On February 21st, 1972, President Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing, descended from Air Force One, and took the hand of Chinese foreign minister, Zhou Enlai. That handshake became the most decisive moment of the post-World War II period and the event which defined the 21st Century. Here are four reasons why:
1) Nixon’s visit to China ended the Vietnam War
The Vietnam War tore America apart. Nixon won the election in 1968 with a promise to end the war. But Nixon, the global strategist, understood that an abrupt withdrawal would be viewed as defeat and hurt American prestige and credibility.
Nixon also grasped that North Vietnam could only fight on with Chinese aid. The North Vietnamese leadership understood this too, and thus they reacted to the visit with fury. Margaret MacMillan in her marvelous book, Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World notes:
The day after Nixon arrived in Beijing, the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi held its customary Spring party. To the surprise of the Chinese officials, not a single North Vietnamese came.
But the Vietnamese got the message and Hanoi signed a peace deal less than a year later. Domestically, and internationally, it was a major triumph for Richard Nixon.
2) Nixon’s visit to China was the beginning of the end of the Cold War
In 1972, the Chinese and Russians had been on bad terms for over a decade. In 1969 their armed forces fought a seven-month war on the Manchurian border. The Americans may have needed Chinese help with Vietnam, but the Chinese needed just as much help from the Americans to deal with the Soviet Union.
In the short term, the China opening forced the Soviets into nuclear arms treaties. In the long term, the China visit created a de facto military alliance between China and NATO to contain Russian power. Once the Chinese economy began to grow spectacularly after 1979, the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev realized that their strategic position was becoming hopeless. They chose the peaceful option to wind down the Cold War. But the opening of the Berlin Wall in 1989 began in Beijing in 1972.
3) Nixon’s visit to China led to its rise as an economic superpower
When Nixon arrived, the Chinese leadership was still embroiled in the Cultural Revolution. It needed to end its own political division and decide on a course for the nation. Nixon’s visit enabled them to do this with American backing.
With this backing, Deng Xiaoping, who favored markets and close cooperation with America, pushed through the liberalization of agriculture in 1979. That kickstarted the economic colossus we know today. Whether shoppers are buying socks at Walmart, or the Treasury Department is selling T- Bills on the financial markets, the Chinese economy impacts every American every day of the week.
4) Nixon’s visit to China insured his reelection and the realignment of American politics
Richard Nixon understood that the social and cultural upheavals of the 1960s presented an opportunity for the Republican Party. Southern Whites and working-class ethnics in the northern and midwestern states had voted Democrat for most of the 20th century. But they were increasingly alienated by the policies of a Democrat Party controlled by elites on the east and west coasts.
As early as the Alger Hiss hearings in the 1940s, Nixon saw that American politics would be shaped by a clash between managerial elites and Middle America. When he appealed to the Silent Majority, he was appealing to Middle American voters. The China visit was the triumph which made sure that he would win by a large margin. Ronald Reagan put together the same coalition for his successful campaigns.
Last summer, Intellectual Takeout’s Alcuin interns watched a two-hour documentary about Richard Nixon as one of their assignments. At the conclusion, they all shouted: “It’s Trump!” Indeed, Trump put together the Nixon coalition in 2016 to win the White House.
Nixon was toppled in a coup d’etat called “Watergate.” As a result, the discussion about his presidency is completely shrouded by his alleged crimes and resignation in August of 1974.
That is too bad. Given his impact and achievements, perhaps he deserves a second look.
[Image Credit: Richard Nixon Presidential Library, public domain]