecting substance to his prime minister, and so we were a little disappointed, but we realized in the coming days with Zhou Enlai that Mao, in seemingly random but effective fashion, had given Mao the authorization and the structure to elaborate agenda in greater detail. We finished tough negotiations on Taiwan and finished the communique, but when we got to Hangzhou toward the end of the trip, the State Department saw the communique for the first time—disgraceful cutting them out, but this—where we were, and of course, they had many suggestions. Nixon was worried about a split in his party so he instructed Kissinger to reopen negotiations with Zhou Enlai. Basically, he had to say to Zhou: I know we’ve worked on this for months. I know the Politburo has approved it, Mao’s approved it; we’re issuing it in a day or two. But I’d like to reopen negotiations. Any event, Mao—Zhou was graceful, allowed some technical changes, the most fundamental changes, particularly on Taiwan, we couldn’t even propose, but there was one very good one from the State Department. We had in the communique a reaffirmation of all alliances except Taiwan and that would have stood out, and so we took all of that out, but Kissinger, having alerted Zhou Enlai, reaffirmed on Chinese soil a defense commitment to Taiwan the next day. And I would argue, on Taiwan, we of course had to move. We had an elusive “one China” policy, which is ambiguous and effective to this day, but the Chinese made major concessions. They allowed diplomatic relations to continue, our defense treaty troops on Taiwan, and military sales. On the way back from the trip, Nixon and Kissinger were still worried about the public perception. This took quite a great leap on both sides to overcome twenty-two years. We hadn’t realized that the television images beamed back to American audiences at their dinner and breakfast tables showing panda bears, toasting leaders, the army band of the PLA playing American songs—that had tremendous impact, together with the geopolitical advantages, so it turned out to be a very popular initiative. So I will conclude by saying that international events are often hyped. And Nixon did say in Hangzhou, “This is the week that changed the world.” In fact, I believe there was a week that changed the world. And in fact, I do think, more than any bilateral relationship, our relations with China over the coming decades will have a great deal to say about the future shape of the world. That’s rather breathless, but it’s—but I can do—
BRINKLEY: No, that’s—thank you so much, Mr. Ambassador. That was—that was exactly what we wanted. And it allows me to turn to one of our nation’s most esteemed historians, Tim Naftali, at New York University, and a founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. Tim, how big a deal is it—was it when Nixon went to China in ’72? We know it was big in ’72, and Nixon goes on to win a landslide election in November. And we know why in foreign policy it’s so important. But what does it look like fifty years later to you?
NAFTALI: Well, Doug, I’ll draw a parallel to what’s going on today. We are living through a pivotal moment in the global system, in the global security system, right now. President Nixon’s visit to China revolutionized international politics in 1972. I wanted to just talk a little bit about how Nixon came to that moment. Really, the opening to China was Richard Nixon’s brainchild. He had started thinking about it because Charles De Gaulle had suggested the idea to him in 1963, when Nixon had visited Charles De Gaulle. You can imagine, 1963 was a lot further away from where the country and the world would be in the 1970s. But even at that point, the French were trying to encourage the United States to withdraw from Southeast Asia, and to accept a neutral Southeast Asia. Nixon did not adopt the policy, and certainly didn’t speak publicly about it. But he ruminated upon it. Indeed, we know that years later he would—he would tell De Gaulle that it was De Gaulle who had given him the idea. In 1967, as the president—as the former vice president was considering a run—another run for the presidency, he had Ray Price, a close associate and future presidential speechwriter, draft an article for Foreign Affairs. And we have the various drafts. And we also have Nixon’s notes to Ray Price. And it’s Nixon who, after reading the first draft, wasn’t satisfied because there was no mention of China. And he wrote to Ray Price, and he said: We cannot permanently isolate one billion of potentially the most capable people in the world. He was thinking about how to do this. Now, why is this revolutionary? Because in 1963 John F. Kennedy was worried about Vietnam and told his associates, his team, that he couldn’t imagine moving out of Vietnam, leaving Vietnam, until after the ’64 election. And why did he say that? Because he was afraid of a Joseph McCarthy moment in this country because people would attack him for being soft on communism. And one of those who would attack him for being soft on communists would have been Richard Nixon. But it’s Richard Nixon, as he makes a bid for the Oval Office again, who recognizes that you have to do something about the international system. That containment was a dead end at that point. That you had—in a sense, you had frozen the possibility for change in the international system. And the United States had made an exception to containment with Yugoslavia. But Yugoslavia is not a major strategic country. Making an exception for China, a country that the United States