Skip to content
Was Nixon Wrong About China?
Go to my account

Was Nixon Wrong About China?

It might be time to question the conventional wisdom.

Speaking at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California, on July 23, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attempted a difficult balancing act. On the one hand, Pompeo repudiated more than four decades of American policy toward China. Pompeo argued that the days of the U.S. holding out hope for political liberalization was over. And he called on free nations around the world to lock arms against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) various schemes and threats.   

On the other hand, Pompeo said he did not want to “seem too eager to tear down President Nixon’s legacy.”  While Nixon’s presidency ended in disgrace, he is still widely considered something of a foreign policy success—the man who initiated America’s great opening to China. Pompeo didn’t want to directly undermine Nixon’s supposed accomplishment. “I want to be clear that he did what he believed was best for the American people at the time, and he may well have been right,” Pompeo said of Nixon’s diplomacy with the Chinese. 

Pompeo’s use of the word “may” was telling. Maybe Nixon was right—or maybe he wasn’t. Given the substance of his speech, it is quite possible that Pompeo thinks Nixon was wrong. 

More than any other Trump administration official, Pompeo has confronted the new, unintentional reality bequeathed by the opening of America’s relations with China:  an aggressive, totalitarian Chinese regime that has benefited greatly from American naivete. And he outlined the various ways in which he and others in the administration have tackled the CCP’s menacing agenda. The U.S. government has countered Chinese aggression everywhere from the South China Sea to Texas. “Just this week, we announced the closure of the Chinese consulate in Houston because it was a hub of spying and intellectual property theft,” Pompeo said to applause from the audience. 

China’s moves and America’s countermeasures warrant constant scrutiny and analysis. It is the dominant foreign policy story today. But I can’t stop thinking of Pompeo’s hedge regarding Nixon’s legacy. What if Nixon, in fact, misjudged the Chinese from the very beginning? 

That’s not the conventional wisdom. In a Q&A session after Pompeo’s speech, Hugh Hewitt stated as a matter of fact: “He [Nixon] went to the People’s Republic of China in 1972 to try and ally and combine interests with them against the Soviet Union; it was successful.” That’s the conventional wisdom. The prevailing narrative holds that Nixon’s opening to China was a bold and farsighted strategic move that changed the balance of power in the Cold War. This is often stated as a truism with little to no critical examination of the underlying facts. 

Let us begin with a basic observation that is often overlooked: The opening wasn’t just Nixon’s idea, or that of his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. It was also Mao’s—or, to be more precise, a select group of Chinese marshals working for Mao. Nixon and Kissinger are widely credited with playing China against the Soviet Union. But Mao’s China, then a poor backwater, was a strategic actor as well. The Chinese military sought to use American power to counterbalance threats from the Soviets. Any real assessment of America’s great opening to China has to take into account the total costs and benefits of the diplomatic gambit, including from the perspective of the Chinese. That last part of the equation—a key variable—is often left out of the American version of the story. 

For an alternative to the conventional wisdom, let us turn to Michael Pillsbury’s seminal 2015 book: The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower.  Pillsbury has served in a number of high-ranking positions within the U.S. government and adjacent think tanks, including RAND. He’s currently senior fellow and director for Chinese strategy at the Hudson Institute in Washington. During the 1980s, he rose to the position of assistant under secretary of defense for policy planning at the Pentagon. Before the Reagan administration, in the late 1960s and 1970s, he was well-situated to observe the first steps in America’s partnership with China. Indeed, Pillsbury was an early advocate for a Sino-American alliance, arguing that the U.S. should provide more economic and military assistance. 

