President Richard M. Nixon homes in on a bite during a farewell banquet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
President Richard M. Nixon homes in on a bite during a farewell banquet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
United Press International
Nixon and Mao (by Margaret MacMillan)

Nixon's Balancing Act

Reviewed by Orville Schell
Sunday, February 25, 2007


The Week That Changed the World

By Margaret MacMillan

Random House. 404 pp. $27.95

What did President Richard M. Nixon, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger and Chinese leader Mao Zedong really discuss during their unprecedented February 1972 meeting in Beijing? With surprising frequency, Mao turned the conversation to the subject of women.

Kissinger "doesn't look like a secret agent," said Nixon, a world-class anti-communist, to the enigmatic chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. "He is the only man in captivity who could go to Paris 12 times and Peking once and no one knew it, except possibly a couple of pretty girls."

"They didn't know it," Kissinger grinned. "I used it as a cover."

"In Paris?" Mao asked.

"Anyone who uses pretty girls as a cover must be the greatest diplomat of all time," Nixon bragged.

But the object of Nixon, Kissinger and Mao's meeting was hardly so frivolous. Since Kissinger, that most unlikely secret agent, took his furtive journey in 1971 to reestablish ties between the two erstwhile Cold War rivals, scores of books have been written on how he and Nixon boldly catalyzed a new relationship between two implacable ideological foes into a largely constructive conversation that rattled the Soviet Union and continues to this day. But few have done as well at giving us a "you are there" feel for the historic talks -- sometimes somber, sometimes comic -- as Margaret MacMillan, the bestselling author of Paris 1919, who has now applied her impressive powers of research and storytelling to this iconic episode in U.S. diplomatic history. If the power-balancing, realist school of Republican foreign policy so often derided by so many had a finest hour, this was surely it.

Nixon and Kissinger's overture forever changed the Cold War by reconfiguring the communist bloc and bringing Washington and Beijing together to balance Moscow. In a 1967 article in Foreign Affairs magazine, Nixon presciently observed that "Taking the long view, we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside the family of nations, there to nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors." But no one did more to incarnate that forbidden idea as policy than his unlikely partner, the professorial apostle of realpolitik, Henry Kissinger. The process that Nixon set in motion -- the former Red-baiter breaking the taboo on talks with the massive communist power -- led to one of those rare times in history when daring leadership actually did redirect the course of events for the better. Nixon and Mao's negotiations substantially lessened the chance that the United States and China would go to war; by "playing the China card," Nixon goaded the Soviet Union into yielding on SALT I, the 1972 nuclear arms control treaty, and signaled to the North Vietnamese that China might not prove as devoted to the cause of "national liberation" in Indochina as they might have hoped.

Kissinger has often been criticized as a latter-day Machiavellian who gave short shrift to morality or such values as democracy, human rights or loyalty to old allies such as Taiwan. His objective "was to purge our foreign policy of all sentimentality," MacMillan writes. In this aspiration, Kissinger agreed with Lord Palmerston, the statesman who proclaimed of Britain in the 19th century, "We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual."

So only a realist could go to China. A more sentimental or moralistic diplomat might well have been thrown off course by the thought of dealing with a Leninist dictatorship that had afflicted its people with almost every imaginable indignity in the name of Marxist revolution. For Kissinger, however, power was power, and it begged to be dealt with. And looking back on this seminal Sino-U.S. interaction, it is undeniable that this audacious, if seemingly unprincipled, move was in the best interests of the United States and the world.

What makes Nixon and Mao such a good read is not only that MacMillan, who has availed herself of some valuable new interviews, narrates the history beautifully; it is also that her story is peopled by so many larger-than-life figures. She has a dramatis personae with monumental strengths and insecurities, titanic egos, oceans of vanity and some mammoth tragic flaws to boot -- all acting out their dramas on a grand tableau of world power.

Although Kissinger worked actively with Nixon, he was not close to him and at times disparaged the president. "He would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him," Kissinger once famously quipped. For his part, Nixon called the notoriously thin-skinned Kissinger "a genius" but added that there were times when "you have to pet Henry and treat him like a child."

When it came to Zhou Enlai, China's premier, Kissinger was always admiring, sometimes fawning. "He moved gracefully and with dignity," Kissinger said of their first meeting, "filling a room not by his physical dominance (as did Mao or de Gaulle) but by his air of controlled tension, steely discipline, and self-control, as if he were a coiled spring." Indeed, in reading through the transcripts of the negotiations, Kissinger repeatedly evinces a weakness for such flattery. At one point, he tried to curry favor with Zhou by telling him that he was deeply moved "by the idealism and spiritual qualities of yourself and your colleagues." The communist premier coolly rejoined, "I suggest that we have a quick lunch."

The Americans' reverence was not always returned by the Chinese. Zhou derisively suggested that Nixon had all too "eagerly" sought out his invitation to Beijing, not unlike a hooker who would "dress up elaborately and present herself at the door." And Mao dismissed Kissinger as "just a funny little man . . . shuddering all over with nerves every time he comes to see me."

Such detail is beguiling, of course. But what makes reading MacMillan all the more worthwhile is our current, moralistic penchant for refusing to talk to countries such as Cuba, Syria and Iran. Nixon and Mao reminds us that sometimes the national interest is best served by maintaining relations with adversaries -- even dictatorships we consider utterly repellent. Indeed, in 1971-72, during the Cold War, it is hard to imagine a country that was in worse political odor in America than "Red China," which many U.S. officials deemed too besmirched to be seated at the negotiating table. And yet Kissinger and Nixon's ministrations brought two hostile nations into a completely new relationship. Many Western evangelists had hoped that the overture would immediately change communist China, which it did not; but it did indeed change the world. ยท

Orville Schell is dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and the incoming director of the Asia Society's new Center on U.S.-China Relations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company