Sunday, February 21, 2010

Building a Bridge - Nixon in China

From February 21-28, 1972, President Richard Nixon visited China to begin a process of normalizing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. The two nations had been foes since the end of World War II, when the United States started to create distance between itself and communist nations. American politicians feared the spread of communism across Europe and Asia. Many campaigned on the promise to stop this spread and to eliminate any cooperation between the United States and communist countries.  A young Richard Nixon was one such politician, who became Eisenhower’s vice-presidential nominee in 1952 on a strong anti-communist stance. This background makes Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 all the more remarkable.
            Nixon became the first sitting president to visit China. During his trip, Nixon visited Beijing, Hangzhou and Shanghai, and was initially greeted by Chairman Mao himself. Supposedly, Mao’s first words to Nixon were “Our common old friend, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, doesn’t approve of this.”  The United States had previously backed Chiang Kai-Shek’s Chinese government then exiled in Taiwan in the civil struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek’s government and Chairman Mao’s People’s Republic of China. Nixon’s visit marked a shift in this thinking, as the United States planned to back out and let the Chinese settle the dispute themselves.
            The most quoted antic dote from Nixon’s visit has little to do with the substance of Nixon’s meetings with Chinese officials and more to do with Nixon’s sight seeing. When Nixon stood before the Great Wall of China he said, “this truly is a great wall.”
            At the end of his historic visit to China, President Nixon offered his own views on the importance of the visit and its implications for future US-China relations:
This was the week that changed the world, as what we have said in that Communique is not nearly as important as what we will do in the years ahead to build a bridge across 16,000 miles and 22 years of hostilities which have divided us in the past. And what we have said today is that we shall build that bridge.

Nixon’s visit to China has been written about in scores of books, but here is an example of a different interpretation. Here is a clip from an opera entitled “Nixon in China” by American composer John Adams.


[Images via Cbertel and Northwestern]

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