'Conrad Black thinks I overplay the unloved thing, but I found there was something sort of touching about Nixon'
MARGARET MACMILLAN ('PARIS 1919') TALKS TO KENNETH WHYTE ABOUT HER NEW BOOK, 'NIXON IN CHINA: THE WEEK THAT CHANGED THE WORLD'
Q It’s always said only Nixon could have gone to China. I’ve personally never been convinced that’s true. Why couldn’t it have been Reagan or Ford or Nelson Rockefeller or other Republican luminary from that period?
A: It could have been, I think. I’m always torn in my own mind on the question of whether things happen because the times are right or because of the role of the individual, and I think the times were right for an American statesman to go to China more than they had been perhaps 10 years previously. But I think Nixon actually is important because he was prepared to push it through. Sometimes, even though everyone says this is the sensible thing to do, it takes someone to actually make it happen.
Q: What was right about the times?
A: The United States was very concerned about its place in the world. It was worried about the Soviet Union, which was appearing to be expanding its influence into the Third World, it was very hurt by Vietnam— that was a real blow to its prestige. Even after Nixon was elected on the promise of getting the U.S. out of Vietnam, it was really difficult. And so I think there was a sense that they needed support in a way they hadn’t perhaps needed it 10 years previously. And I think in China’s case, Mao is key. I mean, other Chinese may have realized that China needed friends, but until Mao decided, it wouldn’t
happen. And I think he realized at least some of the damage of the Cultural Revolution, but they were also really, really worried about the Soviet Union. There was fighting in ’69, and all these rumours that Soviet diplomats were going around saying to people like American diplomats, “What would you say if we dropped a few bombs on China’s industries?” So I think on both sides there was a sense that they needed more friends than they had.
Q: You make a strong case that Nixon’s trip to China was a riveting event. You cite Gallup polls that show extremely high levels of public awareness of his visit. But, in retrospect, how significant was it? I mean, can’t you view it in the same league as the moon landing—fascinating to watch but of uncertain consequence?
A: Yeah, I think you can. I think what happened during the visit wasn’t that important, but the fact of the visit was important, and in a way the more dramatic event is Henry Kissinger’s secret trip in which they agree that Nixon will be invited to China and they agree that they will discuss various issues, including Taiwan. But I like the visit because sometimes seeing the wider picture through an episode like that makes sense. I wanted to take the visit itself and use it to look at the overall relationship between China and the United States.
Q: Yes, but the subtitle of the book suggests that this event changed the world, and if you look at it from the perspective of today, yes, Chinese-American relations are somewhat warmer than they were 40 years ago, but most of the West-
ern world is enjoying slightly warmer relations with China. There’s still a great deal of uncertainty and tension and potential for conflict between the countries. What has changed?
A: I think you’re absolutely right, but I think the ’72 visit is very, very important because it does mark an end of one period and the opening of a new one. And although it doesn’t happen right away, because Mao doesn’t die for another four years and so the sort of extreme Maoist policies of the Cultural Revolution are still in place, it does begin the opening. The things Kissinger actually didn’t think were all that important—the economic and cultural and other exchanges—in fact begin the process where China goes out and acquires knowledge and expertise from the world that helps in its rapid development once Deng Xiaoping comes back into power.
Q: Right. The death of Mao was the great catalytic factor there.
A: Oh yes. As long as Mao was there it was like a cork in a bottle. Some of the more extreme policies of the Cultural Revolution were gradually being modified—the workers were being told to stop having meetings every five minutes and actually get back to work, and the universities were beginning to reopen—but as long as Mao was alive and he had that group around him who claimed to speak in his name, very little could be done. “Profit” was still a dirty word and “incentive” was a dirty word, all that sort of thing. And once Mao dies and the Gang of Four are arrested, then things change real-
ly quickly and you get that wonderful slogan by ’78, “To get rich is glorious.”
Q: I came away from the book—fairly or not—with a picture in my mind ofNixon as an individual whose sole redeeming feature was his great expertise and daring in foreign policy. Otherwise we have a lonely, agitated, unhappy, unloved man whose mother, it was claimed, never kissed him...
A: Maybe. I mean, he’s very difficult to assess. Conrad Black—with whom I’ve discussed Nixon—thinks I overplay the unloved thing, but Nixon was an awkward man. And I found there was something sort of touching about him, the wanting to be loved and wanting to be a dignified president, and all these rather touching memos he writes to himself about “try and be worthy of this great country.” He was a patriot and I think in some ways a very great president. And if you look back, if he had dealt with Watergate differently, I think it could have been quite different. I’ve always thought if he’d said about Watergate right at the beginning, “This is disgraceful, we’ll get to the bottom of it, I apologize to everyone concerned,” he might have survived it.
