Unvarnished thoughts on China


Strategy: Tapes reveal blunt talk between Kissinger and Nixon before his historic trip.

March 12, 2002

President Richard M. Nixon is on the phone on an April evening in 1971, talking to his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger. They're trying to change the course of history. And they're chatting ever so casually.

This particular conversation, at 8:18 p.m. April 27, 1971, involves the secret machinations that will lead to Nixon's trip to China in February 1972, transforming the course of Chinese-United States relations. The Chinese premier, Chou En-lai, has secretly invited Nixon to send a clandestine emissary to China to begin making arrangements for the trip.

On this evening, Nixon and Kissinger are trying to decide who that emissary should be. He should be someone with a title, Nixon decides. But George H.W. Bush (then ambassador to the United Nations) is dismissed as too weak. Nelson Rockefeller (governor of New York) is considered appealing - to the Chinese, a Rockefeller would be a tremendous thing, Kissinger says. But Nixon finds him a "wild hare running around."

In the end, Kissinger goes in person. And the rest is history. Except that Kissinger thought of keeping some of the past to himself, and held on to 20,000 pages of transcripts of telephone conversations he had with Nixon from 1969 to 1973.

Three years ago, the National Security Archive, an independent non-governmental research institute and library housed at George Washington University in Washington, requested access to the transcripts. Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration - a government agency - said that the transcripts had finally been returned to its custody.

The National Security Archive - which collects and publishes declassified documents it obtains through the Freedom of Information Act - has published a sample of the transcripts on its Web site. It also has a tape of that April conversation, available for listening on the Web site, which is http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/

Here is an excerpt of the April 27, 1971, transcript (from the Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives and Records Administration, National Security Files, as posted on the National Archives site):

Nixon: Let me think of whether there is something else - how about Nelson [Rockefeller]?

Kissinger: No.

Nixon: Can't do it, huh?

Kissinger: Mr. President, he wouldn't be disciplined enough, although he is a possibility.

Nixon: It would engulf him in a big deal, and he is outside of the government, you see.

Kissinger: Let me think about it. I might be able to hold him in check.

Nixon: It is intriguing, don't you think?

Kissinger: It is intriguing.

Nixon: How about Bush?

Kissinger: Absolutely not. He is too soft and not sophisticated enough.

Nixon: I thought of that myself.

Kissinger: I thought about [Elliot] Richardson [secretary of Health, Education and Welfare] but he wouldn't be the right thing.

Nixon: He is still too close to us. Nelson - the Chinese would consider him important and he would be - could do a lot for us in terms of the domestic situation. No, Nelson is a wild hare running around.

Kissinger: I think for one operation I could keep him under control. And he has this advantage - to them a Rockefeller is a tremendous thing.

Nixon: Sure. Well, keep it in the back of your head.

Kissinger: Bush would be too weak.

Nixon: I thought so, too, but I was trying to think of somebody with a title.

Kissinger: Nelson has possibilities.

Earlier meetings show how Nixon and Kissinger began to approach China. The National Archives has 40 documents on its Web site relating to the China trip in addition to the phone transcript. Following is an excerpt from a memo recounting a conversation between Nixon and the president of Pakistan, Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan, on Oct. 25, 1970, in the Oval Office. President Yahya Khan was one of the intermediaries who approached China on behalf of Nixon. The exchange with Yahya Khan is also interesting in light of the United States' recent involvement with Pakistan in the war against terror.

"The President [Nixon] began the conversation by saying that we have had difficult times in our relationships with our allies produced by Congressional opposition, but that we will stick by our friends. And we consider Pakistan our friend. He mentioned the hundred million dollar program loan of AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development.]

"President Yahya thanked the President for the military assistance program, particularly for the release of some B-57's and the equipment.

"The President [Nixon] said, `There is a psychosis in this country about India; we will keep our word with Pakistan, however; we will work with you; we will try to be as helpful as we can.'"

They go on to discuss how Yahya Khan will convey Nixon's desire for a rapprochement with the Chinese on a coming visit to Beijing.

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