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No, Not Only Nixon Could Go to China

Historian Pete Millwood

Fifty years after the Nixon-Mao summit, it is time to put to rest the myth that Nixon alone could pursue rapprochement with China; other American politicians advocated engagement—and were even invited to China before Nixon.

President Richard Nixon, Pat Nixon, William Rogers, Chinese officials, Pat Buchanan, White House Press Office photographer Oliver Atkins, Ron Walker, and entourage at the Ba Da Ling portion of the Great Wall.
President Richard Nixon and his entourage, along with Chinese officials, pictured at the Badaling portion of the Great Wall outside of Beijing.

“Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.”

So commented Democratic Senator Mike Mansfield in a December 1971 interview that has gone on to form the basis of one of the most enduring myths in foreign policy analysis: that only Nixon could go to China.

Nixon’s unique suitability for pursuing rapprochement with Mao Zedong’s China has become the archetypal example for the accepted wisdom that bold foreign policy reconciliations require a hawkish architect: Ronald Reagan could pursue détente with Mikhail Gorbachev just years after calling the Soviet Union an evil empire. Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat could reconcile their countries as notorious hardliners and former paramilitaries. Captain Kirk could wine and dine the Klingon Empire after a lifetime of conflict with them—a move hailed by Kirk’s lieutenant Commander Spock with a reference to the Vulcan proverb, “only Nixon could go to China.”

The logic of the claim seems persuasive: Nixon was a famous anti-communist who had risen to political prominence by hounding State Department officer and alleged Soviet spy Alger Hiss during the McCarthyite era. That same McCarthyite hysteria had made pro-Beijing sympathies the downfall of many other US officials in the early 1950s, with memories of these attacks deterring any public suggestion of engagement with Communist China for a decade. Nixon might thus seem to have been the ideal candidate to open talks with Mao, protected from a domestic political backlash by his right-wing credentials.

But the belief that only Nixon could have gone to China does not square with the historical facts. Nixon’s China initiative was a historic foreign policy success, executed with aplomb and pazazz, but if Nixon had not visited the People’s Republic, other American politicians could have, and would have.

Nixon’s predecessor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson, had signaled to Beijing an interest in talks, only to be ignored amidst the radical phase of China’s Cultural Revolution. Then, in April 1971, Senator Mansfield himself received a letter from the Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk, then in refuge in Beijing and a confidant of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, passing on an invitation from Zhou for the senator to visit China—extended before any invitation was sent to Nixon. Nixon initially encouraged the Senate majority leader to accept and planned to use Mansfield’s visit as part of his efforts to open contact with the Chinese leadership. But once Nixon himself was invited later the same month, the president personally intervened to have the senator’s China trip delayed until April 1972, two months after his own trip.[1]


There is no evidence that Mansfield, the most senior elected Democratic then in office, feared any political consequences for accepting Beijing’s invitation to visit China, which he had sought as early as 1969.[2] Mansfield had repeatedly gone on record calling for an end to US attempts to isolate China and had, as early as 1968, recommended that the US government move towards recognizing the People’s Republic because “the Chinese Communist Government is here to stay and is a major power.”

In the next election he faced—in 1970, long before Nixon’s overtures to China were public knowledge—Mansfield won with more than 60-percent of the vote. His 1968 speech caused some consternation in the anti-Beijing American right, but only because Mansfield had previously been seen as in favor of preserving the US relationship with Chiang Kai-shek’s rival Chinese regime on Taiwan. After 1968, Mansfield instead became the most powerful political adversary of the pro-Taiwan “China lobby” that was rapidly losing influence and relevancy—and, the following year, the lease on its New York offices.[3]

One reason Mansfield had little to fear from advocating engagement with China was that he was far from the only prominent American making such arguments. In 1964, Democratic Senator J. William Fulbright and Republican former Congressman Clare Boothe Luce proposed a public discussion about improving US-China relations. In response, Fulbright received 12,000 letters—overwhelmingly in favor of his suggestion.[4]

