106. Editorial Note

President Nixon met with Chairman Mao Tse-tung on February 21, 1972, at the beginning of his visit to China. The meeting took place at the Chairman’s residence. In a one-hour discussion that touched broadly on U.S.-China bilateral relations, Nixon spoke of the future: “Because only if we see the whole picture of the world and the great forces that move the world will we be able to make the right decisions about the immediate and urgent problems that always completely dominate our vision.” (Memorandum of conversation, February 21, 1972; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Memos for the President, Classified Material, Box 3)

Later in the discussion, the President shared his view of the relative position of the United States and China with respect to each other within the international community:

“Mr. Chairman, I am aware of the fact that over a period of years my position with regard to the People’s Republic was one that the Chairman and Prime Minister totally disagreed with. What brings us together is a recognition of a new situation in the world and a recognition [Page 361] on our part that what is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us. That is why—this point I think can be said to be honest—we have differences. The Prime Minister and Dr. Kissinger discussed these differences.

“It also should be said—looking at the two great powers, the United States and China—we know China doesn’t threaten the territory of the United States; I think you know the United States has no territorial designs on China. We know China doesn’t want to dominate the United States. We believe you too realize the United States doesn’t want to dominate the world. Also—maybe you don’t believe this, but I do—neither China nor the United States, both great nations, want to dominate the world. Because our attitudes are the same on these two issues, we don’t threaten each other’s territories.

“Therefore, we can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own ways on our own roads. That cannot be said about some other nations in the world.”

In his concluding comment, Nixon attempted to establish a positive atmosphere for the talks:

“Mr. Chairman, we know you and the Prime Minister have taken great risks in inviting us here. For us also it was a difficult decision. But having read some of the Chairman’s statements, I know he is one who sees when an opportunity comes, that you must seize the hour and seize the day.

“I would also like to say in a personal sense—and this to you Mr. Prime Minister—you do not know me. Since you do not know me, you shouldn’t trust me. You will find I never say something I cannot do. And I always will do more than I can say. On this basis I want to have frank talks with the Chairman and, of course, with the Prime Minister.”

The following afternoon, in an extended meeting with Prime Minister Chou En-lai, Nixon discussed at length his view of U.S.-China relations within the context of the world stage:

“Now, I come to a point where I find I am in disagreement with the Prime Minister’s analysis of what America’s role in the world should be. Let me say that in terms of pure ideology, if I were in the Prime Minister’s position, as one who deeply believed in the socialist revolution, I would take the same position he took with regard to the United States in his talks with Dr. Kissinger. And publicly I think that the Prime Minister and Chairman Mao have to take that position, that is, the U.S. is a great capitalist imperialist power reaching out its hands and it should go home from Asia, home from Europe, and let the democratic forces and liberation forces develop in their own way.

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“There are some of my advisers who tell me I could win the next election in a landslide if I advocated such a policy, because the American people did not seek this position of a world power and they would like to be relieved of maintaining forces in Europe and the burden of maintaining guarantees to various other nations in the world. And some would say why not cut the American defense budget from $80 billion to $40 billion and then we could use the money for domestic purposes to help the poor, rebuild the cities, and all that sort of thing.

“I have resisted that—it is what we call the new isolationism for the U.S.—and have barely been able to get a majority on some key votes. I am in an ironic position because I am not a militarist. I don’t want the U.S. to be engaged in conquest around the world, but because as I analyze the situation around the world I see we would be in great danger if we didn’t maintain certain levels of defense, I have had to come down hard for those levels of defense.

“Now let me come to the point. I believe the interests of China as well as the interests of the U.S. urgently require that the U.S. maintains its military establishment at approximately its present levels and that the U.S., with certain exceptions which we can discuss later, should maintain a military presence in Europe, in Japan, and of course our naval forces in the Pacific. I believe the interests of China are just as great as those of the U.S. on that point.

