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Foreign Policy

Nixon in China

Feb 20 , 2012
  • Stephen Hess

    Senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution

In a restorative break from an intense Beijing conference last November, I climbed up to the Temple of Heaven and on the wall–not what I expected to find–was  a photograph of Richard Nixon, the President of the United States who had surprised the world 40 years before by reconnecting two great nations.
This was a remarkable achievement in the midst of the Vietnam War. Being a tough-minded anti-communist provided Nixon with useful political cover. Yet other American politicians also could have faced down the rage of the rightwing.

 Rather it was Nixon’s personal history that pointed the way to his becoming the fulcrum of this historic event. For Nixon grew up next to the Pacific. Until that time presidents’ world views, despite Asian wars, were primarily formed by looking across the Atlantic. They responded to events that confronted them, of course. But there was also a Europe-oriented school system and sometimes searing experiences: Hoover’s relief efforts in Europe during and after World War I, Captain Truman in France, General Ike, Kennedy writing Why England Slept in 1940.

Nixon was a Californian. Stanford brought Hoover to California and the movies brought Reagan. Nixon was native-born. He begins his memoirs:

I was born in a house my father built….Yorba Linda was a farming community of 200 people about thirty miles from Los Angeles….In the spring the air was heavy with the rich scent of orange blossoms. And there was much to excite a child’s imagination: glimpses of the Pacific Ocean to the west….”

He wanted to go east to college, possibly to Yale on a tuition scholarship. The family could not afford the travel and living expenses, and so Nixon went to Whittier College and lived at home, while seeing more of the west coast as a member of the debate team.  After Duke Law School and an abbreviated effort to find work in New York, he returned to a job with Whittier’s oldest law firm. As a navel officer during World War II he was stationed on various islands in the South Pacific, which he described as “filled with seemingly interminable periods of waiting while the action unfolded thousands of miles away.”  Almost immediately upon returning to California he was elected to Congress.

Nixon recalled a childhood dreaming of “the far-off places I wanted to visit someday.” His aunt subscribed to National Geographic. “It was my favorite magazine.”   His fascination with the rest of the world was profound. In the years I think I knew him well—between his two races for the presidency—he was always off to some far-off place. When I helped him on some magazine article or newspaper column it was almost always based on insights he gathered on a recent trip, rarely reflecting on domestic concerns. Later when he joined a New York law firm his international clients gave him excuses to travel abroad. These were hardly Cook’s Tours. As described by Ray Price, a former New York Herald Tribune editorial writer, who joined Nixon in 1967, “Each stop was heavily scheduled, with arrangements made in advance through the local U.S. embassy and the host country’s embassy in Washington. There were extensive briefings by the U.S. ambassador, and sometimes by the embassy staff; calls on the president, prime ministers, foreign ministers….”

Only in the context of American elective politicians is this so remarkable. Elections are almost always fought and won on the immediate domestic concerns of voters, the exceptions are wars that are domesticated through the loss of lives. Yet Nixon’s outlook was truly otherwise. When he ran for governor of California in 1962 (I was his speechwriter), voters could sense his lack of interest in local issues, as he later admitted; indeed, his one sparkling speech was in support of President Kennedy in the Cuban Missile crisis.

Later, watching him from inside the White House, what seemed clear was that his dealing with domestic matters was an obligation, dealing with foreign matters was a passion. (As someone working on the domestic side, sometimes this was an advantage.)

Bringing together these two strands of what would become his presidential behavior—Nixon’s unique interest in the Pacific side of the world and Nixon’s unique emphasis on international affairs—was foretold in “Asia After Vietnam,” his October 1967 article in Foreign Affairs, when more than a year before his election he reviews strategies that in “the long run…means pulling China back into the world community—but as a great and progressing nation, not as the epicenter of world revolution.” 

For Nixon to get to China in February 1972 is a now-told tale of diplomacy working through various channels, secret meetings, masterful maneuvering.  But from time to time the personal Nixon can be glimpsed as when in October 1969, in an interview with Time, he comments, “If there is anything I want to do before I die, it is to go to China. If I don’t, I want my children to.”

Nearly two months after the President returned from China, April 13, 1972, I brought my wife and two sons, Charles 10 and James 8, to the Oval Office for what is known as “a departure handshake.” I had served in his administration for three years and was now joining the Brookings Institution. It was late in the day and through the doors to the south lawn we see a helicopter posed to take the President to Andrews Air Force Base for a flight to Ottawa. Nixon was not known for small talk with young people. The boys are clutching their spacecraft gifts and official photographs have been taken.  Yet the President has one last question for Charles.

“What is your favorite subject in school?”


“That was my favorite too,” says the President with sudden enthusiasm.

Now he leads Charles around the Oval Office to show him the dwarfed bonsai trees he has just brought back from China.

The military aides appear anxious. There is a schedule to keep. But the President is not finished.

“You must travel when you’re young, or you will be too old to enjoy it.” Nixon is now imitating an old man haltingly descending the gangplank.

“Even if you have to borrow the money.”

Stephen Hess is a senior fellow emeritus in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. He was Deputy Assistant to the President for Urban Affairs (1969) and National Chairman of the White House Conference on Children and Youth (1970-71).

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