Podcast: Luke Nichter on the 1971-1972 White House Tapes and China
President Nixon’s historic handshake with Premier Chou en-Lai upon stepping off Air Force One in Beijing on February 21, 1972 (Richard Nixon Presidential Library).
Luke Nichter is Professor of History at Texas A&M Central Texas
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re discussing the Nixon Tapes again, with specific focus on President Nixon’s conversations about rapprochement to the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1971, and culminating with the historic trip in February 1972.
Our guest is Luke Nichter, Professor of History at Texas A&M Central Texas. He’s the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House Tapes, and founder of NixonTapes.org.
– How Nixon and Kissinger created secret back channels to achieve rapproachment with China.
– How Kissinger became the lead negotiator to China’s Premier Chou en-Lai.
– How the Soviet Union reacted to the American diplomatic initiative to China.
– What the White House tapes tell about the China trip that conventional documentation does not.
– The possible fall-out of rapproachment with China.
Conversation EOB 252-020. 28 April 1971. 4:51pm-5:49pm. Haldeman, H.R.; Kissinger, Henry; Nixon, Richard.
Click here for first excerpt.
Click here for second excerpt.
Conversation Oval 534-013. 27 May 1971. 2:42pm-4:09am.Kissinger, Henry; Nixon, Richard; Rogers, William.
Click here for audio excerpt.
Conversation Oval 534-003. 1 July 1971. 9:54am-10:26am. Haig, Alexander; Kissinger, Henry; Nixon, Richard.
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Conversation EOB 252-020. 14 October 1971. 3:05pm-4:50pm. Kissinger, Henry and Nixon, Richard.
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Jonathan Movroydis: Welcome to “Nixon Now Podcast.” I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter @nixonfoundation or at nixonfoundation.org.
Today, we’re talking about Nixon tapes again, with a specific focus on President Nixon’s conversations about rapprochement to the People’s Republic of China beginning in 1971 and culminating with the historic trip in February 1972. Our guest again is Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M – Central Texas. He is the nation’s foremost expert on the Nixon White House tapes and founder of nixontapes.org. Luke, welcome back.
Luke Nichter: Thanks, Jonathan. It’s good to be back. It’s a pleasure to join you here in Yorba Linda.
Jonathan Movroydis: Absolutely. Just to kind of start off, much of the tapes deal with secrecy and diplomacy during the Nixon presidency. Why did President Nixon value secrecy in his own diplomatic initiatives, the Vietnam War, especially, and big power diplomacy with the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean the idea of secrecy, the subject of it, is just such a big subject because it cuts across almost every major initiative of the Nixon administration. And so much has been written about President Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s emphasis on secrecy. Some say they were obsessed with secrecy. So it’s such a big subject. And I think, you know, I try to look at it in terms of how they saw the issue at the time. We can look back now and see where they obsessed, were they too secretive, you know, did they set new precedence in terms of presidential power. But, you know, they, at the time, you know, had an idea of the direction they were headed but didn’t ultimately know where they were going to go and when they were going to get there. And so I look at it, this is the example I use when I teach in my classes, you know, if you’re trying to establish some kind of a relationship with China or talk to the North Vietnamese, I mean, normally, you could bring in an ambassador into the White House, in Washington, or you knew who your equivalent was in that nation’s foreign ministry.
But when you’re talking to Chinese or North Vietnamese or a nation that we don’t have diplomatic relations with, I mean, you remember that American passports then were invalid for travel to mainland China. So there was no analog in those nations. And so things had to be done secretly, they had to be done through personal diplomacy and missions, they had to be done through third parties with whom we had a relationship with and with whom the Chinese or the North Vietnamese had a relationship with. So anytime you’re doing something unconventional, I think, so the means that are needed are somewhat unconventional.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s assume the first audio of April 28th, 1971. Here is President Nixon talking with Dr. Kissinger about who he wants to appoint and direct secret negotiations with the Chinese. Let me just preface the tape a little bit. We’re going to play a few tapes throughout this broadcast regarding Nixon and the trip to China. But this is Nixon and Dr. Kissinger in April of 1971.
