When Nixon went to China

On the 50th anniversary of President Nixon's trip, China experts William Alford and Mark Wu discuss that history-making journey

On February 21, 1972, Richard Nixon became the first sitting United States president to set foot in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Over the course of a week, he met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, negotiated with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, and toured historical and cultural institutions including the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Shanghai, and Hangzhou. Fifty years after Nixon’s history-making journey, Harvard Law Today turned to two China experts to understand its significance, both then and now. William P. Alford ’77 is the Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law and director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program. Mark Wu is the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law. They stress the need to see the trip not only through a U.S.-centric lens and caution that, for all the change it spurred, its full import remains to be seen.


Harvard Law Today: This is the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s trip to China. What was the backdrop?

Nixon repeatedly tried to cast Kennedy as soft in his willingness to defend allies against communism. So, the fact that Nixon, as president, would be willing to embark in outreach to Beijing came as a surprise.

Mark Wu, Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law

Mark Wu: On July 15, 1971, President Nixon shocked the world by announcing that he was planning to visit the PRC the next year. In the aftermath of the Chinese civil war, the communists had captured mainland China and declared the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The Nationalist government, supported by the Americans, fled to Taiwan, where the Republic of China (ROC) continued to be recognized by the United States and most other Western countries as the legitimate government for all of China.

Throughout the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the U.S. and PRC maintained a frosty relationship. The two sides fought each other during the Korean War, and the U.S. had troops based on Taiwan. Nixon himself had served as vice president during the Eisenhower administration, which had been steadfast in its support of the ROC, when the Chinese Communists attempted to retake the islands of Kinmen and Matsu. Those islands featured repeatedly during the famous 1960 presidential debates when Nixon repeatedly tried to cast Kennedy as soft in his willingness to defend allies against communism. So, the fact that Nixon, as president, would be willing to embark in outreach to Beijing came as a surprise.

William P. Alford: Thank you, Mark. To be sure, some American academics, including Jerome Cohen, who was the founding director of Harvard’s East Asian Legal Studies program, had from the late ’60s been urging a re-evaluation of U.S.-China policy. (As you know, the professorship I am now privileged to hold is named in honor of Jerry and Joan Cohen.)

Side by side head shots of William Alford and Mark Wu

Credit: Photos by Martha Stewart William P. Alford ’77 (left) is the Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law and director of the East Asian Legal Studies Program; Mark Wu is the Henry L. Stimson Professor of Law.

HLT: What was most significant about that trip? What is not well understood about it?

Alford: I think that, as with so much else in the U.S.-China relationship for the past two centuries, treatment of the Nixon trip remarkably has been viewed almost exclusively through a U.S. prism, with almost no attention to the Chinese side. That lack of attention has been very costly for the relationship, inflating our sense of agency and fostering undue expectations among policymakers here and in the American public more generally about our capacity to shape events in China to our liking.

As with so much else in the U.S.-China relationship for the past two centuries, treatment of the Nixon trip remarkably has been viewed almost exclusively through a U.S. prism

William P. Alford ’77, Jerome A. and Joan L. Cohen Professor of Law

The outreach by Nixon and [National Security Adviser Henry] Kissinger was of great consequence, of course, but the portrayal of China as entirely passive waiting for the U.S. to come along irks me. Yes, China was still experiencing the turmoil of the latter years of the Cultural Revolution, but let’s not forget that the PRC had its own agenda which it used the visit to help advance. The trip provided the opportunity, which it seized, to alter its own troubled relationship with the Soviet Union, to reduce tensions with the U.S. — which had regarded the PRC as an implacable enemy — and, for some leaders, to foster a potential source of help as China sought to compensate for years lost to that turmoil.

This undue focus on ourselves shows up again in the 1980s and 1990s, when far too many Americans — including policymakers and academics — assumed that the PRC wanted nothing more than to emulate us and converge toward an idealized version of our economy, law and society. While very much a product of the “end of history” hubris here that reached its apogee with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that attitude seemed to me at that time to be woefully inattentive to China’s history and contemporary circumstances and not especially discerning about our own country or the course of world history.

These days we see the same inattention but with the opposite coloration. The conventional wisdom here treats almost every major decision in China as being driven by its antipathy toward the U.S. There certainly is antipathy there, but in trying to understand its policy decisions, we shouldn’t be ignoring either domestic considerations there or China’s need to address certain challenges that all nations face.

Wu: No doubt the reversal of U.S. foreign policy toward the PRC in the 1970s will be seen as an important historical inflection point. But the story is still playing itself out — we are only fifty years into a historical event that may require several more decades before its eventual outcome is known. And it’s only one of several important “what if” moments, where we can second-guess the counterfactual about what would’ve happened otherwise.

The visit and subsequent normalization of relations with the West provided the ideological cover necessary for the economic reforms of the 1980s that launched China from a pariah state to the economic juggernaut that it is today.

Mark Wu

As for the visit itself, I agree with Bill’s prescient observation that we pay too little attention to what was happening within China itself. By the time of Nixon’s visit, Mao was ailing, and his succession plans, as set forth by the 1969 Party Congress, had fallen apart. During the ensuing two decades, various factions in the party would fight over whether economic and political reform was necessary. The visit and subsequent normalization of relations with the West provided the ideological cover necessary for the economic reforms of the 1980s that launched China from a pariah state to the economic juggernaut that it is today.

