As a candidate and in press conferences as president, Richard Nixon argued that the United States and the world would benefit from engaging China. He felt this was intrinsicly important because of China’s size and inevitable importance. Nixon also saw China as a useful counterbalance to the Soviet Union. From the first days of his presidency he sought to signal China’s leaders that he was willing to talk. The Americans sent private signals through Paris, Warsaw, and via the leaders of Romania and Pakistan. The documents summarized and linked to below detail these efforts which ultimately produced Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing July 9-11, 1971. Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor, flew to Beijing from Pakistan. His meetings there produced an agreement that President Nixon would visit China. Nixon went in February 1972.
Records of the actual meetings
Memorandum regarding a draft transcript of the July 9, 1971 meetings between Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai. The memo includes a note that from 1940 to 1948, the U.S. provided China with more than $48 billion in lend-lease support. Zhou began the meeting by discovering the Americans were non-smokers. Zhou reasserted that Chairman Mao had said they’d welcome Nixon as President or as a private person. Kissinger told Zhou, “It is the conviction of President Nixon that a strong and developing People’s Republic of China poses no threat to any essential U.S. interest. It is no accident that our two countries have had such a long history of friendship.” Nixon, Kissinger said, would make no major move that would affect China’s interests without discussing it with China’s leaders ahead of time. Kissinger noted that China was a mysterious land. Zhou said that as Kissinger became more familiar with Chinese he would not find China so mysterious. Zhou complained that for years the American representatives have wanted to focus on small questions first and save fundatmental ones for later. Zhou was happy that Nixon was ready to talk about fundamental questions. Zhou focused on Taiwan, noting that a State Department official had said that the status of Taiwan was still undetermined. Kissinger quickly replied, “He hasn’t repeated it!” Kissinger said that without the Korean War, Taiwan would probably have been brought under Beijing’s control. Zhou insisted that U.S. recognition of Taiwan as a part of China was a precondition for normalization of relations. Kissinger said that China needed to recognize U.S. necessities, namely that the U.S. would not publicly state that eventually Taiwan would be under Beijing’s authority. Kissinger told Zhou that he’d made a secret trip to Paris to meet North Vietnamese representatives and that the U.S. was prepared to withdraw from Vietnam. Zhou mentioned that two Vietnamese women had led resistance to a Chinese invasion 2,000 years before. Kissinger joked that “Women in politics can be ferocious.” Kissinger articulated Nixon’s view that the U.S. would not reflexively fight communism but would deal with communist states on a case by case basis. Zhou claimed that while China supported North Vietnam, it had not sent soldiers to fight there. Kissinger explained that including Japan under the U.S. defense umbrella meant that Japan did not feel it needed to build up its own defense capabilities. He said that this was in both American and Chinese interests. Click here to read the document.
Memorandum regarding a draft transcript of the July 10, 1971 afternoon meetings between Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai and others.The group had spent the morning touring the Imperial Palace. Again, the focus was on Taiwan. Zhou asked that if the Nixon visit were set, there should be progress in resolving Taiwan questions ahead of his arrival, though he said such progress was not a precondition for the visit. He said that if the Americans only removed forces from Taiwan and did not extend diplomatic recognition, that it was an incomplete effort. Zhou also said they worried that as the U.S. withdraws forces from Taiwan and elsewhere, that Japanese forces would move in. Kissinger said that since the Chinese leaders first offered the idea of the Nixon visit, it was up to them to suggest a time. He further said that in making public references to the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. was signalling its intentions, namely to normalize relations with China. Kissinger said that a visit by Nixon would have “symbolic significance because it would make clear that normal relations were inevitable.” Kissinger said the U.S. did not support Taiwan independence or one China, one Taiwan or two Chinas. Diplomatic recognition, Kissinger said, would have to wait until Nixon’s second term.The U.S., Kissinger said, would not block China’s entry into the United Nations. Kissinger warned Zhou that only Nixon could establish relations with China. Others “would be destroyed by what is called the China lobby” (pro-Taiwan). Kissinger asked that Zhou not repeat this to the New York Times correspondent James Reston when he visited. Zhou told him that many American politicians had asked for invitations to visit. Nixon was happy, Kissinger said, that Zhou had not obliged any of them. Kissinger further said that it was important that the Chinese continue to work with him rather than through other channels (meaning the State Department). Zhou concluded by running through a list of former CCP leaders who tried to steer the party astray (Chen Duxiu, Wang Ming, Zhang Guotao, and Liu Shaoqi) and explaining that Mao was continuing to lead China with strength. They agreed to aim for the spring of 1971 for Nixon’s visit. Click here to read the document.