President Nixon: Well, my point is that he doesn’t have the subtlety of moving around. He is the kind of a guy also that wants to make a quick shot, dramatic, you know, “Let’s do something bold.” Now, goddamn it, we’re going to do things bold, but we don’t want us to fall down doing it. You can do it. The best thing, the best thing to do really is this, set up a secret negotiation. But the way I would start the telegram is I would say, “The president has considered, and he would like to arrange a visit to Beijing. He believes he would like to come to Beijing. He thinks, however, that the best way to arrange that is for his…must be arranged at the highest level, the agenda, the modalities, etc. should be arranged by Dr. Kissinger and whatever.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Before this audio, Kissinger somewhat humorously says, “I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I happen to be the only one who knows the negotiations.” What is President Nixon here thinking in terms of appointing a special envoy? And how does he ultimately appoint Dr. Kissinger for those secret negotiations with Premier Zhou Enlai?
Luke Nichter: Well, this is a clip from a fascinating series of conversations. I think both Nixon and Kissinger realized that they’re beginning to plan what will be the most interesting, fascinating, creative part of their foreign policy during the presidency. And this is one clip from a longer conversation when they’re running through a series of possible names in terms of “Could this person be the envoy? Could this person? This person could. This person couldn’t,” the kinds of qualities that you want in a person. You know, it needs to be someone sufficiently senior to sort of honor the Chinese who are receiving you at a very high level, but it also needs to be somebody who knows the president’s thinking very well and is close to the president, can go in and out of places, like Pakistan and Peking, quietly. So in this case, they were sort of ruling out New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller for the job, and they ran through a number of other names. And after striking each one down, Kissinger was the last man standing.
You know, they each wrote their memoirs about this, Nixon and Kissinger, but these tapes present a much broader, a bigger conversation about the process. And during that conversation, they really don’t reveal the exact qualities that they want or don’t want in someone. I mean, they kind of hint at it. But I think Kissinger was able to find a space where he was the last one truly eligible. And I think he had more of the desire, the qualities, than anyone else. So I think he was just simply a natural choice.
Jonathan Movroydis: What do you think these tapes say about the diplomatic process that the conventional national security documents do not?
Luke Nichter: Well, I mean, here, we just listened to a conversation about how President Nixon’s first secret envoy to China would be chosen. There’s no documents that talk about this conversation or the process to be chosen. You know, if you sit in the research room here at the library, you can find records of the first meetings, the first contact, the messages that are sent through the various channels to the Chinese, such as the Pakistanis and then the direct contact with the Chinese. And so once things get going, I think that’s where the more traditional records pick up. But in terms of how we get to that point, that happens in a conversation, not on a paper record. And that’s what makes these tapes unique.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the next audio. This takes place on the same day. This is also on April 28th, 1971. And Nixon and Kissinger are talking about some of the possible outcomes of a summit. If they choose to go with the summit, what are the possible trade-offs of doing this? So I’m going to play the clip right now.
President Nixon: What we are playing for, basically, is the Chinese summit. That’s my plan. That is the big play. Now, that’s only the best half of it. The other part of the play is to do something about this war. That’s the other half of it.
Dr. Kissinger: With that, I think, these guys in ’54, they needed peace, and they settled Vietnam then. They need peace now. It’s got to have an effect on Hanoi. That’s one advantage of a public emissary.
President Nixon: Well, let me say, before I get there, the war has to be pretty well-settled. I guess I just have to say it now, we can’t come there until we have some idea. The fact must be known in the United States that the war is settled. I can’t come to China before that.
Dr. Kissinger: They’re so scared of the Russians that they’re better off having your visit next May or April and keeping it hanging and daring the Russians to attack them with the presidential visit. That’s what I think they want. I do not believe they want you now. That would be too quick a turnaround for them.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon says something here that’s quite interesting. The war has to be well-settled before we can go to China, in summary. Was this a serious consideration to solve the war in Vietnam before going to China in 1972?
Luke Nichter: Well, certainly, the war wasn’t over at the time that Nixon went to China in February of 1972, you know. I think when I reread and, well, now re-listen to this tape, this tape is like a lot of tapes, and it requires interpretation, I think sometimes educated speculation, because it’s not clear exactly what he means. I think the next sentence in the quote is the one that helps me to understand it. “The fact must be known in the United States that the war is settled. I can’t come to China before that.” So my guess here is that what Nixon means is that the American people cannot see an American president both being friendly to the enemy, communists, while still fighting communists in Vietnam. And so I think that’s what he means, the public perception of the trip would be wrong if he were shaking hands with the communists in China when the American government has been telling the American people for the 20 years that the Chinese are helping the North Vietnamese kill Americans and kill our ally, South Vietnam, in the Vietnam war. So the war was not settled, although, of course, by ’72, the vast majority of the troops were withdrawn. But that would be my guess of what Nixon means by that.
