The press travelled on a separate aircraft.
‘Clowns,’ Nixon called them, ‘I have beaten them so many times!’ He had personally picked the journalists permitted to follow him into China.
It begun with armed clashes between Soviet and Chinese troops in 1969 on the Ussuri River, 250 miles from Vladivostok, that were widely reported in the west. What went unreported at the time was the spark that ignited the powder keg. But thanks to a KGB document, which ended up in the Mitrokhin archives, we now know.
Apparently, Chinese soldiers,feeling slighted by the haughty behaviour of a Soviet officer on the opposite bank of the river, turned around, dropped their pants and “mooned” the Soviets.
The next morning, when the Chinese flashed their buns once again, their opposite numbers were ready. They raised portraits of Mao Zedong!
The Chinese were flabbergasted and scared: they had mooned their Great Helmsman. Deeply offended, they started firing with their AK47.
The baring of those cold buttocks was one element that helped set in motion a series of events that culminated three years later in Richard Nixon’s breakthrough visit to Peking (Beijing).
This is a detail coming straight from the Mitrokin Archives but also Margareth MacMillan’s book is full of similarly delicious small facts which charts the tortuous paths that culminated in that historical 1972 trip made by the then United States President Richard Nixon.
Three-and-a-half decades later we are still feeling the positive aftermath.
Few people will dispute the fact that Richard Nixon had been one of the most knowledgeable presidents in American history, as far as foreign affairs are concerned. The idea of engaging with China was his brainchild and a dream he held before his elevation to the White House. Henry Kissinger was against it at the beginning, even though he spins a different tale in his memoirs.
At the time, the Chinese were concerned about the threat of a possible Soviet invasion. The Americans, meanwhile, believed that the key to terminating the war in Vietnam was to be found in Peking.
That was the background to Kissinger’s secret trip to China on a Pakistani plane in the summer of 1971.
Officially he was recovering from a bout of diarrhoea in Rawalpindi. In practice he had been smuggled to the airport for his flight, where a stringer for a London newspaper, who was seeing his mother off, noticed a flurry of strange activity. He asked a Pakistani policeman what was happening. “It’s Henry Kissinger. He’s going to China,” was the answer. The diligent journalist promptly filed a story only to receive a warning from his editor to drink less beer if he cared to keep his job.
Kissinger was so unnerved by the prospect of entering the dragon’s den that he asked the President of Pakistani to accompany him. But Yahia Khan was too busy and he declined. The flight went well, save for an outburst of rage from Kissinger when he discovered that an aide had forgotten to pack spare shirts. Then he borrowed some from a bigger fellow which, unfortunately, were prominently labelled: “Made in Taiwan”. During his two days in Peking he was said to bear a resemblance to a large penguin.
Back in Washington the news of this top secret visit nearly broke when Marshal Green, the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia, cracked a joke in front of his colleagues about the elusive envoy. “Perhaps we can’t find Kissinger because he’s gone to China …” Realising what he had just said, he rushed to warn his boss, Secretary of State William Rogers, who went pale.
After it was officially announced that Nixon was indeed bound for China, the White House received lots of unsolicited advices from “old China hands” – much of it dubious.
Nixon’s wife Pat, for instance, was urged not to wear red dresses because red was the colour of prostitutes in old China. She ignored that piece of “advice” and she always wore red. Nixon summoned from Paris the “old and mendacious” French author and politician André Malraux who bragged of being a China expert on the grounds he had once, briefly, met Mao and had interviewed him, misunderstanding and falsifying all the words of the Chairman, in fact missing the greatest news he was giving to him: the beginning of the Cultural Revolution .
John Scali, who was present, when Malraux met Nixon, said: “I felt I was listening to the views of a romantic, vain old man who was weaving obsolete views into a special framework for the world as he wished it to be.”
When Nixon left Washington for the Chinese capital he had received no assurance that Mao would receive him. Perhaps the Chinese wanted to punish the Americans for John Foster Dulles’s refusal to shake hands with Chou Enlai at a Geneva conference in 1954, a rebuff that still stung? What Nixon did not know was that the sickly Chairman was just as eager as him to have a meeting.
The plane landed in Shanghai on February 12 where a local pilot climbed aboard to fly it to Peking, petrifying those in the cockpit when it dawned on them that he had no idea how to use the sophisticated instrumentation on board. He ignored the technology and navigated by flying the aircraft at low altitude.
Not everybody was happy about the trip. On seeing Nixon toasting Chou Enlai, conservative journalist William Buckley commented that it was as if “Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor’s stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Hess, begging them to join with him in making of a better world”. Others were less cynical. Canadian journalist John Burns picked up the chopsticks used by Nixon at the gala dinner as a souvenir. A New York dealer wired him with an offer of US$10,000 for them. Burns refused.
To prove their sincerity, the Americans passed to the Chinese entire cases of classified documents, including secret treaties with Moscow, photos of military installations and files about new Soviet weaponry which many credit as kick-starting later disarmament treaties with the Soviets.
Mao was very impressed by the energy and youth of Nixon, but of Kissinger he had this to say: “He is just a funny little man. He is shuddering all over with nerves every time he comes to see me.”
Time magazine named both Nixon and Kissinger ‘Men of the Year’ for 1972, something that angered the President and it seems that he never forgave his adviser for it, that ‘funny little man.’
Nixon in China: The Week That
Changed the World
By Margaret MacMillan
Viking Books, 2006
HB 395 pp
ISBN 10: 0-670-04476-8 /