157. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • Indications of Possible Tense Situation in Communist China and Implications for your Visit

Within the last ten days we have received a number of indicators pointing to a possible tense situation in Communist China.2 This situation could relate either to Chinese relations with the USSR, since there have been some unusual [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] [Page 484] on Soviet side of the border, or too some kind of a political problem in China affecting the top leadership. The key indicators are:

  • —Since September 12 there has been a suspension of almost all Chinese military aircraft flight activity. The only military flights have consisted of a few naval bomber missions, defensive fighter reactions in the Taiwan Strait area to Republic of China flights, and flights by two military transports, one carrying a Korean press delegation.
  • —Also since September 12, the members of the top Chinese military hierarchy have not appeared in public. (They could have been witnessing China’s first ICBM test which took place on September 10, though; Government leaders such as Chou En-lai and Acting Foreign Minister Chi Peng-fei have been noted carrying out their usual activities.)
  • —Agence France Presse reported on September 21 in an item originating in Peking that the traditional October 1 National Day parade has been cancelled this year.
  • —The AFP report has been backed up [1½ lines of source text not declassified] saying that National Day observances all over China would not be held “because of a sudden change with respect to a certain situation had occurred” and “the whole country is now carrying out urgent war preparation.”

These indicators occur against a backdrop of unusual [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] on the Soviet side of the border. The Soviets have had a nationwide military exercise underway since September 15 involving, among other things, [4 lines of source text not declassified]. This came at the time of our Cambodian operation, and could have related to advance Chinese notice to the public that an important announcement was to be made by Mao Tse-tung. Mao in fact did issue a statement at that time extolling the revolutionary situation in Indo-China, but the Soviets could have assumed that the Chinese were about to take some form of military action.

Alternative Explanation

There are a number of alternative explanations which can account for the indicators outlined above. These are:

  • —The Chinese genuinely fear that a war with the USSR may develop. Although the date of the Chinese air stand-down and the beginning of the Soviet military exercise do not coincide, the Chinese may have had some indications [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] involving units along the border that something was about to begin. [1½ lines of source text not declassified] Fear of a Soviet attack could have caused the Chinese to take precautionary military moves and to call off the National Day parade.
  • —The situation is related in some way to domestic Chinese political considations. Previous stand-downs of military flights were ordered during such periods in the Cultural Revolution as the fighting which occurred between two military factions in the city of Wuhan in July 1967. Presumably the Chinese wanted to be able to sort out the location and activities of their air units. [2 lines of source text not declassified] there are some signs that the radical leadership faction within the [Page 485] Party which has opposed the more moderate course of people such a. Chou En-lai has not been completely defeated. The radicals could have used the news of your visit to mobilize a counterattack against the predominant leadership in Peking.
  • Mao Tse-tung is dead or is seriously ill. Since he would be expected to be present at the October 1 National Day ceremonies, his death or incapacitation could account for the cancellation of the parade. On the other hand, except for a few reports that posters of Mao are being taken down (something which I believe has been going on anyway in Peking in order to return to a more normal atmosphere), there is nothing to suggest that anything has happened to Mao. He has not appeared publicly recently, but he has met such high-ranking visitors as Burma’s Ne Win within the last month or so.
  • —Conceivably, Mao’s chosen successor, Lin Piao, may be ill or dead. He, too, would be expected to appear at the National Day parade, and his inability to do so might cause the parade’s cancellation. With Lin Piao out of the picture, there might be some problems among the military in choosing his successor as China’s most senior military leader.3
  • —Another factor in the cancellation of the parade might be the regime’s desire not to allow the thousands of people, or for that matter foreign visitors, to be in Peking during a crisis. If radical elements are attempting to stage a comeback, they might count on elements within the crowd to support them. Of, if a war situation is developing, the regime would not want foreign visitors in Peking.