Pillsbury served as an “intelligence asset” for the U.S. while working at the United Nations in 1969 and 1970. In that capacity, he collected intelligence from the Soviets that played a small role in the Nixon administration’s decision-making. The administration was split on the idea of allying with the Chinese in a limited capacity, with some fearing that it would only further antagonize the Soviets. Nixon and Kissinger were focused on their notion of détente, so this concern could have led the president to scuttle the idea. But Pillsbury reported, based on his own contacts with the Soviets at the United Nations, that “Moscow would not call off détente and actually expected America to accept China’s deceptive offers of an alignment.” His “evidence seemed to play a modest role in breaking” the administration’s deadlock, helping to pave the way for the historic opening. “Kissinger even sent me a thank-you note later,” Pillsbury writes. 

Given his own role in these historic events, one might expect Pillsbury to be an apologist for the Nixon administration’s moves. The opposite is true. 

“Looking back, it is painful that I was so gullible,” Pillsbury writes. Across more than four decades, senior American officials gambled that U.S. assistance would help transform China into a responsible international stakeholder, or even a representative democracy. That bet never paid off. Pillsbury wanted to understand how American policymaking had gone so wrong and The Hundred-Year Marathon is a product of his self-critical re-examination. 

To begin with, it isn’t really true that Nixon and Kissinger opened the door to China. Mao let them in. Pillsbury goes so far as to argue that “history of normalized Sino-American relations started off with a myth.” 

In 1967—that is, beforehis election as president—Nixon argued in the pages of Foreign Affairs “that we simply cannot afford to leave China forever outside of the family of nations.” The world’s “goal should be to induce change” within China. Pompeo cited Nixon’s words in his address, but also deemed this course a failure. “The kind of engagement we have been pursuing has not brought the kind of change inside of China that President Nixon had hoped to induce,” Pompeo said. He later added a stark warning: “If the free world doesn’t change—doesn’t change, communist China will surely change us.” Again, one suspects Pompeo may think Nixon got it wrong.  

In Pillsbury’s telling, even though Nixon did propose such an engagement, Mao was the more proactive agent. “Nixon did not first reach out to China; instead, China in the person of Mao, first reached out to Nixon.” Pillsbury points to Mao’s overtures, including his unprecedented public appearance, on October 1, 1970, alongside the American journalist Edgar Snow “on the Tiananmen reviewing stage.” Mao “gave his guest a message: President Nixon was welcome to visit China.”   

(Before we continue, it is worth remembering that Mao Zedong was a maniacal mass murder whose ideological transformation of China led to tens of millions of deaths.)

The photo op with Snow was just one of Mao’s several overtures. Pillsbury writes that the American side was initially oblivious to Mao’s invitation, but eventually caught on. Except, the U.S. didn’t fully understand why Mao was so keen to welcome Nixon. The Nixon administration knew, from Pillsbury’s intelligence at the U.N. and other sources, that the Sino-Soviet split was real. But America’s obsession with the Soviets meant that the administration didn’t contemplate that there could be more to the CCP’s thinking. 

“In the spring of 1969, Mao summoned four hawkish army marshals who wanted to end China’s decade of passivity and instead to stand up to the threat of the Soviet Union,” Pillsbury explains. The “marshals summed up the American strategy toward the Soviet Union and China in a Chinese proverb of ‘sitting on top of the mountain to watch a fight between two tigers.’” The U.S. “was waiting for one Communist country to devour the other.” 

To counter both American and Soviet threats, one of the marshals recommended that they “study the example of Stalin’s nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939.” In this scenario, America was equivalent to the Nazis. The Americans didn’t realize that as Mao was opening China, he and his advisors were calling “America the enemy and likened it to Hitler.” (This wasn’t a passing thought. In 1999, Beijing evoked Hitler in its condemnation of America’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, with CCP officials comparing it to the worst Nazi war crimes and atrocities.)

Let that sink in. For Mao, America was comparable to Nazi Germany. 

In a footnote, Pillsbury points to Patrick Tyler’s 1999 book, A Great Wall: Six Presidents and China: An Investigative History. This was the “first book to translate the Chinese account…of the strategy proposed to Mao by the four marshals.” China’s interest in allying with the U.S. wasn’t motivated by a friendly desire for peace and prosperity. Instead, Mao and his marshals saw America as a “ruthless hegemon determined to prevent an expansion of Soviet power”—and as a threat to China itself. Mao’s marshals referred to the U.S. as an “imperialist” force, a threat the Chinese needed to parry by drawing America in close while they became stronger. The Chinese would seek to reverse the situation, sitting atop the mountain as the two tigers—America and the Soviet Union—battled. 

