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24. Editorial Note

In Dean Rusk’s As I Saw It, he describes a “long, private talk” with President Kennedy in May 1961 on the subject of China. According to Rusk’s account, he asked Kennedy if he wanted the State Department to explore possible changes in China policy, and the two sketched out some options: “Recognize both Chinas, the so-called two-Chinas approach; work quietly behind the scenes for reconciliation between Peking and Taipei; and sit tight and await further developments.”

Rusk states that he and Kennedy agreed that “American China policy in the year we took office, indeed for many years, did not reflect Asian realities.” After referring to the problem of Chinese representation, he continues as follows:

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“Not surprisingly, Kennedy ruled out any changes in our China policy. With his razor-thin victory in the November elections—he used to attribute his win to ‘Cook County, Illinois’—he felt he lacked a strong mandate from the American people. Consequently, he was very cautious about selecting issues on which to do battle. And any change in China policy would have been one hell of a battle. In fact, just before Dwight Eisenhower left office, he told Kennedy that although he would support him on foreign policy in general, he would strongly oppose any attempt by the new administration to recognize Peking and seat mainland China at the United Nations.

“Also, such contacts as we had with Peking were not promising. Simply put, the Chinese Communists didn’t seem interested in improving U.S.-Chinese relations. As far as Kennedy was concerned, then, adopting a more realistic China policy became a future task, not a present one. Fearing the issue might divide Congress and the American people, he decided the potential benefits of a more realistic China policy didn’t warrant risking a severe political confrontation. He could have been cut to ribbons politically by the China Lobby, the Republicans, and many members of Congress. We would have had great difficulty implementing a two-Chinas policy.

“I agreed with Kennedy’s reasoning and his conclusions, and I told him so. But as I was leaving the Oval Office, he called, ‘And what’s more, Mr. Secretary, I don’t want to read in the Washington Post or the New York Times that the State Department is thinking about a change in our China policy!’ I went back to the department, and when Adlai Stevenson, Chester Bowles, and others would drop by to talk about China and especially their hopes for a two-Chinas policy at the UN, I stonewalled them and played the role of the ‘village idiot.’ I didn’t tell them about my talk with the president because I would have read about that in the Washington Post or the New York Times. Nor did I initiate any new studies on China policy; in that leaky Kennedy administration even that would have gotten to the press.” (As I Saw It by Dean Rusk, as told to Richard Rusk (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), pages 282-284)

According to Kennedy’s and Rusk’s Appointment Books, their only private meeting in May was on May 5. Rusk’s Appointment Book (Johnson Library) indicates that he was alone with the President from 1:10 to 1:25 p.m.; according to Kennedy’s (Kennedy Library), Rusk was alone with him from 1:05 to 1:10 p.m. No other record has been found of this conversation.