"This was the week that changed the world."
In hindsight, I don't think I really understood the significance of what was happening when, 40 years ago today, Richard Nixon began his historic trip to the People's Republic of China.
I wasn't old enough. I had a general understanding of the fact that the United States had been fighting a war in Vietnam (actually, I couldn't remember a time when America wasn't involved in that conflict — for awhile, I guess I must have thought that Vietnamwar was all one word, like damnyankee — and I must have figured that it was a constant fact of life). I knew that there was another war being waged — called a "Cold War" — but I didn't know what that meant.
To my young mind, Nixon's trip to China seemed terribly contradictory. As I understood things (and my understanding was shaped considerably by my Democratic parents, who made no secret of the fact that they loathed Nixon), Nixon escalated American military involvement in Vietnam, presumably because of the belief that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, so would the other countries in the region, and that could not be allowed to happen — yet he went to great lengths to ease tensions with the Communists in China.
And, later that year, he went to the Soviet Union, where he ushered in detente and signed the Anti–Ballistic Missile Treaty. It didn't make sense to me. Nixon, I had heard, was a virulent anticommunist. Why was he going to such great lengths to be a friend to the Chinese?
I have come to understand that Nixon was walking a diplomatic tightrope, trying to end a war in southeast Asia without yielding the territory to the Communists while simultaneously opening lines of communication with the Communist superpowers.
I have also come to understand that Nixon was one of the early practitioners of triangulation. His visit to China threw genuine fear into the Soviets, who were concerned about the possibility of an alliance between the Chinese and the Americans. Consequently, they were more agreeable to detente.
That was the key, I was told. Only Nixon, with his anticommunist credentials, could have done something as globally stunning as his trips to China and Russia in 1972, playing one against the other and, essentially, getting more from each than he originally sought.
By anyone's standards, that would be a particularly challenging mission, but, in the spring of 1972, while the Democrats were trying to settle on a nominee to face Nixon in the general election that fall, Nixon went to China and got tons of free publicity.
In a different (yet still similar) sense, it was the foreign policy equivalent of Lyndon Johnson's domestic agenda, most notably his support for civil and voting rights legislation.
Racism was never confined to the South, but it was most prominent there, and, for that reason, I have heard it said, it took a president from a Southern state who rose from humble beginnings to get those laws pushed through Congress.
When LBJ told the nation "We shall overcome," it had more significance than it would have if it had come from the mouth of Johnson's patrician predecessor from New England.
Similarly, when Richard Nixon told the nation that his trip to China had changed the world, it had the weight of legitimacy behind it. Nixon was often — and justifiably — criticized for not being honest and sincere, but his visit to China went beyond the man and embraced the moment and charted a new course for the future.
So many things have changed in the 40 years since Nixon's trip to China. Before he went there, most Americans probably thought of a medieval culture, a closed society, when they thought of China. Or they thought of the stereotype of Asian markets producing inferior goods.
After television brought images of the modern China to America, that perception was changed forever.