Like Nixon to China

At 10:30 in the morning local time, Air Force One landed at Beijing airport 35 years ago today. I’m reading a fascinating account of Nixon’s China breakthrough, Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao.

Truth to tell, the book isn’t a patch on MacMillan’s great Peacemakers (published in the US as Paris 1919), but that’s because her earlier book was non pareil. It may also be because the distance in time of the Versailles negotiations is more comfortable for a historian.

Still, MacMillan does a masterful job of both recording the significance of that trip in 1972, and also teasing out the many weird aspects of the journey. When Nixon arrived in Beijing, it still wasn’t clear that chairman Mao would see him. Even Zhou Enlai wasn’t sure what the chairman would do, not least because of his terrible health. When Kissinger had asked Zhou in an earlier discussion about the meeting, Zhou had replied, “Not the first day. There are a lot of formalities on the first day.” So when Nixon and Kissinger settled down in their quarters in Diaoyutai on that February Tuesday, the key event was an evening banquet in the Great Hall of the People.

But at 2:30 that afternoon, Mao called Zhou to say he wanted to see the president “fairly soon”. So Nixon, Kissinger, Zhou, Winston Lord and a Secret Service agent piled into a Chinese limousine and rushed out to see Mao. The meeting, scheduled to last 15 minutes, lasted one hour. On that first trip, that was the only meeting with Mao.

Irrelevant aside I was stunned by one observation made by MacMillan in passing: “In 1949, when the People’s Republic was proclaimed by Mao after the Communist victory, Beijing contained the largest extent of medieval buildings in any city in the world.”

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