Implications for Your Trip

The various interpretations which would be placed on events as we know them up to now and their implications for your planned trip are:

  • The PRC is really worried about a Soviet attack. This would in part explain why they have wanted to keep the visit announcement so close to the event itself. This thesis also is supported by the fact that they gave so much advance notice of the stand-down of the October 1 events. If this turns out to be the real explanation, I do not believe that it will adversely affect your initiative; indeed it might help and make the trip more, not less, likely as a counter to Soviet pressure.
  • Mao has died. In this event there are two possibilities. If Mao did not really run the PRC in recent months and Chou did and was able to consolidate his power, then the trip most certainly would be on. If [Page 486] Lin Piao, but leaving Mao and Chou in power, your trip should not be affected.
  • A revolutionary group has taken power. If this has happened, anti- Soviet hostility would not be mitigated but the coming to power of such a group would certainly be accompanied by a resurgence of isolationism and anti-Americanism. China would turn inward again and be set back immeasurably. In these circumstances the trip would certainly be off.
  • Mao could have been taking over power again after having been pushed out as he did once before. This possibility seems less likely but if it turns out to be the situation, I believe they would want the trip to go forward as an evidence of strength and vindication of Mao’s policy.
  • We could be seeing the completion of a purge of anti-Chou people undertaken to hold the line within the power structure for your visit. If so, the visit would certainly go forward.

Note: A late AFP report from Paris dated September 22 quotes the PRC Embassy there as declaring that Mao Tse-tung is in excellent health. The Embassy added that the cancellation of the National Day parade “is a very normal thing and is due only to a decision to change the way of celebrating the national holiday.” The planned visit of a PRC Government delegation to France will proceed as planned.4

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1036, Files for the President—China Material, China—General, July–October 1971. Top Secret; Umbra; Eyes Only. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. See ibid., Boxes 35 and 36, President’s Daily Briefs, September 1971. The Department of State was also concerned and sent a telegram to all diplomatic posts requesting information on developments in the PRC. (Telegram 175874, September 24; ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL CHICOM)
  3. By early November, U.S. officials confirmed that Lin Biao had died in an airplane crash in Mongolia on September 12, as reported in Holdridge’s November 6 memorandum to Kissinger. (Ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 524, Country Files, Far East, People’s Republic of China, Vol. II, November–December 1971) Another report is telegram 7477 from the Consulate in Hong Kong, November 6. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL CHICOM) On November 12 Kissinger sent a memorandum to Rogers, Laird, and Helms that reads as follows: “The President has directed that there should be no comments by U.S. Government officials, whether on a background basis or otherwise to the press or public concerning internal political developments in the People’s Republic of China, notably the apparent purge of Lin Piao.” (Ibid., Agency Files, Box 285, Department of State, Vol. XIII)
  4. On September 28 Kissinger and the President discussed the possibility that internal conflicts in the PRC might prevent the October visit. Kissinger said: “I don’t exclude, I think there’s a ten percent chance, but it isn’t impossible, that the Chinese may want to get the visit, cancel the visit somehow or another, and that they’ll want me there, you know, to have a pretext for doing it, saying we couldn’t agree. I think there’s a very, there’s almost no chance of their doing that.” After further discussion, Nixon decided: “We’d just be stoic about it. What the hell, if it happens, it happens. The Russians may screw us on theirs.” Nixon also asked Kissinger about the parade’s cancellation. Kissinger replied, “Mysterious. I have absolutely no way of knowing. But I think Chou En-lai is on top, whatever else is happening. And they have given a briefing, in Hong Kong, for example, at that Communist bank. They gave a briefing and one question was if Mao has died, would the President’s visit still take place? The answer was Mao is alive, but even if he should die, the President’s visit would take place, since it is in the interests of world peace, and the invitation was extended by the Chinese Government and not by any individual. So that’s the party line that they’ve put out there. They may be purging Madame Mao. They are definitely attacking what they call the May 16th group, the extreme right wingers, left wingers, whatever you call them in that context.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Recording of conversation between Nixon and Kissinger, September 28, 1971, 5:51–6:42 p.m. Oval Office, Conversation No. 579–15) In a September 24 memorandum to Kissinger, Walters also expressed concern that the PRC might break off talks with the United States (Ibid., NSC Files, President’s File—China Trip, China Exchanges) See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. E–13, Document 26.