Another element that is not well understood is how divided U.S. allies were in their China policy in the early 1970s. France had already severed diplomatic ties with Taipei and normalized relations with the People’s Republic in 1964, and Canada and Italy did so in 1970. The U.K., West Germany, Japan, and Australia quickly switched their diplomatic recognition in the months following the Nixon visit, even though the U.S. would not formally do so until 1979. Nixon did not shift the West’s policy toward Communist China; it was already happening. We still suffer from the illusion that the U.S. can successfully lead the West in a strong unified response to China, when in fact, our allies historically have been generally more willing to placate Beijing.

HLT: It is generally portrayed as Nixon changing the world — indeed, leading to the phrase a “Nixon goes to China” moment. What’s your assessment of that?

Alford: It also irks me that Nixon is seen as a global strategic genius. Let’s not forget his central role in the Red Scare rhetoric that essentially prevented other political figures from advocating for engagement with the PRC in a more tempered manner. His attacks on Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas for being “soft on communism” were instrumental in his early electoral victories and, as Mark noted, he sought to deploy that same strategy against Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. Had Nixon not helped foster that atmosphere, arguably there would have been no need for a “Nixon goes to China” moment or it would have been much less dramatic. I can’t help but see his behavior on this front as redolent of the duplicity we saw in his approach to the Vietnam War and race relations at home, and that eventually did him in. 

Wu: The phrase “Nixon goes to China” is overused to describe all sorts of political events where individuals flip positions and bring their followers along. I also think that in today’s world of fragmented social media, it’s also much harder to pull off than it was in the early 1970s.

The visit certainly laid the groundwork for a much more stable relationship between China and the West for decades to come. This fostered sustained economic growth. But whether the visit truly changed the course of world history, as I said earlier, it’s far too early to tell. I think it’s only one of a series of contingent events that altered the course of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Domestic events in China that followed the visit, such as Deng Xiaoping prevailing in the leadership struggle, will likely prove even more important.

HLT: Why was the trip, and the agreement coming out of it, significant? How has it framed the subsequent development of the U.S.-PRC relationship?

Wu: The visit resulted in the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué, which provided the pathway for the Carter administration to normalize relations with the People’s Republic. The communiqué also contained an acknowledgment that the U.S. does not challenge the view that there is only “one China” and that “Taiwan is a part of China” — and therefore helped shape the policy of U.S. strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan that remains today.

Alford: The U.S. and PRC were certainly not going to agree on everything and the intentional ambiguity that marked the Shanghai Communiqué proved beneficial for decades. When I accompanied then-Dean Martha Minow to Taiwan in 2013, we had a very stimulating conversation with then-President Ma Ying-jeou S.J.D. ’81, who had been a classmate, about times when ambiguity may be preferable to clarity. One could, however, also argue that some of the massive distrust that marks the U.S.-PRC relationship today stems in part from the fact that the public in China and, to a lesser degree, the U.S. was not apprised of the extent to which Beijing and Washington’s positions regarding Taiwan diverged in 1972 and, then again, when the Carter administration normalized relations in the late 1970s.

HLT: What have been the implications of that trip for Taiwan?

The Nixon trip certainly caught Taiwan off guard, as did the normalization of U.S.-PRC relations during the Carter administration.

William Alford

Alford: The Nixon trip certainly caught Taiwan off guard, as did the normalization of U.S.-PRC relations during the Carter administration. And while Taiwan’s democratization is predominantly attributable to domestic factors, I do think a secondary consideration has been to distinguish itself from the PRC internationally.

Wu: Taiwan saw the Nixon and Carter administration’s actions as betrayals. The U.N. expulsion, the Nixon visit, and the severing of diplomatic ties by many countries afterwards catapulted Taiwan into a diplomatic isolation that is still ongoing.

HLT: How would you characterize U.S.-PRC relations these days?

Wu: There are areas of profound disagreement, but also narrower areas where the two sides may choose to cooperate. Overall, I think we’re in a period of strategic competition, with a lingering sense of mistrust on both sides.

Alford: It is no exaggeration to say that this is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. As Mark suggests, there are and will be areas of profound disagreement, given important differences in values. That said, it seems to me that without some measure of principled engagement (meaning an engagement in which we do not abandon our values), no global regime (be it about climate change, trade, rights or anything else) will flourish.

HLT: You each have personal and professional ties with respect to the PRC and Taiwan. What has the Nixon visit meant to you?

Alford: Professionally and personally, I have been a beneficiary of the trip. I remember as a student in Cambridge, England being excited seeing Nixon’s reception in Beijing covered extensively on the BBC and itching to get there. Later that decade, I made my first of what became scores of trips to China that have informed my research and teaching greatly. I have benefited from having superb students and excellent colleagues from China, as well as Taiwan. Most importantly, but for the opening, I would not, while in the mid-1980s creating the first academic program in U.S. law in the PRC, have met my wonderful wife. She, by the way, remembers Nixon’s visit to her hometown of Hangzhou — during which all but selected individuals were ordered to stay inside.

Wu: Gish Jen, a visiting professor in the English department, just released a new book, “Thank You Mr. Nixon.” It’s a wonderful read. Although fictional, it illustrates how the Nixon visit impacted the subsequent lives of numerous Chinese American families. Mine was one of those. At the time of the visit, my grandparents, my father, and my aunt were all in the U.S., but two of my uncles and their families had remained in China after 1949. For two decades, my grandparents had been afraid to get in touch, lest it cause further harm to my uncles. In fact, they weren’t even sure my uncles had survived the Cultural Revolution. Only after the Nixon visit did my father dare to reach out to his brothers, leading to the family being reunited many years later.