had fought in Korea, making an exception for Mao Zedong, the same leader that the United States had fought in Korea, was a huge political gamble. And what’s so interesting about Richard Nixon in this regard is that as Ambassador Lord mentioned, as Winston mentioned, the minute—within days of becoming president, Richard Nixon began to signal within the bureaucracy that he was open to changing the policy towards China. There is a—he gives an off-the-record speech to members of Congress and surprises them the summer if 1969 by saying to them: We have to be open to some kind of relationship with China. To hear this from Richard Nixon was revolutionary. I believe the argument that only Richard Nixon could have done this in America politics. Now, why did he do it? Because he understood that the United States had to engage in a strategic retreat from Southeast Asia. And to do that, what you needed to find a way not to magnify the benefits for the Soviet Union. And by choosing to work with or open relations with China, huge power on Soviet borders and a rival of the Soviet Union in the international communist world, would in a sense—would in a sense soften the effects of the strategic retreat from Southeast Asia, and potentially ease the achievement of a retreat with honor, that Richard Nixon was seeking. But it was a huge political risk at home, let alone an international risk. Because, of course, the Chinese could have humiliated Richard Nixon. It worked out very well, but as Richard Nixon was on his way to China, he wasn’t sure he was going to meet with Mao. It wasn’t clear. And perhaps I’ve gotten that wrong, but I believe that it wasn’t until the group arrived in Beijing that they were certain of meeting Mao. And had Richard Nixon gone to China and not met Mao, it would not have been as powerful, I think, a moment in international history. Nixon—and I’d just add one more point—which is that when we think about the value of a policy, I think we should do—we should think about it in terms of the context of when it was made. We will discuss, and I’m sure Oriana will be mentioning, the nature of our relationship now with China. Whatever you think of our current relationship with China, I want to underscore the revolutionary quality and the beneficial effects of breaking up the nature of the international system in 1972 and bringing China in as an ally in the competition with the Soviet Union. That was a major moment in world history, and it really—with the help of Charles De Gaulle—was the brainchild of Richard Nixon.
BRINKLEY: Tim, what about Secretary of State Rogers in all of this? Why is he left out of the historic diplomacy? And maybe Ambassador Lord wants to comment very briefly. But, Tim, what’s going on with the State Department and Nixon during this period?
NAFTALI: Well, Richard—as students of other aspects of Richard Nixon’s career know—I’m talking about Watergate—Richard Nixon mistrusted—he mistrusted the permanent bureaucracy, if you will. He mistrusted professionals in the U.S. government. He thought they were all Democrats, all liberals, and pro-Kennedy. And I believe part of the story is that he was afraid of leaks. He felt there were people within the State Department that would seek to undermine his policy. And so he wanted to keep a close hold. And the way to keep a close hold was to do it in the White House. That’s what I think was the reason why he didn’t bring Rogers in. By the way, China was not the only policy he didn’t bring Secretary of State Rogers into. He didn’t bring Secretary of State Rogers into what he was really thinking about the Middle East. Engaged—he had Rogers engaged in something called a Rogers Plan for the Middle East. But it really was a decoy. It was not really what National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon were actually thinking about that region.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Tim. And, Ambassador Lord, Rogers, very quickly. Any reflection on Nixon and—
LORD: Yeah, I’ll be very brief—yeah, I’ll be—very quickly. Tim summed up why State was excluded. That was true not only in the Middle East but the Soviet Union-Vietnam negotiations, all of which I was fortunate to be involved in, and all of which they were excluded—which is no way to run a business. Very two quick other points. I want to underline Tim’s point about putting Vietnam into perspective. Nixon knew that the withdrawal was going to be ambiguous at best, no parades on Fifth Avenue. By opening up with one-fifth of the world’s people, we could put that in perspective for the world and for the American people. And finally, we had no official notice from the Chinese that Nixon would meet Mao. That’s the way the emperor always plays it. But we were very confident, frankly, it would happen. We didn’t think it would happen so quickly.
BRINKLEY: Very good. I want to turn to our third panelist, Oriana Skylar Mastro. And she is at Stanford University. She’s part of the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s been working on our task force on U.S. response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. She worked with the American Enterprise Institute. Quite simply, she’s one of our smartest minds dealing with the history of U.S.-Chinese relations and where we’re at right now.
Oriana, I want to just ask you, you’re looking at this fifty years later. What stands out at you that were the things that Nixon, Kissinger, and Lord did correctly in 1972, and fifty years later what do you think the shortcomings of that historic diplomacy was?
