“The Week that Changed the World”

On the occasion of the 2011 Met premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China, one journalist recalled his experience on the history-making 1972 visit that inspired the opera. By Bernard Kalb

Beijing. February 21, 1972. Our press plane landed in Beijing before the presidential jet hit the ground, and our immediate focus was on a handshake. Would President Nixon emerge, arm thrust forward, ready to shake the hand of communist China’s premier Chou En-lai? This would not be your ordinary how-do-you-do shake; rather, it might even be described as one of the most important handshakes in postwar diplomatic history. It would compensate for the handshake that did not happen at the Geneva conference in 1954 when the U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles snubbed Chou, refusing to shake his hand. It was a snub to remember; the Chinese never forgot it. Now here was Nixon stepping out of the plane arm-first, hand jutting forward, to reach for the outstretched hand of the Chinese premier. History had just happened. Nixon later quoted Chou as saying “that handshake was over the vastest distance in the world, 25 years of no communication.” Chinese sources later said it was Nixon who made the comment. Either way, the ice began to melt.

For anyone under a certain age—say, 50 or so—it is impossible to imagine the impact of the surprise announcement in 1971 that President Nixon would be going to China. Nixon to Red China? Nixon? He with a reputation as a relentless red-baiter—he would be visiting the boiling cauldron of Chinese Communism? Americans and many of America’s allies were, to understate reality, stunned; Moscow, Hanoi, and I, a mere reporter, even more so. “The news hit us like a bolt from the blue,” a Kremlin insider later admitted. “America will be China’s ally.” North Vietnam, then at war with the United States, felt betrayed by its big neighbor to the north. But with a Nixon visit, China, given the tensions within the Sino-Soviet world and always wary of its communist colleagues, could now play the U.S. card against a nervous Soviet Union. The U.S. picked up two cards: the China card against Moscow, the China card against Hanoi. Altogether, that bold gamble of a week’s visit in February 1972 would produce the very diplomatic dividends and strategic payoffs that Nixon hoped would emerge. Not bad, I thought, though much later—not bad for having a cup of tea with Chairman Mao.

Nixon with Chairman Mao

Beijing, as host, was determined to stage-manage the entire production, pre-program everything on the calendar, so that China would be seen by hundreds of millions of global viewers as a Maoist triumph. Throughout our stay, our Chinese hosts sought to hurtle us from one choreographed extravaganza to another, to Peking University, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, communes, to all the architectural wonders of the ancient city—to see the usual tourist sights, not the China the Chinese see. I remember, as a test, while sitting in a hotel lobby, once asking my Chinese minder a serious question about the chaos and upheavals caused by the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He pointed to a bowl of fruit. “Have a tangerine, please,” he said, escaping. I ate crates of tangerines that week. Yet on a personal level, despite all our encounters with official red tape, we reporters recognized how lucky we were to have an assignment so jammed with history, and though our hot pursuit of Nixon, Mao, Kissinger, Chou, and the other VIPs was exhausting, it was an exhilarating exhaustion, unmatchable, a reporter’s dream.

It was at one of the farewell events that Nixon offered up the quote that he believed summed up his historic trip to China: “the week that changed the world.” The phrasing may have been presidentially inflated, but the calendar over the next few months would show at least two major developments. Whether an after-effect of “the week” or a sheer coincidence of timing, the Soviets would finally put their signature on an arms-control agreement with the U.S. in May 1972. The following January, the U.S. signed a peace agreement with Hanoi to end the long war in Vietnam, in 1975. In 1976, Mao—and Chou—departed for their rendezvous with ancestors, and Mao’s credo of permanent revolution was eventually replaced by a communist-style capitalism that has since catapulted China on a great leap forward. Nixon himself went from triumph in China to humiliation at home; reelected by a landslide in November 1972, he was forced to resign in mid-1974 in the wake of the disclosure of the Watergate scandal.

A great leader, Nixon believed, was someone who could accelerate major developments to help change the world; in his words, “whether he can give history a nudge.” But in which direction is the question. In the case of China, Nixon’s nudge was positive; his historic trip thawed a huge chunk of ice in a Cold War world. Altogether, as a reporter friend of mine would say, “the week that changed the world” was one hell of a yarn.

Photo at top: Nixon with Chou En-lai

Bernard Kalb is a journalist, author, lecturer, and former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs.