Nixon and Kissinger: Bringing China in from the Cold

Henry Kissinger celebrated his hundredth birthday on May 27 this year. Xie Feng, China’s new ambassador to the United States, helped the former Secretary of State—described by Xie as an “old friend” of China—to mark the big day by personally congratulating Kissinger at his home in Connecticut. A few weeks later it was the centenarian Kissinger calling on the Chinese—with Chairman Xi no less—at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, the very place he had met Premier Zhou Enlai in 1971 to jumpstart the normalisation of relations between the US and China. The symbolism of 2023 was not lost on Beijing’s top officials, who emphasised the need for “peaceful co-existence” between the two superpowers. Kissinger, who claims to have made 101 trips to China since 1969, worries that all the good work he and Richard Nixon did back in 1971-72 to lay the foundations for an effective long-term relationship between Washington and Beijing is being undone, and that we are headed for a Sino-US war. A naysayer might counter that the work he and Nixon did is why we might be heading for war.

President Nixon’s state visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), from February 22 to 28, 1972, really was “the week that changed the world”—as Nixon proclaimed after numerous Mao-tai toasts on the final night of his stay. Kissinger, with his formidable intellect, played a crucial role in delivering Nixon’s pro-Beijing gambit. Twice he went behind the Bamboo Curtain to prepare the way for the historic assignation between his boss and Mao Zedong. Nevertheless, it is commonly accepted, even by Kissinger, that Nixon was first to articulate the advantages of conciliation with Communist China. From a pragmatic point of view, always an important aspect of Nixon’s political thinking, there were a multitude of reasons why such conciliation might be timely, many of them concerning the Vietnam War. When running for office in 1968, Nixon promised the American people he would seek “an honourable peace” in Vietnam. Not that he was alone in this. By the end of his time in office, even President Johnson was positioning himself as a prospective peacemaker, if only to help Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, in the 1968 election. In fact, John A. Farrell, in his well-documented and mostly non-jaundiced biography, Richard Nixon: The Life (2017), provides convincing evidence that Nixon “threw a monkey wrench” into Johnson’s attempt to spur negotiations with Hanoi in October 1968. Nixon, allegedly, convinced South Vietnam’s President Thieu to delay peace talks until after the election. Farrell comments: “Given the lives and human suffering at stake, and the internal discord that was ripping the United States apart, it is hard not to conclude that, of all Richard Nixon’s actions in a lifetime of politics, this was the most reprehensible.”

In any case, part of Nixon’s China gambit was the possibility of leveraging newly normalised relations with Beijing to pressure Hanoi into abandoning—or, at least, postponing—Hanoi’s annexation conquest of South Vietnam. Nixon’s hosts in China quickly disabused him of that idea. Beijing would continue aiding and abetting Hanoi if for no other reason than that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was still in competition with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) for leadership of the global socialist/anti-imperialist movement. Perhaps the most important link between the Vietnam War and the summit in Beijing—from Nixon’s point of view—was the prospect of America escaping forward from the global and domestic public relations disaster that was the Vietnam War, and restoring America’s tarnished reputation as an advocate of international accord à la Woodrow Wilson.

In theory, at least, Nixon could be said to have achieved his goal in Vietnam with the January 1973 Paris Peace Accords. The US began immediately withdrawing its armed forces from South Vietnam, including all naval and air-force support for Saigon; meanwhile, North Vietnam’s military arm south of the border, the Viet Cong, went back to fighting the Army of the Republic of Vietnam some twenty-four hours later. In truth, the Paris Peace Accords, without the restraining influence of Beijing or Moscow, doomed South Vietnam to defeat. Nixon’s “peace with honour” declaration disconcertingly echoed the words of Neville Chamberlain: “My friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time … go home and get a nice, quiet sleep.” The irony is that these days relations between Washington and Hanoi are on the improve due to a mutual fear of Beijing’s ambitions, proof if it were needed that relationships between ideological opposites are almost always based on expediency and are unlikely to be anything more than transitory.

John F. Kennedy asserted in his January 1961 inaugural address that America “would pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty”. But America had become a different place by the time Nixon entered the White House in 1969. Kennedy’s Cold War zeal had not survived the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as evidenced by his famous “Peace Speech” of June 10, 1963:

What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war … I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.

Nixon, the former Cold Warrior outflanked on the right in 1960 by Kennedy’s “missile gap” hyperbole, had been affected by the change in America’s mood in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis no less than Kennedy; perhaps more so because Nixon enjoyed the benefit of hindsight. Thus, the policy of détente with the Soviet Union (1969 to 1979) had its origins in the Kennedy administration’s 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and the establishment of the Moscow–Washington hotline. The time, seemingly, had come to take seriously Khrushchev’s notion of “peaceful co-existence”, even if he himself was largely responsible for the Cuban Missile Crisis and other nuclear threats. Khrushchev had held that a war between the communist and non-communist world did not have to be “fatalistically inevitable” if a protocol of mutual respect and acceptance of sovereign integrity was respected by all parties. Paradoxically enough, the mercurial First Secretary of the CPSU was probably ousted from power by Leonid Brezhnev on account of Khrushchev’s propensity for Cold War brinkmanship.

