When I first saw the title of Margaret MacMillan’s new book, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, my first thought was, “What a great idea! I can’t believe this hasn’t been done before!” Obviously, there have been books about Nixon, books about Mao, books about U.S.-China relations. However, I didn’t think I’d seen a book dedicated to just this particular event and I began to wonder why. The answer is easy—though Nixon’s trip to China was big news in its day, it has since been subsumed by other events (btw, subsumed is currently one of my favorite words; use it in a sentence and I’ll give you a prize). Watergate and Vietnam have almost completely taken over the narrative of the early 1970s, reducing Nixon in China from what was presumed to be a turning point in East-West relations to a throwaway line, something choked out by a harried high school social studies teacher, who aware that the school year is ending and there’s still a lot to do, rushes through it on the way to Watergate: “And Johnson wouldn’t run, Nixon became president, he went to China, Vietnam was still going on and then Watergate happened…” Nixon’s trip, and whatever meaning it may have had has somewhat gotten lost in the shuffle. I say whatever meaning because although Nixon, upon his return to the United States, described his visit as, “the week that changed the world,” Macmillan’s book raises the question of whether it did.
MacMillan’s Paris 1919 was great because of her portraits of the leaders involved in reshaping the world after World War I—Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Wilson, et al. With this book she has even more to work with: Richard Nixon, whose weirdness is the gift to historians that just keeps on giving. Undoubtedly one of the strangest figures in American history and at least a contender for oddest head of state in world history, Nixon and his many complications are neatly drawn by Macmillan. On one hand he was a president who understood the importance of foreign affairs, grasped the place of the United States in a changing world, and wanted to do what he believed (whether you agree or not) was best for the nation and its future. On the other hand he was paranoid and insecure on a grand level and obsessed with his own image—he wrote notes to himself such as to be “cool—strong—organized—temperate—exciting,” and told people he wanted to be mysterious, “always like the iceberg, you only see the tip.” He made sure everyone always knew how hard he worked and how little he slept. In the grandiose manner of a king or a wide receiver, he referred to himself in the third person, as “N” or “the P.” He told Haldeman, “All people think the P’s doing an excellent job, but no one loves him, fears him, or hates him, and he needs to have all three.” All right then.
Nixon also had a sort of personal ineptitude that has become legendary. More than a few people said that they never saw him completely relaxed or happy. Kissinger described him as, “odd, artificial, and unpleasant.” Aides bought him an Irish setter to give him a more sporty image, but the dog wouldn’t come near him without the lure of biscuits. At one event, Nixon tried to pick a flower in a garden to give to an ambassador’s wife and somehow managed to pull off all the petals and essentially destroy it. At a banquet in China, someone demonstrated the high level of alcohol content in the Chinese liquor mao-tai by setting a cup on fire with a match; when Nixon tried to recreate this trick back home, he nearly burned down the White House. Nixon was supposed to be a good actor who excelled in college productions, and seemed somehow unable to negotiate life without a script of some sort. (In an odd kind of way, A-Rod, our oft-beleaguered 3B reminds me of Nixon; you know, the neediness, the insecurity, the way he has just a tin ear for publicity and an endless ability to always say a little too much or just the slightly wrong thing. MacMillan tells one story about how Nixon, in an effort to portray himself as an outdoorsy, casual guy’s guy, had photos taken while walking on the beach, but ruined the effect by wearing dress pants and shoes. Can’t you imagine A-Rod doing something like that? Like I said, I know it’s a weird comparison, but this is what you get from someone who has been sleeping on the floor way too often lately.)
Of course, Nixon isn’t the only compelling figure in this book. There’s Kissinger, complicated in his own way, who had to deal with Nixon, which was no one’s idea of a good time, unless you had the possibly worse assignment of being the person who had to deal with Mao himself. Although he had been ill for quite sometime when Nixon came to China, Mao still was a scary and mercurial dictator whose bad side was a place no one wanted to visit. The man who had to make that unpleasant journey, Kissinger’s counterpart, was Chou En-Lai, the Chinese prime minister.
Legendary for his diplomatic skills, Chou (MacMillan chose the spelling, it’s also written as Zhou Enlai) seemed to be able to work with anyone (obviously), and the fact that he was able to stay afloat through all the turbulence of twentieth century China speaks volumes about knowing what to do when and with whom. Mao recognized that a China-U.S. rapprochement of any sort was a good and timely idea, but it was the pragmatic and approachable Chou who made it possible. He was the one who held secret meetings with Kissinger to set up the events (their first meeting was accomplished in a satisfyingly clandestine way that involved secret messages, a trumped up trip to Pakistan, fake illnesses, misdirected flight plans and all sorts of good stuff) and who, again with Kissinger, labored throughout Nixon’s visit over the wording of the communiqué that would sum up the results of the visit to the world. Chou comes off as one of the heroes of the book and was, I would think, MacMillan’s favorite.
