“Only Nixon Could Go to China”

By Kaleena Fraga

Although this expression seems to have roots in Star Trek–Spock once offered it as a Vulcan proverb–there is terrestrial truth to the statement as well. With President Trump currently in China, it’s worth looking back on the first man to make such an overture.

Why was Nixon the only president who could go to China? It has to do with his credentials as a “Cold Warrior.” As a congressman, senator, and vice president he built a reputation of being tough on communism. As a candidate for vice presidency in 1952, he hammered the the Democrats–their candidate, Adlai Stevenson, and their president, Harry Truman–as being soft on communism and unwilling to deter its spread across the world.

Yet, Nixon was not the kind of Congressman who hated communism blindly. Indeed, he took great interest in international affairs and the post-WWII order. In 1967, as he geared up to run for president, Nixon penned an article in Foreign Affairs, “Asia After Vietnam,” making the case for China to end its isolation and the join the international community.

nixonchina2Nixon took political risks in extending a hand to China. Hardline members of his own party saw any sort of negotiation with China as a betrayal to their values. America’s allies in Asia were equally alarmed. But Nixon saw this overture as a way to balance the playing field of the Cold War, to ease tensions, rather than to exacerbate them. As a hardliner himself, as someone who had long battled communists at home and abroad (with the scars from the Hiss trial to prove it), it made sense that he would be the first to offer an open hand to a distrusted and misunderstood nation. A Democrat would be open to accusations of bowing to communism–given Nixon’s credentials, this sort of charge fell flat.

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