Richard Nixon was always something more than an opportunist, although he was, of course, that as well. By the 1960s he had long outgrown the Red Scare of the late 1940s and early 1950s, even if this political phenomenon is what had propelled him, as a young man with a modest background, into the House of Representatives in 1946, the Senate in 1950 and a place on Dwight Eisenhower’s presidential ticket in 1952. In fact, not long into the second term of Eisenhower’s administration, Senator Joseph McCarthy had drunk himself to death and the Red Scare was not so much about Soviet agents infiltrating the US State Department as the advent of Sputnik and the Kremlin’s growing nuclear-weapons capability. Vice-President Nixon, according to Farrell, grew frustrated with Eisenhower’s reluctance to respond meaningfully to Khrushchev’s peaceful co-existence proposal, formally announced at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956. It was Nixon who found himself in the famous 1959 Moscow “Kitchen Debate” with Khrushchev. Nixon demonstrated—at the very least—a preparedness to involve himself in a spirited exchange of ideas with America’s superpower rival. Eisenhower’s lack of innovation on the Cold War front, in the opinion of Nixon, allowed Kennedy in the 1960 election to seem as if he was ahead of the curve on the subject of the Cold War. Nixon, who had grown into a serious thinker on the Cold War, was not going to allow the Democrats to get the better of him in the 1968 presidential race.

When he entered the White House in January 1969, Nixon believed the real era of peaceful co-existence was at hand and that he would ride it all the way into History. Since Nixon’s death in 1994, Kissinger has been more than damning about his former boss’s personality flaws, including all the insecurities, pettiness and vanity. Nevertheless, few have written more appreciatively of Nixon’s strategic acumen than Kissinger. In Diplomacy (1995), for instance, he commended Nixon’s insight that, by the late 1960s, America’s national interest was best served by a “triangular” approach to US-PRC-USSR relations:

Once the Soviet Union could no longer count on permanent hostility between the world’s most powerful and most populous nations—even more so if the two were actually perceived as having started to cooperate—the scope for Soviet intransigence would narrow and perhaps evaporate.

Thus, Washington would employ its new relationship with Beijing to give impetus to an emergent détente with the Kremlin. This encompassed not only arms reduction talks, anti-nuclear proliferation agreements and the lessening of their respective nuclear arms stockpiles, but also the relaxation of superpower tensions on an even broader front.

In Leadership: Six Studies in World Leadership (2022), Kissinger went further, elevating Nixon to the status of one of the six great strategic leaders of the twentieth century, alongside De Gaulle, Adenauer, Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Thatcher. All these leaders, writes Reg Naulty in his review (Quadrant July-August 2023), “transcended the circumstances they inherited” and “thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible”. Anwar Sadat, for instance, found a way to regain territory previously captured by Israel and, at the same time, extricate his country from the self-defeating path of conflict with its Zionist neighbour. Sadat used his bona fides as Nasser’s long-time deputy, Arab nationalist, practising Muslim and initiator of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, to secure the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty. This accord was in the best interests of Egypt despite the sense of betrayal felt by ultra-nationalists and radical Islamic firebrands. Kissinger’s proposition was that only someone like Nixon, one of the original Cold Warriors, could put an end to decades of Sino-American hostility by attending a summit in Beijing and meeting with Mao Zedong.

Nixon was certainly aware that, in the aftermath of the Sino-Soviet split, conciliation between Washington and Beijing was important for the survival of Mao’s regime. In their sixty-five-minute tête à tête, Nixon was determined to make that point to Mao: “We, for example, must ask ourselves—again in the confines of this room—why the Soviets have more forces on the border facing you than on the border facing Western Europe.” Mao could hardly disagree since his greatest fear, after border skirmishes in 1969, was a war with the Soviet Union that involved nuclear weapons. Although China had conducted its first nuclear test in 1964 and detonated a hydrogen bomb in 1967, the People’s Liberation Army was still without the means of deterring a Soviet attack. Nixon spoke about the “common ground” between Beijing and Washington—that is, their shared distrust of the Kremlin—and yet the negative cohesion drawing the most powerful and the most populous countries together was not equally distributed. Mao feared his regime might be destroyed by the Soviets; meanwhile, Soviet-US détente was already two years in the making. Not that Mao allowed Nixon to think he had any advantage over him. Were Nixon to lose the November 1972 election, remarked Mao, Beijing would have no qualms about dealing with Nixon’s political opponents: “But let us speak the truth. As for the Democratic Party, if they come into office again, we cannot avoid contacting them.”