MASTRO: I think the main thing, the biggest thing, and the—maybe the only thing we should focus on in terms of what went so well with starting the process of normalization with the PRC and as someone who works on strategy now in the U.S.-China relationship and who is focused on trying to enhance U.S. competitiveness and expand U.S. leadership in the world, one thing that I find very frustrating is a reluctance for big thinking and risk taking. My main view on the current situation with China is that whether it was President Trump before and now with President Biden, the United States just thinks that we can do more of the same stuff and fundamentally change the nature of the international system—you know, maybe if we just do some more military exercises with our allies and partners or we sell more military equipment to Taiwan. But at least in my experience, what I come up with or think through, OK, well, maybe we need to fundamentally change the nature of international politics to deal with current realities, there’s very little appetite for that in the government, in particular. And so the big thing that stands out to me about this historic visit is just, as was previously said, I mean, this was extremely risky. It could have gone many different directions. But there was an understanding and, you know, obviously, from the outside as I didn’t participate in any way in this visit, but it seemed to me that there was an understanding of the urgency of the Soviet threat. There was an openness to the idea that maybe the United States usually doesn’t, you know, befriend communist countries in this way but we’re going to do something different. So there’s a lot of norms and a lot of ways the United States engages in the international community that we could do things completely differently. I’ll just give you one example. I was asked, you know, when a country is engaging in human rights abuses why do we reduce our engagement with them? Why is the response to, you know, pull out your ambassador, to pull out your embassy? Why isn’t the response to put in twice as many people into that country? But we have these sort of learned behaviors and right now, you know—and I’ll get to in a second how the situation with China has changed—but it just seems like there—this type of risk taking and new thinking about, OK, the nature of the international system has fundamentally changed. How do we best protect U.S. interests within this system, even if it is difficult, risky, domestically problematic? And it was extremely internationally problematic. There are a lot of areas of the world—for example, in order to, you know, have Pakistan as our intermediary the United States let a lot of things slide with Pakistan, in particular, the genocide that they were—you know—a, you know, massacre that was happening in now Bangladesh, and, of course, we have this Taiwan issue, which I focus a lot on, that remains a huge problem in the relationship. The only thing is, at least, I can’t think of a way and it seems like the people at the time can’t think of—couldn’t think of a way, to have done it in any way that would have resolved this Taiwan situation once and for all. I still can’t think of a way to resolve this Taiwan situation once and for all. So I think, you know, all in all, it was the right path, the right thing to do, and, you know, I don’t think there was naiveté about it. This was a pragmatic approach. My impression—and I’d love to hear from the other panelists, was not, like, you know, China—all mistrust and all problems had gone away and we thought China was going to be our best friend forever and now we’re in shock and awe to find that we have conflicting interests. The individuals knew we had conflicting interests then and we have conflicting interests now.
BRINKLEY: How did Taiwan view Nixon’s overture? If you were in Taiwan in 1972 and you’re getting news of Nixon coming to China, meeting Mao Zedong, going to the Great Wall, all the media circus surrounding the Nixon visit, what was going on with the Taiwanese at the time?
MASTRO: Well, I will tell you from—you know, and maybe some of our other panelists can talk more on the historical perspective—but your question, really, points to this fundamental tension in U.S. strategy between, you know, reassuring allies and partners and sometimes deterring adversaries. There’s this assumption that deterrence and assurance are just two sides of the same coin, right. Like, if we reassure Taiwan we’re deterring China or, you know, in this case, if we, you know, are deterring the Soviet Union we have to, you know, reassure China. But in a lot of cases, those things don’t go well together and there are tradeoffs and we have to make a tradeoff. In some cases, for the United States right now to better deter China it means we have to pull military forces out of Asia, which maybe our allies and partners then feel less reassured. But in my view, if we can’t use those assets to actually defend them in a war because they’re under a Chinese threat, then, you know, we should communicate better with allies and partners about why we’re doing certain things. And there was so much that had been done then to try to reassure Taiwan, which is what leads to all these headaches today. I mean, I teach these courses on Chinese foreign policy and the Chinese military, previously at Georgetown and now soon at Stanford. And one of the things that really sticks out is if you look at this from the Chinese perspective, well, we didn’t want it to be all about Taiwan. They thought that the Taiwan issue was going to be more resolved than it was, right? The arms sales were a surprise to them, and they almost—they sort of threatened to kind of stop the normalization process if the United States didn’t stop selling arms to Taiwan. They were, generally, confused about our political system—like, why couldn’t the president just tell Congress that they couldn’t pass the Taiwan Relations Act, for example. So I guess what I’m trying to say is there’s always people and always countries that are going to be—and then—or entities that are going to be unhappy with the decisions that the United States makes for the sake of, you know, aggregate benefit in the international system. In this case, it wasn’t only Taiwan that was a loser, on average, right. They were better off with their treaty with the United States. But other countries as well, that, you know, wanted—that were unhappy that the United States didn’t consult them. So, yeah, of course, Taiwan was unhappy with it and—you know, and we’ve been trying to maintain this balance with protecting Taiwan at the same time as maintain the relationship with China, and it’s difficult.
