199. Editorial Note

On April 28, 1971, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger left Washington for a two-week “working” vacation in Palm Springs, California, to prepare for his upcoming secret trip to the People’s Republic of China. Secretary of State William Rogers, meanwhile, left Washington two days earlier for a two-week diplomatic tour, which included stops in London, Paris, Ankara, Riyadh, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Tel Aviv, and Rome. (Personal Papers of William P. Rogers, Appointment Books) Although his primary objective was to discuss a settlement in the Middle East, the Secretary began the trip by discussing the advent of “ping-pong diplomacy.” [Page 576] During a meeting of the SEATO Council in London on April 28, Rogers speculated on the motivations behind China’s initiative: “Some say it is part of a general diplomatic campaign for international recognition—others that it was mainly a reaction to Peking’s differences with the Soviet Union, or to an effort, as a leading Soviet journal has charged, on the part of the People’s Republic of China to become ‘the world’s main superpower.’ Whatever the motive, we welcome the Chinese overture.” (Department of State Bulletin, May 31, 1971, pages 682–683) The Secretary also addressed the China issue in a BBC interview, taped that afternoon but broadcast the next day. When the interviewer asked about the role of the Sino-Soviet split in U.S. policy, Rogers replied: “We are pursuing a policy of attempting to have improved relations with the Soviet Union and to have better relations with Communist China. Now, the fact that they are having a feud doesn’t to us seem to affect that policy. Why shouldn’t we try to get along better with both the Soviet Union and Communist China? Now, if, incidentally, that irritates one or the other, that just happens to be a dividend, but it’s not our policy.” (Ibid., pages 686–691)

Kissinger later recalled how the Secretary’s remarks, which attracted little notice in London, were received in Washington: “Nixon and I were thunderstruck. We were concerned that Peking might construe Rogers’ statements as our reply to its message or conclude that we thought China was susceptible to pressure despite its warnings months earlier not to treat its opening toward us as a sign of weakness.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 720) H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, described the reaction in his diary entry for April 28:

“Earlier today we were in something of a flap over Rogers’ speech yesterday in London at the SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) meeting, where he gave a speech on China, which was singularly inappropriate. Haig called me at home tonight even more upset because he’d given another speech today, this time saying that in our moves with China or Russia the action might offend the other party, but if it did, that was just a dividend that we would get out of it. This, of course, is a horrifying thing, and Haig wanted me to send a cable, as did K, to Rogers telling him to say nothing more on China. I agreed to do it, and then later in checking with the P by phone, he felt I should not send a cable, but should wait and call Rogers on the phone tomorrow.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)

According to Haldeman’s handwritten notes, the President sought to dispel the notion that his moves on China were directed against the Soviet Union. Rather than refer to any “dividend,” Nixon wanted to “play down Sino-Soviet rift—not exploit [it in] any way.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 43, H Notes, April 1, 1971–May 19, 1971, Part I)

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In addition, at the daily press briefing on April 28, Charles W. Bray, a Department of State spokesman, suggested that, rather than rely on the international community, Beijing and Taipei might resolve their differences through direct negotiations. (Tad Szulc, “U.S. Urges Peaceful Solution for Taiwan,” New York Times, April 29, page 4) During a telephone conversation with Nixon the next morning, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Alexander Haig argued that such publicity “could be very bad with respect to what we’re doing with the Soviets right now.” The two men then discussed the incident in light of the President’s press conference that evening:

“P: The New York Times said some guy from State named Bray made a statement. Did he consult with us?

“H: No, and he’s McCloskey’s replacement while McCloskey is with the Secretary.

“P: But that’s not something we approved?

“H: No.

“P: Well, if it’s raised today Ziegler can just say listen to me tonight. But the whole attitude should be to cool it—it’s not helpful.

“H: It’s not at all. It’s harmful to both sides; it may scare the Chinese, but it will drive the Soviets right up the wall.