MacMillan does a fine job of explaining all the intricacies and history that made Nixon’s visit such a momentous event. There’s a good thumbnail history of 20th century China and an explanation of China’s increasingly rocky relationship with the Soviet Union that helped pave the way for the U.S. meeting. The issue of how to handle Taiwan, both from the U.S. and China side, is also covered, especially how the U.S. never quite understood how important Taiwan was to the Chinese (they seemed to shrug it off with the idea that their current support of Taiwan was immaterial because reunification was inevitable, while the Chinese regarded any support of Taiwan as deeply insulting and humiliating). But that’s to be expected from two nations that were isolated from each other for so long. I hate to admit that I knew so little of this time period, especially the issues China had with the Soviet Union (I did have a good background in China in the first half of the 20th century, thanks to Barbara Tuchman’s tremendous Stilwell in China); the only comfort I have is that I doubt I’m the only one. Believe me, it’s not a big part of your average h.s. U.S. history course.
It’s hard now for people who didn’t live through those times to put themselves into a place where communism was such a danger and evoked such fear that the very idea of an American president (not to mention one who built his career on stirring up anti-communist feeling) traveling to China and speaking with a communist leader seemed dangerous, something that some people wanted to interpret as a sign of capitulation, a bowing down to the Red Menace. Now with the failure of the Soviet Union and knowledge of the disasters of Mao’s reign, it seems inconceivable sometimes that people regarded communism as a threat to the U.S., not just militarily but socially. MacMillan does a good job in putting Nixon’s visit into the context of the beliefs of the times. Understanding the feelings people had about communist nations is crucial to understanding why everything had to be planned so carefully and why the trip had to be a complete success. There were people who were waiting for it to fail, wanting it to fail, and some, who even despite everything going relatively well, regarded the visit as a disgrace because the idea of meeting with Mao and dealing with China was morally wrong on every count.
The stage management of Nixon’s visit is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. MacMillan tells how everything was planned down to the last step, from both the China and U.S. side. The Americans brought tons of telecommunications equipment to make sure that every bit of news could be transmitted back to the U.S. as soon as possible. Nixon’s people scouted the best places for photo ops in advance. They prepared a briefing book for Pat Nixon and told her what questions to ask at various cultural events. Aides were even warned to keep an eye on Nixon and make sure that he, a notoriously poor drinker, didn’t drink during the multiple toasts that were given during the long banquets. The Chinese insisted on having their own pilots fly the American airplanes from Shanghai to Beijing, using Kissinger’s visits as practice runs. They made sure that there were happy families having picnics and children playing near any of the sites visited by Nixon (but awkwardly collected after Nixon passed, in full view of the American journalists, the transistor radios they had handed out to the families so they would appear to be having fun listening to music) . Yet despite all this careful planning, there was one thing that was not set in advance: there was no guarantee that Mao would actually meet Nixon and speak with him in person. Some of the players involved told MacMillan that they felt confident that Mao would agree to meet Nixon because he would understand the value of the moment. They were right of course, but still not having it set in advance was a serious risk. And even if they had, it still might not have been enough. Mao, after all, was very sick at the time, and it’s not clear if the Americans understood that that could have scuttled the possibility of a meeting. Mao also was as whimsical as one would expect a dictator whose every word was obeyed and feared to be. He could have agreed to a meeting then chosen to make a show of his power by refusing to meet the American president, humiliating him and his country. He didn’t, though, and the one hour meeting between Nixon and Mao soon after Nixon’s arrival became the success that Nixon had hoped for. They didn’t discuss any substantive issues, but it was the moment (and photo-op) that made Nixon proclaim the trip the “week that changed the world.”
Did it? Even MacMillan seems to hesitate somewhat in her conclusion. It was undoubtedly a step in thawing the chill between the two countries. Was it inevitable, though? If not Nixon, would it not have been someone else? Mao died in 1976 and Deng Xiaoping, who pushed aside Mao’s chosen successor, Hua Guofeng, was much more friendly to the West, especially in terms of overhauling the Chinese economy. If for no other reason than trade, it seems like Deng, only a few years later, would have taken steps towards the West even if there had been no Nixon-Mao meeting. It also seems impossible for two such large countries to keep on ignoring each other; something had to give sometime between the rivals. MacMillan states that both the U.S. and China are alike in some ways—as she writes, “each has a tendency to think it is right, that it is more moral than other nations.” It’s hard to argue that.
All that said (and as always, I have unfortunately said too much), maybe it is too much to call Nixon’s visit to China the week that changed the world, and maybe it is right that the event has become a footnote to Watergate, Vietnam, the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Maybe; maybe not…Events are still unfolding. We don’t know where China-U.S. relations will be in thirty years and by then Nixon and Mao may have acquired new meaning. That is the way of history. We do not know now what is important or what kind of impact something will have. Things that seem critical today may eventually mean nothing, and the small things that we disregard now may later be revealed as the first steps of earthshaking change. We just don’t know and that is the thrill and discovery of history.
But who am I to say or to know anything? I’m just a girl with a library card.