Mao and Nixon appreciated the pragmatic advantages of rapprochement between the two countries, but the problem of their long-standing ideological antipathy—or differences on “philosophy” as Mao termed it—remained. We now know, from the transcript of the meeting, that Mao used wry humour to account for their unlikely alliance: “I voted for you during your election … I like rightists. People say you are rightists, that the Republican party is to the right, that Prime Minister Heath is also to the right.” Any of this, if made public at the time, would have come as a surprise to the long-suffering Chinese people. Ever since their “liberation” in 1949, they had experienced one ultra-leftist rectification campaign after another, resulting in more killings than Stalin inflicted on the Soviet people, and the captive population of China was now enduring the latter stages of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. This particular “anti-rightist” nightmare would persist until Mao’s demise in 1976. But how to explain to the masses, in Marxist-Leninist terms, why Communist China wanted to be friends with Uncle Sam?

The start of closer ties between Washington and Beijing was a version of Khrushchev’s peaceful co-existence idea. Nixon complied with Mao’s one-China refrain, while Mao agreed force would not be used to reunite Taiwan with the motherland. Conflict between capitalist America and socialist China, then, was not “fatalistically inevitable”. However, this kind of “revisionism” had been sharply lambasted by Mao over the years. Mao eventually contrived his Three Worlds Theory to justify the unjustifiable. His new doctrine, announced in 1975, asserted that China’s relative impoverishment kept it on the side of the revolutionary, exploited and anti-imperialist Third World, notwithstanding the new relationship with the US. Enver Hoxha, communist dictator of Albania and China’s only ideological ally in the world, was not persuaded by the Three Worlds Theory. He refused to believe it was a Marxist-Leninist concept. The Sino-Albanian split soon ensued but Mao was untroubled. The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania might have been the first country to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1949. But that was then, and this was now.

Some commentators condemned Nixon’s China sojourn. Conservatives such as the Nation Review’s William F. Buckley denounced Nixon for appeasing a time-tested enemy of the United States. James Burnham, though a little more circumspect, worried that it would leave America prey to all manner of ethical compromises—the downgrading of relations with Taiwan, for example. Leftists, on the other hand, were inclined to point out that the “Nixinger” triumph in Beijing came at the expense of the Bengali people. They accused the Nixon administration of siding with the intermediary crucial for Kissinger’s secret missions to China, West Pakistan’s Yahya Khan, during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The Bangladesh genocide, perpetrated by President Khan, resulted in somewhere between 300,000 and 3 million deaths. In his conversation with Mao, Nixon (being Nixon) characterised his pro-Khan stance of the previous year as the mark of a statesman:

We had similar problems recently in the crisis on India-Pakistan. The American left criticised me very heavily for failing to side with India. This was for two reasons: they were pro-India and they were pro-Soviet. I thought it was important to look at the bigger issue. We could not let a country, no matter how big, gobble up its neighbour … It cost me politically, but I think history will record that it was the right thing to do.

Most Americans, of whatever political persuasion, welcomed Nixon’s summit in China. Even Hillary Clinton, in her memoir Hard Choices (2014), recalled how excited she and her boyfriend were at the time of the visit: “Bill and I were law students without a television, so we went out and rented a portable set with rabbit ears. We lugged it back to our apartment and tuned in every night to watch scenes from a country that had been blocked from our entire lives.” Nixon and Kissinger, on their return to America, spoke about the epic importance of their China adventure. They were, apparently, heroic trailblazers like the Apollo astronauts or maybe Marco Polo. Conrad Black, in his comprehensive though waggish Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full (2007), captures the grandiloquence of our two self-proclaimed heroes:

Once back in Washington, both played up the personal qualities of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in a way that was both unseemly and unrigorous … It was unsubtle self-praise masquerading as fawning adulation in Kissinger’s case, and merely excessive deference in Nixon’s.

Nixon subsequently defeated everyone—Republican and Democrat—who stood in the way of his re-election in November 1972. He won over 60 per cent of the vote and an astonishing forty-nine states. Outflanking both the Left and the Right, his “week that changed the world” helped make him unassailable—until Watergate. 

The usual criticism of Kissinger is that his influence on the White House from 1969 to 1977 turned America’s foreign policy into a ruthless and amoral pragmatism that was without any principles, apart from a merciless pursuit of national interest. Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001) is a prominent example of this kind of critique. Kissinger, in the opinion of Hitchens, was a malevolent force prepared to endorse any act of illegality or even crime against humanity to advance his agenda. There is certainly a long list of problematic decisions made under Kissinger’s auspices: support for Yahya Khan; aerial bombing of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos; undermining Chile’s democratically elected Salvador Allende; greenlighting Suharto’s invasion of East Timor; backing Argentina’s right-wing military dictatorship; and so on. On the release of declassified State Department documents in 2016, Kissinger is shown making these comments in 1976 about the new dictatorship in Argentina: “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement … because I do want to encourage them. I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.” A New Yorker article at the time, written by John Lee Anderson, was not unfairly titled, “Does Henry Kissinger Have a Conscience?”