“P: No, it may not scare the Chinese, but it will give the impression that we are so anxious.

“H: It looks like we are just playing games for our own purposes. We have been so good up to now. We know there would be speculation, but when we contribute to it ourselves!” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 998, Alexander M. Haig Chronological Files, Haig Telcons, 1971 [2 of 2])

After his conversation with Haig, Nixon instructed Haldeman to send a “memo to State et al—to keep quiet.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 43, H Notes, April 1, 1971–May 19, 1971, Part I)

Haldeman first called the Secretary in Turkey to relay the President’s views on the “dividends” of triangular diplomacy. As Haldeman reported in his diary:

“I had to call Rogers this morning as a result of his speech flaps yesterday and the day before. Finally got him in Ankara after a couple of abortive attempts to talk to him on the plane. Covered the point the P wanted to raise, using the press conference tonight as the lead-in thing; the P, if pressed, was going to have to, in effect, say that the Secretary didn’t mean what he said. This had the desired effect on Rogers, and he backed off completely from his point that any Russian-Chinese differences that arise from our initiatives would be a dividend. He said that isn’t what he meant at all. He was concerned enough that, after [Page 578] we’d discussed it thoroughly and hung up, he called back in a few minutes to reiterate his view as the how the P should approach the question at the press conference tonight. In the meeting with Haig in the P’s office at midday, the P told Haig to call Dobrynin and clear up the points raised by Rogers, so that he wasn’t given the impression that we were trying to play a game with the Soviets.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)

No record of a telephone conversation between Haig and Dobrynin on the “points raised by Rogers” has been found.

The President spent two days—much of it in the Executive Office Building—preparing for his press conference on April 29. (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) Nixon, for instance, drafted handwritten notes on a series of foreign policy issues, including the following response on his triangular diplomacy:

“One element is not helpful—

“1. It is not our policy to play one against other—

  • • “We want good relations with Soviet
  • • “We want good relations with China
  • • “We want good relations between China & Soviet
  • • “A dangerous game to get two rivals into a fight
  • • “End up in a 3 way brawl.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, President’s Personal Files, Box 66, President’s Speech File, April 29, 1971, Press Conference)

According to Haldeman’s notes for April 28, Ronald Ziegler, White House Press Secretary, was told to plant a question on “China vs. Russia.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 43, H Notes, April 1, 1971–May 19, 1971, Part I)

President Richard Nixon went to the East Room at 9 p.m. and for 35 minutes fielded a series of questions on foreign and domestic issues, including the implications of his China initiative. One reporter asked, for instance, whether Washington would support direct negotiations between Beijing and Taipei on the “legal question of the future of Taiwan.” After he answered the question, Nixon made the following statement:

“There is one other point I think it is very important to make.

“There has been speculation to the effect that the purpose of our—or one purpose of our normalizing our relations or attempting to normalize our relations with Mainland China is to some way irritate the Soviet Union. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“We are seeking good relations with the Soviet Union, and I am not discouraged by the SALT talk progress. I can only say that we believe that the interests of both countries would be served by an agreement there. We seek good relations with the Soviet Union; we are seeking good relations with Communist China. And the interests of world peace require good relations between the Soviet Union and Communist [Page 579] China. It would make no sense for the United States, in the interest of world peace, to try to get the two to get at each other’s throats, because we would be embroiled in the controversy ourselves.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pages 592–602)

The President did not rely on his press conference to pass the message within the bureaucracy. Although he briefly considered a written directive, Nixon opted instead for a more informal approach. According to Haldeman’s handwritten notes, Nixon issued the following oral instructions on April 30: “Essential everyone at State & WH—say nothing about China or Sov-Am[erican] relations. Also K—and everyone at WH. Birch—PriceSafire etc., Colson. Also all Cab[inet] members—No memo—all by voice.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 43, H Notes, April 1, 1971–May 19, 1971, Part I)