283. Editorial Note
On July 9, 1971, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger arrived in Beijing for three days of secret meetings with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Although the purpose of the visit was to prepare for the announcement of President Richard Nixon’s trip to China, Kissinger and Zhou conducted an extensive review of regional and global issues, including the Soviet role in Sino-American relations. The subject first arose in connection with a news briefing three days earlier in Kansas City, Missouri, where the President asked Americans to reexamine their presumption of preeminence in international affairs. Twenty-five years after the Second World War, Nixon declared, the United States needed to move beyond involvement in Vietnam toward engagement with the Soviet Union and China, relaxing political tensions with the former and economic restrictions with the latter. Without revealing Kissinger’s secret trip, Nixon linked ping-pong diplomacy to triangular relations, hinting that further developments might eventually “open doors” in Beijing, if not Moscow. (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pages 802–813) Meeting with Kissinger on the afternoon of July 9, Zhou—referring to American involvement in Vietnam and Korea—offered an informal response to Nixon’s remarks:
“We believe that the peoples of any country should be capable of solving their own affairs without outside interference by others. There is the fact that twenty-five years after the Second World War, your hands are stretched out too far and people suffer from it in another country. Now if you do not withdraw, there will be a sticky situation. The President was right in Kansas City when he said that 25 years ago nobody would believe the U.S. could be in such a difficult position today. But Chairman Mao foresaw this at the time. He wrote an article shortly after World War II on the international situation. The word had spread that an attack was imminent against the USSR. Chairman Mao disagreed, and said that this was only a slogan whose purpose was to gain control over the intermediate areas of the world between the USSR and the U.S.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1033, For the President’s Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, China Memcons & Memos—Originals, July 1971)
Kissinger later recalled his initial reaction to Zhou’s response: “This put me at some disadvantage since I was unaware of either the fact or the content of the speech, proving that even the most meticulous preparation is prey to the accidental.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 748–749)
During his meeting with Kissinger the following afternoon, July 10, Zhou addressed several contingencies for China’s national security, [Page 828] in particular, those posed by the Soviet Union. “The worst would be that China would be carved up once again,” he explained. “You could unite, with the USSR occupying all areas north of the Yellow River, and you occupying all the areas south of the Yangtze River, and the eastern section between these two rivers could be left to Japan.” After describing this point in more detail, Zhou returned to his central theme:
“We believe that at present there is chaos under heaven, and believe that in the past 25 years there has been a process of great upheaval, great division, and great reorganization. Your President also said (in Kansas City) that 25 years ago you could not imagine that the present situation could emerge. He also said that in the remaining third of the century that efforts should be made to cease military competition and to embark upon economic competition. However, economic competition in itself involves economic expansion, and then will necessarily lead to military expansion. Japan is the most telling case in point, but the danger may not be less in the case of West Germany in relation to Europe.
“Yesterday I also mentioned the USSR. The Soviet Union is following your suit, in stretching its hands all over the world. You said that you were triggered by the Soviet Union’s probing throughout the world. No matter whether there is a case of contention or a case of being triggered, anyway there is a situation of tension, of turmoil. This is the objective situation. If we look at the development of the objective world in a cool-headed manner, then we are called upon through our subjective efforts to attempt to undo some of the knots.”
When Zhou had finished, Kissinger delivered his own presentation on “great power relations.” Citing Zhou’s phrase “chaos under heaven,” Kissinger vowed that the United States would oppose military expansion, whether by Japan or by the Soviet Union:
“With respect to Soviet intentions, contrary to some of my American friends, I do not exclude the possibility of Soviet military adventurism. In fact, speaking personally and frankly, this is one of the new lessons I have learned in my present position. I had not believed it previously.
“But that is a problem essentially between you and the USSR. As far as the U.S. is concerned, I can tell you flatly that there is no possibility, certainly in this Administration, nor probably in any other, of any cooperation such as you have described between the U.S., the Soviet Union and Japan to divide up China.
“We are facing many potentially aggressive countries. How could it conceivably be in our interests, even for the most selfish motives, to encourage one superpower to destroy another country and even to cooperate with it? Particularly one with which, as the Prime Minister has [Page 829] himself pointed out, after the solution of the Taiwan issue, which will be in the relatively near future, we have no conflicting interests at all.”