BRINKLEY: Very good. Thank you. Oriana. I’m going to go to Ambassador Lord, who had a quick question. Then we’re going to be opening this up to people. Go ahead, Ambassador.
LORD: Yes, very briefly. I think one of the great achievements in American foreign policy in the last fifty years has been on China/Taiwan policy conducted by eight presidents of both parties with considerable bipartisan support. I’ve already indicated why I thought China moved more than we did in the original communiqué. But ever since then, with ambiguous formulations and thanks above all to the efforts of the Taiwan people and enlightened leaders, despite the shock—and it was a shock fifty years ago, of course, to Taiwan—they have maintained their autonomy, with our help, their security. They’re a dynamic economy. They maintained their democratic principles and are an example of democracy to the world and to the Chinese mainland, and, yet, we’ve opened up with China over this whole period. So that balancing act has been a major success, in my view.
MASTRO: Could I just say one thing, before we open up, about China today? So—
BRINKLEY: Well, why don’t we just hold that, Oriana, because we do want to get people in. We have a queue of people. But keep your thought and you can add it to a question coming up, because at this time we’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. The operator will remind you how to join the question queue, and so we’re going to begin by taking some CFR members’ questions. Who would like to go first?
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) We’ll take our first question from Paul Heer.
Q: Thank you. Didn’t expect to be in the front of the line. I’m Paul Heer from the Center for the National Interest. I want to ask a kind of devil’s advocate question. I don’t believe this, but in the recent discussions I’ve been a part of on the anniversary the argument has been made to me that it was a bad idea because the Chinese, essentially, got the better part of the deal from Nixon’s opening, that Taiwan lost out, the democratic—democratization issue didn’t come until twenty years later, and Beijing received all the benefits of greater international stature and recognition and engagement that led to its economic success. Whereas on the other side of the equation, the argument was made to me, is that the opening didn’t really benefit us that much with regard to Vietnam or U.S.-Soviet relations over the next several years. I’m just wondering how you’d respond to that assessment—that balance sheet assessment of Nixon’s visit.
BRINKLEY: Oriana, this is a chance for you to jump in.
MASTRO: So I don’t know if it’s surprising, but I—you know, I think that kind of interpretation that it benefitted China more than us is just historically inaccurate and it represents more the current feelings and frustrations of the relationship. I mean, first of all, in my own book and research—this is more on the archival side about Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War—the Chinese were adamant that the Vietnamese should not be negotiating with the United States. And they provided a lot of support to the North Vietnamese in that war. And that position changed. And then they were encouraging those negotiations. And so at least, you know, the United States won the Cold War. Nobody can think, like, would it—could we have done it if we were also in a contentious relationship with China? Perhaps. But that was a very risky strategy. And in the end, we were better off for it, because we came out ahead. Now, after the Cold War ended, now we look at the situation, right? Twenty-five years ago the idea that China could challenge the United States economically, globally, or militarily was unfathomable, right? At that point we were in this unipolar moment. The United States has a huge economy, far larger than the Chinese economy, sixteen times larger than the Chinese economy. And we were members of all these international institutions. China didn’t even have formal relations with major countries like South Korea. Their economy was smaller than that of France. Their military was basically nonexistent, right? Their ships couldn’t sail far from their coasts, their planes couldn’t fly over water. So I think if we are going to be critical of U.S. policy, the critique is not what the United States decided fifty years ago. The critique is, instead of being competitive economically, politically, and militarily to maintain U.S. position in the world over the past twenty years, the United States was focused on the war on terror and other things, and we dropped the ball. But I think that’s a separate issue than these decisions that were made during the normalization process.
BRINKLEY: OK. Very good. Yes.
