The First American Official to Visit China since 1949

Certainly, the single most dramatic event that I've been involved in had to do with the opening to China in the early 1970s. In my entire career the question of relations with China has been the most important, including not only the work I did in the 1970s but also as Ambassador to China and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs. So China has been the single most important aspect of my career as it has evolved.

Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger each came into office placing a high priority on making an opening to China. They had independently come to this conclusion. Nixon had indicated this in his article in Foreign Affairs. We know, in retrospect, that he felt that this was a high priority. Kissinger felt the same way, primarily because of the Soviet dimension, but for a variety of other reasons.

Nixon sent Kissinger a memo on February 1, 1969, approximately one week after his inauguration as President. I can't reconstruct this memo verbatim, but basically he instructed Kissinger to find a way to get in touch with the Chinese. This was one of the earliest instructions that Kissinger got from Nixon. Of course, Kissinger was all in favor of doing this. We had the following challenge, among a lot of other challenges. You have to remember that we had had twenty years of mutual hostility and just about total isolation from China. We had no way of communicating directly with the Chinese.

The only way to get in touch with the Chinese was through third parties. There were various channels that Nixon and Kissinger tried to use to get word to the Chinese. I don't remember the precise chronology, but it became clear, certainly by 1971, that the Pakistani channel was the one to follow. We began to do it through Hilaly, the Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, who would come to us with hand-written messages from the Chinese, passed through Islamabad to him. He would bring these messages into Kissinger's office, and we would prepare hand-written messages back.

There was one exchange in Warsaw, in which the Chinese indicated, more or less on the record and through that channel, that they would be willing to see an American emissary come to China. We finally got to the point in these messages where the Chinese agreed that an American emissary would come and talk about a possible trip to China by President Nixon. The emissary would not only talk about Taiwan but about other matters as well. This was the breakthrough, in the spring of 1971. Once we had established that this was not just a single issue agenda, that they were willing to consider a Nixon trip, and that they were prepared to receive an American emissary first, then we could begin to get concrete.

Kissinger chose three people to go to China with him. Myself, as a sort of global sidekick, John Holdridge as the Asia and China expert, and Dick Smyser, as the Vietnam expert. The Vietnam issue would be a significant factor in the discussions in China. Those were the four, including Kissinger himself, whom he chose to go into China, as well as two Secret Service agents.

Now, as you recall, there was a publicly announced trip that Kissinger took. It included Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. Then Kissinger was supposed to return to Washington through Paris. That was the public itinerary. However, the game plan was to go off secretly to Beijing from Pakistan and by pleading illness and the need to go to a Pakistani hill station to spend a couple of days allegedly recuperating while, in fact, Kissinger was secretly going into China. Ironically, Kissinger came down with a real stomach-ache in India, and so he actually was sick in advance of this secret trip. He covered this up as much as possible, because he wanted to save his real illness until he arrived in Pakistan.

A lot of material has already been published about how this secret trip to China worked out. However, this is how the secret trip worked.

We went publicly to Pakistan in July 1971. There was a public banquet the first night. We went back to the government guest house. We packed and, at about 3:00 a.m. we were driven to the Islamabad airport by the Pakistani Foreign Minister I believe—Sultan Khan. It seems that they're all named Khan. I've seen him since. We went to President Yahya Khan's plane. Apparently, there was one reporter from some news service who thought he saw us and reported this to his editor. The editor said that the reporter was crazy and spiked [rejected] the story. I wonder what happened to that guy's career.

The plan was to be gone on this secret trip to China for 48 hours. We got on Yahya Khan's airplane. Let me talk about the cover story. We took off for China and we left about 4:00 a.m. On that morning the story was put out that Kissinger was not feeling well and, at the invitation of the Pakistanis, he was going up to a hill station [mountain resort] to recuperate for a day. There was a Secret Service agent in a car, slumped over. It wasn't supposed to be an impersonation but he played Kissinger up to the hill station and, I believe, Hal Saunders was with him. So there was a motorcade going up to the hill station. All of this was done fairly early in the morning so that there were no journalists around.

Arrangements were to be made for a Pakistani doctor to attend to Kissinger at the hill station. This doesn't make much sense to me but the way I heard this story, the Pakistanis asked one doctor: "Do you know what Henry Kissinger looks like?" He said: "Yes." They said: "We're sorry, but you're the wrong man." So they get another one. In addition, a couple of Pakistani cabinet ministers who were in on this charade went up to the hill station as if they were paying a call on Kissinger.

Meanwhile, of course, we were in China. At the end of that day the Pakistanis put out a communiqué saying that Kissinger still didn't feel very well and was going to stay another day at the hill station. This meant that our whole, public schedule in Islamabad had to be slipped because we were supposed to leave Pakistan for Paris on the following day. So the rest of the schedule had to be slipped a day. So that was the cover on that front. I don't how many people besides Hal Saunders knew about this, but he and Ambassador Farland were the key men in this respect.