In order to avoid any misunderstandings, Kissinger not only offered to brief Zhou on “any proposal made by any other large country which could affect your interests” but also promised to “take your views very seriously.” He continued:
“Specifically, I am prepared to give you any information you may wish to know regarding any bilateral negotiations we are having with the Soviet Union on such issues as SALT, so as to alleviate any concerns you might have in this regard. So while these negotiations will continue, we will attempt to conduct them in such a way that they do not increase the opportunity for military pressures against you.”
Zhou tested Kissinger’s offer, asking whether the President had “ever considered the possibility” of a summit meeting with Soviet leaders. The two men then discussed at length Nixon’s plans to visit both China and the Soviet Union:
“PM Chou: If there is such a possibility, it would be best for President Nixon and the Soviet Union to meet before President Nixon visits China.
“We are not afraid of a big turmoil. With the objective development of events, this might be possible. But we would not want to deliberately create tensions. You saw, just throwing a ping-pong ball has thrown the Soviet Union into such consternation. So many Americans going to the Soviet Union, and Russians to America, did not create such a stir. We paid no special attention to that.
“Dr. Kissinger: I will be candid. This subject has been discussed. The President has received an invitation to visit Moscow.
“As you know from your own dealings with the Soviet Union, there is a tendency on the part of Soviet leaders to attempt to squeeze every advantage out of any situation. (Chou laughs.)
“Therefore, after extending the invitation, certain conditions were attached which we can meet as a matter of fact, but as a question of principle it is now held in abeyance.
“It is not a question that we cannot meet them, but that we believe that if the President talks to the Head of State of another government it must be on its own merits. The same is true in your case.
“But the principle of a meeting between the President and the Soviet leaders has been accepted. The visit [invitation?] has been extended by the Soviet leaders and a visit may still take place within the next 6 months.
“PM Chou: In that case, we might set the date of the President’s visit sometime in the summer of next year, say after May 1. That might be a more appropriate time for your President.[Page 830]
“Dr. Kissinger: One difficulty with this is that after May the political campaign begins in America. While it would be advantageous from a political point of view to have the visit during that season, I think, frankly, for our mutual interest, that we would not start our relationship under the suspicion that it has this short-term motivation.
“So it should be somewhat earlier; a few months earlier would be better than in the summer. March or April.
“PM Chou: Fine. I will report this to Chairman Mao and then give you a reply. But you do agree to the principle that it would be good for the President first to visit Moscow and then China? This would be better for you?
“Dr. Kissinger: The problem in our relations with the Soviet Union is different from the problem of our relations with the People’s Republic of China.
“I understand your hesitation to begin with. In our relations with the Soviet Union we have a number of concrete issues but no overwhelming political issues.
“PM Chou: Much more concrete issues.
“Dr. Kissinger: But no overwhelming philosophical issues. You have had your own experience in negotiations with the Soviet Union, so I need not describe it. They lend themselves less well to meetings at a very high level because they always get lost in a great amount of detail. And some very petty detail.
“Our relations with the People’s Republic of China are at an historic turning point which requires the intervention of top leaders who can set a basic direction and then let the details be worked out later.
“So the problem is that with the Soviet Union we can do a lot of business in regular ways, while with the People’s Republic of China we can do the most important business really only between Chairman Mao and the President. That is the difference. (Chou nods)
“But in principle, I repeat, there is a formal agreement that makes clear we are prepared to meet with the Soviet leaders, and they have expressed their willingness.
“In all honesty, I cannot promise you it will happen no matter when we set a date. We shall try, but we will not meet prior conditions either with Moscow or with Peking; but you haven’t made any prior conditions.
“PM Chou: That’s right. We agree.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1033, For the President’s Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, China Materials, China Memcons & Memos—Originals, July 1971)
For the full text of the memoranda of conversation, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Documents 139 and 140.[Page 831]
While Kissinger met secretly with Zhou in Beijing, the President was secluded in San Clemente with a small entourage, including White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Alexander M. Haig, Jr. “Because of the need for complete secrecy and the lack of any direct communications facilities between Peking and Washington,” Nixon later explained, “I knew that we would have no word from Kissinger while he was in China.” (Nixon, RN: Memoirs, page 553) Nixon met Haldeman and Haig early on July 10 to discuss various issues of domestic politics and foreign policy. (President’s Daily Diary; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) The principal subject for discussion, however, was China. The President dwelled on past developments, recalling, in particular, the moment Kissinger gave him the message from Zhou on April 27. According to Haldeman, Nixon exclaimed: “This is the first time the Russians have to react to us.” (Ibid., White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 37, H-Notes) During a telephone call with Haig the next morning, Nixon issued instructions on how to handle Kissinger’s secret trip:
“P: I think we should get together an order that there is to be no discussion of Sino-Soviet relations. No speculation. No backgrounding. It should go to State, Defense and CIA. And anyone who does is subject to removal.
