1972: Nixon Leaves for China

On February 17, 1972, President Richard Nixon embarked on a diplomatic mission to normalize relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Meeting Sets Stage for Stronger United States-China Relations

In 1949, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists declared the formation of the People’s Republic of China, having secured control of mainland China after a decades-long civil war against the Western-supported Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek. The Truman administration—due in large part to the lobbying of the anti-communist “China Lobby,” which included Sen. Richard Nixon—chose not to immediately open diplomatic relations with the PRC.

Any chance of opening relations was dashed by the Korean War, when the Chinese fought alongside the North Koreans against American and UN forces. In the 1950s the United States implemented a trade embargo on China while continuing to aid the Republic of China, Chiang’s Taiwan-based government-in-exile.

Communist China was a natural ally of the Soviet Union, but Sino-Soviet relations began to deteriorate in the 1960s over economic, security, and ideological differences. Mao’s radical Great Leap Forward isolated the Soviets, and border clashes erupted between the two nations in 1969, encouraging closer United States-Sino relations.

China sought an ally to help protect it against the Soviet Union, while President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger “realized they could play Moscow against Beijing to improve relations with both nations,” explains PBS.

The new era of American and Chinese diplomacy dawned on April 6, 1971, when China issued a surprise invitation to nine American ping-pong players to play in China later that month. The ping-pong players, who spent a week playing against Chinese players and touring Chinese attractions, were the first Americans ever to be invited to the PRC.

The invitation signaled to Nixon that China was open to establishing relations. Nixon secretly sent Kissinger to China in July to lay the groundwork for a presidential visit. Over the course of the year, he and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai drafted what would become the Shanghai Communiqué.

In what proved to be a monumental public relations success, President Nixon arrived in Beijing on February 21, 1972, to begin his eight-day diplomatic trip. He met with Mao, the only time during the trip the two would meet. “Never, perhaps, have two men who so dramatically epitomize the conflicting forces of modern history ever sat as equals at one negotiating table,” wrote Time.

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Nixon spent the remainder of his trip dealing primarily with Chou. At the conclusion of the trip, on February 27, the two released the Shanghai Communiqué, in which the two sides pledged to pursue a normalization of relations. The document also pronounced that “neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country or group of countries to establish such hegemony,” a reference to the Soviet Union.

The Shanghai Communiqué failed to resolve the issue of Taiwan, however; though the United States recognized the “one China policy,” the wording over who governed that one China was intentionally left ambiguous.

Sources in this Story

Richard Nixon (1913–1994)

Richard Milhous Nixon was born in 1913 in California. Following a stint in the Navy, he joined the House of Representatives and became head of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, gaining the reputation of being a rabid anti-communist.

He was later elected to the Senate and then became vice president to Dwight Eisenhower. His political career suffered when he lost the 1960 presidential election to John F. Kennedy and then failed to win the California gubernatorial race. He bounced back to win the presidency in 1968 and re-election in 1972.

He molded a successful diplomatic relationship with China and began the détente policy with the USSR, but his foreign policy accomplishments were overshadowed by a messy withdrawal from Vietnam and secret bombing of Cambodia.

His career was forever marred by the Watergate scandal and his subsequent resignation from office in 1974. Nixon died in 1994.

Henry Kissinger (1923–)

Born in Germany in 1923, Henry Kissinger came to the United States in 1938 when his family left Germany to escape the Holocaust. The Harvard-educated Kissinger served as national security adviser from 1969 until 1975 and as secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.

He has played an integral role in U.S. foreign policy, encouraging pragmatism in foreign affairs while promoting “both conventional and nuclear forces to respond to Communist aggression, rather than resorting to threats of massive nuclear retaliation,” writes PBS.

He has received a number of awards for his efforts in international relations, including the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the Vietnam War. But Kissinger is an exceptionally controversial figure who has been accused of being a war criminal by his harshest critics, who point to his role in the bombing of Cambodia and the overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile.

Mao Zedong (1893–1976)

Mao Zedong was born in 1893 in the Hunan Province of China. He learned about socialism during his days in the army, and eventually became involved in the Communist movement. He excelled at rallying the support of peasants and advocating for a rural, as opposed to urban, revolution.

In 1949, after driving Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government from the Chinese mainland, Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He undertook a plan to eliminate the rural gentry as a class and create a permanent underclass of former landlords.

His efforts to collectivize agriculture during the Great Leap Forward of 1957 caused mass starvation. Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution began in 1966, which sought to re-invigorate the party leadership with Mao’s ideals. It created great social upheaval and violence. Mao died in 1976.

Reference: Documents, photographs

George Washington University’s National Security Archive has several collections of declassified documents relating to Nixon’s trip to China:

The Taiwan Documents Project presents the text of the Shanghai Communiqué.

George Mason University’s Ollie Atkins Photograph Collection has a number of photographs from Nixon’s diplomatic trip to China. The photos were taken by White House photographers Ollie Atkins and Byron Schumaker and the China News Agency.