|On February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon arrived in China in an attempt to normalize relations with the Communist regime. President Nixon’s trip was presaged when he made an unexpected, nationally televised announcement on July 15th of the previous year. He told the nation he had accepted an invitation to Bejing “because of my profound conviction that all nations will gain from a reduction of tensions and a better relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China.”
The communist People’s Republic of China had been a pariah nation in the West since the end of World War II. In 1949, Stalin and Mao negotiated a Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. But Sino-Soviet relations soured after the death of Stalin. The new Soviet leader, Nitka Khrushchev, delivered a “Secret Speech” in February 1956, condemning the excesses of Stalin’s despotism, show trials, and purges. The speech also pointedly rejected the “cult of personality” surrounding Stalin. Having replicated these traits in China, Mao was understandably distressed by Khrushchev’s softer approach. Mao had consistently portrayed Stalin as the ideal socialist leader in public even though he privately distrusted him.
To appease Mao, the Soviets initiated a defense accord in 1957, which provided China with military technology, including nuclear weapon prototypes. While the Chinese certainly appreciated this, being the great copiers of foreign technology, it did little to improve Mao’s opinion of Khruschev. During a July 1958 visit to China, Mao housed the Soviet delegation in run-down apartments devoid of air conditioning despite sweltering weather conditions. He treated Khruschev with such arrogance and disdain during their talks. Mao refused to consider any new joint defense projects, and, in retaliation, most of the Soviet advisors were pulled out of China.
Khrushchev followed up this diplomatic disaster with another trip to China the following year, where he made a speech praising President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy. Mao was furious. The planned seven-day conference was terminated after only three days. The Soviets repudiated the 1949 Friendship Treaty, and in 1960, the few remaining Russian technical advisors were recalled.
By the early 60s, the Soviets and Chinese were engaged in a verbal Cold War. When China briefly went to war with India in 1962, the Soviets supported India. In 1964 Mao made claims against territory that Czarist Russia had seized. Tensions escalated until a short border war broke out in March 1969.
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s Security Advisor, were firm believers that engagement with China would not only give America leverage against the Soviets but was imperative due to China’s size and inevitable importance to world trade. The frosty Sine-Soviet relations opened the door for Kissinger to send back-channel signals to China through Romania and Pakistan. These communications began in 1969, and during a public visit to Pakistan in July 1951, Kissinger secretly slipped across the board to meet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Kissinger first met with Zhou on July 9th when he told Zhou that without the Korean War, Taiwan would probably have been brought under Beijing’s control and implied that Nixon was willing to withdraw U. S. forces from Taiwan. During his next meeting on the 10th, he proposed that a visit by Nixon would be of “symbolic significance because it would make clear that normal relations were inevitable.” Zhou agreed to aim for such a visit in the spring of 1971.