Excerpt from "Remarks at Andrews Air Force Base on Returning from the People's Republic of China, February 28, 1972"
Originally published in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1972, published in 1974
"Peace means more than the mere absence of war. In a technical sense, we were at peace with the People's Republic of China before this trip, but a gulf of almost 12,000 miles and 22 years of noncommunication and hostility separated [us].… We have started the long process of building a bridge across that gulf.…"
While U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74) in 1969 and 1970 was trying to remove the United States from the Vietnam War (1954–75), tensions between the People's Republic of China (PRC), or simply China, and the Soviet Union were at an all-time high. Along their 3,000-mile (4,828-kilometer) common border, sporadic fighting broke out between Soviet and Chinese troops. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982) had introduced the Brezhnev Doctrine, which proclaimed the right of the Soviet Union to intervene in the internal affairs of any other communist country. The Chinese angrily assumed the Soviets included them under this doctrine. China was also displeased that the Soviets had not shared in any meaningful way industrial and military technology.
To take advantage of the rocky relationship between the world's two largest communist countries, President Nixon secretly sent his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger (1923–), to Warsaw, Poland, in 1970 to meet with Chinese officials. Fearful of Soviet aggression, China was eager to improve relations with the powerful United States. Believing China was
supplying the communist North Vietnamese with weapons, President Nixon hoped China could be persuaded to halt the supplies so that he could pull out U.S. troops faster. Both Nixon and Kissinger believed that if the Soviets thought the United States and China were becoming allies, then the Soviets would also push for better relations with the United States.
Kissinger's secret talks led the way for a visit to China by the president and the first lady, Pat Nixon (1912–1993) in February 1972. Portions of the visit were televised back to the United States. In this excerpt, Nixon had just returned to Washington, D.C., aboard Air Force One. Nixon describes agreements between the United States and China announced in a joint communiqué, or statement. The joint statement was released to the Chinese in Shanghai, China, and to Americans by the White House.
Nixon's only disappointment with the meeting was that the Chinese did not agree to halt support for the North Vietnamese. As a result of the open communications, however, tensions over the Vietnam War as well as over the Nationalist Chinese government located in Taiwan since 1949 were greatly lessened.
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "Remarks at Andrews Air Force Base on Returning from the People's Republic of China, February 28, 1972":
- There had been no communication between the People's Republic of China and the United States in twenty-two years, since the communist takeover in 1949.
- It was obvious Nixon had applied his Nixon Doctrine (see earlier excerpt in this chapter) when he stated that the United States was opposed to "domination of the Pacific area by any one power" and that the United States would broaden cultural exchanges, trade, and further communications with China. Nixon had stressed that the United States must be highly involved in the Pacific area nations, but should no longer be the world's policeman.
- Nixon and Chinese leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976) communicated despite vastly different fundamental philosophies of how people should be allowed to live.
Excerpt from "Remarks at Andrews Air Force Base on Returning from the People's Republic of China, February 28, 1972"
Mr. Vice President, members of the Congress, members of the Cabinet, members of the diplomatic corps, and ladies and gentlemen:
Because of the superb efforts of the hardworking members of the press who accompanied us—they got even less sleep than I did—millions of Americans in this past week have seen more of China than I did. Consequently, tonight I would like to talk to you not about what we saw but about what we did, to sum up the results of the trip and to put it in perspective.
When I announced this trip last July, I described it as a journey for peace. In the last 30 years, Americans have in three different wars gone off by the hundreds of thousands to fight, and some to die, in Asia and in the Pacific. One of the central motives behind my journey to China was to prevent that from happening a fourth time to another generation of Americans.
As I have often said, peace means more than the mere absence of war. In a technical sense, we were at peace with the People's Republic of China before this trip, but a gulf of almost 12,000 miles and 22 years of noncommunication and hostility separated the United States of America from the 750 million people who live in the People's Republic of China, and that is one-fourth of all the people in the world.
As a result of this trip, we have started the long process of building a bridge across that gulf, and even now we have something better than the mere absence of war. Not only have we completed a week of intensive talks at the highest levels, we have set up a procedure whereby we can continue to have discussions in the future. We have demonstrated that nations with very deep and fundamental differences can learn to discuss those differences calmly, rationally, and frankly, without compromising their principles. This is the basis of a structure for peace, where we can talk about differences rather than fight about them.
The primary goal of this trip was to reestablish communication with the People's Republic of China after a generation of hostility. We achieved that goal.
Let me turn now to our joint communiqué.
We did not bring back any written or unwritten agreements that will guarantee peace in our time. We did not bring home any magic formula which will make unnecessary the efforts of the American people to continue to maintain the strength so that we can continue to be free.
