Not Only Nixon Could Go to China
Forty years on, the myth persists.

Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and President Richard Nixon in China, February 1972


To be sure, Nixon’s case for accommodating China was nuanced. After all, the last thing he wanted to do on the eve of the 1968 Republican primaries was to raise doubts about his conservative credentials. But Nixon, with a wet finger to the wind, had nonetheless recognized as early as 1966–67 that the anti-Communist climate had changed. No more red-baiting for him.

Why, then, did it take another five years before the door was opened? The answer has more to do with China’s xenophobic stance during the Cultural Revolution than with any hostility on Washington’s part. Indeed, when Nixon announced his decision to visit China, the amazing thing is that America and the world were amazed. Long gone were the days when mainstream politicians felt compelled to outlaw and blacklist anything Chinese.

Proponents of the Nixon-China myth make another argument: that only someone with such authority and credibility on the right of the Republican party would meet little resistance from his own side. Yet Nixon’s great flip-flop actually reflected mainstream Republicans’ increasing acceptance of China, and alienated the last of the true believers in isolating “Red China.”

For most conservatives, Nixon’s U-turn was the tipping point in a fractious relationship that had included several betrayals, including price-wage controls, ending the gold standard, and declaring that — gasp — “we are all Keynesians now.” During “the week that changed the world,” William F. Buckley Jr. — National Review editor and patron saint of American conservatives — complained that the U.S. had “lost, irretrievably, any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.” Leading conservative and NR publisher William Rusher called the betrayal of Taiwan “one of the greatest double crosses of all time.”

William Loeb, publisher of New Hampshire’s Union Leader, warned that Nixon’s ideological odyssey was “immoral, indecent, insane and fraught with danger for the survival of the United States.” Reverend Carl McIntire, chairman of the Vietnam “March for Victory” committee, charged that Nixon had “abandoned all moral principles: it is like God and the devil having a high-level meeting.” Republican senators and congressmen broke off relations with the White House. And actor John Wayne deplored the president’s week-long China trip as “a real shocker.”

If Nixon had been a Democrat, say the Nixon mythmakers, the Republican right would have been outraged over his China overtures. But they were clearly outraged anyway. By betraying conservatives, Nixon did himself no favors in the lead-up to the Watergate crisis when he desperately needed friends. So much for the argument that only Nixon could go to China.

— Tom Switzer is a research associate for the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and editor of Spectator Australia.


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