From a lengthy essay by Louis Menand in the New Yorker reviewing Margaret MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World:
MacMillan’s book is a clearly written, informative, moment-by-moment account of Nixon’s visit, set in the context of twentieth-century Sino-American history. The context makes it plain that both governments had excellent reasons for wishing to establish better relations”that by 1972 the “opening” of China was inevitable. China was a weak country. It was by no means a world power, and it had just been ravaged by one of the paroxysms of self-destruction that possess totalitarian regimes, Mao’s Cultural Revolution. It had nothing to gain by persisting in its self-imposed isolation and much to hope for from a show of cordial relations with the United States.
…This is why Nixon and Mao chose fanfare over quiet diplomacy”a dramatic meeting between heads of state rather than discussions among lower-level officials. They didn’t need to reach agreement in their talks; they only needed everyone to see that they were talking. The year before Nixon’s visit, China had been given a seat in the United Nations General Assembly; it had established diplomatic relations with Canada and a number of other countries as well. No one spoke of weeks that changed the world then. The change-the-world rhetoric was Nixon’s, and it was aimed at the Kremlin. Nixon wasn’t talking about trade agreements or cultural exchanges or improved international understanding. He was talking about the balance of power. [Full text]