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Payback From the Right

How Nixon went to China and changed modern geopolitics.

By 5.9.07

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This review by James Rosen appears in the April 2007 issue of The American Spectator. Click here to subscribe.

Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World
by Margaret MacMillan
(Random House, 432 pages, $27.95)

DULLES ALWAYS USED TO SAY that he had to operate alone," Henry Kissinger told President Nixon on June 13, 1971, "because he couldn't trust his own bureaucracy." Occasioning Kissinger's reference to John Foster Dulles, the Eisenhower-era secretary of state, and to the general untrustworthiness of career government officers, was that morning's publication, in the New York Times, of the first installment of the Pentagon Papers: the largest leak of classified documents to the news media in recorded history. "That was good for Dulles," Kissinger added, "but we pay for it now because we are stuck with the bureaucracy." "I just wish," Nixon mused, "that we operated without the bureaucracy." Kissinger laughed; the president swiftly realized the irony. "We do," Nixon said. "All the good things that are being done," Kissinger clarified.

Just eleven days earlier, the back-channel diplomacy Kissinger was extolling, and had personally elevated to an art form-running rings 'round Nixon's affable but overmatched secretary of state, William P. Rogers, under the instruction and tutelage of the president himself-had paid handsome dividends. On June 2, the national security adviser had received a secret message from Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai, conveyed through Pakistani intermediaries, inviting him to travel to Beijing and lay the groundwork for Nixon's own historic visit to China in February 1972.

That memorable event, and the diplomatic scheming that produced it, are brought vividly to life in Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World, a magisterial study by University of Toronto history professor Margaret MacMillan. Drawing on dozens of memoirs and scholarly studies, on documentaries, contemporaneous oral histories, and fresh interviews with key players (including Kissinger), and on hundreds of declassified documents and transcripts published by the George Washington University's National Security Archive and by the State Department itself, in its Foreign Relations of the United States series, MacMillan skillfully re-creates the unique confluence of historical forces and idiosyncratic personalities that made possible the great thaw in Sino-American relations, a triumphant, transcendent, and still reverberating event in world history.

Although Nixon's visit to China and its surreal imagery, stage-managed with innovative genius by H.R. Haldeman and his White House aides, are now, at a distance of 35 years, firmly ensconced in the modern mind-the stuff of plays, movies, and at least one opera, integral to the very language of international relations-MacMillan makes clear how fragile the enterprise was from the start: how many junctures there were when it seemed as though Air Force One might never touch down in Beijing's civilian airport, how uncertain it was that the ailing Mao Tse-tung would even meet with Nixon, and how rocky the negotiations were that preceded the trip and spawned its concluding document, the Shanghai Communique. The Chinese had to overcome their deeply ingrained suspicion of Western powers, which centuries of experience had taught them to see as exploitative and hypocritical, and which only intensified after Mao and the Communists came to power in 1949; the Americans, meanwhile, bogged down in Vietnam and coming to grips with the reality of diminished superpower influence across the globe, feared appearing as supplicants and upsetting numerous allies.

Chief among these allies was Taiwan, where nationalist Chinese forces, led by Chiang Kai-shek, had retreated after Mao's victory, and which Washington had ever since recognized as China's sole legitimate government. Despite periodic threats by Mao to use military force to bring Taiwan under the mainland's Communist rule, successive White Houses had held fast to the "two-China" policy, an inviolable article of faith for conservative anti-Communists, especially, since 1949.

In July 1971, however, as Kissinger readied for his first trip to Beijing, a secret kept from both the press and senior levels of the State Department, Nixon coldly instructed his emissary to jettison the two-China policy in exchange for Chou's help on Vietnam. Alexander Haig, Kissinger's deputy and the third man present in the Oval Office, recorded Nixon's orders in a now-declassified "top secret" memorandum. Kissinger, Nixon said, was to convey the policy shift with measured, enigmatic words; he was "not to indicate a willingness to abandon much of our support for Taiwan until it was necessary to do so." That much MacMillan quotes, but Haig's memo continues:


[Nixon] emphasized that the discussions with the Chinese cannot look like a sellout of Taiwan.... In sum, the president asked [Kissinger] to review the entire discussion of the Taiwan issue so that we would not appear to be dumping on our friends and so that we would be somewhat more mysterious about our overall willingness to make concessions in this area.

While MacMillan's sweeping account alludes periodically to the dangers of a conservative backlash against the Nixon-Kissinger project in China, a predictable reaction when one is deceitfully "dumping on our friends," she never pauses to examine either the philosophical underpinnings of this opposition nor how, as a practical matter, it was manifest in the remainder-and fall-of Nixon's presidency.

PERHAPS MACMILLAN NEVER CONNECTED the dots. She quotes, without elaboration, the characteristically clever simile that conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., one of the 90 journalists who accompanied the American delegation, used to describe his horror upon watching Nixon toast his hosts at the opening banquet. ("The effect was as if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor's stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels and Doenitz and Hess, begging them to join him in the making of a better world.") And she makes fleeting reference to the deployment, by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of a spy to penetrate the veil of secrecy walling Nixon and Kissinger off from other top policymakers.

A spy? Stealthily rifling Kissinger's briefcase and burn bags? Funneling some 5,000 classified documents, against the wishes of the commander in chief, to the chief of naval operations and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs-for 13 months in wartime? That's pretty severe stuff: "a federal offense of the highest order," as Nixon himself termed it when he was informed of the matter, in December 1971.