This version of events—based on China’s reasoning, as revealed in primary sources—obviously conflicts with the standard Nixon-Kissinger narrative. “Kissinger appears to be alone in detecting a Chinese desire to cooperate with America for other than these cynical reasons,” Pillsbury dryly notes. 

In another footnote, Pillsbury cites five written works (including Tyler’s, as well as works by James Mann, William Burr and others, and Evelyn Goh) that rely on “archival evidence” to “strongly dispute Kissinger’s account of Chinese strategy,” including his claim that there was real “hope” for “long-term Sino-American cooperation.” These “critics propose an alternative theory,” namely that “China’s strategy successfully manipulated not only Kissinger but also later American leaders.” 

Mistranslations played a role in America’s misbegotten strategy, too, according to Pillsbury. At one point during their meetings, Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai told Kissinger’s interpreter that “America is the ba.” This was relayed to Kissinger as “America is the leader”—a seemingly “innocuous remark,” Pillsbury writes. 

Except, this isn’t what ba means at all. Instead, it has a “specific historical meaning,” dating to China’s Warring States Period (from approximately 475 B.C. to 221 B.C.) and is “more accurately translated as ‘tyrant.’” Chinese strategists studied how rivals challenged the tyrants of their time and deduced a set of strategies to accomplish this goal. Therefore, Enlai’s use of the term ba actually has a much more sinister connotation.

Pillsbury wonders if the history of U.S.-Chinese relations would have been different had Kissinger understood the way China’s top leaders really saw America—as a Nazi-style tyranny, and not a true ally or partner. We will never know. 

As the title of his book makes clear, Pillsbury concluded that the CCP is running a 100-year marathon to supplant America as the world’s top power. He investigates the CCP’s fascination with the Warring States Period (which led to the “unification of seven feuding states under the Qin dynasty,” from which China gets its name) at length and finds that Beijing’s behavior is consistent with the lessons learned. The CCP’s strategy is based on patience and deception, as the hegemon should not be confronted from a position of relative weakness. Over time, the challenger can become stronger by stealing from the hegemon. This reflected an “ancient stratagem”—to “kill with a borrowed sword.” Thus, according to Pillsbury, the Chinese used the Americans just as they used the Soviets, extracting military and economic assistance from one major rival in the name of countering the other. Pillsbury recounts all the ways America built up the Chinese state—a staggering transfer of economic, scientific and military know-how that is difficult to justify.  

There’s much more to Pillsbury’s book and this story, of course. But I’ll leave it to curious readers to decide whether Pillsbury is right, and the Chinese partnered with America to counter the Soviets—but always had one eye on the true ba.

Maybe Nixon and Kissinger were wrong from the beginning.  

One final note: After stating that Nixon’s opening to China was a “success,” Hugh Hewitt’s first question to Pompeo was this: “Does Russia present an opportunity now to the United States to coax them into the battle to be relentlessly candid about the Chinese Communist Party?”

In other words, can the U.S. use Russia to counterbalance China today, just as Nixon and Kissinger allied with the Chinese against the Soviets. This, of course, ignores the more complex history briefly sketched above. 

It also ignores the fact that Xi Jinping has drawn closer to Vladimir Putin, especially during the course of the coronavirus pandemic. Nevertheless, Pompeo said he does “think there’s that opportunity,” which is “born of the relationship, the natural relationship between Russia and China, and we can do something as well.”

One can only hope that Pompeo has read Pillsbury’s book. For more than 40 years, American policymakers chose to see China a certain way. There’s no reason to fall into the same trap with respect to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. 

Photograph by Keystone/Getty Images.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.