Jonathan Movroydis: How do you reconcile those two, sort of, those opposite political forces? How was Nixon able to, I guess, go to China, shake hands with Zhou Enlai, who are supporting the Vietnamese? How did he reconcile those two, that public perception?
Luke Nichter: I think Nixon, as much as he knew about foreign policy already when he came into the presidency in January 20th, 1969, I think he learned quite a bit further about the nature of communism while in office. And in particular, he learned that there were some communists that you could work with who are more pragmatic and there were some that were more hardliner that you could not work with. And so I think it is mind for him that the Chinese, represented by Premier Zhou Enlai, were the kinds of Chinese communists that you could work with, because they obviously were at least as motivated as the Americans to make this new relationship work for them, for their interest too and not just ours. I mean, there’s a whole another side of the story here, the Chinese side, that we don’t really know yet because their records are not open in their archives. We can’t study them like we study our records. So I think that’s the way he reasoned with it is that, at least, the Chinese want to talk and they seem serious. The North Vietnamese kept saying they want to talk in Paris during secret missions, but we aren’t getting anywhere. So I think Nixon perceived the opportunity to move forward with China, and maybe not the way he originally calculated his timetable to be, and he sees that opportunity.
Jonathan Movroydis: And in this tape, what is Kissinger implying when he says the Chinese are so scared of the Russians?
Luke Nichter: Well, this is a subject that, you know, again, it takes some educated guess. What I think he is referring to is a subject that we are still learning about today, I mean, more than 50 years later, that the Chinese and the Russians were pretty close to a full-blown war in the early to mid-1960s. And I don’t refer here to, you know, there’s been some recent documents declassified that show evidence of some shots being fired over the Ussuri River. I’m not talking about that. I think there was a much broader conflict that stirred up, certainly beginning in the 1960s and moving forward in that decade. And so I think relations were considerably worse between the Chinese and the Russians even than Kissinger or Nixon suspected, and they already knew more than the general public did about the breakdown in relations by, say, 1969. So I suspect that’s what he was referring to is that tensions were still very high between those nations.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any consideration at all to do a Moscow summit first to get the attention of the Chinese, sort of what, this is kind of counterfactual, but sort of the opposite of what actually happened?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think that the goal was always to go to Moscow first, I think, all the way through until… Well, Kissinger makes his first secret trip to China in the early summer of 1971, and I think, up to that point, you know, you can see in my book on the Nixon tapes, 1971, ’72, I think the momentum is always to go to Moscow first to get a SALT agreement signed and to make progress with that relationship first. It was only because of a variety of factors, including the fact that the Soviets kept stalling on issuing an invitation to Nixon to come to Moscow, on setting a timetable, and achieving progress toward the summit, that the two priorities reversed. The Chinese were willing to move now. They seem more serious. They were willing to commit. And so I think the priority is ultimately reversed. I think the goal was always to go to Moscow first, but they went to China first because the Chinese were the ones who made the move.
Jonathan Movroydis: On one of these tapes, Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin teases Kissinger about reaching out to the People’s Republic of China. I mean, had they known that the United States was at least thinking about this initiative or at least had it down their mind why wouldn’t they have moved faster?
Luke Nichter: You sure would think that the Soviet Intelligence would have been monitoring the situation pretty closely. But, at least as far as we can tell, we caught them by surprise, either they were not aware or not fully aware of American moves toward China or they were not fully aware of Chinese responses and perhaps how eager the Chinese were to move toward the summit. Whatever the case, the Soviets really dropped the ball. I mean, I think if they had committed to a summit first, it would have happened. But it was really theirs to lose and they lost it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Which brings us to the secret channel, possibly, the reason why they were caught by so much surprise, the Soviets, was that Nixon had a secret channel going, through Romania at first, and then through Pakistan. Let’s listen to a tape from May 27th, 1971. This is President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger talking about their secret channel to China with Pakistani President Yahya Khan.
President Nixon: Now, on the China thing, we’re back exactly around the time he needs.
Dr. Kissinger: That’s right.
