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Seven Days That Changed World History With Richard Nixon's Visit to China in 1972

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.



Right from 1930 the United States had been opposing the communist movement in China. President Roosevelt was keen to support the nationalist leader General Chiang Kai Shek. The Americans made a firm commitment to support him against Mao Tse Tung and weapons and financial aid flowed to the nationalists. The Americans remained steadfast in their support of General Chiang during the war years. At the end of the war when the civil war began in 1945 the Americans put all their eggs in the basket of the nationalists.

Despite the best of efforts and a massive supply of arms and funds, the Nationalists were defeated. In 1949 a communist regime took control of the mainland. Chiang and his motley crowd escaped to Formosa. This is an island close to China's coast and was earlier a colony of Japan. He claimed to represent the 'real China' and the Americans supported him.

Mao Tse Tung and the communist party consolidated their hold over China. The Americans had the first taste of their belligerence when they invaded Korea in support of the North Korean army. The Americans, after three years of fighting, were extremely war-weary and agreed to an armistice. America had its first failure after World War II.

For the next decade and a half, the United States continued to prop up the Nationalist regime in Formosa as the 'real China' and opposed the communist regime.

The Americans were soon embroiled in the Vietnam war and by a combination of circumstances which I shall discuss in a subsequent article, they lost the war. Towards the end of the 60s, two Americans appeared on the scene Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon who decided to chart a different policy towards China.

On 15 July 1971, onetime arch-Cold Warrior Richard Nixon went on television to make the stunning announcement that he would visit the People’s Republic of China, at the time the United States’ bitterest enemy. He subsequently made a visit to China in February 1972.

Prior to this, Henry Kissinger, the then secretary of state made a secret visit to Beijing and mollycoddled the Chinese. It must be clearly stated that all the initiatives to normalize relations with Red China were made by the USA and even during Richard Nixon's visit to China for seven days, chairman Mao met him only once. This clearly shows the Chinese mind and Richard Nixon was content to talk with junior officials of the communist party.


The visit

The Vietnam war which had been going on for years was taking a heavy toll on the morale of the US Armed Forces. In addition, an antiwar movement had built up in the United States. The economy also began to creak and unemployment began to rise. This was also the period when relations between Russia and China worsened resulting in a border clash in 1969 between the two armies.

With the Vietnam war on his hands and leaking economy, Richard Nixon and his economic advisers decided that an opening to China was essential. American industrial giants wanted to tap the massive Chinese market for their benefit but they failed to realize, China was much more shrewd than Richard Nixon.

Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing on 21 February 1972 for a seven-day visit and visited three cities including the great wall of China. He engaged in substantive talks with the communist party leadership, the same leadership which the US had opposed for four decades. During his seven-day visit, he only had one meeting with chairman Mao and most of this time he was discussing with the Chinese Prime Minister Chou en Lai and other junior functionaries. China behaved like the Middle Kingdom, the center of the world, which it was during the earlier ages.

The 1972 visit was a great PR exercise by Richard Nixon. It revived his sagging popularity and helped him win the 1972 election. But soon after he had to resign after he was impeached in the Watergate scandal.

The week-long visit, from February 21 to 28, 1972, allowed the American public to view images of China. It was good propaganda for Nixon.

Throughout the week the President met the Communist leadership while First Lady Pat Nixon toured schools, factories, and hospitals in the cities of Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai with a large contingent of the American press. Max Frankel of the New York Times received the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the event.



Many historians have commented that Nixon's visit was very significant. There is no doubt about it but now almost 5 decades later we can analyze that Richard Nixon did a mistake by going to China and opening up at that time without getting anything substantive in return.

Nixon wanted the Chinese leadership to put pressure on the North Vietnamese to agree to an 'honorable peace' in the Vietnam war. This did not happen and the Chinese did not pressurize the Vietnamese who continued to fight and ultimately the Americans had to retreat en masse from Vietnam.

Nixon agreed to the basic Chinese demand of one-China policy and sold Formosa down the drain. He also withdrew the seventh fleet in the hope that China would partner with the USA. He set in motion a ritual where every American president visited China, except I think Jimmy Carter.

It is worth reading the opinion of Henry Kissinger. He is now 96 and even now feels that Trump should not have opposed China. Even now he feels that the United States should partner with China but this worthy has not realized that it takes two hands to clap and the Chinese do not want to clap hands with the Americans. China wants to be the superpower of the world with America as a yes-man. All American presidents except Donald Trump from 1972 onwards have pandered to Chinese whims. The American industry has been a great beneficiary and they have minted billions of dollars in profits. In the bargain, they have shifted manufacturing activities to China and now the trade surplus is $600 billion in favor of China.

The American poured in billions of dollars of investment into China and within a matter of three decades has risen from an agrarian society that was poor and destitute to become a great military and economic power. The American dream of partnering with China has gone for a bunt and China is now at every stage opposing it. Even now with Joe Biden making conciliatory noises to China the Chinese started anus swabs for US diplomats as part of COVID-19 protocol. Nothing could be more silly but yet no American has realized the danger of China.

In retrospect, Nixon should not have visited China and he should have asked the Chinese leadership to visit America. His dream of ending the Vietnam war with honor crashed in a humiliating defeat.

The entire sequence of events shows that the United States cannot be trusted to stand by its allies and if the chips are down they will just vanish. Even now they have negotiated with the Taliban in Afghanistan. I wonder if the Americans will go to war with China in case China invades Taiwan tomorrow. I will leave it at that.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on March 01, 2021:

Pamela so nice of you to comment. You are right Kissinger is nuts.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 01, 2021:

This is a very informative and interesting article. I don't agree with Henry Kissinger. I think you have spelled out all the facts quite well, MG.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on February 28, 2021:

Lt COL, Thank you for commenting. There is no doubt the rise of China is the responsibility of the United States and now it has become more like the Frankenstein than what the Americans expected

Lt COL Parduman Singh on February 28, 2021:

This was a very interesting article about a very contentious topic. There is no doubt Richard Nixon did a mistake by going to China more like a courtier to an emperor. It also gave China the opening they wanted with investment in trade and technology and have leapfrogged as the world's number one power. America is shaken to the roots and yet we have a man like Joe Biden talking of 'accommodation' with China

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