“Our leader has taken leave of reality…”

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So said Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s National Security Adviser, when it became clear to him that Nixon was serious about his idea of an opening to China, the subject of a new book from Margaret MacMillan, author of the prize winning “Paris 1919 Six Months that Changed the World.”
“Nixon and Mao, the Week that Changed the World,” is a concise, well written, often riveting account of the US President’s opening to China in 1972.
I phoned her at her home in Toronto yesterday. Five Questions for Margaret MacMillan folo:

1) What prompted you, after Paris 1919, to write about the Nixon-Mao meeting?
Partly because I was trying to find something manageable after the [previous] book. But it was also because I teach a course in the history of the Cold war (at the University of Toronto, where she is a professor of history) and this meeting had always interested me very, very much, so it was sort of a natural subject to be drawn to.

2) Before we get to the meeting itself and its consequences, let me ask you a US centric question: for a lot of members of the Democratic political party in the United States, Richard Nixon is basically viewed as the anti-Christ, because of the scandals of his administration and the fact that he had to resign the Presidency in disgrace. Yet he comes off, on balance, very well in this book. And he always believed, I think, that in the end, history would treat him pretty well, and that the Watergate scandal (for which he resigned) would be largely forgotten. It’s turning out that he was probably right, wasn’t he?
Yes I think I think he probably was right about that. He once said “I ‘ll be remembered for two things, the opening to China, and Watergate—that silly, silly thing. ”
Now obviously I think [Watergate] was much more than a “silly thing.” But I think he was a very considerable statesman, yes.

3) There are very interesting snippets in the book about how excited both Mao and Chou En-Lai were about the prospect of the meeting with the U.S. president, despite the fact that on the day Nixon arrived, it was the last item on the Chinese television newscast (ie, “ and finally tonight, the President of the United States dropped by for a visit…” ) Americans understood at the time why this was such a big deal: it was basically the earthly equivalent of the President going to the moon, or a version of the moon inhabited by half a billion people (roughly China’s population at the time). China was terra incognita in those days, not to mention Communist and, therefore, The Enemy. But flip the lens for us. Why, among the top Chinese leaderhip, was this such an enormous event? What was in it for Beijing?
China was very vulnerable then. Its main friend in the world was Albania, which is not really reassuring. It had ok relations with Pakistan but had been at war with India. It was not on good terms with either Japan or South Korea. The Soviet Union was the key factor. It was massing troops along the border. There was real panic in Beijing in the fall of 1969—they thought China was going to be invaded. An opening to the United States made eminent strategic sense.

4) And what about for the US? From a geopolitical perspective, what was in it for them?
In the longer term it was also about the Soviet Union. In his memoirs Kissinger writes something to the effect of, `we were never so crude as to say we were ‘playing the China card,’ and I thought to myself, ‘yeah, right…’ That’s essentially what it was.
But in the shorter term it was about [the war in] Vietnam. The U.S. had been badly damaged by the war, and Washington believed that the way the Communist world worked was that the big communists talked to the little communists and got them to do whatever they wanted. This is not how it worked, it turned out, but in fairness it is true that’s often how the two major communist powers (the Soviet Union and China) talked. But it wasn’t actually how the world worked, it was much more complicated than that. And the Chinese kept saying to the Americans (in Chou’s secret meetings with Kissinger setting up the Nixon visit), `we’re not going to do it. We’re not going to pressure the North Vietnamese. ‘ [Their position was] this was an American problem and they (the Americans) had to deal with it.

5) And that turned out to be true, didn’t it? On that specific aspect, the visit was a failure from Washington’s standpoint?
Yes. Now, there’s no question that the North Vietnamese were really annoyed that China had agreed to the visit, but whether it made them more amenable to any kind of settlement [with the US] is very, very doubtful.’’

6) What is your sense, having researched the book, of Mao’s mental state in 1972? It was four years before he died, and a variety of accounts has him steadily losing it as he grew older, and a lot of what he said to Nixon face to face was pretty vague, pretty epigrammtic. Was Mao out of it back then?
I don’t think he was crazy. He was paranoid and suspicious, but he understood the world around him very, very well. I think in many ways, even though they were communists, he was behaving like a traditional Chinese emperor, speaking in vague terms and leaving the details to his aides, in this case of course principally Chou.

7) Will your book be published in China?
I don’t know yet. We’ve had some discussions in Taiwan, but that’s different of course. In China there’s the issue of censorship, and they’re not going to like [parts of the book that deal with] the cultural revolution, so I’m not sure really about the prospects of publishing there.

Ok. I’m officially over Five Questions now, thanks very much.
Thank you for calling. What time is it in Shanghai now?
I’m actually calling from Seoul, where I’m working on another story for the magazine. It’s about 1:30 in the morning.
Oh, dear. Well I’m not going to say another word then.
It’s ok. You write in the book that Mao liked to work in the middle of the night. Well, he’s not the only one…