President Nixon: Now, if China doesn’t come back, they should be back…
Dr. Kissinger: They’ll be back within 10 days to 2 weeks.
President Nixon: You think so? Has Yahya delivered the message?
Dr. Kissinger: He delivered the message on May 19th. It took five days. I’ve now got a good channel, but I told his ambassador to send it by pouch, didn’t want it on a Pakistan wire. I’ve now set up a wire to Karachi for our ambassador, which goes only through Moorer. Nobody knows it, and it’s got a special code, which only Haig knows, so even Moorer can’t read it And which only…so now, we can deliver messages in 24 hours. It took five days to get there, then it took…then Yahya was in Lahore so he didn’t deliver it until the 19th. So they’ve only had it for seven days. And my guess is that they’ll reply the first week of June.
President Nixon: You think they’ll reply in the positive or negative?
Dr. Kissinger: Almost certainly, yes.
President Nixon: There’s a lot of thing in there about a presidential visit and all that kind of stuff.
Dr. Kissinger: We offered them a presidential. We told them I’d be authorized to arrange the visit of a public emissary if it was thought useful. It’s hedged a little bit. And…
President Nixon: In addition to a presidential visit.
Dr. Kissinger: Yeah, in addition to a presidential visit. And for that, Mr. President, after all, they are revolutionaries, but you would think of this peasant, former peasant, Mao, the Great March, and then the president of the United States comes to Beijing at the end of his life. That’s…
President Nixon: Well, that’s why this former…
Jonathan Movroydis: This conversation is very revealing. It’s a very rare record in the annals of diplomatic history, Nixon and Kissinger, very sensitive that the message gets in the right hands. Kissinger marks that the message is coded, “so even Moorer can’t read it.” This is referring to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer. Can you tell us why they wouldn’t even tell the government’s top military official?
Luke Nichter: Well, I think this whole exchange is fascinating, before I get to your question. I mean, nowadays, I guess somebody would send a text message if you want to get anything. It would take five days to get there. This was in May. I mean, they might reply by the beginning of next month. I mean, it’s just shocking how difficult it was to settle this up. I think one of the things they learned the most from the Pakistani channel was how long it took. And having direct contact with the Chinese, which is what they went to after the Pakistani channel, was something you had much better control over. Other people don’t see the messages, didn’t take this many days to get there. You could send someone to China or meet him someplace and hand them a message. So while this was a fascinating thing they were setting up, I think what they quickly learned was how it didn’t work very well. But, you know, you can see the secrecy needed.
You know, for Kissinger to set up these communication channels, he needed a lot of other people, their help, including, as you mentioned, the military and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Moorer. So I think the main purpose was just to keep the messages confidential, because they didn’t know how this was going to go. They didn’t know the result. It’d be bad enough to spread word around town that you’re beginning a secret initiative about China, but it’d be even more humiliating if you were told no and that got out. So I think something like this, where, I think, you know, Kissinger and Nixon have been criticized for being too secretive at other times. But I think in a situation like this, in this moment, you probably can’t have too much secrecy.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon and Kissinger like to talk about…they like to study the cultures of different countries. It was a part of their job. But they also like to study the individuals that they dealt with. We did a previous podcast on Kissinger, the negotiator, with James Sebenius, head of Harvard Negotiation Project, and he talked about how Kissinger liked to zero in on the personalities, Nixon, in a similar way, with his…you can see it through his notes. You can see it through his book, “Leaders,” that he liked studying the personalities of people that he dealt with throughout his political career. What is Kissinger talking about here when he talks about the Chinese being revolutionaries and sort of Mao’s background as a peasant before his ascendancy and the mistakes he’s made throughout his political career and ultimately greeting the president and sort of a reversal, greeting the president of the United States in China? What is he thinking about and sort of assessing here?
Luke Nichter: Well, when I teach this material to my students, it seems impossible that, I mean, you have Mao and Zhou and some of the old founders of the Chinese Communist Party that go back to the 1920s and how they controlled the rural areas, Chiang Kai-shek, how the nationals controlled the cities, and it was a divided country from the 1920s until 1949, when the communist took over and declared the founding of the PRC on October 1st. And so, for 20 years, these communist leaders effectively wandered in the wilderness, I mean, literally and figuratively. And whether it’d be the long march or I think 100,000 or more killed and sniped at along the way, they were primarily farmers and they were peasants and, really, kind of lifelong revolutionaries. When you study Mao’s little red book and the philosophy and his speeches as chairman, I mean, very much, you know, using revolutionary language through the course of the Great Leap Forward in the late ’50s, the cultural revolution beginning in 1966, you know, consistently used revolutionary language, and that’s what he wanted to be thought of as, as kind of lifelong revolutionaries.