Returning to our travel, Smyser, Holdridge, Kissinger, and I, plus two Secret Service agents, named Reedy and McLeod arrived at the airport in Islamabad. Reedy was the senior Secret Service agent, and he knew where we were going as we went to the airport. The other Secret Service agent had no idea. We boarded the plane and found four Chinese already seated there. I may be exaggerating this in retrospect but I believe that McLeod went to draw his pistol, because he was so surprised to see these Chinese on the airplane.

One of the four Chinese in the plane was Zhang Wen-jin, an Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of American affairs and a key negotiator with us, just below the Foreign Minister level. He helped to draft the Shanghai Communiqué. He was a very cultured man. He was later Ambassador to the United States. He was the senior Chinese official in this group which was already on the plane. There were also a Chinese Protocol Officer, a grand-niece of Mao named Wang Hai-rung, and Nancy Tang, an interpreter. There were six of us in our party.

During some of the plane trip Kissinger was studying his briefing books. During some of the time he was talking to Zhang, and he switched back and forth between these two occupations. I've always made a lot of jokes about this, but Kissinger was genuinely upset by the fact that he had no extra shirts with him. He had a special, personal assistant named David Halperin, who had packed his suitcase but didn't put any shirts in. So I've always said that, instead of worrying about this historic trip and what he was going to say to Zhou Enlai about geopolitics he was fuming about his missing shirts. He really was upset about his shirts. He borrowed a couple of shirts from John Holdridge, who stands about 6' 3" in height. Kissinger is about 5' 9", so he looked like a penguin walking around in one of John's shirts. He really was upset. Here it was, an historic moment, and he felt that he was would look ridiculous. He was really mad at a time when you would think that this would not be a big deal. However, in human terms you could see that at this most important and dramatic time, when he was meeting Zhou Enlai, he would be upset to look ridiculous in this shirt. And, of course, the shirts he borrowed from John Holdridge had a label that said, "Made in Taiwan."

Anyway, we were sitting on the plane. I forget how long the flight was. Perhaps seven or eight hours or maybe less than that. Here is a well-known story from this trip. I've always tried to make it sound better than it was. I should tell it as it actually happened. Dick Smyser and I were sitting ahead of Kissinger in the back of the plane. The air crew, of course, was composed of Pakistani cabin attendants and Pakistani pilots, navigators, and flight engineers. No American official had been in China since 1949, so we would be the first American officials to visit China in twenty-two years. By my good fortune Smyser was called to the back of the plane by Kissinger for consultations just before we got to the border between China and Pakistan. All of the others, in addition to Smyser but not including me, were in the back of the plane with Kissinger. So, as we crossed the border, I was in the front of the plane. So I've said ever since then, in case the question should ever come up, that I was the first American official to visit China since 1949! I've said, on some occasions, that I deliberately raced to the front of the plane to do that, but that's slightly gilding the lily.

Obviously, there was a great sense of drama. As the sun came up, we were passing K-2, the second highest mountain in the world. It was right outside our window, with the sun on it. Remember, we were in a Pakistani plane with the usual windows. We had left the nearly windowless KC-135 jet back at Islamabad. There was a sense of drama that we were going to the most populous country in the world, after twenty-two years and there were all of the geopolitical implications of that. There was the anticipation of meeting with Zhou Enlai, this great figure, and there was the excitement and anticipation of those talks. There were James Bond aspects of this trip, since it was totally secret. For me, personally, there was the realization that I was the first American official to visit China in twenty-two years and that I was married to a woman from Shanghai. I'll never top this experience in terms of drama.

Of course, we spent a good deal of time on the plane, discussing what the strategy would be in talking with Zhou Enlai and the Chinese. I had read very carefully the materials we had prepared over the previous several months. I don't have the precise time with me, but we landed at the military side of the airport outside of Beijing. We were met by Marshall Ye Jianying, a well-known Chinese general from the Long March. I don't know whether he was on the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party, but he was a very important figure. So that was a fairly high level reception. Also there to greet us was Huang Hua, who was later Chinese Foreign Minister. We entered limousines with curtains drawn, so people couldn't see into them. Then we drove into Beijing through Tiananmen Square and past the Great Hall of the People to a place called Diaoyutai, which is the guest house compound for very important visitors. We were then secretly ensconced there.

I don't recall how soon it was before Zhou Enlai came over to greet us, but I'm sure that it was right away. We had a banquet that night, sitting around with Zhou Enlai. We had discussions with him which, according to Kissinger's book, lasted for seventeen hours. We were in China for a total of forty-nine hours.

The major challenge, of course, was to work out an agreement that President Nixon would visit China and to develop some rough sense of what the agenda would be. We agreed in principle that there would be just a brief announcement, which both sides would issue simultaneously, after we got back to Washington.

