Sunday, October 23, 2011

Nixon and "Ping Pong Diplomacy"

I am coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled “American Dreams and Reality: A Retelling of the American Story.” Here, I describe how table tennis played a role in Nixon's diplomacy towards the People's Republic of China.

National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and President Richard Nixon sought to reduce the overwhelming pressure on the American military by easing tensions with the Soviet Union, a chief supplier of weapons to North Vietnam. Nixon’s pursuit of warmer relations with Moscow came to be known by the French term détente. Nixon and Kissinger quickly exploited a dangerous conflict that developed in the communist world in 1969. The Soviets and the Chinese almost came to war, exchanging gunfire along the Ussari River that separated the two nations near Vladivostok in far East Asia. The Soviets responded to the incident by increasing their military presence there from 70,000 to 240,000 soldiers. Soviet leaders became convinced that China represented a serious threat to its security. At one point the Soviet Defense Ministry compared Chinese leader Mao Zedong to Adolf Hitler. The Nixon White House sought to play both nations off of each other.

The White House realized that if the U.S. cultivated a friendlier relationship with China, the Soviet Union – suffering from consumer shortages and feeling the economic strain of the long Cold War – would feel threatened on two fronts. The Kremlin might become more attentive to American foreign policy concerns, such as pressuring the North Vietnamese to make peace. The American president also saw China as an ascending power. As was often the case, Nixon’s racial views shaped his attitudes towards policy. After his presidency, Nixon told journalist Richard Reeves that he believed that the “yellow” Asians were genetically superior to “Caucasians” in terms of intellect. According to Reeves, Nixon said that the Chinese and the Japanese would dominate the world by the middle of the twenty-first century. On top of his hope that a better American relationship with China would force the Soviets to negotiate, he also believed that aligning at least partly with the Chinese state would place America on the side of history.


Since the triumph of the communists in the 1949 Chinese Revolution, the United States had never recognized the Beijing regime as the legitimate Chinese government and had successful prevented the People’s Republic’s admission to the United Nations. The breakaway Nationalist regime in Taiwan still held China’s seat in the UN. This put the United States at odds with the rest of the Western alliance, and the People’s Republic took China’s seat at the UN on October 25, 1971, over U.S. objections.

Even with this dispute, on December 8, 1970, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai (the second most powerful man in the country) sent Nixon a letter through Pakistani diplomats to discuss the future American relationship to Taiwan. Beginning in 1971, Kissinger opened up a secret diplomatic dialogue with Zhou. Kissinger faked an illness so he could without detection spend a week in China in July of that year to negotiate a new phase in American-Chinese relations.

The first sign of a thaw in Sino-American relations came on April 6 of that year when, at the end of the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan, the American team captain received an invitation by the Chinese captain to play a week of exhibition matches in Beijing. The invitation came from Chinese Communist Party leader Mao. The American team was the first official U.S. delegation in the country since the 1950s. The matches got worldwide press coverage and, in a friendly gesture, the Chinese deliberately did not use their best players, allowing for closer results (Chinese men and women’s teams both won, nevertheless.) Nixon’s men stopped calling the Beijing government ‘Communist China” and began to use the nation’s official name, “The People’s Republic of China.”

Kissinger arranged for a-week long visit in China by President Nixon, from February 21 to 28, 1972, the first appearance by an American leader in that nation since the 1949 revolution. The visit greatly enhanced Nixon’s standing with the American public. Never one for understatement, Nixon described the visit as “the week that changed the world.” In fact, it was just a start for fuller relations between the United States and China. The United States established full diplomatic relations with China under President Jimmy Carter on January 1, 1979 and recognized Taiwan as part of a single nation, even though Americans continued to give aid to the anti-communist regime on the island.

The opening to China, as Nixon and Kissinger expected, inspired the Soviets to move toward détente. Nixon visited Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow in May 1972, striking a deal that allowed the Soviets, suffering from inefficient farming, to buy American wheat and leading to the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). The United States and the USSR agreed to cap the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles either side could install. Under SALT, both the Americans and the Russians pledged to not develop new anti-ballistic missiles, which could have provoked an expensive arms race.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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