Long hailed as a “historic diplomatic breakthrough,” the reality is that US president Richard Nixon's 1972 trip to China has been rather oversold. Yes, the brief Mao-Nixon meeting did start a thaw in relations, but Nixon may have given more than he got. Here’s a gripping tale of geopolitical strategy, grand ambition, secret trips, betrayal and blunders. As well as covering the famous summit which would give rise to the expression, “like Nixon going to China,” we also touch on Chiang Kai-shek’s own plans for “going to China” via Vietnam and the Soviet Union.
Cover images: Chiang Kai-shek stands on a stage during a visit to Taiwan by then-US vice-president Richard Nixon in 1959. Right: The famous Mao-Nixon handshake photo from then-US president Nixon's trip to China in 1972. Images via the Richard Nixon Foundation, and Nixon White House Photographs.
Below: While "Nixon meets Mao" was the main story, Mao apparently was more fond of then-US national security advisor Henry Kissinger. Kissinger flew secretly to China in 1971 to prepare for Nixon's visit. (Via Wonderium Daily)
1. An almost-certainly staged press pic of Nixon on Air Force One headed for China in late February 1972. Note: All photos via Wikimedia Commons.
2. While some Chinese troops stood at attention, there was surprisingly little fanfare as president Nixon's plane finally arrived in Beijing after first stopping in Shanghai.
3. No red carpet, no marching band, no Mao Zedong. Nixon and wife Pat are greeted by China's second in command: Zhou Enlai, at Beijing Capital Airport on February 21, 1972.
4. The US and PRC flags hang side-by-side as Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai speak at a banquet at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
5. President Richard and Pat Nixon stroll along the Great Wall of China on February 24, 1972. Color images and video of the trip were seen by millions of Americans. (Color TVs had only recently begun to outsell black-and-white sets)
6. While China gifted the US two giant pandas, the Americans chose to give two musk oxenas a token of friendship. Why? Who knows?
7. Nixon's "defection" to communist China was a hard blow for ROC leader Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), who considered Nixon a friend. CKS would not live to see the final switching of diplomatic relations in 1979. Picture shows then-VP Nixon on one of his trips to Taiwan in the 1950s.