- A Cold War Turning Point: Nixon and China, 1969–1972 by Chris Tudda
Giving us a day-by-day—and sometimes hour-by-hour—account, Chris Tudda details the backdoor diplomacy leading up to Richard Nixon’s historic summit in Beijing in February 1972. In doing so, he provides a narrative of how the United States and the People’s Republic of China shocked the world by finding common ground—or “shared geopolitical interest transcending philosophies and histories,” as Henry Kissinger put it.
Tudda, a State Department historian now part of the visiting faculty at George Washington University, uses recently released foreign archives and, most notably, the Nixon tapes and other White House material, allowing him to shed new light on this much-analyzed series of events, especially those in the three years leading to “the week that changed the world.”
A Cold War Turning Point starts with the moves from both the American and Chinese sides to change long-held policies. Especially interesting is the transformation of Beijing’s outlook as it reacted to Moscow’s 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and its own 1969 border clashes with the Soviets. The historic summit with Nixon became possible—perhaps even inevitable—as Mao Zedong and the Chinese leadership began to see Moscow, and not Washington, as China’s primary antagonist.
From an early moment, Nixon, a “Red-baiter” who transformed himself into a grand strategist, conceived of long-lasting American and Chinese friendship. Yet, for a presidential hopeful to dream of outreach was one thing. For a White House occupant to arrange the visit was quite another.
The United States was concerned about upsetting Taipei and other allies and had trouble even uttering the formal name of Mao’s state, the “People’s Republic of China.” The People’s Republic, for its part, had recalled all but one of its ambassadors and was at times unreachable. Contacting Beijing then was as difficult as it was delicate. Washington used various routes, including Polish, Romanian, and Pakistani channels, to reach out to the Chinese, who did not quite know how to respond. Moreover, when they eventually sent a positive signal by hosting journalist Edgar Snow in Beijing, U.S. officials completely missed it.
A Cold War Turning Point provides different perspectives on events surrounding the summit, both before and after. Henry Kissinger has given his account of the diplomacy leading to the landmark meeting, but, as A Cold War Turning Point shows, his narrative needs a corrective. Especially fascinating is Tudda’s use of sources showing how Kissinger’s maneuvering, which was not always deft, became counterproductive at points. As H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s aide, noted on the eve of the summit, “Henry was a problem himself.” Tudda’s book, therefore, restores some balance to the dominant Kissinger-centric understanding of how the event came about.
Furthermore, Tudda debunks the notion that Nixon from the start was pursuing “triangular diplomacy”—playing China and the Soviet Union off against each other—by [End Page 218] showing that the concept was not part of the president’s original plan. Similarly, Kissinger’s initial view, as the book notes, was that Washington “could simultaneously pursue rapprochement with the Chinese and détente with the Soviets.”
Moreover, A Cold War Turning Point provides a new narrative on post-summit history. For instance, the book upsets conventional wisdom by showing how Nixon and Kissinger—“Nixinger”—did not “tilt” to Pakistan against India as a means of repaying the Pakistanis for their crucial role in arranging the visit. Tudda shows why the pair did not even entertain the notion of favoring Islamabad: the White House chose the so-called Pakistani channel because Mao and Zhou Enlai, his premier, felt most comfortable using Pakistani President Yahya Khan as an intermediary for crucial behind-the-scenes diplomacy. As Tudda suggests, the full story will not be known until the Chinese open their archives.
Tudda closes his book by making important comments on the role of secrecy in the groundbreaking events of...