Nixon's trip to China in 1972 marked a radical shift in the political status quo
Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World
By Margaret MacMillan
Random House, 404 pp., illustrated, $27.95
A "diplomatic revolution ," historians tell us, is an occasion when two states that were hitherto rivals establish a compact for mutual cooperation, to the shock of their respective competitors and allies. The term was first broadly used, for example, when in 1756 Britain and Prussia (who had fought against each other ) formed an alliance, provoking France and Austria (also traditional foes) to create their own coalition, as a precursor to the Seven Years War of 1756- 63.
This phenomenon of egoistical nation-states "changing sides" is not confined to the centuries of the old diplomacy -- the surprise Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 and the astounding Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 are later examples. But in the past 50 years there is nothing in diplomatic history to compare with the truly revolutionary gesture made by President Nixon's visit to China in February 1972. Here was an event in the Washington-Beijing relationship that, like the Berlin-London event of 1756, not only altered the two players but also changed so much of the diplomatic chessboard.
This is a tale that is told with liveliness and panache in Margaret MacMillan's "Nixon and Mao." MacMillan, provost of Trinity College and a professor at the University of Toronto, garnered great praise with "Paris 1919 " (2002), thereby establishing a reputation as a scholar who likes to focus upon "turning points" in history.
Now, Nixon's brief visit to China was in no way as important as the decisions for the future of the entire world order made by the Great Powers in Paris in 1919, nor, it has to be said, is MacMillan's new book of the same quality as her earlier work. But it is a compelling story, enlivened by her acute eye for detail and her awareness of the importance of anecdote in keeping the story going and the reader's attention unflagging. She is especially good in her character portrayals -- of how H. R. Haldeman orchestrated this coup de théâtre for the American media (not to mention some powerful and skeptical Republicans), of how Henry Kissinger carefully laid the groundwork and agonized over every detail of the plan, and of how Nixon himself prepared for and carried out an assignment that he regarded as perhaps the most important in his political career. MacMillan finds it harder to capture the character of the elusive Mao Zedong , which is unsurprising. And the real gem of her tale is the analysis of Zhou Enlai, who emerges in many ways as the really critical figure, dedicated, sophisticated in the ways of the West, never disloyal to Mao or the Communist Party, but amazingly non ideological to a degree that Bismarck would have admired. (It is also no surprise that both Kissinger and Zhou were in turn great admirers of Bismarck; all three liked to use the phrase that compared a statesman to an oarsman or captain steering his ship through rough waters. )
"Nixon and Mao" is based on substantial research in US and British archives, as well as the recently released Chinese and Soviet records published under the auspices of the Cold War International History Project. It also makes good use of the fast-expanding secondary literature, although, curiously, there is no reference to the writings of John Lewis Gaddis, whose many works, including his classic "Strategies of Containment" (1982), contain important insights into the motives, execution , and implications of Nixon's visit to China.
MacMillan's book is at its best in its narration of the unfolding events; in a way, it is like a docudrama. It has wonderful tidbits about Nixon's insecurities and Kissinger's constant turf wars against the US State Department. Every so often, however, this rather gripping diplomatic tale is dislocated by retrospective inserts -- on Zhou 's experiences in Paris in the early 1920s, or Kissinger's going to Harvard -- that might have been better placed earlier in the narrative. The result is a book that is fun to read, but also somewhat jerky.
Finally, for a work that includes in its title "the week that changed the world ," its conclusion is just too mild and undramatic. I have noted earlier that Nixon's brief visit to China cannot compare in significance with the re drawing of the globe that occurred in Paris in 1919, yet it was nonetheless of immense import. It began a process of normalizing US-Chinese relations that, whatever the later quarrels and our contemporary disagreements, has continued to this day. It confirmed the great gulf that had opened up in relations between the USSR and China, and accelerated Moscow's increasing political isolation. It gave Kissinger an enormous trump card in his ongoing negotiations with the Russians on matters such as arms control. It heralded (not immediately, to be sure) an American withdrawal from Vietnam. In the longer term, it presaged China's willingness to live with, and bargain with, the West. It upset Taiwan, frightened the Japanese, irked the British (who resented not being confided in -- as if the State Department had any more idea of what was in Nixon's and Kissinger's minds ), and caused many other third parties, India for example, to ponder all the implications of this highly publicized encounter.
In short, it was a veritable diplomatic revolution.
Paul Kennedy is a professor of history at Yale University and author of "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." His latest work is "The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present and Future of the United Nations." See "Bookings," Page E6, for information on a local appearance by Margaret MacMillan.