And, you know, it seems so odd that, beginning in the early ’70s, these lifelong revolutionaries would meet, not just with the enemy, but the great enemy, the great capitalist enemy, the United States. And so one fascinating question to think about, is it impossible that he would have done that, or was that the last active revolution for a lifelong revolutionary? He’s right at the very end. When you think you’ve got him figured out, he does one more revolutionary thing, by changing global affairs in the world and having the most populous nation make peace with the most powerful nation of the world. And so that’s the way I see it.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the excerpts from the next conversation of July 1st, 1971, between President Nixon, Dr. Kissinger, and Kissinger’s military assistant, Alexander Haig.
President Nixon: We could go visit China, well, as far as the Russians are concerned.
Dr. Kissinger: If the Russians do not give us a summit, we could go in December or in late November, a summit to China.
President Nixon: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: Don’t you think, Al?
Gen. Haig: Yes, sir, I do.
Dr. Kissinger: And we could tell the Russians, Anatol can go home and say, “You crazy sons of bitches, you screwed it up.”
President Nixon: That’s right.
Dr. Kissinger: And, actually, technically, if we don’t get it by the 7th, it doesn’t make any difference what they decide.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: Al can’t get it to me fast enough.
President Nixon: Yeah. The other point, of course, is this, if we don’t get it there the 7th…
Dr. Kissinger: On the other hand…
President Nixon: You’ve got to figure that the Russians then, if we go to China, there is a chance that they’ll blow Berlin.
Dr. Kissinger: Berlin, they won’t blow.
President Nixon: They’ll blow that, but they’ll blow SALT and they’ll risk the summit.
Dr. Kissinger: The risk we run with the Russians.
President Nixon: On the other hand…
Gen. Haig: Or this presents hellish problems for them.
Dr. Kissinger: Well, if they blow SALT, they could blow SALT. They could jack up the Middle East or they could start raising hell in the Caribbean.
President Nixon: That’s correct.
Dr. Kissinger: Now, of course, we can go hard right.
President Nixon: They won’t do Berlin, because they want to get along with the Germans.
Dr. Kissinger: That’s right. And, in fact, our major problem in Berlin now is we are coming up with, I know we’ll never get credit for it, but we are coming up with a really superb agreement on that.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Dr. Kissinger: Which is actually an improvement.
President Nixon: Can we still sink it?
Dr. Kissinger: Yeah, but, you know, the Russians are making so many concessions now that it’s getting tough to…
President Nixon: That’s fine.
Dr. Kissinger: I’ve got Russians held until July 20th.
President Nixon: Yeah.
Jonathan Movroydis: What’s fascinating about this discussion, this is on July 1st, 1971, the day, I believe, that Kissinger embarked on that trip. I think you were right when you said earlier that although this diplomatic initiative was planned, they were so much surprised and didn’t know exactly what to expect in certain circumstances. Can you touch on that a little bit?
Luke Nichter: Well, sure. This is Kissinger’s last huddle before leaving to go on his famed secret visit to Peking and negotiate with the Chinese directly. And this is July 1st, 1971, just two weeks later, national television, Nixon announced that he would be the first president to visit China in a day to be determined, and did about six months later. So obviously, the Chinese, within just two weeks of this conversation, came to agreement. And we are moving forward with the summit. While, you know, it’s during this period between this conversation in July 15th, when the priorities reverse. I think, in this conversation, they’re still, you know, Nixon and Kissinger still thinking there could be a Soviet summit first, but, you know, they’re going to mess this up, they said about ambassador Dobrynin. And they planned to rub it in his face a little bit. So I think this was right when the priorities began to reverse that I mentioned to you before, and so that’s exactly what is about to happen.
Jonathan Movroydis: When you listen to this audio, you hear Nixon and Kissinger making calculation of how the Soviet leaders are going to react to a summit with China. Well, they could blow up the Berlin deal, they could blow up SALT, or wreak havocs somewhere else in the world. What does this conversation tell about their strategic calculus?
