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Chinese Checkers: Nixon's Trip

To those of us who remember the first visit by an American President to the People's Republic of China, all the carping over Bill Clinton's trip to Beijing this month has the pipsqueak sound of nothing more than a tempest in a Chinese teacup. And if you've ever dined in a Chinese restaurant, you know how tiny they are.

I don't mean to minimize the objections some well-meaning people have to Clinton's embarking on the China trip at this particular time.

CBS.com reports on President Clinton's trip to China
The effort by Chinese leaders to influence the 1996 presidential election with illicit campaign contributions is certainly a legitimate concern. So is China's transfer of nuclear technology to Pakistan, which enabled that country to develop the dangerous weapons it tested last month.

And there is no doubt merit in the belief that neither Clinton nor any other American president should ever set foot in Tiananmen Square until the Beijing government offers some kind of mea culpa for the massacre it inflicted on the young crusaders for freedom who died there nine years ago this month.

But please: let's try to bring a little historical perspective to this debate. For it should not be forgotten that a presidential trip to China was a far more controversial undertaking when Richard Nixon made his diplomatic breakthrough back in the winter of 1972.

For one thing, there was the war in Vietnam. At the time Nixon accepted the invitation to visit the People's Republic of China, U.S. troops were still fighting Beijing's Communist allies in Southeast Asia. The war, in fact, had been going on for more than a decade, and by 1972 more than 40,000 Americans had lost their lives in Vietnam.

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Yet even before Vietnam became the prime obsession of U.S. foreign policy, Washington had viewed the Beijing government not only as an implacable foe - but also as a pariah, an outlaw among nations. So much so that the United States formally refused to recognize China's Communist leadership as the legitimate government.
President Richard Nixon and Mao Tse-Tung (Source: AP)

This rather bizarre policy had been in effect since 1949, when Mao Tse-tung's revolutionary army overthrew the government of Chiang Kai-shek - a staunch U.S. ally - and drove him and his defeated forces into exile on the island of Taiwan.

For more than two decades, Washington firmly clung to the position that Chiang' band of exiles on Taiwan was the real China, and that the Communists on the mainland were illegal usurpers whose very existence - in official, diplomatic terms - had to be denied.

Even during those years of Cold War fervor, there were some level-headed critics who pointed out that it was utter folly to refuse to acknowledge the existence of a government that firmly ruled the most populous nation on earth.

(I happily recall an evening at a New York club when a standup comic began one of his routines with the line, "Take a mythical country. Like Red China.")

And it was against this background of geopolitical absurdity that Richard Nixon - in the boldest and most courageous move of his presidency - embarked on a reality trip, taking the first step to bring the diplomatic perception of China into harmony with the facts.

More than anything else, Nixon's historic visit to China was a public-relations triumph, a dazzling display of style over substance. The prime purpose of the trip was to showcase - through the presence of an American President - a government and country that for years had been sealed off from any contact with the United States.

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For their part, the Chinese leaders went along with the extravagant photo-op. The hosts set a conciliatory tone at the opening banquet in the Great Hall of the People, where the Chinese orchestra played Turkey in the Straw and Home on the Range.

In between his long meetings with Premier Chou En-lai, Nixon and his entourage were escorted on tours to such landmarks as the Forbidden Wall and the Great Wall. While gazing at the latter, the President turned to an aide and observed, "You have to conclude that it really is a great wall." This was vintage Nixon. When speaking off the cuff, he often lapsed into banality.

Not to be outdone, the First Lady came up with some choice comments of her own. One day, for example, while touring the kitchens at the Peking Hotel, where a multifarious display of food had been spread out for her inspection, Pat Nixon allowed as how the various dishes "looked good enough to eat."

Still, for all the orchestrated efforts to avoid unpleasant reminders of the vast chasm in ideology that had made the two countries such bitter enemies, there were a few awkward moments that must have baffled television viewers - in both China and America.

One night, while attending a Chinese ballet called The Red Detachment of Women, the Nixons were seen applauding heartily as the virtuous women of the proletariat triumphed over their cruel landlords, who bore an unsettling resemblance to Nixon's core constituency back home: well-heeled Republicans.

On the last day of the Grand Tour, Nixon and Chou signed a joint communique, and that, too, was a masterpiece of cosmetic window-dressing. In essence, the two leaders "agreed to disagree" on all the important issus that divided the two countries.

But the communique did include a firm pledge to continue working toward "normalization" in relations between Washington and Beijing.

Hey, it was a start. It was, in fact, a giant, dramatic leap toward geopolitical sanity, and in the years that followed other Presidents would sign far more substantive agreements that would lead, in time, to full diplomatic recognition and the vigorous exchange of trade, ideas and culture that now defines the relationship between China and the United States.

President George Bush went to China in 1989 (Source: AP)
Indeed, over the past quarter-century, going to China has been something of a tradition for U.S. Presidents. Gerald Ford made the trip in 1975, Ronald Reagan followed up with a visit in 1984 and George Bush went there in 1989.
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And now, following in their footsteps, is Bill Clinton, who has the distinction of being the first Democratic President to make a state visit to the People's Republic of China.

For Richard Nixon, the historic breakthrough in 1972 was the crowning achievement of his presidency.

But less than four months after that diplomatic triumph, a bungling band of burglars broke into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. And that seemingly trivial crime set into motion a whirlwind of scandal that eventually would force Nixon to resign the presidency rather than endure the humiliation of an impeachment trial in the Senate.

From then until his death in 1994, Nixon waged a relentless struggle to repair his shattered reputation. As part of that effort, he often pointed with pride to his China initiative, and would heartily welcome positive references to it by journalists or historians.

I will never forget a moment that occurred in the mid-1980s when Nixon was invited to be a guest on The NFL Today, the CBS pre-game broadcast that aired every Sunday during football season. (Nixon was an avid sports buff and fancied himself to be something of an expert on pro football.)

One of the producers on that program was a husky trencherman from Texas named Lance Barrow. It's fair to say that Barrow never met a meal he didn't like (once, while overindulging, he explained to his dining companions that "there are times when you have to eat hurt"), but he did have his favorite cuisines - and one of them was Chinese.

So on this day, when Nixon showed up for the broadcast, Lance loped over to him, extended his ample hand in greeting and declared with great gusto: "Mr. President, I just want to thank you for bringing Szechuan food to this country!"

Nixon lauhed heartily, shook Lance's hand and replied, "Now that's one I've never heard before."

Written By Gary Paul Gates

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