“Let me make now what I trust will not be taken as an invidious comparison. By religion I am a Quaker, although not a very good one, and I believe in peace. All of my instincts are against a big military establishment and also against military adventures. As I indicated a moment ago, the Prime Minister is one of the world’s leading spokesman for his philosophy and has to be opposed to powers such as the U.S. maintaining huge military establishments. But each of us had to put the survival of his nation first, and if the U.S. were to reduce its military strength, and if the U.S. were to withdraw from the areas I have described in the world, the dangers to the U.S. would be great—and the dangers to China would be greater.

“I do not impute any motives of the present leaders of the Soviet Union. I have to respect what they say, but I must make policy on the basis of what they do. And in terms of the nuclear power balance, the Soviet Union has been moving ahead at a very alarming rate over the past four years. I have determined that the U.S. must not fall behind, or our shield of protection for Europe, or for some of the nations of the Pacific with which we have treaties, would be worthless.

“Then, as I look at the situation with respect to China, as we mentioned yesterday, the Soviet Union has more forces on the Sino-Soviet borders than it has arrayed against the Western Alliance. [4 lines of [Page 363] source text not declassified] I suggest that if the Prime Minister could designate, in addition to people on the civilian side, someone such as the Vice Chairman for Military Affairs, (note: Yeh Chien-ying, Vice Chairman of the Military Affairs Mission of the CCP) I believe it would be extremely interesting for him. The meeting place should be highly secret, however, if this could be arranged.

“Dr. Kissinger: We have.

“President Nixon: O.K.

“Now as I see China, and as I look at China’s neighbors, this is what would concern me. I believe Chairman Mao and the Prime Minister when they say that China does not seek to reach out its hands, and that while it will support forces of liberation, it does not seek territory around the world. However, turning to what others may do, and looking to the south, as far as India is concerned, China could probably handle India in a month in the event they went to war. India is no threat to China, but India supported by the Soviet Union is a very present threat to China because China’s ability to move, to deal with respect to India and to take military action would be seriously in question if the Soviet Union, its northern neighbor, was supporting India.

“That was why in the recent crisis that was one of the reasons we felt it was very important to call the hand of India in moving against West Pakistan—and we had conclusive evidence that the Prime Minister of India was embarked on such a course—why we had to call their hand and prevent that from happening. In other words, when we took a hard line against India and for Pakistan, we were speaking not just to India or Pakistan but also—and we made them well aware of it—to the Soviet Union.

“That brings us back again, to my major premise: if the U.S. were in a position of weakness vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, whatever policy the U.S. followed would have much less credence with the Soviet Union. For the U.S. to be able to inhibit the Soviets in areas like the subcontinent, the U.S. must at least be in a position of equality with the Soviet Union.

“We took a lot of heat on this policy because, again, we had a unholy alliance against us (Chou laughs)—the pro-Soviet group, and the pro-India group which has an enormous propaganda organization in the U.S., and also what you could call the anti-Pakistan group because they didn’t like the form of government in Pakistan. They charged we were sacrificing India, the second biggest country in the world, because of our desire to go forward with the China initiative. That’s to a certain extent true, because I believe Mr. Prime Minister, it is very important that our policies—and this is one area I think we can agree—that our policies in the subcontinent go together. I do not mean [Page 364] in collusion, but I mean we don’t want to make movement with respect to India and Pakistan unless you are fully informed, because we believe your interest here is greater than ours. We face a problem here because the question of resuming aid to India, economic aid, will soon arise when I return. A case can be made against this on the grounds that they will be able to release funds from buying arms from the Soviet Union which can then be manufactured in India.

“But a very critical question which we have to ask ourselves, the Prime Minister and I, is would it be better for the U.S. to have some relation with India, some influence in India or should we leave the field for the Soviet Union?