Then, in 1966, Fulbright, as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, hosted hearings on the same subject in which America’s leading academic China experts were called to give televised testimony. The historian John K. Fairbank, the economist Alexander Eckstein, and political scientists Bob Scalapino and Doak Barnett together advocated for measured engagement with China that Barnett summed up as “containment without isolation.”[5] (These were hardly all doves, either: Scalapino was one of the foremost public advocates of US involvement in the Vietnam War.)[6]

The American press applauded these arguments, and Barnett’s phrase soon became a rallying cry for the many voices advocating a shift in US China policy. Vice President Hubert Humphrey—who would go on to be the Democratic nominee for president in 1968—went as far as implying that Johnson planned to make “containment without isolation” government policy.[7]

Even Frank Sinatra had said, earlier in the 1960s, that China should be seated at the United Nations and that, “I don’t happen to think you can kick 800,000,000 Chinese under the rug and simply pretend they don’t exist.”[8]

Nixon’s October 1967 Foreign Affairs essay “Asia After Viet Nam” is often cited as indicative of the future president’s prescient vision for rapprochement and as proof that Nixon’s thinking on Communist China went against the contemporary political mainstream. The essay was indeed a break with Nixon’s previous statements on China—as recently as 1966, he had warned that “appeasement” of China in the Vietnam conflict “would lead to World War III”—and his article contributed to the changing American consensus on Asia policy, even if the sections on China attracted limited attention when first published.

But Nixon’s article is more accurately read as evidence that the future president was astutely adjusting his position on the China issue in line with an already changing consensus. After all, Nixon’s prescriptions were hedged. While he wrote that “there is no place on this small planet for a billion of its potentially most able people to live in angry isolation,” he also stated that coming “to grips with the reality of China … does not mean, as many would simplistically have it, rushing to grant recognition to Peking, to admit it to the United Nations and to ply it with offers of trade.”[9] A year before the 1968 presidential campaign, Nixon was far from set on taking the steps he would once in the White House.

Even after he entered office, Nixon was initially slow to make any changes to the China policies left in place by his predecessor. When, in March 1969, the State Department recommended removing government restrictions on private American travel to China, Nixon vetoed the move.[10] The State Department informed Nixon that, in practice, the Johnson administration had already been giving US approval for travel to China by “virtually anyone” other than tourists; if anything, Nixon’s decision not to endorse such travel was a step backward.[11]

What ideas Nixon did have for tweaking China policy often came, at least in part, from the outside: in April 1969, Barnett was among five prominent China experts to spend a day at the White House, in a long meeting with Nixon’s chief foreign policy advisor Henry Kissinger and then an hour with the president himself. [12] The suggestions for policy changes put forward by Barnett in this meeting and later correspondence would materialize in Nixon’s China policy in the months and years that followed.[13]

Nor is it true that, once Nixon did begin a rapprochement with Beijing, he faced no criticism from the Republican right. Among the very few people to receive prior notice of Nixon’s July 1971 primetime television announcement of his planned China visit were two of America’s leading conservatives: Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr.

Buckley was far from swayed by this gesture, becoming the loudest skeptic on the press corps that accompanied Nixon to Beijing. Buckley wrote after the summit that the United States had “lost—irretrievably—any remaining sense of moral mission in the world” and that Nixon had “toasted the bloodiest, most merciless chief of state in the world … in accents most of us would reserve for Florence Nightingale.”

Nixon had more luck with Reagan, but even he reacted furiously when, three months after Nixon’s July announcement, Communist China won a vote to enter the United Nations at the expense of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China government on Taiwan. An incensed Reagan told Nixon that the president should go on television and announce a US boycott of the UN; Nixon, of course, did no such thing.[14] In reality, it was not that the Republican right refrained from criticizing Nixon for reaching out to China—it was that other Americans did not much listen.

