On June 30, 1976, I moved from New York City to Los Angeles to do various tasks in Hollywood. I had in 1973–74 been a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon and had become friends with him in a small way and with Julie Nixon Eisenhower in a much bigger way.
Nixon was in more or less constant mail touch with my father, Herbert Stein. Through these letters, I kept in even more touch with Nixon.
The president politely offered to be my host for lunch at his office in San Clemente once I was in L.A. I took him up on it several times, and I have written about these visits. One in particular stands out, now that tensions with China have risen and now that China is a gigantic industrial, scientific, agricultural, and military power in the world, rivaling the USA in many of these areas.
It was after China was very much in the news for some development, and I do not recall which. But it was causing considerable consternation about Chinese expansionism and military growth. I sat with Nixon in his small office while his dog, King Timahoe, sat at his feet. After covering many other subjects, we came to China.
In a nutshell, I asked him this, which is paraphrased:
“Mr. President, China is rapidly becoming a formidable power in our world. We know it to covet Taiwan. It has already seized Tibet long ago. Its violence and cruelty during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ have shocked the good people of the United States. Why, in this case, are we visiting them and ‘making nice’ with them? I’m afraid of them. You have repeatedly described them as among the most intelligent and hard-working peoples of the earth. Why are we not backing off of them instead of moving to be friendly with them?”
Nixon sat back and looked at me and answered as follows. Again, I am paraphrasing.
“There are many answers,” he said. “The first time I visited Beijing and met with Chou and Mao, I was hoping for their help in ending the horrible war in Vietnam with some shreds of decency for our side. That produced some results, but not many. Still, it showed people here that I was a much more flexible leader than the Democrats had said I was. So, I guess that was mainly a benefit for me.”
He continued: “Then, I hoped to drive some kind of wedge between Red China and the Soviet Union. That was at a time when we really feared Soviet military power. To think or even hope that we could untangle the Soviet/Chinese superpower was important. That did work to some extent. The Russians had always been afraid of China and we wanted to make them a bit more afraid.”
I asked, “But weren’t you afraid that after they had worked with the North Koreans to wage a horribly bloody war in South Korea, they would do the same with North Vietnam or anywhere else in South Asia?”
“Yes, of course we were,” Nixon answered.
Nixon then went on, saying, “But countries, even communist countries, are not purely organized and motivated along communist principles. As Karl Marx wrote, the basic characteristics of a society are similar after the Marxist revolution as they were before, when it was capitalist or feudal or whatever it was.”
“Germany since Bismarck,” he said, “was aggressive and eager to fight. Japan likewise. Fighting and aggression for them meant manliness. For Russia, capturing territory, adding to their immense size, keeping the new captives as captives meant a great deal to the czars. Russia was called ‘That great prison house of nations’ for a reason. But for China, the goal, the national summum bonum, was money, for being well-to-do. You see that in Chinese overseas as well. They do not demonstrate or form mobs. They study and work and start businesses and save and become prosperous and then display their wealth. That’s what they do to be successful people and, as far as I can tell, that is still what they are about.”
“They are not Hitler’s Germany or Tojo’s Japan,” Nixon said, “They want to be rich. Not to fight wars.”
He paused for a long time, and then he spoke again. “That’s my hope, at least. And it certainly does not do anyone any good to just call each other foul names across the Pacific.”
I left shortly thereafter. But his words linger in my mind. The Chinese are now rich. They are incredibly powerful militarily. What do we do now? And then his parting words shine in my mind.
“Probably the best we can do now is to grow our own military power such that if they become unbearably aggressive, we can defend ourselves or make the Chinese think twice.”
Are we doing it? I don’t think so.