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Winston Lord was a key figure in the restoration of relations between the United States and China in 1972. From 1969-73, as a member of the National Security Council's planning staff, he was a top aide to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, accompanying him on his secret trip to Beijing in 1971. The following year, he was part of the U.S. delegation during President Nixon's historic visit to China. Later, Lord became the State Department's top policy adviser on China (1973-77), the U.S. ambassador to China (1985-1989), and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during President Clinton's first term. Winston Lord was interviewed for COLD WAR in January and April of 1997.
On the Nixon administration's interest in China:
There were several reasons that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger thought it was in the U.S. interest to open up with China after 22 years of mutual hostility and isolation. First, we had been dealing with the so-called communist bloc really just through Moscow, and even as we were opening up with Eastern Europe, we thought it was important for diplomatic flexibility to deal with Beijing as well. And it was clear that Beijing and Moscow had tensions and this would be possible. Secondly, in order to improve our relations with Russia, Nixon and Kissinger believed that rapprochement with China, or at least an opening, would give us some leverage, given the geopolitical competition between them. So, obviously the Soviet factor was very important.
In addition, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, which was costing us heavily internationally and tearing our society apart. And Nixon in particular, more than Kissinger, but both, felt that by opening with China we might get their cooperation in bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion. In short, that if we were dealing with both of Hanoi's patrons, Beijing and Moscow, that this would help to isolate them and put pressure on them to be more reasonable at the negotiating table. And then finally, in a longer-term perspective, we saw the possibilities of trade and other exchanges, and a broader relationship with China being built up over several decades. So those were the main reasons that President Nixon took his courageous decision to open up with China.
Both Nixon and Kissinger ... analyzed the geopolitical situation and the particular fact of growing Sino-Russian tensions, culminating in border clashes in 1969. And so they saw a good likelihood that at least some Chinese leaders -- we of course knew that China had some strategic thinkers like Chou En-lai and Mao -- might calculate that an opening with us would help them with the Russians. ... Nixon had written an article in "Foreign Affairs" magazine in 1967 suggesting that we probably should change our policy toward China, and of course, as is now conventional wisdom, the fact that he was a known anti-communist protected his right flank and made it much easier for him to open up to China than it would have been, say, for Hubert Humphrey, whom he defeated in the election.
On Kissinger's secret 1971 trip to China:
Getting ready for the 1971 secret trip of Kissinger to China was of course very dramatic and exciting -- but also very difficult both to assemble the substance of our positions and to work out the logistics. On the substance, Kissinger would often call on outside scholars to get their ideas on various foreign policy issues, and he did that with Chinese scholars -- but of course not letting on why he was picking their brains. He himself had very little experience with China, but he was a brilliant analyst and very quick at picking up strategic approaches, of course.
We had a person on the staff, John Holdridge, who knew a lot more about Asia and China at that point than I did, and so I would work with him: I would bring the global perspective, since I was involved in the various pieces that he was planning with, including Vietnam and Russia, and Holdridge would bring the expertise on China. We also had drawn on the expertise of the State Department, but again without explaining exactly why, because the secret trip was secret even from our State Department. ...
On the logistic side, the Pakistanis were of course the crucial conduit. We had settled on Pakistan as the channel of communications with the Chinese, and in the course of 1970 and '71 messages passed back and forth in a very careful way to their ambassador in Washington and our people in Pakistan. And it was finally agreed that Kissinger would come to China to see whether in fact the two sides could agree on a Nixon trip a few months later. ...
Kissinger was going on a public trip to Southeast Asia, Vietnam, Thailand, and then India and Pakistan. It was decided that while he was in Pakistan, he would make a secret side-trip to Beijing, and we worked out carefully with the Pakistanis what the scenario would be, which was: he was going to get sick with a stomach ache. Ironically, while we were in India, on his way to Pakistan, he got sick with a stomach ache -- which he held secret because he didn't want to destroy his later cover story. ...
Anyway, the way the scenario unfolded was as follows. We went to a banquet given by the President of Pakistan. Kissinger left the banquet early, allegedly with a stomach ache, and went back to the guest house. In the middle of the night, the head of the Pakistan Air Force, I believe, or at least one of their top military officials, personally drove a car, picked us up at about 3 a.m. in the morning, drove us to a military airport, where we got on the President of Pakistan's plane to fly to China. ...
Meanwhile, the next morning, a secret service agent impersonating Kissinger, with a hat over his head, got in the car and we announced that he was sick and he was going up to a hill station rest house to get better; and we postponed our departure from Pakistan to give us a total of 48 hours to get in and out of China secretly. We carried out an elaborate charade. For example, we wanted a Pakistani doctor to call upon Kissinger, and I remember they interviewed one doctor and they asked, "Do you know what Kissinger looks like?" and he said, "Yes," and we said, "Well, you're the wrong doctor." And they got a few Pakistani Cabinet officials who were cut in on the secret to go call upon Kissinger at the hill station where Kissinger allegedly was, to continue this cover. ...
