Henry Kissinger, who went on to serve as secretary of state under presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, was Nixon’s national security adviser in 1972. He tells NPR’s Neal Conan and NPR commentator Ted Koppel that the Nixon administration quickly concluded that tensions between Mao and the U.S.S.R. provided a potential opening for U.S.-China cooperation.
“The two previous administrations … argued that there was a unified communist conspiracy, moving from Moscow to Beijing to Hanoi, that was threatening American security,” says Kissinger. “We concluded very quickly that this was not the … correct interpretation.”
In his book, On China, Kissinger describes the delicate diplomatic dance that ultimately took Nixon to the mainland in 1972 — the first public interaction between Chinese and U.S. leaders in three decades.
“In each country, certainly in ours … there were elements who believed that the relationship between the two countries would be irreconcilably hostile,” says Kissinger. “So each side had the problem of how to make an overture, without, at the same time, embarrassing itself by a rejection.”
The result was a series of surreptitious exchanges orchestrated by Kissinger and his colleagues, including an almost comical attempt by the American to pass on a message to the Chinese at a Yugoslav fashion show in Warsaw.