Tom Switzer: Not Only Nixon Could Go to China

Roundup: Talking About History

Tom Switzer is a research associate for the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre and editor of Spectator Australia.

President Richard Nixon’s visit to China 40 years ago this week is rightly remembered as a historic breakthrough. Decades later, however, few political myths are as persistent as the notion that “only Nixon could go to China.”
The mythology runs like this: Only a red-baiting, Commie-hating Republican could do something that would have been out of reach for a soft, left-liberal Democrat. Only a bellicose and unscrupulous anti-Communist, whose credibility with fellow conservatives would shield him from any domestic attack, could sup with the devil and become a peacemaker.
At the time of the rapprochement in 1971–72, the Democratic Senate leader, Mike Mansfield, declared: “Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.” The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” has since become part of the Anglosphere’s political lexicon to describe a moment when a political leader defies expectations by doing something that would anger his supporters if taken by someone without his credentials...

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