“Let me use one other example to bear out my argument that a U.S. presence in Asia is in the interest of not just the U.S. but in the interest of China. I think that the Prime Minister in terms of his philosophy has taken exactly the correct position with respect to Japan, for example the U.S. should withdraw its troops, the Treaty between Japan and the U.S. should be abrogated, and Japan should be left to become a neutral country that is unarmed. I think that the Prime Minister has to continue to say that. But I want him to understand why I think strongly that our policy with respect to Japan is in the security interest of his country even though it is opposed to the philosophic doctrine which he espouses.

“The U.S. can get out of Japanese waters, but others will fish there. And both China and the U.S. have had very difficult experiences with Japanese militarism. We hope that the situation is changed permanently away from the militarism that has characterized Japanese government in the past. On the other hand, we cannot guarantee it and consequently we feel that if the U.S. were to leave Japan naked, one of two things would happen, both of them bad for China. The Japanese, with their enormously productive economy, their great natural drive and their memories of the war they lost, could well turn toward building their own defenses in the event that the U.S. guarantee were removed. That’s why I say that where Taiwan is concerned, and I would add where Korea is concerned, the U.S. policy is opposed to Japan moving in as the U.S. moves out, but we cannot guarantee that. And if we had no defense arrangement with Japan, we would have no influence where that is concerned.

“On the other hand, Japan has the option of moving toward China and it also has the option of moving toward the Soviet Union.

“So the point I would summarize on is this. I can say, and I think the Prime Minister will believe me, that the U.S. has no designs on China, that the U.S. will use its influence with Japan and those other countries where we have a defense relationship or provide economic [Page 365] assistance, to discourage policies which would be detrimental to China. But if the U.S. is gone from Asia, gone from Japan, our protests, no matter how loud, would be like—to use the Prime Minister’s phrase—firing an empty cannon; we would have no rallying effect because fifteen thousand miles away is just too far to be heard.

“Now I realize that I have painted here a picture which makes me sound like an old cold warrior (Prime Minister Chou laughs). But it is the world as I see it, and when we analyze it, it is what brings us, China and America, together; not in terms of philosophy, not in terms of friendship—although I believe that is important—but because of national security I believe our interests are in common in the respects I have mentioned.

“I will just close by saying that after this analysis I would not want to leave the impression that the U.S. is not going to try to go to the source of the trouble, the Soviet Union, and try to make any agreements that will reduce the common danger. Our policy will be completely open and frank with China. Since Dr. Kissinger’s visit, we have informed his (Prime Minister Chou’s) government completely with respect to the contacts we have had with the Soviets. When we have had my meeting in Moscow, if the Prime Minister agrees, I would like to have Dr. Kissinger come and report personally to the Prime Minister on what we have discussed and what agreements we reached in Moscow. We are going to try, for example, to get an arms limitation agreement and also make progress on the Middle East if that subject is still before us.

“But the most important fact to bear in mind is that as far as China and the U.S. are concerned, if the U.S. were to follow a course of weakening its defense, of withdrawing totally or almost exclusively into the U.S., the world would be much more dangerous in my view. The U.S. has no aggressive intent against any other country; we have made our mistakes in the past. And I do not charge that the Soviet Union has any aggressive interests against any other country in the world, but in terms of the safety of these nations which are not superpowers in the world, they will be much safer if there are two superpowers, rather than just one.” (Memorandum of conversation, February 22, 1972; ibid., Box 87, February 20, 1972)

The President returned to a discussion of his broader world view in a meeting with Chou En-lai the following afternoon: “I believe it is very useful to think in philosophical terms. Too often we look at problems of the world from the point of view of tactics.” He continued: “It is essential to look at the world not just in terms of immediate diplomatic battles and decisions but the great forces that move the world. Maybe we have some disagreements, but we know there will be changes, and we [Page 366] know that there can be a better, and I trust safer, world for our two peoples regardless of differences if we can find common ground. As the Prime Minister and I both have emphasized in our public toasts and in our private meetings, the world can be a better and more peaceful place.” (Memorandum of conversation, February 23, 1972; ibid.)

The full records of these conversations are scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, China, 1969–1972.