Nixon and Mao

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World depicts the meeting of two of the world’s most powerful and enigmatic leaders that changed the international political situation favorably. The meeting could easily have failed, leaving relations between the United States and China even worse than before.

There were significant misunderstandings of their common past. Americans saw themselves as China’s historical friend and protector, its ally during World War II; Chinese saw Americans as part of a West that had treated them as inferiors through the era of imperialism, as backers of the hated Kuomintang that was now in Taiwan and was pretending to be the legitimate government of all China, and as the embodiment of modern capitalism. The Korean and Vietnam Wars had intensified mutual fears and mistrust.

The time had come to change this situation. The unpopularity of the Vietnam War was isolating the United States, while China’s rigorous efforts to shape a new, more egalitarian society had managed to alienate even much of the communist world. President Richard M. Nixon was widely regarded as a dangerous ideologue and warmonger, Mao Zedong as a mass murderer of his own people and destroyer of their traditions. Both were, however, basically practical menrealists, in a sense, who believed that morality was inappropriate in power politics. Both also wanted to do good, as they understood it, and were seeking to advance their national interests while avoiding what seemed to be an inevitable war. If they succeeded, history would look on them as great men. Most importantly, Nixon was the only American politician who could have brought conservatives to trust him. Communists took him seriously, and even liberals could dismiss him only at their own cost. He had his enemies, his personality flaws, his impossible hopes and his psychological contradictions, but he saw an opportunity to divide the communist bloc and make China into an ally.

Mao’s peasant background, his tumultuous personal and political life, and his habit of dealing ruthlessly with enemies had sharpened natural habits of cunning and paranoia. What he said now and did later often had little in common. What were his motives for inviting a hated enemy to China?

Even historians who are skeptical of psychohistory see few other ways of approaching either Nixon or Mao. Both were very private, even secretive. Both had clawed their way up from the bottom, and both believed their hold on power was tenuous. Nixon puzzled everyone who met himhis insecurity, his fears bordering on paranoia, his great talents and insights, his ability to rebound from defeat and humiliation. Mao was a powerful despot with the power of life and death over the most populous nation in the world, but he had two serious problems, neither well-understood inside or outside of China. First, he was not wellhe could barely walk and sometimes could not get out of bed; second, his government was unstable, but he refused even to appoint a successor. Experts analyzed the personality and motives of each leader but could not make much sense of either one. The Americans had almost no information from which to work; the Chinese were fearful of failing to follow the party line.

Thus it was that when Nixon’s plane taxied to the reception committee in China, no one knew exactly what would happen. Nixon’s people even looked out the window to see whether the president should wear an overcoat when he stepped out to shake the hand of Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Pat Nixon wore a vivid red coat, ignoring warnings that in China only prostitutes wore red.

Many of the officials in the reception party were acting ministers or deputy ministers. This was not intended to be an insult: So many prominent men had fallen from favor in the recent Cultural Revolution that inexperience and confusion reigned in every bureau. The great exception was Zhou, born to a Mandarin family during the Boxer Rebellion, who was well educated and urbane. During his youth, China fell increasingly into powerless confusion and under foreign domination. Studying in Japan, Zhou encountered the works of Karl Marx; in 1920, he went to France, two years later helping found the Chinese Communist Party. When he came home, he was among the nation’s foremost experts on the West; when he joined Mao in 1935, he became so valuable that in 1949 he was named the victorious communists’ first foreign...

(The entire section is 1822 words.)

Nixon and Mao Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

The Atlantic Monthly 299, no. 5 (June, 2007): 122-123.

Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 438.

Current History 107, no. 701 (September, 2007): 299.

International Herald Tribune, February 24, 2007, p. 13.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (February 25, 2007): 14-15.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 48 (December 4, 2007): 47.

The Spectator 303 (March 3, 2007): 55-56.

Washington Monthly 39, no. 4 (April, 2007): 43-45.