Beijing, February 21, 1972. Our press plane landed in Beijing before the presidential jet hit the ground, and our immediate focus was on a handshake. Would President Nixon emerge, arm thrust forward, ready to shake the hand of Communist China’s premier Chou En-lai at the bottom of the ramp? This would not be your ordinary how-do-you-do shake; rather, it might even be described as one of the most important handshakes in postwar diplomatic history. It would compensate for the handshake that did not happen at the Geneva conference in 1954 when the U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles snubbed Chou, refusing to shake his hand. It was a snub to remember, and the Chinese never forgot it. Now here was Nixon stepping out of the plane arm-first, hand jutting forward, to reach for the outstretched hand of the Chinese premier. History had just happened. Nixon later quoted Chou as saying “that handshake was over the vastest distance in the world, 25 years of no communication...” Chinese sources later said it was Nixon who made the comment. Either way, the ice finally began to melt.
For anyone under a certain age—say, 50 or so—it is impossible to imagine the impact of the surprise announcement in 1971 that President Nixon would be going to China. Nixon to Red China? “Nixon”? He with a reputation as a relentless red-baiter—he would be visiting the boiling cauldron of Chinese Communism? Americans and many of America’s allies were, to understate reality, stunned; Moscow, Hanoi and I, a mere reporter, even more so. “The news hit us like a bolt from the blue,” a Kremlin insider later admitted. “America will be China’s ally.” North Vietnam, then at war with the United States, felt betrayed by its big neighbor to the north. But with a Nixon visit, China, given the tensions within the Sino-Soviet world and always wary of its Communist colleagues, could now play the U.S. card against a nervous Soviet Union. The U.S. picked up two cards: the China card against Moscow, the China card against Hanoi. Altogether, that bold gamble of a week’s visit in February 1972 would produce the very diplomatic dividends and strategic payoffs that Nixon hoped would emerge. Not bad, I thought, though much later, not bad for having a cup of tea with Chairman Mao.
For more than two decades, from the instant the Chinese Communists took over the mainland in 1949, the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China had been engaged in a frigid, at times tense standoff: no contact, no trade, no diplomatic recognition. Indeed, the U.S. had sought to isolate Communist China on the global stage. Now, suddenly, the President—whom Mao’s rampaging Red Guards had portrayed as “a gangster” brandishing “a blood-dripping butcher’s knife”—was in Beijing and was meeting with the Chairman himself—and in the forbidden city. It was diplomacy at its most surreal—and guaranteed that the whole world would be tied to television sets, watching a new chapter unfold between two countries that, only 20 years earlier, were shooting at each other during the Korean War. Given the mix of famous personalities and conflicting priorities, a comic might describe the upcoming TV event as a kind of high-stakes diplomatic sitcom; realpolitik analysts would see it as an event that had the potential of dialogue replacing hostility as the way to ease global tension.
Of course, Beijing, as host, was determined to stage-manage the entire production, pre-program everything on the calendar, so that China would be seen by hundreds of millions of global viewers as a Maoist triumph. In a bid to keep the journalistic invasion to a minimum and thereby control the visiting press, the Chinese at first said, “we’ll allow twelve people”—more press than usual, they stated. Big problem, though: two thousand applications had been submitted from U.S. TV and radio, magazines, newspapers. Lots of negotiations later, the number escalated to some 80 journalists who would accompany the President, plus visas for technical crews and their TV ground stations. The White House, eager to show Nixon as a world statesman and hardly unaware that 1972 was a presidential election year, had pushed for maximum television coverage so that Nixon “live” could be flashed to the U.S. and the world.
In fact, Nixon, always obsessed with the press, could not resist scrutinizing the proposed list of reporters who were to be on the trip. He jotted down his reactions, pro or con, to a few of the names; for example, Nixon crossed out Washington Post and the name of the veteran China watcher Stanley Karnow, then with the Post, scribbling: “under no circumstances,” underlining “no.” The President was reportedly furious about an editorial the Post had published—and this was payback time. But the Post and Karnow did make the trip, after all, and Karnow wrote some of the most penetrating pieces that appeared in the press. My own 15 years of living in Asia and reporting on the wars, coups, and upheavals in the area got me a ringside seat at the Nixon visit, joining Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, Dan Rather, and Bruce Morton on the CBS news team.