Q: Henry Kissinger, who laid the groundwork for the visit, is another brilliant individual with great expertise in international relations, buta childish temperament—attention-grabbing and awfully nasty towards Nixon at times, and ungrateful toward him.
A: And, you know, you never get Nixon doing it to Kissinger. You really don’t. I’ve read a lot of Nixon and Kissinger biographies and memoirs, and nowhere does Nixon say horrible things about Kissinger.
Q: There are occasions on which he says quite complimentary things about Kissinger.
A: It’s my bias in history, but these are, after all, human beings, and if anyone wrote about any of us they’d see the same sort of mess of characteristics, some good...
Q: Except you or me.
A Well, we’d be sort of Mother-Teresa-plus-whoever, you know. But what I always say to my students is yes, they’re very powerful, but they’re still human beings and they behave as irrationally as we all do. And I think Kissinger is brilliant and you can understand how impatient he would get with people who weren’t as brilliant as him.
I think, although he never made a fuss about it, but having a sort of happy and secure childhood in Germany and suddenly it all goes, they have to come to the U.S. as refugees— that must have left a mark. I mean, how could it not? He’s an interesting man. He’s also very charming. I’ve only met him once but I thought he was absolutely fascinating.
Q: In some respects, a hero of the book is Chou
En-lai, because everyone who encountered him came away terribly impressed by him and his abilities and his personality, his personal grace, his work habits...
A: Fascinating, but I don’t regard him as a hero. I mean, he’s obviously another great practitioner of diplomacy and he probably kept China going for a lot of the time, but he was a cold, cold fish. It explains him, if it doesn’t excuse him, that the people running China had come out of a brutal struggle for power, and Chou had done his fair share— he was complicit in a lot of killings and interparty strife.
Q: Yes, but I meant with regard to this episode, Nixon’s visit, he plays a heroic role in that he is indispensable to the process and he made a genuine effort to see that the visit was a success. Mao played a crucial role—he was of great symbolic importance and his approval is absolutely necessary—but the meeting doesn’t go anywhere without Chou.
A: Yes, the sheer energy of both Kissinger and Chou En-lai, I mean, they’d be there all day negotiating, and they both had that capacity—which I don’t think I’d have—of being incredibly patient and going over and over the details until they got what they wanted, like any good negotiators, I guess. And then Chou would also be going back to the office and running everything else, and worrying about the details, what were the Americans going to eat, what would Nixon like for breakfasts. He was an extraordinary figure.
Q: Nixon’s a conservative arid a creature of the American right, and he takes along with him on the visit some fellow travellers, including William F. Buckley, who did not share his enthusiasm for the mission.You’ve got this wonderful quote from Buckley who had watched Nixon at a banquet. He wrote that it was as if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels.
A: It’s a wonderful image, isn’t it?
Q: Yes, and given what you just said about the brutality of the Cultural Revolution it’s an important point of view.
A: Yes, but I don’t know how much Nixon or any of the Americans knew about the Cultural Revolution. I suspect not all that much. It really was only after Mao’s death that the outside world began to learn about how dreadful it was. I started teaching Chinese history in ’76 and I remember looking at the Cultural Revolution and joking to my students, “Oh, well, it’s probably quite good for students to criticize their teachers,” and it wasn’t until later that I began to realize that criticizing their teachers wasn’t quite what they were doing—they were beating them up and killing them. China was such a closed world that very few people had any idea of what had
gone on, so I think the sheer brutality of the Cultural Revolution, and even the Great Leap Forward, which we now know was probably the biggest man-made famine in history— the latest estimate is something like 40 million people died—wasn’t fully known. Nixon and Co. knew the Communists were tough and ruthless, but—you know, I’ve tried to think about this—Nixon was conservative politically but he was something of a liberal internationalist. He admired Woodrow Wilson, he supported the United Nations, he believed the United States should be part of organizations like NATO, and he wasn’t in that sort of isolationist school at all. And I think he simply saw that some sort of relationship with China was in the American interest.
Q: Is the Buckley viewpoint closer perhaps to the spirit ofReagan’sforeign policy than Nixon’s?