LORD: I know you want to get to a lot of questions, but I’ve already indicated immediately with respect to gained from this, of course the Chinese gained. They broke out, they got into the U.N., they got some diplomatic relations with Japan and others, and they balanced the Soviet Union. Both sides had to gain. The immediate impact for us I’ve already outlined. To say we didn’t gain with the Soviet Union, within—when we were flying toward China on our secret trip, Al Haig, at Kissinger’s instructions, called in the Chinese chargé and offered them a summit. We’d offered this for two years. They could have gone first. They dragged their feet.
Within weeks of the secret trip announcement, they agreed to a summit, they moved ahead of Berlin negotiations, they agreed to their first major nuclear arms control agreement, we had a summit in China in May ’72—in February ’72, and Russia in May ’72. We made a breakthrough with the Vietnam negotiations with the help of China, with Zhou Enlai going to Hanoi—I don’t want to exaggerate it—in October. We signed a peace agreement January ’73. If that isn’t immediate benefits, I don’t know what is, in addition to the other ones I mentioned. Thank you.
BRINKLEY: All right. Thank you. All right.
OPERATOR: Next question from Robyn Meredith.
Q: Hi, everyone. Thank you for the excellent discussion. I’m the author of The Elephant and the Dragon. Of course, I can’t help but ask about today and the Taiwan situation. Russia’s—there’s obviously no love lost between Russia and China normally, historically. But might the—how likely do each of you think an attack on Taiwan by China is as a result of Russia’s move? And would—while Xi Jinping may not be really measuring sanctions, much like Putin, do you think that sanctions could dissuade or really provide a huge economic disincentive for him? Thank you.
BRINKLEY: Tim, do you feel like jumping in here on that?
NAFTALI: Oh, I’m sure Oriana will—
BRINKLEY: OK. Oriana—
NAFTALI: I just wanted to—if I may say one thing—
BRINKLEY: Yeah, just trying to get you in the mix.
NAFTALI: I feel—I feel included. When Ambassador Lord laid out the advantages, but I just want us to think creatively at the moment. Imagine if China at this moment decides that it is opposed to Russian imperialism in Ukraine and opens a flank—I’m not saying a military flank, but a political and strategic flank—in the Soviet—or, now Russian far-east? In 1972, the Russians were very nervous about the consequences of the opening—of Nixon’s trip to China. And this, as Ambassador Lord mentioned, actually put pressure on the Kremlin to move faster in negotiations with the United States. So the effort to basically pressure the Kremlin with a relationship worked from the start, and continued to be valuable to the United States through the end of the Cold War, and arguably in the early days of the post-Cold War period. So this new strategic approach had enormous advantages. And if we could somehow break the bonds between Beijing and Moscow today, we might see certain benefits as we attempt to contain Russian imperialism in Europe.
BRINKLEY: Very good. Oriana, do you want to—
MASTRO: So I—yes. So I had an article—actually, two articles in I forget which issues of Foreign Affairs of this year. One called the Taiwan Temptation about why I think China’s seriously considering using force to retake Taiwan. There’s been a number of changes in the past three years in Chinese rhetoric, military capabilities that point to the now-possibility that China could take Taiwan at acceptable cost, and even if the United States intervenes. So I encourage you to look at that whole argument. And then there was a debate in my follow-up response to it. But since you asked particularly about Ukraine, I just wanted to let you know that I’m kind of on the hawkish side, that I think China would seriously consider using force, and I’m happy to give more reasons for that. But even in spite of my kind of hawkish position on that, I do not think this Ukraine situation in any way increases the likelihood that China will take Taiwan. I think China is primarily considering domestic issue—you know, whether their military is ready; you know, their command and control is in position; training and exercising; what is the weather like? They assume U.S. military intervention so Ukraine could affect it if the United States gets more involved in Europe and, thus, further delays the force posture advancements we need to make in Asia to reestablish our deterrence, then maybe the likelihood of war increases. But it’s not going to be this short-term thing. I’ve also seen no indications in my readings of Chinese strategy doctrine, internal debate, of anything of this type of opportunism. Like, oh, the United States is in Europe so now is the time to take Taiwan. If anything, there’s a reluctance to be tied too closely to Russia because while the United States is assumed to intervene, it’s also assumed that the United States doesn’t want to pay a high cost. Now, if the war is not over Taiwan but, instead, the war is against autocracies like China and Russia who are trying to fundamentally change the world, China thinks the United States might have more resolve to fight a protracted war. And that’s where U.S. advantages come into play. So all of that being said is I don’t think we have to worry about China being involved in any way in Ukraine. I have a whole other research project about the China-Russia military relationship, and it really is about Russia supporting China to challenge the United States in Asia. It does not go the other way, to China supporting Russia in Europe. And we don’t have to worry that China’s going to take advantage of this crisis to make a move on Taiwan.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Oriana. And, Robyn, we’ll all look at your book and see what your larger arguments are, although we should turn to another person now.
