President Richard Nixon’s visit to China 40 years ago this week is rightly remembered as a historic breakthrough. Decades later, however, few political myths are as persistent as the notion that “only Nixon could go to China.”
The mythology runs like this: Only a red-baiting, Commie-hating Republican could do something that would have been out of reach for a soft, left-liberal Democrat. Only a bellicose and unscrupulous anti-Communist, whose credibility with fellow conservatives would shield him from any domestic attack, could sup with the devil and become a peacemaker.
At the time of the rapprochement in 1971–72, the Democratic Senate leader, Mike Mansfield, declared: “Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.” The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” has since become part of the Anglosphere’s political lexicon to describe a moment when a political leader defies expectations by doing something that would anger his supporters if taken by someone without his credentials.
A Nixon-in-China moment is usually when a conservative surprises with a progressive stance. Think of Ronald Reagan’s detente with the Soviets, or George W. Bush’s $15 billion initiative to tackle AIDS in Africa that even won kudos from Bob Geldof. You could even argue that Disraeli made a Nixon-in-China move a century before the phrase was coined when the Tories, not the Liberals, enfranchised the masses.
But as we mark this week’s 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic, it’s time to address the myth behind that famous phrase for such political gymnastics.
After all, the post1949 U.S. political consensus to isolate Communist China had collapsed several years before Nixon’s visit in February 1972. So radically had the political climate changed that even a liberal Democratic president could have met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai without arousing the anger of Middle America.
In 1966, as serious doubts emerged about the Vietnam War and the Sino-Soviet split became increasingly evident, a great debate over China policy began. Opinion leaders — politicians, columnists, businesses, think tanks — began to criticize the nearly two-decade-old policy of pretending that the world’s most populous nation did not exist. The hitherto hard-line New York Times published no fewer than 20 editorials calling for a new policy of accommodating the Middle Kingdom. Polls showed dramatically rising public support for negotiating with Peking, easing the travel ban, and supporting mainland China’s admission into the United Nations. Further, in July 1966, President Lyndon Johnson delivered a nationwide address to advocate “reconciliation” with the Communist rulers. Clearly, a new era of U.S. understanding of China had already begun.
Meanwhile, Nixon was uncharacteristically silent. Since the Communist Revolution of 1949, and even after U.S. allies such as Britain and France had reestablished diplomatic relations with the mainland, the ambitious congressman, senator, vice president, and private citizen had built a reputation as a China hawk. In 1951, he even endorsed Senator Joe McCarthy’s charge that treasonous State Department officials had “lost China” by abandoning nationalist forces. And as late as June 1966, he warned that “appeasement [of] Red China [in Vietnam] would lead to World War III.”
From the summer of 1966 to the fall of 1967, however, he made no public comments about China policy. The silence was significant. In mid-1967, when he returned from his fifth Asian trip in as many years, Nixon revisited the subject in a much-publicized article in Foreign Affairs. In it, he advanced the idea of bringing Peking in from the cold. “Taking the long view,” he argued, “we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations.” Suddenly, we were all appeasers.