Then the scene shifts back to the Islamabad airport. We get on the plane and we're greeted by four Chinese who had been sent into Pakistan to fly in with us to Pakistan. There was a Pakistani pilot and flight attendants, and then sitting in the back were the Chinese and ourselves. ... Kissinger, myself, John Holdridge, the China expert, and a Vietnam expert, Mr. Smyser, were the four officers going on this plane, plus two secret service agents. One of them knew where we were going, the other had no idea where he was going at three o'clock in the morning; and when that agent got on the airplane and saw a Chinese there, I believe he went for his pistol -- or at least he was extremely concerned, because he didn't know what was happening. Anyway, we took off toward China, with the Chinese in the back of the plane, with Kissinger and the rest of us and the Pakistanis in the front.
It turns out that Kissinger had left all his shirts behind in Pakistan; he was worried almost more about that than meeting Chou En-lai and the negotiating challenges before him. We, of course, pointed out to Henry that "You haven't even sat down yet to negotiate with the Chinese and you've already lost your shirt." So he borrowed one from Mr. Holdridge, who is about six foot three, and put this on and looked like he was a penguin. And ironically, the shirt said in the back "Made in Taiwan." In any event, as the plane was getting close to the Chinese border, we were all aware of the fact that no American official had been in China since 1949: 22 years. I decided I'd like to be first, and so while Kissinger was sitting in the back of the plane, I went to the front of the plane, so as the plane went over the Chinese border I was the first American official in China in 22 years. Henry never forgave me for that; [he] elbowed me aside and got off the plane first. In any event, it was a dramatic moment, of course.
On Chou En-lai:
We knew Chou En-lai would be impressive; we didn't know how impressive he would be. Kissinger has stated on several occasions that in all his world travels, in all his meetings with an extraordinary number of world leaders, that the two most impressive were Charles de Gaulle and Chou En-lai. ... So he was extraordinary; we saw that on our first encounters. For example, when he reminisced on the Cultural Revolution, he was very clever, because he described some of the horrors of it, including his being locked up in his own foreign ministry by the Red Guards. But he also alleged that Chairman Mao had the vision to carry this out. He, Chou En-lai, didn't understand why this was beneficial for the Chinese people, that it looked bad to him, but the Chairman was wiser than he was and knew what he was doing. So he was both loyal to the Chairman and making a point for history: that he opposed the Cultural Revolution. So immediately we could see this man's subtlety. But in all my experiences -- and I've met quite a few world leaders -- he is the single most impressive diplomat I've ever met.
There's no question he was ruthless; you don't get to be number two, or three, or number one in China, without being ruthless. He's also very clever: he was always really number three and not number two, because Mao always got rid of his number two person, so that he was less of a challenge. Having said that, [Chou] was clearly more moderate, and the Chinese people consider him more moderate, than Mao. And he did contain some of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He was much more of a pragmatist; and indeed he's on record as having humanely helped to save people. Nevertheless, there is a debate about whether he could have done more to oppose Mao and his excesses, or whether realistically he did all he could and still keep his job.
He was at once a strategic thinker who was Kissinger's superior or equal -- and that's pretty hard: Kissinger's pretty brilliant on strategy. He could deal at that level about the conceptual framework for our relationships, etc. He was also a master negotiator and tactician; whether it was the Shanghai communique or other documents, he was extremely skillful at that level. He was very well versed, particularly for the isolated Chinese, in terms of history in the world, including American history and politics, philosophy -- very well read. And often he and Kissinger would put aside their briefs when they got through and sit around for another hour just to discuss seemingly irrelevant topics. Without being naive about the ruthless dimension that he undoubtedly possessed, he nevertheless projected great warmth. An incredibly charismatic person, and someone with a personal touch. ...
It was interesting, however, that he was totally dominant when he was leading the Chinese side, but when he was in Chairman Mao's presence -- and I was fortunate to be in all the meetings with Mao, five times -- he was almost subservient. He was certainly very respectful, didn't speak, and in his body movements made it clear that the Great Leader was in charge. Now of course that's one reason he survived. But he was an actor in his youth, and he was clearly acting in these meetings.
