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February 1972. At the height of the Cold War, President Richard Nixon suddenly travels to China for a face-to-face meeting with Mao Zedong to bring two powers, then at odds with the USSR, closer together. Today, it is Beijing and Moscow who toast to their friendship, castling themselves against Washington.
Accompanied by his wife and an entourage of advisors, Nixon undertook the unexpected visit on February 17 half a century ago via Hawaii and Guam before landing in Shanghai and, finally, Beijing, where a few hours after his arrival he knocked on Mao’s doors.
The tour with which China and the United States reached out to each other after decades of antagonism got to its climax with a unique vis-à-vis in which Mao, already aged —he had just overcome a chest infection and had heart problems— received his peer with the joke that he had voted for him in the last elections.
In some 65 minutes, the two leaders praised each other and gave several hints about the thaw and rebuked the USSR.
Before returning to his dressing gown, Mao left the details to Zhou Enlai, his prime minister since 1949, and gave his blessing: “I like the rightists because, unlike the left, which says one thing and then does the opposite, they make things happen.”
The meeting of two powers
Nixon’s popularity was plummeting in his country as the Vietnam War dragged on, one of the main reasons why he proposed this trip, Chinese analyst Victor Gao, who in 1985 was Nixon’s translator on his second visit to the Asian country, explained to EFE news agency.
“The United States was engaged in a war with a country that China was helping. Nixon knew that, without Beijing’s support, the conflict would never end. He did not underestimate a China that had already shown great resistance in the Korean War,” he says.
For his part, Mao had just rejected the tutelage of the Soviet Union, which he called “revisionist” and with which he almost came to blows after a fierce territorial dispute in the summer of 1969: “It was a China closed in on itself, in the midst of a great ideological struggle —in reference to the Cultural Revolution, which left thousands dead— and incapable of developing,” Gao recalls.
According to the analyst, Nixon’s visit unleashed, with Mao already dead, a stage of reforms once China understood that “it should now be integrated into the international community”.
To build bridges despite U.S. sympathies for Taiwan, an island that China still claims today, Nixon turned to his advisor and future Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger who, in calculated ambiguity, signed the so-called Shanghai Communiqué in which Washington recognized—but did not endorse—the principle of One China, according to which Beijing is the only Chinese government.
China and the United States eventually formalized relations in 1979, but by then the Watergate scandal had already scorched Nixon, of whom Beijing still has a positive image: “He opened the door for us to meet again thanks to his vision, courage, and wisdom. He turned two enemies into partners,” argues Gao.
The analyst recalls that Nixon was “very inquisitive” and that he was impressed by his interview in the 1980s with Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s opening up: “Deng talked about the China of the next 50 years, and Nixon complained that in his country politicians could only look at the short term,” Gao points out.
“He was the type to constantly take notes and check translations in detail. I know he wasn’t liked in the United States, but he was a very diligent, elegant, hard-working, well-read guy. A much more cultured president with a vision of state that I didn’t see again later in any other American politician,” he stresses.