LORD: Could I just quickly intervene on the Taiwan issue?
BRINKLEY: OK, go ahead.
LORD: Yeah. Very quickly. I yield with great humility to Oriana on the issue of a possible invasion. She’s a real expert. But I disagree with her on the likelihood. I think China with its pressures—various pressures on Taiwan and its military advantage is trying to deter formal independence, but it would be a huge risk for Xi politically and economically to do this. A hundred miles amphibious is not that easy. There’s deterrence from us. We shouldn’t drop ambiguity. I don’t want to take more time by explaining why, but in Japan and Australia and France and others getting involved, I think Xi just wants to head off, as I say, independence. But I don’t think he would undertake the risk. He may step up economic coercion or do something toward the offshore islands. But I’m less concerned about that than Oriana. But the other point she made about Ukraine I agree with.
BRINKLEY: Thank you. OK. Very good.
OPERATOR: Our next question from Charlie Bolden.
Q: How’re you doing? Thanks very much. It’s been a great discussion so far. I’m the former NASA administrator under President Obama. And I have a quick question about space, particularly given what’s going on in Ukraine and Kazakhstan, that everybody misses, where we launch with the Russians. What’s the feasibility or desirability of going back to the Chinese to reopen discussions on collaboration in human space flight between China and the U.S., as we were doing in 2010?
BRINKLEY: Who would like to take that? Oriana? Go ahead.
MASTRO: Thank you so much for that question. Space—I also speak a fourteen-hour course on China space and counterspace programs. And one of the big things that I have been advocating for is if the Biden administration wants to lead with diplomacy, which I think is great, there are many areas where we could be building better institutions to help shape. Activities in space is one of them, right? All the outer space treaties and things of that sort are not sufficient to constrain. And China has made significant headway in their civilian space program to build significant prestige, even though, as you know probably more than I, their budget is much less than ours. Last I checked, it was $8 billion and ours was 48 billion (dollars). The explanation I get is that our engineers cost more. But this is one area where they have really been able to advance and gain prestige by doing so. If we sit still, China is going to have a space station and—be the only country that has a space station, as the International Space Station comes offline. And so if it’s between doing nothing or collaborating with China such that, one, we have this area where we can try to have a more positive relationship than we do in other areas, and the United States can get back in the space game on the civilian side, I think it’s a great idea.
BRINKLEY: Charlie, are you still there?
Q: I am.
BRINKLEY: Thank you for all you’ve done over the years with NASA. An incredible legacy you’ve left personally. What’s your take? Do you think there’s an opportunity for China and the United States to collaborate more closely in space, or even go as far as to aim for Mars exploration together?
Q: I’m a hawk, like Oriana, on China-U.S. relations in space. And I think we’re long overdue. I’ll go back to what Ambassador Lord said, that Nixon’s opinion about we can’t isolate the largest population of people in the world. You know, we’re foolish to think we can isolate China in space. And they’re going to catch up with us sooner or later. I’d just as soon be collaborating. We’re getting more and more difficult maintaining our relationship with Roscosmos. We’re doing OK, but it’s not going to be a piece of cake to go into Kazakhstan to launch the next group of American astronauts on a Soyuz, trying to keep that relationship going. I think we stand a much better chance of working with the Chinese. They want to work with us. They have since 2010 when I visited. Mike Griffin had visited before I did. So I have seen nothing that says the door is closed on collaboration. We just got to find a way to get around the World Amendment that prohibits NASA from collaborating with China on human space flight.
BRINKLEY: Very good. Thank you so much, Charlie Bolden. Great that you called in. Thank you. OK.
OPERATOR: Our next question from Margaret Karns.
Q: Thank you very much. And this is a fascinating session.
My question goes back historically. The question of whether there is evidence that the clashes between the Soviet-Chinese militaries along the Ussuri River in 1969 were a factor for either Nixon or Mao in their openness to change in the early ’70s. Thank you.
BRINKLEY: Tim, can you go in on that one?
