Stroke Of Diplomacy


Towson professor edits volume of U.S. diplomatic records dealing with President Richard M. Nixon's historic visit in 1972 to the People's Republic of China

Q&A: Steve Phillips

December 31, 2006|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Reporter

It might be the greatest diplomatic coup in history, and a historian at Towson University has told the inside story.

That would be the 1972 trip by President Richard M. Nixon to what was then known as Red China. Steve Phillips, an associate professor at Towson, edited the just-published Volume XVII of Foreign Relations of the United States, which deals with the China initiative.

This series of government publications is essentially a compilation of official documents that tells the official history of U.S. foreign policy. It was begun during Abraham Lincoln's presidency.

In hindsight, Nixon's move to go to China looks like a no-brainer: Of course you want to get to know the world's largest country. Otherwise, who's going to produce our VCRs?

But in 1972, with the Cold War at full boil, it was an act of extraordinary daring by a Republican president. Schmoozing with the Russians was one thing, but the Chinese were considered absolute crazies. To understand the surprise, imagine if President Bush said he was flying to North Korea to break bread with Kim Jong Il next week.

Even now, "like Nixon going to China" is an axiom of politics, describing something that can only be pulled off by going against the political grain, like President Bill Clinton reforming welfare.

Phillips edited this volume during two years in the State Department in the late 1990s while he was working on his doctorate at Georgetown University. He says that the State Department is probably the country's largest employer of diplomatic historians, hired to keep this series going. They are given full access to all documents from all branches of government.

"You put together the best volume you can, telling the kind of story you want to tell through documents, which is trickier than writing it in a narrative," Phillips says.

The three-decade lag allows most, but not all, documents to be declassified.

"In some sections you will notice a document heading, but there will be no document," he says. "There is an agenda there for future historians. They know something is there, so even though it might not be available now, someone with a good lawyer might be able to get it in the future."

Obviously you knew a lot about this story going into this project. What did you learn that you didn't know?

It was amazing listening to the White House tapes, just amazing stuff. You come away with a good feeling for what kind of person Nixon was, which does not entirely come across on paper. I almost wish the volume had a CD with it of the tapes.

He comes across as a person who is looking at the big picture, who is brilliant with power politics. You understand that Nixon came into office in '69 determined to change the relationship with China even though the State Department and others in the bureaucracy were not on board. Even Kissinger was not with him at first. But Nixon had the ability to look at the big picture and envision a different, multipolar world. What he did in domestic politics was a different story.

Couldn't you say that it is just such big-picture thinking, going against the bureaucracy, that has the United States bogged down in Iraq?

Nixon did have it slightly easier. He only had to deal with Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. Mao was at the peak of his power coming off the Cultural Revolution. So Nixon did not have to deal with factions in China. Mao took care of that for him. Nixon just had to reach agreement with three or four Chinese men, and when that was done, everything else fell into line. The Chinese population was not about to step out of line.

What's new in this volume? Does it just fill in the details, or does it tell us something that we really didn't know about what was going on?

It makes clear the extent that the United States was trying to disengage from Taiwan as early as 1971. Even in the earliest meetings between Kissinger and Chou in July 1971, you see promises being made, suggestions that China not push publicly on the issue and that the United States would do more in private without being asked.

This was a huge issue because, of course, Taiwan, then known as the Republic of China, had been the official China to the United States. The Communists were renegades who happened to control the mainland, but they claimed Taiwan as their property. Changing the U.S. position, which was tied into anti-communism, was essential to Nixon's China policy.

With both Nixon and Kissinger obsessed with the big picture, with the Vietnam war, with their popularity at home, with making the Soviet Union nervous, they did not view the Taiwan issue as something that could stand in the way in the long run.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.