Winston Lord and Leslie H. Gelb: Nixon’s China Opening, 40 Years Later

Roundup: Talking About History

Winston Lord, Henry Kissinger’s closest aide, accompanied him and President Nixon to all the China opening meetings. He later served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989. A full accounting of these events can be found in Lord’s State Department Oral History at the Library of Congress website. Leslie H. Gelb was diplomatic correspondent and columnist for The New York Times and is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Forty years past, world politics were churning with a vicious Vietnam War reaching its crescendo and with the great powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, and China—stumbling toward confrontations, when suddenly, diplomacy repositioned the stars in the international heavens. Most improbably, it seemed, President Nixon journeyed to China to palaver with Mao Zedong, and most central matters on the world stage changed: the opening to China transformed the global playing field, giving Washington new and substantial leverage over both Moscow and Beijing and smothering many of the ill-effects of the Vietnam War becoming a lost cause. One of us, Winston Lord, participated in these critical events as a close adviser to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger; the other of us, Leslie Gelb, was to write about this diplomatic tour de force for decades to come.
This story seems light years removed from today’s boiling pots, from the war torches being lit over Iran, the American withdrawal process from Afghanistan, the upheavals of the Arab Spring, Europe’s economic travails, and of course, events within China and between China as a world power and the United States. But it is not. The way Nixon and Kissinger thought about the opening to China and the way Mao responded encase maxims of diplomacy that could well help to prevent these stars from colliding 40 years after Nixon’s historic visit.
The famous summit occurred Feb. 21-28, 1972. But it had a legendary prequel in Kissinger’s secret flight to Beijing the year before. Vanishing from Pakistan on a Pakistani flight to China, with Lord and two others, he laid the groundwork for the summit to come.
At one of the summit’s banquets, Nixon toasted the meeting as “the week that changed the world.” For once, this hyperbole was justified. It is not an exaggeration to think of this summit as one of the three or four most momentous geopolitical earthquakes since the second World War...

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