Book Reviews

Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World by
Margaret Macmillan

Random House, USA (Originally published by Penguin Books Canada as Nixon in China)

book cover

The subtitle of this fascinating, engagingly written book is President Richard Nixon’s triumphal exclamation as he departed China on February 28, 1972. And, indeed, it was such a week. Nixon’s visit to China was so extraordinarily bold and timely that it did jolt the world enough to change it, rather significantly, at least for a time. Margaret Macmillan, who had already produced a successful popular analysis of an earlier world-changing international diplomatic event with her acclaimed Paris 1919, provides us here with an illuminating account of Nixon’s opening to China. This topic was, after all, right down her alley: another diplomatic event that bristled with high drama and that made a difference. I remember well the atmospherics of the time; my own first visit to China came within a month of Nixon’s historic journey.

The story centers on Nixon and an ailing Mao Zedong, even though there was but one relatively short meeting of the two together, and even though Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai are most essential participants. Nixon and Mao, however, were the bold decision makers whose consent was crucial. Both had the power, both made a big gamble. The change of direction that they brought about was hardly the easy or expected thing for either of them in terms of their primary constituencies or of their own predilections. To her credit, the author does not neglect giving appropriate attention to the celebrated weaknesses, even the dark side of each of these leaders as well. So is careful attention given to the clever ministrations of the exceptional subordinates, Kissinger and Zhou, and insight into their respective strengths and failings.

A particularly salient feature of this historic diplomatic feat was the remarkable amount of secrecy that went into its preparation and that was then extended throughout the principal negotiations. Some of this is understandable, given the circumstances, but it became an obsessive secrecy, insisted upon by Nixon and Kissinger. Both shared a penchant for clandestine dealings that surprised their Chinese hosts, themselves hardly neophytes in secret maneuvering. We are reminded that Secretary of State William Rogers and his staff were pointedly and humiliatingly kept out of the loop on the most important deliberations. They were left to deal with "unimportant matters" such as exchanges and trade. How ironic this seems today, given that the economic relationship has become the incredibly huge, complex, and sensitive issue that it is.

It is disquieting, too, to see how deferential Nixon and Kissinger were to their Chinese counterparts, at times obsequiously so. Just as distressing is knowledge of the unseemly eagerness and fulsomeness with which they handed over military secrets about the Soviets, and how they were so ready to sell out Taiwan. Even so, the principal objective of getting help in return to resolve America’s involvement in the Vietnam War was singularly unsuccessful; the Chinese simply would not intervene in that conflict. However, the very fact that China hosted Nixon served to further alienate Hanoi from China, despite the massive aid the latter provided to Vietnam. In fact, within the decade they would fight each other.

Still, whatever the questionable aspects of Nixon’s imaginative and risky diplomatic adventure, it did get US-China relations onto a productive, if uncertain and complicated footing—this after a generation of conflict, bitter mutual recriminations, and little real positive contact. The author concludes that the "breakthrough of the 1970s … was not only overdue; it was good for both countries, and their new relationship had great potential—which still remains—to act as a stabilizing force in world politics." She adds, thoughtfully: "It is possible, though, to ask whether the United States was too eager and whether it gave away too much."

Reviewed by Stephen Uhalley, Jr.