The immediate focus, of course, was on Nixon and Mao—particularly on their unscheduled meeting that lasted more than an hour—a signal to the masses that , to quote Chou, “the gates to friendly contact have finally been opened.” Henry Kissinger as Nixon’s National Security Adviser and Premier Chou did all the heavy diplomatic lifting, discussing the Soviet Union, the war in Vietnam, their dispute over Taiwan, and other global issues, but they drove the press into a state of maddening frustration by keeping all the news top-secret—until the very end. The official briefings were distinguished by their emptiness, and I remember, as a test, while sitting in a hotel lobby, once asking my Chinese minder a serious question about the chaos and upheavals caused by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He pointed to a bowl of fruit. “Have a tangerine, please,” he said, escaping. I ate crates of tangerines that week. Throughout our stay, our Chinese hosts sought to hurtle us from one choreographed extravaganza to another, to Peking University, the Great Wall, the Ming tombs, communes, to all the architectural wonders of the ancient city—to see the usual tourist sights, not the China the Chinese see. To the “theater,” for example. We were invited to join the Presidential party to see a revolutionary ballet called The Red Detachment of Women, a locally admired example of ideology set to music. It required revolutionary patience to sit through even the first act.
The Chinese wanted a happy China to be shown on global TV, but the bamboo curtain was dramatically pierced at one point by Ted Koppel of ABC news. He reported that one scene at the Ming tomb was sheer fakery: that after a group of Chinese families and their children had posed happily with transistor radios and checkerboard sets and other games, officials later came by to collect these very items once the TV crews had left the scene. Oops! It was a photo-op that flopped, and it was so embarrassing for the Chinese Communists to be caught so red-handed, if you’ll pardon the phrase, that the Premier apologized to the President for the staged incident. Yet, on a personal level, despite all our encounters with official red tape, we reporters recognized how lucky we were to have an assignment so jammed with history, and though our hot pursuit of Nixon, Mao, Kissinger, Chou, and the other VIPs was exhausting, it was an exhilarating exhaustion, unmatchable, a reporter’s dream.
The week of course produced those famous one-liners of Nixon’s that immediately entered the global book of immortal, more or less, quotations. At the Great Wall, reporters were encouraged to ask the President for his thoughts—and he was prepped to launch: “I think that you would have to conclude that this is a great wallÉand people who have this kind of past must also have a great future.” In between other rich quotables, we trailed Nixon through exhibitions, factories, athletic shows, all the great antique marvels of the city, plus joined in all those multimultimulti-course banquets at the Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square where, in 1989, armed Chinese troops and tanks were called on to disperse huge crowds of Chinese calling for a bit of democracy. The death toll was in the hundreds, according to some reports; the exact number remains unknown.
It was at one of the farewell events that Nixon offered up the quote that he believed summed up his historic visit to China: “the week that changed the world.” The phrasing may have been presidentially inflated but the calendar over the next few months would show at least two major developments. Whether an after-effect of “the week” or a sheer coincidence of timing, the Soviets would finally put their signature on an arms-control agreement with the U.S. in May 1972. The following January, the U.S. signed a peace agreement with Hanoi to end the long war in Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, it was a decade of headlines. Four years after the Nixon visit, Mao—and Chou—departed for their rendezvous with ancestors, and Mao’s credo of permanent revolution was eventually replaced by a communist-style capitalism that has since catapulted China on a great leap forward that has caught the attention of the world. Nixon himself went from triumph in China to humiliation at home; re-elected by a landslide only months after returning from Beijing, he was forced to resign in disgrace less than two years later in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
A great leader, Nixon believed, was someone who could accelerate major developments to help change the world; in his words, “whether he can give history a nudge.” But in which direction is the question. In the case of China, Nixon’s nudge was positive; his historic trip thawed a great chunk of ice in a Cold War world. Altogether, as a reporter friend of mine would say, “the week that changed the world” was one hell of a yarn.
Bernard Kalb is a journalist, author, lecturer, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.
This article was first published online in January 2011. A shorter version was published in the Met's Playbill in February 2011.