In this installment of our leadership and success series, we turn to the oft-maligned presidency of Richard M. Nixon, whose reputation as a communist fighter followed him during much of his political life. Despite this reputation, while president, he had the foresight to pursue and then achieve what amounted to a critical turning point in the Cold War, historic goodwill meetings with China’s communist Chairman, Mao Tse-Tung, and Premier Chou Enlai. This February 1972 meeting opened the door to the political and economic recognition of “Red China,” a country which had been largely shunned internationally since the communist takeover of the mainland in 1949. The epic meeting, “the week that changed the world,” to describe Nixon’s final toast, truly changed relations with The People’s Republic of China – the world would never be the same thereafter.
Nixon’s trip to China was a masterstroke in foreign relations. But to describe Nixon as a visionary would be anathema to how most people would remember him. Some have speculated that the trip was motivated by Nixon’s hope to use better relations with China as a balance against the rising power of the Soviet Union. For over two decades America’s relationship with China had been best described as a frigid, even tense standoff with no contact and no trade of any moment. The absence of diplomatic recognition between the two countries was marked by America’s efforts to isolate China on the world stage. Regardless of the motivation, there was a sudden, dramatic change in the relationship between the two countries marking the unfolding of a new chapter in world history. Diplomats in two countries that had been engaged in open warfare against each other 20 years earlier in the Korean War, where General Douglas MacArthur had once threatened to lead his forces across the Yalu River into Chinese territory, were now drinking toasts to each other as personal contact and conversation replaced hostility amid the ebbing of tensions.
The transition in economic relations between the two countries can best be described as momentous, remarkable in scope. While economic information from the 70s is sketchy, it appears that in 1975 trade between the U.S. and China approximated $14 billion. By 2017 it had exploded to the staggering level of roughly $710 billion. This volume of trade is all the more amazing considering that China, with a communist government, had nevertheless pursued, and is still pursuing, a capitalist, free-market economy, an economy presently ranked second in the world only to that of the United States. The ongoing trade negotiations between the U.S. and China bear mute testimony to the growth of the Chinese economy, an economy, it should be added, which has also furthered a menacing growth in Chinese militarism, which is particularly evident in the South China Sea.
Nixon often appeared to be held in the grip of paranoia. The Watergate break-in, apparently motivated by his needless concern over the forthcoming election, is still considered by many political observers to have been a mystery in view of the fact he won reelection in 1972 in a landslide. His relations with the press could best be described as obsessive, sometimes intense and bordering on combative. But despite his personality quirks, he had the inner strength to cast aside his own personal dislike of communism and replace it with the foresight to recognize the potential political, diplomatic, and economic realities of a meaningful relationship with the world’s largest communist country, population wise.
Some pundits have argued that Nixon’s strength as president lay in his grasp of world politics. His rapprochement with the country once distained as “Red China” was a foreign policy triumph and went a long ways to proving that observation to be true. Any aspiring leader could learn from Nixon’s oft-repeated attitude in retirement, i.e., that only today and tomorrow matter; just look forward and have no recriminations over the past. To coin the refrain from an old ‘40s tune by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer, “…accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.”
Arnold G. Regardie