Kissinger has always rejected the characterisation of his foreign policy machination as Realpolitik, aware that to do so makes him an unethical opportunist. To be fair, Kissinger’s guiding light has not been the Realpolitik of Otto von Bismarck, which ultimately resulted in the First World War. It was the idea of continental equilibrium as advanced by the Austrian empire’s Klemens von Metternich. Metternich was the architect of what some call Europe’s “hundred years of peace” from 1815 to 1914. Kissinger’s doctoral dissertation and subsequent book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace (1957), celebrated Metternich’s quest to secure stability in post-Napoleonic Europe through a balance of competing major powers. Kissinger’s “hard choices” might be best explained as an extrapolation of global equilibrium from the Metternichian notion of continental equilibrium.

Here we can begin to see why Nixon, beyond political expediency, spoke about his eight days in China as “the week that changed the world”. It was not so much peaceful co-existence that had been at stake, but something far more ambitious. Under the influence of Kissinger’s neo-Metternichian creed—the President actually referred to Kissinger as his “doctor of brains” in front of Mao—Nixon believed that by going to China he had moved the world towards a state of global equilibrium. Localised episodes of violence might still occur but an understanding between the major powers, a form of mutually accepted legitimacy, could prevent a Third World War. The cynics will sneer at the idea of Nixon—or, for that matter, Kissinger—being anything other than an arch-realist or unscrupulous opportunist, and yet the evidence points for the contrary. For instance, along with Teddy Roosevelt’s portrait, Nixon requested the presidential desk of the internationalist idealist Woodrow Wilson be installed in the Oval Office. (An administrative oversight landed him with the desk of Vice-President Henry Wilson.) In July 1971, Nixon mused out loud at a conference of newspaper editors in Kansas City that the end of American dominance was “not a bad thing”, and that a multipolar world of five counter-balancing great powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, Western Europe, Japan and, last but not least, China—would be preferable in terms of securing global concord:

Looking down the road—and let’s just look ahead fifteen to twenty years—the United States could have a perfectly effective agreement with the Soviet Union for limitation of arms; the danger of any confrontation there might have been almost totally removed. But Mainland China, outside the world community, completely isolated, with its leaders not in communication … would be a danger to the whole world.

The televised debate between the Democratic Party’s 2016 presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, brings Kissinger’s legacy into sharpest focus. Sanders set the scene when he took aim at Clinton’s long-time portrayal of Kissinger as an elder statesman:

And then, after the war, this is the guy who, in fact, yes, you’re right, he opened up relations with China, and now pushed various type of trade agreements, resulting in American workers losing their jobs as corporations moved to China. The terrible, authoritarian, Communist dictatorship he warned us about, now he’s urging companies to shut down and move to China. Not my kind of guy.

Clinton was unmoved. She had described Kissinger’s doctrine as idealistic and she stood by that judgment:

His analysis, despite some differences over specific policies, largely fits with the broad strategy behind the Obama administration’s effort over the past six years to build a global architecture of security and co-operation for the twenty-first century.

Hillary Clinton, we suddenly discovered, was a neo-Metternichian; Barack Obama too. Who knew? Henry Kissinger knew. As he once said in an interview: “I’ve known her for many years now, and I respect her intellect. And she ran the State Department in the most effective way that I’ve ever seen.”

The tragedy of “the week that changed the world”, therefore, is not the thawing of relations between the most powerful and the most populous countries in the world. That was a pragmatic and reasonable move to make in the context of the Cold War. The tragedy is the enduring ascendancy of a neo-Metternichian belief in maintaining good relations with China at whatever cost to the integrity and security of the West. The regime in Beijing can commit one diabolical act after another, from harvesting the organs of political prisoners and rescinding the laws of Hong Kong to its COVID-19 cover-up and its attempt to destroy Australia’s economy, and still the China apologists in the West are wanting to reset relations. It is an old refrain. In 1989, for instance, President Bush sent Nixon to Beijing to assure the “Butchers of Tiananmen” that Sino-US relations were not at risk. Kissinger argued in a Washington Post editorial at the time that “no government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks” and that “a crackdown was therefore inevitable”. And now Kissinger, China’s “old friend”, continues to kowtow to Beijing, making the admonitions of William F. Buckley and James Burnham more prophetic by the day.

Daryl McCann contributed “The World Needs Europe to Stand Up to China” in the June issue. He has a blog at


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