A 'China Boy' Looks Back

US President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai (R) in Feb. 1972 in Beijing during his official visit in China. (AFP/Getty Images)
US President Richard Nixon (L) toasts with Chinese Prime Minister Chou En Lai (R) in Feb. 1972 in Beijing during his official visit in China. (AFP/Getty Images)

By Nicholas Platt, Asia Society President Emeritus

Excerpted from China Boys: How U.S. Relations with the PRC Began and Grew (Vellum, 2010)

I spoke with Richard Nixon for the first and last time on February 28, 1972, the night the Shanghai Communiqué was signed.

I arrived early for the meeting at the official guesthouse. The president was sitting in a flowered silk dressing gown over an open-collar shirt and trousers, a long, fat cigar in one hand and a tall scotch and soda in the other. He looked drained but satisfied with what he had accomplished. What an extraordinary-looking man he was up close! Huge head, small body, duck feet, puffy cheeks, "about three walnuts apiece," my notes indicated, and pendant jowls hanging down, the entire combination exuding authority.

Secretary of State William P. Rogers, my boss, came in. H.R. Haldeman was already there, hair close-cropped, yellow legal pad and sharp pencils close to hand. Assistant Secretary Marshall Green and John Holdridge from Kissinger's staff arrived a bit later, and the discussion began. These men, the leading Asia experts in the U.S. government, were leaving on a tour of Asian capitals the next day to explain what Nixon had accomplished in China the past week.

The President did virtually all the talking. He shaped the individual approach our experts would take with each leader at every stop, based on his own knowledge and personal relationship with him. "Tell [Philippine President] Marcos I said . . . "  "Make sure [Korean President] Park understands  . . . " "[Japanese Prime Minister] Sato should bear in mind that . . . " The president had a personal message for each.

Nixon predicted a generally favorable reaction from Asia's leaders. Only Taiwan had reason for disappointment, he said. However, Chiang Kai-shek could be confident that we would maintain our security commitment. .... Anyway, Nixon concluded, where else could he turn? The President implied from his remarks that he was also well aware of the difficulties his China visit would cause the Soviets.

Nixon's performance was a tour-de-force, close-up confirmation of his repute as the great foreign policy president of his time. The experts were not advising him what they should say. He was telling them. As the meeting came to an end, he made a point of thanking each of us for our work. Secretary Rogers introduced me to him as one of the new China specialists in the State Department. I told Nixon that I had spent ten years preparing for this trip and was grateful to him for making it happen.

He accompanied me to the door of his suite, placing an avuncular flowered arm on my shoulder as we went. "Well," he said, as we reached the door, "you China boys are going to have a lot more to do from now on."