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The odd couple

Nixon and Mao The Week That Changed the World Margaret MacMillan Random House: 406 pp., $27.95

February 11, 2007|Seth Faison | Seth Faison, a former China correspondent for the New York Times, is the author of "South of the Clouds: Exploring the Hidden Realms of China."

NIXON'S trip to China in 1972 was an iconic event. A brilliant diplomatic stroke, the trip melted decades of deep freeze between two of the world's great powers and realigned the geopolitical triangle with the Soviet Union. It was a savvy political move too, clinching Nixon's image at home as a foreign policy virtuoso and helping ensure his reelection later that year despite his inability to solve the quagmire in Vietnam. Nixon's trip to China was one of those rare political coups that seemed utterly impossible beforehand and unavoidably logical afterward.

Yet more than anything, it was terrific theater. To see Nixon, that beady-eyed communist-hater, toasting the Mao suits in the Great Hall of the People, climbing the Great Wall and meeting Mao Tse-tung himself in the Communist Party's inner sanctum -- it was mesmerizing. No one cared that the visit was largely symbolic and light on content. It was great symbolism at play.

In "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World," accomplished historian Margaret MacMillan draws together the colorful strands of the drama, with all its inherent chanciness and tension. MacMillan is strong on diplomacy but weak on Chinese politics; yet she's a fine writer whose illuminating account shows why it's no wonder that the trip inspired an entire Western opera and a permanent place in our lexicon, as in "It was a Nixon-goes-to-China moment." What is a wonder is that it has taken until now for a general history to be written about this diplomatic milestone.

The scene was unforgettable: China, though still embroiled in a violent paroxysm called the Cultural Revolution, appeared serene and enchanting to American viewers. A gaggle of U.S. reporters followed Nixon to scenic spots and his meetingw with China's happy workers and smiling schoolchildren. The cast of characters was top-notch: Nixon, Mao, Henry Kissinger and Premier Chou En-lai, each with his own individual brand of psychosis, paranoia and dastardly political skill. The intermingling of these four, in a complex diplomatic mating dance that could easily have gone wrong, is a historian's dream.

MacMillan's previous book, "Paris 1919," is a history of the intricate negotiations involved in the peace treaty negotiations after World War I. She crafted a richly satisfying narrative that conveyed the far-reaching effects of those negotiations while giving a full flavor of its primary players, including Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau.

In "Nixon and Mao," MacMillan opens with the flight to Beijing. Nixon was anxious; he knew he was taking a big risk. If the trip failed, he could be blamed for making a colossal blunder. The draft diplomatic agreement between the two countries was still far from complete, and there was no guarantee it would be signed by the end of the trip. There was no commitment by the Chinese that Nixon would even meet Mao, who was said to be having difficulty getting out of bed or leaving his chamber.

Nixon had studied hard, as he always did, knowing that true diplomatic success would require a subtle understanding of the politics of the leaders he was meeting. He practiced using chopsticks so he wouldn't look silly at banquets. His advance team worked hard as well, to get the best camera angles for the U.S. media. MacMillan also shows us how Nixon was concerned with petty problems, like keeping his secretary of state, William Rogers, out of major meetings with Mao and Chou. Nixon worked better with Kissinger, who shared his love of stealth.

In fact, MacMillan shows us that Nixon and Kissinger insisted on secrecy at every step of planning for the visit. On Kissinger's previous trip to Beijing to lay the groundwork for the rapprochement, Mao and Chou -- no slouches in clandestine matters -- were baffled by American demands to keep all quiet. Nixon and Kissinger claimed that the right wing in Washington would sabotage their plans. Relying on interviews, research and newly available documents, MacMillan persuasively challenges this view: Nixon and Kissinger, she suggests, were just addicted to secrecy.

Mao was much like Nixon in his paranoia, his inability to make friends and his brilliant interpretation of history and politics. For Mao, deciding to open relations with the United States marked a sharp turn from his fanatical leftism and his ultra-isolationist foreign policy. MacMillan stumbles here. She sees Mao as a patriot, concerned with the good of his nation, when what he really cared about was the good of Mao. For decades, historians have said he missed few opportunities to destroy his country.

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