Luke Nichter: Well, the question is, when the Russians figure out that we’re going to see the Chinese first, what happens, you know? How many problems can they cause, for the United States or for the world? And, you know, there’s allusions to a number of things here. There’s a Berlin agreement that’s going to be signed in a couple months. Could they ruin that? Well, as they say in the conversation, the Russians were kind of boxed in on that because they wanted to have an agreement with the West Germans that kind of settles some border issues and some other issues that had been around since World War II, with Germany and with Eastern Europe. The allusion to the Caribbean is, you know, are they going to cause more problems, kind of like we saw in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and Cienfuegos, which Nixon and Kissinger dealt with just a year before this conversation? So the question is, okay, we’re going to beat the Soviets and we’re going to see the Chinese, but at what cost? And so they’re trying to guess what that cost might be.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why does Nixon say, “Can we still sink it,” regarding the Berlin agreement?
Luke Nichter: I’m not sure what he means by that. Obviously, the Americans wanted a Berlin agreement, but Nixon and Kissinger weren’t thrilled with the Berlin agreement. It was an agreement that was being driven primarily by the Soviets and by West German Chancellor Willy Brandt. And it gave Soviets a much larger say, I think, in European affairs than the Americans were comfortable with. It was part of a broader call of the Soviets to have a European security conference, at which the United States would have either little or no role. It was really, all of this was a greater plan and strategy for the Soviets to keep Americans either out of Europe or at least confined in NATO or to reduce the role of NATO in European affairs. And so I think that’s what he meant by that, is I think it was that American interest to get a Berlin agreement, but the Americans were a little uncomfortable with the amount the Soviets seem to be calling the shots with the Europeans.
Jonathan Movroydis: Let’s listen to the next conversation of October 1st, 1971. This is Nixon to Kissinger. This is before the second trip to China in October of ’71, dubbed Polo II, where Kissinger negotiates sort of the groundwork for the summit with the Chinese the following year.
President Nixon: You get to another city. It’s an entirely different thing. We’re in a stronger position, particularly in Cambodia, than they are, and a lot stronger than we were in October 20th. I’d be tougher on Cambodia and I’d be tougher on Laos. And I would be [inaudible 00:29:33]. But with Japan, I believe that we have got to frankly scare the bejeezus out of them more in Japan. It’s just my sense as I read through this. I can see what they’re doing. He’s talking with a strong language. But on the other hand, here’s the key thing, they have got to become convinced that a Japan and going further, a non-communist Asia, without the United States, is potentially more dangerous than them, than an Asia with the United States. Now, you made that point, but I’d hit it right on the nose and say, “Now, we’re going to stick around.”
For example, we’ll take the Taiwan thing. We know what has to happen. Korea, we will work that out in an oral way, except I’d work that out orally. But I would state very, very firmly, “Now, look, the United States is a Pacific power and an Asian power, and we are going to maintain a presence there.”
Jonathan Movroydis: Very interesting conversation. Something in particular that Nixon says is that the Chinese have become convinced that “a Japan and going further, a non-communist Asia, without the United States” is potentially more dangerous than an Asia with the United States. Essentially, Asia going non-communist is less scary for China than the United States being in their backyard. Could you explain Nixon’s thinking here a little bit?
Luke Nichter: Well, it’s complicated, and he doesn’t fully explain it. But obviously, the United States is in the process of reordering relationships in Asia, and particularly between United States and China. And yet, we have longstanding relationships, treaty commitments, with non-communist Asia, in particular, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand, of course, Vietnam, Singapore, and elsewhere. And so the question is, you know, there’s a number of questions, how do we make those nations or allies comfortable with what we’re doing with China? And how do we make China comfortable with our continued relationships with those nations? And so it was a balancing act between, I think, the Americans assumed that what the Chinese would want is Americans out of Vietnam and Americans out of Asia. And that turned out not to be true. The Chinese appear to be more concerned about the Russians, again, don’t forget, they are not a European power but a major Asian power and seaport, with a long border with China.
The Chinese are more concerned about Russians in Asia than they were about Americans, and there must have been some concern that if the Americans all leave that that void will be filled perhaps by Russia, which the Chinese desired less, perhaps with Japan, a rearmed Japan, and Chinese had very recent memory, many Chinese did, of World War II, Japanese occupation. And Chinese, really no nation in East Asia wanted a rearmed Japan. So in the end, you know, who is going to fill the void left by an American departure? And so Nixon and Kissinger were able to negotiate this so the Americans could still maintain a significant presence in Asia, particularly in Okinawa, which was kind of the supply base for operations in Vietnam itself. But the Chinese did not appear to be very eager to get Americans out of either Asia or out of Europe, because the Chinese understood that having Americans around also put pressure on Russia, which was the Chinese rival.