“H: Yes sir. I will have one ready this afternoon. And this will also keep Henry from doing anything along that line.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 998, Alexander M. Haig Chronological Files, Haig Telcons, 1971 [2 of 2])
After a brief stop in Paris for talks with the North Vietnamese, Kissinger returned to the United States on July 13, arriving at San Clemente in time for breakfast. “I spent from 7:20 to 9:30 a.m. with the President,” Kissinger later recalled, “giving him a detailed account of events and my long written report. We both recognized that we had opened up new opportunities for our diplomacy. Inevitably, there would be repercussions with the Soviet Union; we thought that over time they would be beneficial.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 757) Nixon then met Kissinger, Haldeman, and Haig at 10 a.m. to prepare for the announcement in two days of his “big play” on China. (President’s Daily Diary; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) As Haldeman reported in his diary:
“The P[resident] got into some reflection of how everything all turns around. Years ago he fought the battle for Chiang, and he led the fight; and he’s always taken the line that we stand by the South Koreans, and that we stand by the South Vietnamese, etc. It’s ironic now [Page 832] that Richard Nixon is the one to lead the move in the other direction.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries, page 318)
According to Haldeman’s handwritten notes, Nixon also reviewed the international implications of the “opening” in Sino-American relations:
“q[uestion] of what the Chinese do to us some day
“[be]cause of their native ability
“pt. of how this changes world balance
“shatters old alignments
“pressure on Japan—alliance with Soviets
“fundamental shift in power balances
“Soviets will move to Japs & Indians
“how answer timing q[uestion]—
“Chinese say this came now [be]cause of Cambodia
“concern re Soviets has grown
“so deal with us.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 37, H-Notes)
After this review of geopolitics, the four men discussed the more mundane issues of timing, including when to schedule Nixon’s trip and when to notify the Soviets of Kissinger’s trip. Haldeman noted that “they agreed that the second half of March might be the best time” for the President to visit China: “It would give us a chance to see what the Soviets do, and it would be good to hit the Democrats at primary time. Then the P said that maybe he’d go in January, so he could avoid the State of the Union. We got into some discussion of notification; it was agreed that K should talk to Dobrynin.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) During a meeting the next morning, Kissinger advised Nixon that he would first give Dobrynin the announcement and then tell him that it’s “up to you how you react.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, H. R. Haldeman, Box 37, H-Notes)
In a memorandum for the President on July 14, Kissinger formally reported the substance and assessed the significance of his secret trip to China. Throughout the memorandum, Kissinger favorably compared Chinese to Soviet conduct, suggesting that Zhou was a more reliable interlocutor than Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. “There was none of the Russian ploymanship, scoring points, rigidity or bullying,” he explained. “They did not turn everything into a contest.” Kissinger believed, above all, that the Chinese were “deeply worried about the Soviet threat to their national integrity, realistically speaking, [Page 833] and see in us a balancing force against the USSR.” After providing details of his discussions, Kissinger presented his conclusions on the immediate prospects for triangular diplomacy:
“[T]he process we have now started will send enormous shock waves around the world. It may panic the Soviet Union into sharp hostility. It could shake Japan loose from its heavily American moorings. It will cause a violent upheaval in Taiwan. It will have a major impact on our other Asian allies, such as Korea and Thailand. It will increase the already substantial hostility in India. Some quarters may seek to sabotage over the coming months.
“However, we were well aware of these risks when we embarked on this course. We were aware too that the alternative was unacceptable—continued isolation from one-quarter of the world’s most talented people and a country rich in past achievements and future potential.
“And even the risks can be managed and turned to our advantage if we maintain steady nerves and pursue our policies responsibly. With the Soviet Union we will have to make clear the continued priorities we attach to our concrete negotiations with them. Just as we will not collude with them against China, so we have no intention of colluding with China against them. If carefully managed, our new China policy could have a longer term beneficial impact on Moscow.” (National Archives, Nixon President’s Materials, NSC Files, Box 847, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Book III)
For the full text of Kissinger’s memorandum, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–13, Documents on China, 1969–1972, Document 9.