Only Nixon Could Go to China–Because Nobody Else Wanted To

The opening to China was entirely Richard Nixon's idea. Henry Kissinger opposed it vehemently.


Stephen Sestanovich reveals something rather remarkable in his new book Maximalist: America in the World From Truman to Obama.

approchement with China was such a celebrated breakthrough that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger never stopped vying for the credit. But at the start of the administration, Kissinger saw it as Nixon’s idea and repeatedly derided it. The president’s 1967 Foreign Affairs article had said it was unwise to leave China out of the global mainstream. Kissinger was dubious. After hearing Nixon explain his strategy, the new national-security adviser called it a “flight of fancy.” When White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman reminded him that the president really wanted to visit China in his first term, the man who thereafter treated the initiative as his greatest achievement simply scoffed. “Fat chance,” Kissinger replied. He later wrote that he and Nixon had hit on the idea “independently.” But the record doesn’t support his claim. When Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing was arranged in 1971, the president was full of self-congratulation. “Jesus, this is a hell of a move,” he said. And when the trip went well, Nixon’s reaction was completely proprietary. “I told you so,” he exulted to Kissinger. “I told you so!”

Kissinger deftly executed the opening and therefore properly deserves a large amount of credit for it. But this is the first time I’ve read that he actively opposed it. Certainly, I didn’t get that impression from his book On China.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. KM says:

    his book On China.

    Well duh. It’s his book – his story told his way. He’s going to claim whole “I-never-doubted-for-a-second” credit for it – its one of the biggest feathers in his cap, if not his crown plumage. How many politicians change their minds when the Doomsday they promised turns into the Second Coming? Move with the way the wind shifts and pretend you’ve always been sailing that way…..

    In this, Kissinger is being a normal politician and, dare I say, a normal human being. Kind of a eh moment here.

  2. C. Clavin says:


    Move with the way the wind shifts and pretend you’ve always been sailing that way…..

    Like Reagan and the Cold War

  3. “Success has a thousand fathers; failure is an orphan.”

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Henry Kissinger lied. In other news, water is wet.

  5. Tyrell says:

    I supported Hubert Humphrey in 1968, but Richard Nixon won in a close election. Nixon did some things that were different and progressive. I now feel that he was an effective leader. Today I don’t think that he would get far in the Republican party.

  6. Bill says:


    Nixon did some things that were different and progressive.

    He also unilaterally ordered a wage and price freeze.

  7. gVOR08 says:

    @Tyrell: Vietnam aside, Nixon’s policies in the day were quite centrist. He proposed a health care plan more liberal than Obamacare. Those policies would get him thrown out of today’s Republican Party. However, the revelations from Watergate and the impeachment made it pretty clear he was a self-absorbed, ambitious weasel. Were he still around, he would have conformed. He’d be giving Ted Cruz a run for his money.

  8. Pinky says:

    @Bill: Wage and price controls were a massive, unfocused government overreaction that did more harm than good – how’s that not progressive?

  9. Rob in CT says:


    A different age. Had Nixon been elected in the 80s, I don’t think he’d have done half of the progressive things he did. A lot of what he did was him just rolling with the times. Sure, he wasn’t Reagan, but Reagan was unelectable in 1968 or 1972.

  10. Rob in CT says:


    Wherein we see that “progressive” is defined by Pinky as “things I don’t like.”

    When I think of progressives, I totally think “Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.”

  11. Pinky says:

    @Rob in CT: I don’t understand. I didn’t say anything different on that thread.

  12. Tyrell says:

    @Rob in CT: Roll with the times ? Let’s look at the 1960’s. Red China’s “Chairman” Mao Tse Tung had just drug his country through the so called “cultural” revolution, otherwise known as mass murder in laymen’s terms. Then you have the Soviet Union going around, taking over everything , brutally crushing reform movements and ending any dreams of freedom. In this atmosphere, President Nixon decides to visit China and sit down for a chat with Mao. He goes to Russia for talks with Brezhnev and Gromyko,; maybe Molotov was in on that too. A few Republicans and Democrats expressed some reservations, but overall there was not much in the way of outrage or disagreement. If this had been a Democrat there would have been a huge outcry and protest.
    What we must now make sure of is that there are no more Russian tanks rolling into other countries. We cannot have any more Czechoslovakia’s or Cuba’s. We must remember that and think carefully before cutting our military forces, military funding, and the effect that could have.

  13. rudderpedals says:

    @Tyrell: Are you good with threatening nuclear attack in support of Kyiv?

  14. Barry says:

    James, I disagree with the premise of your post. Remember, Nixon was an eager ‘red-baiter’ and McCarthyite. He made it impossible for US politicians to deal rationally with China for decades.

    As Brad DeLong put it so nicely, ‘Only Nixon could go to China, because only Nixon would not have been viciously attacked by Nixon for talking with China.’.