We made some necessary and important beginnings, however, in several areas. We entered into agreements to expand cultural, educational, and journalistic contacts between the Chinese and the American people. We agreed to work to begin and broaden trade between our two countries. We have agreed that the communications that have now been established between our governments will be strengthened and expanded.
Most important, we have agreed on some rules of international conduct which will reduce the risk of confrontation and war in Asia and in the Pacific.
We agreed that we are opposed to domination of the Pacific area by any one power. We agreed that international disputes should be settled without the use of the threat of force and we agreed that we are prepared to apply this principle to our mutual relations.
With respect to Taiwan [the noncommunist Republic of China located on the island of Taiwan], we stated our established policy that our forces overseas will be reduced gradually as tensions ease, and that our ultimate objective is to withdraw our forces as a peaceful settlement is achieved.
We have agreed that we will not negotiate the fate of other nations behind their backs, and we did not do so at Peking. There were no secret deals of any kind. We have done all this without giving up any United States commitment to any other country.
In our talks, the talks that I had with the leaders of the People's Republic and that the Secretary of State had with the office of the Government of the People's Republic in the foreign affairs area, we both realized that a bridge of understanding that spans almost 12,000 miles and 22 years of hostility can't be built in one week of discussions. But we have agreed to begin to build that bridge, recognizing that our work will require years of patient effort. We made no attempt to pretend that major differences did not exist between our two governments, because they do exist.
This communique was unique in honestly setting forth differences rather than trying to cover them up with diplomatic doubletalk.…
We hope … this journey for peace will grow and prosper into a more enduring structure for peace and security in the Western Pacific.
But peace is too urgent to wait for centuries. We must seize the moment to move toward that goal now, and this is what we have done on this journey.
As I am sure you realize, it was a great experience for us to see the timeless wonders of ancient China, the changes that are being made in modern China. And one fact stands out, among many others, from my talks with the Chinese leaders: It is their total belief, their total dedication, to their system of government. That is their right, just as it is the right of any country to choose the kind of government it wants.
But as I return from this trip, just as has been the case on my return from other trips abroad which have taken me to over 80 countries, I come back to America with an even stronger faith in our system of government.
As I flew across America today, all the way from Alaska, over the Rockies, the Plains, and then on to Washington, I thought of the greatness of our country and, most of all, I thought of the freedom, the opportunity, the progress that 200 million Americans are privileged to enjoy. I realized again this is a beautiful country. And tonight my prayer and my hope is that as a result of this trip, our children will have a better chance to grow up in a peaceful world.
What happened next …
Nixon's historic China trip was a turning point in the Cold War. The Cold War was a prolonged conflict for world dominance from 1945 to 1991 between the two superpowers, the democratic, capitalist United States and the communist Soviet Union. The weapons of conflict were commonly words of propaganda and threats. Nixon's trip paved the way for full diplomatic relations with China seven years later in 1979. Cultural exchanges of educators and planning of tourist travel began. The most important immediate effect was that the Soviet Union felt a great deal of pressure with a U.S.-China alignment.
Kissinger continued his secret, so-called "back door" trips. This time, he went to Moscow both to speak of peace talks on Vietnam and to discuss points of U.S.-Soviet disagreement in the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I). Just as he had in China, Kissinger paved the way for President Nixon to visit Moscow in what would be another historic meeting. Nixon went to Moscow even though he knew the Soviets were arming the North Vietnamese and although he had just ordered another heavy bombing campaign against Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam. Nixon and Brezhnev met in Moscow on May 22, 1972. They signed the SALT I treaty for the first time, scaling back the arms race by setting limits on the numbers of certain weapons. The costs of the arms race were fast becoming overwhelming for both countries. They significantly reduced the chance of nuclear war by establishing a working relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Did you know …
- Almost one-fourth of the population of the world lived in China at the time.
- Nixon, as a young congressman in the late 1940s and 1950s, had staked his early reputation on fierce anticommunism. In 1972, he toasted leaders of the two largest communist nations. Political times change and Nixon adapted.
- The most famous scene brought to Americans of the China trip was President and Mrs. Nixon walking along the Great Wall of China with other Chinese and U.S. government officials.
Consider the following …
- Find in the excerpt and then list all areas where the United States and China made communicative progress at the February meeting.
- What did Nixon stress as his number one reason for traveling to China?
- Research the life of Henry Kissinger and his role in diplomacy during the Cold War.
For More Information
Aitken, Jonathan. Nixon: A Life. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1993.
Jian, Chen. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Keith, Ronald C. The Diplomacy of Zhou Enlai. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
Nixon, Richard M. The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1978.
Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon, 1972. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1974.
Schaller, Michael. The United States and China: Into the 21st Century. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Spence, Jonathan D. Mao Zedong. New York: Viking, 1999.
Thornton, Richard C. The Nixon-Kissinger Years: Reshaping America's Foreign Policy. New York: Paragon House, 1989.