NAFTALI: Well, one of the reasons that I—and thank you for the question. One of the reasons why I went back to ’63 to tell the story of the evolution of the idea in Richard Nixon’s mind was that I wanted to make clear that it predates the fighting on the Amur River. With regard to the Chinese, what I know I’ve learned from Chen Zhen (ph) and other wonderful scholars who are—who argue that Mao had a domestic reason. He was—h was stuck, I mean, if you will. The Cultural Revolution had—was stagnant and a dead end for him at that point. And he was looking for a way out to reassert his power and his primacy in China. And so the policy towards the United States was a way to do that. His generals, however, were very concerned about the Russians. And he too shared some of that. But there was also a domestic component to his decision to work with Zhou Enlai to make it possible for Nixon to visit. So it’s complicated on the Chinese side. And on the American side, Nixon’s interest in the—in the endeavor long predates the struggles in the Russian far-east.
BRINKLEY: Tim, what did—what, in the end, did Nixon think about Mao as a person, as a world leader? How did he interpret, you know, gut-read Mao?
NAFTALI: Oh, well. (Laughs.) That brings a personal story. I mean, as you mentioned, I was the director of the Nixon Library. And I think we were the only building in the United States that has a statue to Mao. (Laughter.) And that was a product of—yes, believe me, somebody should Google—the L.A. Times covered it. It’s a very interesting issue. Because the U.S. government took responsibility for this building. And we inherited a statue of Mao. Anyway, that’s another story. But my point is, Richard Nixon chose the people who would be honored with statues in his library, when it was a private library. He thought highly of Mao. He respected him as a world leader, as a person who wielded power. And Ambassador Lord could actually talk about, you know, what Nixon looked like as he was actually greeting Mao. But I suspect for Nixon this was—he loved the term “at the summit.” This was for him an opportunity to meet the most powerful of his contemporaries, and Mao was not just his contemporary; Mao had been a major force in world history for decades. So I think Nixon had enormous respect for him. That doesn’t mean that Nixon didn’t know he was a murderer, that Mao was repressive, but Nixon was engaging in this, if you will, colloquy about international powers. If he were, you know, a Metternich—that’s Kissinger, but it was also Nixon—a Richelieu, someone thinking grand thoughts about changing the nature of the international system, and that’s where he put Mao is on that level.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Tim. Let’s go to another one—person.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Ed Cox.
Q: Yes, there’s a whole—I’m not sure this is the right panel to handle it, but there’s a whole history of the politics of this in the United States, and with respect to the secret plan that Rockefeller accused Nixon of having in February of ’68, as the New Hampshire primaries were coming up, Richard Nixon told me privately that his plan was to go to Peking and to Moscow—I found that interesting; kept it to myself—and subsequently, at the other end, his losing of Bill Buckley and others by going to Red China and when he needed the support of conservatives, it wasn’t there later on. But my—so there’s a whole political side of this that was going on. But my question for Win is, what about the discussions of Vietnam during that historic summit? And the relationship between China and Vietnam was not—was one that was very antagonistic, and how did that conversation go?
LORD: OK, should I answer that?
BRINKLEY: Yes. Yes.
LORD: The son-in-law of President Nixon talking—Vietnam was a major issue of discussion, and our approach, not only at the summit but in subsequent visits, was to essentially say to the Chinese, you want us to balance the Soviet Union as a world power; if the Vietnamese humiliate us in negotiations on the way out, that’s going to undercut that. Furthermore, Vietnam War right on your borders is awkward for you as you open up with us. So you have every incentive to help us persuade the Vietnamese to be reasonable. They weren’t going to cut off arms or not be friendly, but Zhou Enlai went to Hanoi, the Chinese we know weighed in, and they basically said to Hanoi, play this for time, for the length of history; don’t insist the U.S. agree to a political set of—the Vietnamese were insisting that we overthrow the Saigon government as we withdrew. We went for a military settlement. We sold that principle not only in Beijing but in Moscow for similar reasons, and I’m not saying it was decisive, but I know that Chinese weighed in and in fact urged the North Vietnamese not to insist on humiliation for the reasons I mentioned, and it did help us achieve a final success. And the October ’72 breakthrough came within months of the Chinese and Soviet summits.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Ambassador. Ed, did you ever have any personal talks with President Nixon, your father-in-law, about China after he left the White House? Did you ever have moments where he reflected on how his meeting of Mao and Zhou Enlai, what that meant for his legacy?
