Review: Nixon and Mao: The week that changed the world
By Margaret Macmillan
Historian Margaret Macmillan’s Nixon and Mao, the record of US president Richard Nixon’s surprise visit to China in 1972, may have been published a little more than two years ago, but it was only recently that I felt compelled to read it. Perhaps that choice was prompted by signs that Taiwan may be up for yet another round of “secret” diplomacy in which its future and the fate of its 23 million people is to be decided by outsiders. Macmillan’s approach is reminiscent of David Halberstam’s in his classic The Best and the Brightest, in which short biographies of the key participants, ostensibly as a means to explain the policy decisions they make, are woven into the narrative. This is a technique that the late Halberstam had used to great effect and one that Macmillan also uses well.
The key personalities in the story of how the United States opened up to communist China, which culminates with the visit, in 1972, of president Nixon and the signing of the problematic Shanghai Communiqué, are Nixon, his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and premier Chou Enlai (周恩來).
While there is nothing controversial in Macmillan’s take on the years of secret diplomacy (mostly performed by Kissinger) leading up to the meeting, she successfully presents the main geopolitical considerations — on both sides — that made rapprochement possible: shared fears of the Soviet Union and the US war in Indochina. Macmillan also does a fair job showing how the White House sidelined other agencies — especially William Rogers’ State Department — an approach that, though preferred during the Nixon years, may very well have been exacerbated by the knowledge that dealing with the Chinese is very much a person-to-person affair. Doing so also conveniently disposed with the friction that naturally happens in a democratic system, where competing voices with sometimes different agendas must be taken into consideration when policy is fleshed out. In the present case, the principal casualties are Rogers, the State Department and the American media, contempt for which Nixon made no effort to conceal. Nevertheless, whenever doing so was convenient in negotiations with authoritarian China, where Mao’s and Chou’s decisions were very much policy, Nixon and Kissinger complained to their Chinese counterparts that their hands were tied, that they could not ignore other voices in the US political arena — the Chinese (Taiwanese) lobby, conservative Republicans, Democrats and so on. Despite Nixon’s attempts to circumvent a large swathe of the American political system, the inherent pressures remained, and if one thing, the reader is left with the impression that accomplishments notwithstanding, Nixon’s plan involved at its core the betrayal of American democracy and that of its allies, especially Japan and Taiwan.
The book is filled with little-known anecdotes (what did Canada offer to China when the two countries established diplomatic relations? Answer: a pair of beavers, stuffed in the washrooms of an Air Canada flight; Nixon’s low resistance to alcohol and how he almost set the White House on fire while trying to demonstrate how one could set fire to a mao-tai drink; and how the president became increasingly grumpy as his week in China imposed interminable sightseeing tours).
Macmillan makes little effort to conceal her admiration for Kissinger’s and Chou’s negotiating skills, while portraying Mao and Nixon as the strategic thinkers who had final say over the agreements reached.
In terms of organization, Macmillan’s book could have been better, as it goes back and forth in time for no real purpose. Her nonlinear approach does not add to the narrative; in fact, it gives the impression that the book is more repetitive than it actually is.
Where Nixon and Mao gains its importance is in showing how ambiguity resulting from a desire to establish contact at all cost can sow the seeds of future conflict. On this, no question has been more problematic, or so undermined the efforts of the principal players in the visit, than that of Taiwan. The passage in which a meek Kissinger, after begrudgingly receiving input from State Department officials, goes back to his Chinese counterparts and asks for revisions to the Shanghai Communiqué after it had been approved by Mao and Nixon is quite entertaining, as is Macmillan’s description of the to-ing and fro-ing that ensued. It is also very important, as the final text, vagueness, compromise language and all, established the foundations of what became US policy vis-à-vis the Taiwan question and shows that, had Nixon not been forced out of office after the Watergate scandal, Taiwan very likely would have been sold out.
Instead, what we have today is an extension of that communiqué, with Taiwan’s status remaining — a dangerous word these days, judging for the treatment reserved Japan’s de-facto ambassador to Taiwan, Saito Masaki — “unresolved.” Two reasons why it might be important to return to Nixon’s opening to China — and hence why Macmillan’s book should be read — is signs that the administration of US President Barack Obama may be willing to act in similar fashion with China, and the equally secretive approach to negotiation that has characterized relations between the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) under President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and China, with all the undemocratic shortcomings that doing so implies.
There is no doubt that at one point the world would have to recognize the People’s Republic of China and its 1.3 billion people. It is equally natural that as it sought to modernize, China could not remain forever in isolation and had to join the international community. This conjunction, added to war in Vietnam and other, more tactical, considerations created a natural platform for Nixon’s visit. What remains in question, however, is whether the US had to promise so much so that channels of communication could be established — especially when, as it soon became clear, it could not deliver on all those promises, partly as a result of the same democratic, multi-agency pressures discussed above. Perhaps deep inside Kissinger knew that, which would explain the ambiguous language that ultimately wove itself into the communiqué (the US “acknowledges” China’s position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of China) and haunts the relationship to this day. Or perhaps, in a more sinister twist, Kissinger used that language so that the State Department and the Taiwan lobby would not be overly distressed and block the process. The answer to that question, sadly, rests with Kissinger, and despite her best efforts Macmillan comes no closer to providing elucidation on that question.
While executive diplomacy may bring quick results, the secrecy that it necessitates also means that the checks and balances that usually (and should) accompany sound diplomacy are lacking. While, as in the Taiwan Strait today, this approach may serve short-term political needs, it may also, in its shortsightedness, create more problems for the future. This is what the Ma administration appears to be doing today, in the name of expediency. In the long run, however, whatever benefit may emerge from the talks could spell trouble for all those involved.
If Macmillan’s book serves one purpose beyond providing an informative and entertaining recapitulation of the week that changed the world, it is this — a warning to American and Taiwanese negotiators that there is no such thing as a quick fix with China. Or, rather, that a quick fix with China comes at a steep price.