So you can see, it’s a very complicated layered, you know, balancing act that Nixon and Kissinger were playing in order to sort of balance the interest of all sides. And so this was going out right in the middle of this conversation, and you could even argue that, even today, decades later, is still something that the Americans are trying to get right as we plan to pull more of our resources out of Okinawa. So it’s been a constant battle between supporting our allies and also maintaining good ties with the Chinese.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon says a couple things here, too. He says, “We’ll take the Taiwan thing. We know what has to happen. Korea will work that out in an oral way.” What does this conversation reveal about how America conduct diplomacy in this period? He’s saying that we’ll work out things orally with Taiwan and South Korea. But we’re also saying eventually in the Shanghai Communiqué that we’re going to leave that sphere of influence to the…that we’re not going to try to dominate in Southeast Asia. How do you reconcile these two different points? And what does this conversation reveal about that?
Luke Nichter: Well, I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, I don’t know of anyone who’s gone into the archives of all these nations to figure out exactly what they were told, what they were promised, and what they were told privately compared to what actually happened. I think there is a reason to believe that some of them were not fully briefed because some of them, I think, were probably awfully scared of what the United States was proposing to do with China. And I think my second reaction about the broader strategy used here or proposed by Nixon and Kissinger, I think, back to the Nixon Doctrine. And one of the key ideas and principles of the Nixon Doctrine is that the United States will maintain treaty commitments but in the future will implement future such treaties on a more realistic basis. And so I think, you know, similar to how, I think, Nixon liked Europeans playing a broader role in their defense in Europe, I think Nixon liked the idea of Asians playing a greater role in their own security. But the question was, who would do that?
There’s still a divided Korea. No nation in Europe and in Asia like the idea of Japan playing a big role, as I said. Taiwan had a very awkward status because it was considered a renegade province by the PRC. There’s still a major war going on in Vietnam. So, you know, I think as much as Nixon I think hoped to apply the basic principle of the Nixon Doctrine. I think that this is one case in one part of the world where that really wasn’t going to be possible, that the continued American presence was really the one that was the least undesirable by all the nations in the area.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon states at the end of this clip, “I would state very, very firmly that the United States is a Pacific power and an Asian Power, and we are going to maintain a presence there.” How did he come to this conclusion? President Obama said the United States is a Pacific power in 2009. This is, you know, 40 years earlier than that. We had just, you know, fighting in the Cold War. We had millions of dollars or billions of dollars in Europe. How did Nixon come to this conclusion that the United States is an Asian power and a Pacific power?
Luke Nichter: I think it was a long process. I think Nixon might have done the most early on to reorient the United States from being, traditionally, an Atlantic power, with close relationships with Atlantic allies, to one in which the real action of the world was in the Pacific. You know, I would go back even further and say that, you know, historians should take a closer look at Lyndon Johnson. I think Johnson was really the one who got this started, but it was Nixon who was the one who did the most about it. You know, Johnson was someone from Texas and born in Texas in 1908. That was about as far west as you could go. I mean, California was his state, but the rest of his neighbors, as it became West Texas, were all territories. And so that was, you know, Johnson, I think, considered himself to be someone from the West. He only flew east once during his presidency. He went to Europe once to attend Konrad Adenauer’s funeral. Otherwise, he made all his trips to the Pacific part of the world. And so I think Johnson, as a Texan, started to reorient that, and then I think, then you have the Californians, Nixon first and then Reagan, which really solidified the fact that the focus of our energies was toward the Pacific part of the world. So I think that got started in the ’60s, just with the population growth, the expanding markets, economies of Asia. And so it was started in the ’60s and I think, really, then the process has continued through this day.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Luke Nichter, professor of history at Texas A&M University – Central Texas. Our topic was the Nixon White House taping system as it pertains to the preparations in 1971 of President Nixon’s historic trip to China in February 1972. Luke, thank you so much for joining us.
Luke Nichter: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org or on iTunes, Stitcher, and SoundCloud. This is Jonathan Movroydis signing off.