However, the real negotiating, and this went on for hours, was about the following. We wanted to make it look essentially that the Chinese wanted President Nixon to come to China. The Chinese essentially wanted to make it look as if Nixon wanted to come to China and that the Chinese were gracious enough to invite him. So we went through our first, agonizing process of negotiation on that issue. At one point we broke off the negotiation, not in a huff, but just recognizing that we were at an impasse. We thought that the Chinese were coming back to the negotiations within a couple of hours. Kissinger and I and the others walked around outside, because we knew that we were being bugged, and we couldn't discuss strategy and tactics unless we walked outside. Probably the trees were bugged, too. Who knows? I remember that we waited for hours and hours. The Chinese were probably trying to keep us off balance and were probably working out their own position. Most likely, Zhou Enlai had to check with Mao Zedong.

Finally, the Chinese came back, and we resumed the discussion and worked this issue out. I forget the exact language used in the brief communiqué which was made public. The formulation used went something like this: "Knowing of President Nixon's interest in visiting China..." And in fact he had expressed an interest in visiting China in general. The formulation went on that the Chinese had invited him. So it wasn't as if the Chinese wanted Nixon to come to China and were going out of their way. They used the formulation that they invited him because they had heard about his interest in visiting China. On the other hand, Nixon wasn't begging to go to China. So it was a fair compromise. This matter was covered in a few sentences, essentially, but it was tough to work out.

In the midst of this negotiation we also did some sightseeing. The Chinese closed off the Forbidden City of Beijing to tourists so that we could visit it privately and on our own. We had the head of the Chinese Archeological Museum and an expert on the area take us around personally as our guide. I'll never forget it. It was a very hot, mid-July day. I was carrying either one or two of these very heavy briefcases. We had to take them everywhere with us. We didn't dare leave them anywhere for security reasons. Of course, it was dramatic to see the Forbidden City all by ourselves. It was also very hot, carrying those damned briefcases around.

After that we had a Peking duck luncheon-banquet hosted by Zhou in the Great Hall, I think. The main topic of conversation was, in fact, the Cultural Revolution. Here we saw just how clever Zhou Enlai was. We know that he, himself, was aghast at the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, which had been unleashed by Mao. At one point he himself had been imprisoned in his office by Red Guards. However, he hadn't survived this long by suddenly being disloyal to Mao and on an issue of that importance.

The way Zhou recounted this experience was basically as follows. He went through how he had been locked up in his own office. He talked about some of the exchanges he had had with the Red Guards, in a very clinical way. He then used some phrasing like the following. He said: "Chairman Mao is, of course, much more far-seeing and prescient than I am. He saw the need for the 'Cultural Revolution' and all this upheaval and destruction to 'cleanse' the revolution." I don't recall exactly how he phrased it. Zhou continued: "I wasn't so prescient. I saw the excesses, the problems, and the down side." He said something like that.

If Mao read the transcript of what Zhou said, he couldn't have complained, because Zhou Enlai was saying that Mao had a better vision than Zhou did and saw the need for the Cultural Revolution. At the same time Zhou was signaling to us that the Cultural Revolution had gotten out of hand, had become rather brutal, and there were excesses. So it was a typical example of cleverness by Zhou Enlai. He was keeping his flank protected with Mao but was also making sure that the people he was talking to knew that he was a much more reasonable and pragmatic person. It was a fascinating performance. I'm sorry that Smyser missed it because he was sick.

When we finished drafting the communiqué, we got back on the plane and returned to Pakistan. We successfully re-inserted ourselves in the charade which had been worked out in Islamabad. We then went on to Paris the next day. It so happens, and we'll get back to this, that while we were publicly in Paris, we secretly snuck off and met with the Vietnamese Communists. Indeed, this was one of the more forthcoming meetings with them. Afterwards Kissinger and I thought, somewhat naively, that we had pulled off two, historic encounters in one trip: the opening toward China and moving toward settling the Vietnam War. That latter idea was a wildly premature judgment. I remember that we debated which was the more historic and important, getting the war over with or arranging for the opening to China. We said, wasn't it a great achievement to do both in one trip?

Meanwhile, I had brought back with me for my Chinese wife a small sampling of Chinese soil.


This trip, four decades ago, set up President Nixon's historic visit in February 1972. The opening of relations between our two nations caused tectonic shifts in the global geopolitical landscape. It has proved to be one of the seminal events since World War II.

There were immediate repercussions, including a dramatic improvement in relations between Moscow and Washington. In the 1970s and 1980s Sino-American ties were driven importantly by the shared goal of balancing the Soviet Union. Since the end of the Cold War our foundations have broadened greatly, with increasing areas of cooperation, competition, and conflict.

Today and for coming decades our bilateral relationship is arguably the most consequential and complex in the world.