What else might high officials who felt betrayed by Nixon and Kissinger have done to torpedo the duo's surprisingly conciliatory policies of detente and arms control with the Soviet Union, withdrawal from Vietnam, and rapprochement with Communist China? Surely the proud anti-Communists across the river, at Langley and the Pentagon, looked with equal disfavor on Nixon's slashing of the defense budget, between January 1969 and October 1970, by more than $17 billion; on the greatest U.S. demobilization since World War II, which saw the combined strength of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines sink, for the first time in nearly five years, below three million men; and on the frequent appearance of headlines like the Washington Post's of October 4, 1970: AMERICAN POWER MARGIN IS SLIPPING. Indeed, by March 1971, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Thomas Moorer, still nine months away from the discovery of his spy in Kissinger's National Security Council, would declare in Senate testimony that the "overall strategic balance" had "dramatically shifted" in the Soviets' favor.

Where Washington and Moscow had fought a Cold War and conducted bilateral diplomacy for decades, Nixon's sudden overture to Mao was an especially bitter pill for the American right to swallow. China was not merely a brutal totalitarian regime and an unflinching enemy in the Korean War; it was also, the top brass had reason to believe, an active killer of U.S. troops in South Vietnam. A Senate subcommittee investigation found fatal drug overdoses among American GIs had risen from two a month in 1969 to two a day in October 1970. This dramatic surge was attributed to the Chinese government, then flooding Vietnam with cheap narcotics. By the summer of 1970, pure heroin began streaming into combat zones at 20 percent of its street retail value, leading one congressional investigator to see, as the Post reported, a "Communist plot to incapacitate our troops in Vietnam by feeding them hard drugs at absurdly low cost."

What to do? As massive a breach of national security as it was, Daniel Ellsberg's dissemination of the Pentagon Papers had only covered pre-1969 history: the activities and decision-making of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson administrations. Of greater use to opponents of the Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy would be the exposure of their activities and decision-making, in what later generations would call "real time."

Thus the New York Times's William Beecher could report on July 23, 1971-about a month after the Pentagon Papers began appearing in his newspaper, and less than a week after Nixon had publicly announced his plans to visit China-the details of the American negotiating posture in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union, informally known as SALT. Beecher's story, which was accurate, cited "senior administration officials" speaking "privately." Nixon was enraged. "[H]e expressed a very grave concern about not only SALT," testified the Justice Department's Robert Mardian, "but about his ability to govern if he could not maintain the confidentiality of the White House."

And when war broke out, four months later, between India and Pakistan-the very country whose good backchannel offices had enabled Nixon and Kissinger to pry open the doors of the Diaoyutai in Beijing-the NSC minutes containing the president's confidential order to Kissinger to "tilt" American policy towards Karachi showed up, days later, in a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning columns published by the syndicated muckraker, Jack Anderson. Earlier that year, in a single 49-day stretch from March to May 1971, Anderson had published no fewer than 13 columns based on leaks of classified material. Asked in November 1986 who his source was for the India-Pakistan columns, Anderson said only: "You don't get those kind of secrets from enlisted men. You only get them from generals and admirals."

IT WAS IN THIS ENVIRONMENT that Nixon ordered the formation of the White House Special Investigations Unit, better known as the Plumbers, executors of the Ellsberg and Watergate break-ins-but also the discoverers, in tandem with an experienced Defense Department investigator, of the Joint Chiefs' treasonous mole in the NSC. That investigator, W. Donald Stewart, told the Senate Watergate committee in February 1974, in previously unpublished testimony: "If I found out that the military was spying on a president of the United States, it would worry the hell out of me."

It ought to have worried the hell out of Margaret MacMillan, too; but her otherwise impressive bibliography contains no entries for the several recent works of scholarship that demonstrate most clearly how conservatives in the defense and intelligence establishments did not take the China gambit, or Nixon and Kissinger's other bold foreign policy initiatives, lying down. Nixon and Mao, in short, might have benefited from some sign that its author appreciates how tightly intertwined were the president's foreign policy and fate, how dearly Nixon paid for his dalliance with Mao. Where MacMillan does touch on the Watergate scandal, in a brief coda, she settles, incongruously, for generalizations and errs on basic facts: It was not the Senate Watergate committee that released burglar James McCord's letter to Judge Sirica, but Sirica himself; nor was it in August 1973, but July, when the Senate committee uncovered the existence of Nixon's taping system. Finally, and even more incongruously, she ends the book with a quote from Star Trek VI; surely there are better ways to acknowledge the extent to which the phrase "Only Nixon can go to China" has entered the vernacular, or at least better ways to end a book of this caliber.

These faults, however, ought not distract from MacMillan's extraordinary achievement. The author's portraits of Nixon and Kissinger, Mao and Chou are judicious and perceptive ("Nixon did many immoral things in his life, but he longed to be good," she writes, adding that "for all his abuses of office, [he] accepted and believed in democracy"), and her accounts of the trends and factors that made Nixon's trip possible, such as the growing tension in Sino-Soviet relations after 1949 and Mao's grudging recognition of the catastrophes wrought by his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, are rendered briskly and authoritatively. Nixon and Mao is absorbing and enlightening, learned and lively, a detailed and comprehensive-yet highly readable-book that is sure to become the standard single-volume reference work on the American opening to China and its profound impact on modern geopolitics.

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About the Author

James Rosen is a White House and State Department correspondent for Fox News.