Q: Not in the matter of the legacy but in the matter of the ongoing relationship and how it was evolving. I represented him on the—with respect to the funeral of the—Chiang Kai-shek’s successor, his stepson, which was a momentous period in Taiwan, obviously, and I talked with him about that afterwards and he reflected with respect to Taiwan and what he had to do with respect, the fact that it was harmful to his old friends in Taiwan and he regretted that very much. On the Taiwanese side, being there with them during that period, ’85, ’86, I believe, they realized it was something that had to be done that trip from the interests of the United States. While they regretted it, they understood that it was driven by a larger necessity for American foreign policy.
BRINKLEY: Very good. Thank you so much, Ed, for taking the time today to join us. It’s meaningful. Appreciate it.
Q: My pleasure.
BRINKLEY: Our next?
OPERATOR: Our next question from James Mann.
BRINKLEY: Go ahead, James.
Q: Yes, I wanted to present a different view and ask about it. The diplomatic historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker wrote that Nixon and Kissinger gave up more than they needed to in the negotiations over Taiwan and that they viewed Taiwan as expendable. Now, I want to backtrack on that. What are we talking about on Taiwan? I think that when you all—I guess I’m asking Winston this question—thought of Taiwan you, somewhat understandably, thought of Chiang Kai-shek, but were there any thoughts or preparations given, because the record does not show it, to the then sixteen, now plus-twenty million people who live on Taiwan and what would happen to them? Was it even considered?
LORD: I guess I should respond. First of all, yes, it was. This was painful for Nixon and Kissinger but they felt it in the U.S. national interest to move ahead. I’ve explained how we preserved defense treaty, diplomatic relations, troops, arms sales with Taiwan, and for anyone to say that we sold out Taiwan is absurd. We’re fifty years later, thanks essentially to its own efforts, but bipartisan support for Taiwan—they have autonomy, they have the economy, they have the democracy that I mentioned, so by definition, Taiwan was not sold out. Was it a shock? Yes. Did we have to make a move with an ambiguous one China formulation? Of course. The Chinese had their needs. But as I said earlier, we didn’t sell them out then and for fifty years we haven’t sold them out.
BRINKLEY: Thank you, Ambassador Lord. We’re going to have to get ready to wrap up here, but I want to—we’re going to have—we have a couple more minutes so we’re going to take one more quick question and then we’re going to have you all say one final word. So let’s do one more.
OPERATOR: We’ll take our last question from Adele Simmons.
BRINKLEY: Go ahead, Adele.
Q: Am I unmuted now?
BRINKLEY: Yeah, we hear you.
Q: OK. This is a short story. I want to thank you all for the conversation that you had.
In 1972, the U.S.-China Peoples Friendship Association was asked to put together a group of Americans following Nixon’s visit. The Chinese, ten days before the trip, turned down two people in this group, Paul Newman and Bob Redford. I was asked to replace one of them, and in 1972, we had an extraordinary experience and one of them was attending a demonstration for a million people in Tiananmen Square, so this was the beginning of these many, many visits that a lot of us had and I just wanted to share that story.
BRINKLEY: All right, well, thank you. Why don’t we just very quickly—Tim, any reflections on, you know, the problems of China, let’s say, with human rights and what happened, then, later at the end of the Cold War, Tiananmen Square? What did we learn fifty years later, U.S.-China relations and, you know, why is China such a difficult country on human rights issues to deal with?
NAFTALI: Well, I think one of the challenges of being a superpower are these dilemmas because your national security interests often require that you interact with nations that are fundamentally different from your own, that are authoritarian, that do not treat members of their country the way at least ideologically we’d like to teach all—we’d like all people to be treated. Let’s not keep—let’s not forget that the United States had its own struggles and still hasn’t lived up fully to its ideals at home. So these are the dilemmas of power. And they require balancing acts. And our foreign—our foreign policy leaders, our ambassadors are constantly engaged in these balancing acts. Sometimes going too far in one direction, forgetting our legacy and our commitment to democracy, sometimes going too far in the other direction, forgetting our strategic considerations. I think it’s tough. It’s a dynamic challenge. But it is a challenge. We just have to be very straightforward and honest about the dilemmas of power, and that’s one of them.
BRINKLEY: Very good. And we’re going to have to end with that. I want to thank everybody for joining us today on the virtual meeting. I also want to thank our speakers. Oriana, students are so lucky to have you at Stanford. Tim, ditto at New York University. And, Ambassador Lord, Winston I will call you now, but I wanted to call you Ambassador Lord because of your service to our country for so long, and also your service to the Council on Foreign Relations, which has really been your home universe, your home turf for so much of your life. Thank you, Ambassador Lord, for all you’ve done for our country. And thank you, everybody at the Council. Carry on and have a good day.
This is an uncorrected transcript.