The first time we saw Mao was on Nixon's trip. The Chinese like to keep you off balance, and Mao of course was the equivalent of the Chinese Emperor granting an audience. And so we were not even absolutely sure that Nixon would see Mao when he went; it wasn't confirmed, although we made it clear we expected that to happen. An hour after we arrived in the guest house, suddenly Chou En-lai came back and said, "The Chairman would like to see the President right now." So the President got Kissinger; Kissinger asked me to go along, for a couple of reasons: one, I had been his chief support along with one or two others on this whole enterprise, and so it was a reward at an historical moment. Secondly, I'm sure he didn't want to have to take notes, so he'd get someone else to do it. I mention this only because the history books at the time record only Nixon and Kissinger being in this meeting, and not myself; and the reason for that is, at the end of the meeting, the Chinese brought out photographs and a communique showing me and mentioning my name as well as the others, and Nixon and Kissinger thought that it was so awkward that the Secretary of State had not been there that it would be even more awkward if the national security adviser had been there, and one of his people, as opposed to the Secretary of State -- so they cut me out of the pictures, cut me out of the communique. ...
The first meeting between Chairman Mao and Nixon, of course, was a dramatic moment, and it wasn't quite what I expected or Kissinger expected. First of all, it lasted about an hour, which is I guess about what we would have expected. Our first reaction was one of some disappointment. Mao seemed to be rather casual in his discussion of topics, going from one issue to another in a seemingly random fashion. Very impressive in his physical presence, in terms of exuding power and toughness, but we thought his actual words were rather disappointing. Having been used to, by now, Chou En-lai's elegant constructions and Mandarin approach, Mao was more peasant-like as well as a tough revolutionary, and he spoke just in short brushstrokes; he could be semi-crude in body, and didn't seem that he had a clear structure to what he was saying, let alone any elegance like Chou En-lai. So our first reaction was of some disappointment, despite the drama of the moment.
But as the trip went on several more days, and as we negotiated and discussed generally issues with Chou En-lai, and as we went back over the transcript of the meeting with Mao, we realized just how subtle and how impressive he had been. Obviously, we barbarians didn't catch it at first, but we could see in retrospect that he had a purpose, that he covered the main substance of issues in the course of the conversation, segueing very seamlessly from one to another, and that he had set forth the basic strands of Chinese policy. ...
Among the issues that were discussed were the Russians, and [he showed] his clear distrust [of them, with] unabashed talking about how we and China could balance off the "polar bear," as he would put it. The Taiwan issue came up. Basically what he said there ... was that they had patience on this issue -- and I don't remember his exact formulation, but they could wait 100 years or something. Now, of course, they no longer have that view. So you had the major geostrategic reason we came together (the Russians) and you had the major bilateral irritant (the Taiwan issue), and he covered both of those, as well as some comments on what was happening in China and some other issues -- I'm sure probably Vietnam came up, and others.
[Nixon and Mao] got on well because they both avoided any sentimentality or false notes of diplomacy. In effect -- and this is not verbatim words, but both Mao and Nixon said, "Look, we can help each other geopolitically. We have no illusions that we [don't] have disagreements on ideology and even national interests, but we can be useful to each other." "And I, Nixon, I'm here not for any romantic purpose: I'm here in a hard-headed American national interest." And this appealed to Mao, as opposed to some sacramental, diplomatic "We want to get to know you better and we want to have friendship between our peoples" kind of a presentation.
On the significance of the opening to China:
The Chinese clearly had fear and suspicion of the Soviet Union, and that was one of their incentives to opening up with the United States. It would be a mistake, of course, to suggest that it went so far as to be an ally or even a partner. We had parallel policies; we both felt it would give us useful leverage vis-a-vis Moscow to be opening up with each other. But we wanted good relations with Moscow, or at least better relations, as well as with China. So we didn't carry this to the point of trying to forge some de facto alliance with China directed at Russia; we wanted Russia to be sufficiently attentive to our new relations with their border enemy that Russia itself would get more flexible.
And indeed, this worked beautifully. Nixon went to China in February 1972. At that point, with the Russians we had a mixed relationship. We had offered, for example, a summit meeting with the Russians, and they were dragging their feet on a response. ... Then we announced [Nixon's] trip to China ... [And] over the next few months the following happened: the Russians immediately accepted a summit meeting with Nixon; but by now they were too late: they had to get in line, so the China one went ahead first. They missed their chance. We even checked on that on the way to China, and they still were holding out on the dates. We negotiated quite quickly a Berlin agreement, which they made concessions on. We began to move on arms control, moving towards some of the arms control agreements that took place at the Nixon summit, and the whole general tone moved ahead. And there's no question that it was a result of the opening with China. ...
The fact is this was a dramatic success. I think many historians would agree, and I'm not being biased here, that the opening to China was one of the most important and successful geopolitical events in the last 50 years.
Winston Lord | Wu Ningkun | Ge Yang