Why, then, did Senator Mansfield, one of the most experienced senators in office, argue that only Nixon “could have made this break and gotten away with it”? As he had watched President Johnson become destroyed by his foreign policy failures in Vietnam in the late 1960s, Mansfield may well have been reminded of the travails of the Democratic president in office when he first became a senator: Harry Truman. Truman had been president when Mao had won the Chinese Civil War at Chiang Kai-shek’s expense, a Cold War disaster for the United States that Truman’s Republican opponents were quick to pin on the president as the “loss of China.” Mansfield was likely wrong if he believed a President Humphrey could not have reached out to China if he had triumphed against Nixon in the 1968 election—if Mansfield could go to China, why not Humphrey?—but the memory of how Democrats had been condemned for being soft on Mao in the 1940s surely lingered with the senator. Nixon had also drawn Mansfield into his confidence about his China initiative and encouraged the senator’s own efforts to reach out to Premier Zhou. Understandably, Mansfield wanted to give credit to Nixon for a foreign policy initiative that the senator wholeheartedly supported.[15]

Fifty years after Nixon’s visit to China, we, too, should give credit to Nixon—but not on the terms that Mansfield used. Other American leaders—Democrats and Republicans both—had called for a rapprochement with China, and if Nixon had not gone to China, Mansfield or another politician would have done. But Nixon did, and his shrewd reading of the changing bipartisan political consensus on US China policy allowed him to pull off one of the most consequential—and widely popular—foreign policy moves by a US president in history.

This article draws on materials from Millwood’s forthcoming book, Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade US-China Relations, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022


[1] Don Oberdorfer, Senator Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003), 393–98; Telcon: Nixon and Kissinger, April 27, 1971, 8:18 pm, Steven E. Phillips, ed., Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, vol. XVII, China, 1969–1972 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2006), Document 120.

[2] Oberdorfer, Senator Mansfield, 361.

[3] Jeffrey Crean, “‘Nixon Is With Us on China’: Raging Against the Dying of the Lobby”,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 26, no. 4 (December 2019): 384; “The China Talkers and the Absentees,” Washington Post, March 23, 1969.

[4] Robert A. Mang and Pamela Mang, “A History of the Origins of the National Committee on United States-China Relations” (prepared for the Christopher Reynolds Foundation, Inc., January 1976), 1–2.

[5] Priscilla Roberts, “Bringing the Chinese Back In: The Role of Quasi-Private Institutions in Britain and the United States,” in China, Hong Kong, and the Long 1970s: Global Perspectives, ed. Priscilla Roberts and Odd Arne Westad (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 312–13.

[6] Crean, “‘Nixon Is With Us on China,’” 372.

[7] Crean, 379–80.

[8] John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016), 440.

[9] Richard Nixon, “Asia After Viet Nam,” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 1967.

[10] Elliot Richardson to Kissinger, undated, FRUS, 1969-1976, Vol. XVII, Document 19.

[11] National Security Study Memorandum 69, July 14, 1969, FRUS, 1969-1976, Vol. XVII, Document 18.

[12] Barnett to Gabriele Roehrich, February 5, 1981 [sic], “Kissinger, 1968-81,” Box 106, A. Doak Barnett papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, United States (RBMLCU).

[13] Barnett to Nixon, October 9, 1969, “Kissinger, 1968-81,” Box 106, A. Doak Barnett papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University.

[14] Chris Tudda, A Cold War Turning Point: Nixon and China, 1969-1972 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 140.

[15] Oberdorfer, Senator Mansfield, 360–61.

About the Author

Historian Pete Millwood

Pete Millwood

Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong

Pete Millwood is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong. His first book, Improbable Diplomats: How Ping-Pong Players, Musicians, and Scientists Remade US-China Relations, which will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022. He holds degrees from Oxford and the London School of Economics, and his research and writing has been published in Diplomatic History, the Journal of Contemporary History, and the Washington Post.

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