'I began to realize they weren’t criticizing their teachers—they were killing them’
A: I suppose it is. Reagan made moral judgments in a way that Nixon didn’t. Nixon had no illusions about Communism—he disliked it intensely—but he saw himself as custodian of the best interests of the United States, and that meant getting out of Vietnam, repairing alliance relationships and dealing with the Soviet Union, doing arms negotiations with them but also putting pressure on them. And the China card was a useful one. He said on several occasions, it’s a mistake to leave such a large and populous nation in angry isolation. I’ve talked to several people about this when I was writing the book. Alan Gottlieb
said to me, “Why did Nixon turn around? Why was he prepared to deal with China after being so strongly opposed to Communism?” I think partly it was in the American interest, but also the United States and Republicans and Nixon himself had got used to dealing with the Soviet Union, and the Cold War had settled into a sort of relationship and a pattern. I don’t mean that he or Eisenhower or any of the other Republicans had gone soft on the Soviet Union, but they’d learned to deal with them, and once you deal with one Communist party and do negotiations with one Communist power, dealing with a second or a third isn’t that difficult.
Q: The face-to-face meeting between Mao and Nixon in China didn’t last very long. The Americans went away and pored over the transcript, read it and reread it, and eventually found deep layers of meaning and eloquence and profundity. You’ve read it. Is all that meaning real, or did the Nixon administration just need to see meaning in the transcript?
A: I tend to think the latter. Mao was a very clever and wily figure, and he presumably knew what he wanted to say, but was it brilliant and profound? It doesn’t strike me as such. It seems to be rather a lot of banalities . But I think you’re right, the Americans maybe wanted to believe it. And it may also be—perhaps this is a generalization—but the Americans have always had this fascination with ancient Oriental wisdom, and maybe they thought there was something of that in the transcripts. Kissinger certainly goes on and on to the Chinese about, “You are so clever and so subtle” the whole time. It’s partly necessary flattery, but through the whole history of the American relationship with China there is this sense that China is the repository of ancient wisdom.
QThe Nixon visit was fairly well covered at the time, and it’s held a central place in the memoirs and biographies of people like Nixon and Kissinger. What surprised you or struck you as new in the story?
A: I hadn’t realized quite how bad relations were between the Soviet Union and China, that there had been shooting, that the Soviets were massing troops along the common border. I was also surprised by Nixon as a statesman. I don’t think I’d fully appreciated what a very skilled and knowledgeable statesman he was.
Q: Yes, there are many passages in the bookin the period before he’d been elected president, after he’d suffered a couple of political setbacks—where he nonetheless pursued a vigorous interest in international relations, visiting diplomats, pumping them for information. I
was fascinated by his idea that it would be best for America if the president could concentrate on foreign relations and leave domestic politics to sotneone else.
AI don’t know whether it was his experience of being overseas in the Second World War, but he just loved international relations, and I think maybe he was bored by domestic politics. When you’re dealing with foreign policy, you’re not having to worry about the votes, the senator from Arkansas who’s got an axe to grind on something—all that.
‘Mao was clever and wily, but was what he said brilliant and profound? It doesn’t strike me as such.’
Q: After teaching history in relative obscurity for 25 or 27 years atRyerson University, you had a fabulous success with your book Paris 1919What’s changed most, in terms of your personal circumstances, in the five or six years since it was published?
A: More people want to hear what I have to say. It used to be my students would listen to me politely but now—and I find it slightly alarming—when people say, “What do you think about this great issue?” and I reply, they all sort of listen politely, almost reverently, as if my opinion matters, and it’s slightly intimidating. But I don’t think I’ve changed. My views are what they always were. It’s just that nobody cared what I thought before.
Q: Your next big book is about Yalta, isn’t it?
A: That’s what I want to do, yeah, but that would be a bigger project, and so I thought Yalta’s probably something I need to wait on, because the Trinity job [MacMillan is currently the provost of Trinity College at the University of Toronto] is quite demanding and I’ve been very busy with it, so even finding the time to do Nixon was a bit difficult at times.
Q: Next year you take up your new position as warden of St. Antony’s College at Oxford University. How ?nuch time will you have at St. Anthony’s to write? Is that seen as part of your responsibilities?
A: Yes, very much.
A: That’s one of the reasons it appealed to me. And it’s a much smaller college, all graduate students, and so there are certain things I don’t have to worry about, like teenage drinking. I can worry about my own drinking but not the teenagers’! M