Memorandum regarding a draft transcript of the final meeting Kissinger had with Zhou Enlai and others on the late night meeting on July 10, 1971. The memo highlights themes from all the discussions. The transcript shows Zhou and Kissinger focused on Taiwan, on ongoing US-Soviet Union talks, and on China-India and China-Soviet Union disputes. Click here to read the document.
July 11, 1971
Henry Kissinger sent a brief cable to Alexander Haig at the White House. He reported that he’d gotten what President Nixon wanted – a big welcome. Kissinger told Haig to tell Nixon that nothing should be said to anyone prior to his return. He wrote that even a minor leak would offend the Chinese. Click here to read the document.
July 14, 1971
Henry Kissinger reports on his talks with Zhou Enlai. He begins by writing that the talks were “the most searching, sweeping and significant discussions I have ever had in government.” He stressed that dealing with the Chinese required nuance and style and said a grasp of the “intangibles” was crucial if the U.S. was to “deal effectively with these tough, idealistic, fanatical, single-minded and remarkable people and thus transform the very framework of global relationships.” Kissinger felt that the Chinese were struggling with philosophic contradictions, by dealing with “arch capitalists.” “The moral ambivalence of this encounter for them was relected in a certain brooding quality, in the occasional schizophrenia of Chou’s presentations….,” he wrote. Kissinger was quite taken with Zhou, ranking him with Charles De Gualle as the most impressive statesman he’d met. Kissinger wrote that the Chinese “pretended that they had responded to your [Nixon’s] request” to go to China. He noted that extensive discussions were necessary in determining the text of the announcement of the Nixon visit. The Chinese wanted to have seeking normalization of relations as the purpose, Kissinger insisted on discussions of mutual interest. Both are in the final announcement. Kissinger told Nixon he’d gotten “precisely what you wished.” Those wishes included a pledge that the Chinese would not host other American political figures before Nixon’s arrival. Zhou’s requirements for diplomatic relations were listed. Kissinger said he told Zhou he hoped that the polticial evolution between Beijing and Taipei would be peaceful. Kissinger reported that to advance negotiations on the summit details and other matters that he and Zhou had agreed to work through their respective representatives in Paris (General Vernon Walters and the Chinese ambassador). Kissinger said that at the end of their talks, he brought up the matter of four Americans held in Chinese jails. He said that the U.S. would not requesting their release but would consider such a release as an act of mercy. Kissinger concluded by writing, “We have laid the groundwork for you and Mao to turn a page in history. But we should have no illusions about the future. Profound differences and years of isolation yawn between us and the Chinese.” Beyond this he noted, “the process we have now started will send enormous shock waves around the world.” The joint announcement is appended to the document. Click here to read the document.
The Announcement: July 15, 1971
President Nixon announced that he’d sent Henry Kissinger to China and that the result of these meetings was an agreement for a presidential trip to China. The announcement finessed the desire by both sides to signal the other initiated the move. The joint announcement begins, “Knowing of President Nixon’s expressed desire to visit the People’s Republic of China, Premier Chou En-lai, on behalf of the Government of the People’s Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate date before May 1972.” Nixon said the visit was not intended to harm the interests of others. He concluded, “I have taken this action because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.”
Nixon and Kissinger to the White House staff: July 19, 1971
The President and Dr. Kissinger spoke to the White House staff about their China initiative. Nixon began, “Let me put it in the context of the secrecy problem: Without secrecy, there would have been no invitation or acceptance to visit China. Without secrecy, there is no chance of success in it.” He emphasized this point, saying “The China meeting will abort if there is not total secrecy.” We have to deal with China, Nixon said. “They’re not a military power now but 25 years from now they will be decisive. For us not to do now what what we can do to end this total isolation would leave things very dangerous.” Kissinger echoed the need for secrecy, beginning, “The most impressive thing we can do as far as the Chinese are concerned is to shut up.” Click here to read the document.