Omnipresent Eye

Patrick Wright

  • Seize the Hour: When Nixon Met Mao by Margaret MacMillan
    Murray, 384 pp, £25.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 7195 6522 7

It is a cold, clear morning, and the soldiers gathered at the airfield are singing ‘The Three Main Rules of Discipline’ as an American jet labelled ‘The Spirit of 76’ lands and taxis over to its appointed resting place. A hatch opens to reveal President Nixon. The former Red-baiter blinks before launching himself down the ramp slightly ahead of his wife, who is wearing a scarlet coat. China’s prime minister, Zhou Enlai, begins to clap as the Americans descend. After pausing to reciprocate, Nixon steps onto the tarmac and walks towards his welcoming host for the first of many carefully held handshakes.

That, as Margaret MacMillan confirms, is more or less what took place at Beijing airport on Monday, 21 February 1972. It’s also the opening scene of John Adams’s opera Nixon in China, premiered in Houston in 1987, and staged again at the London Coliseum over a few evenings last summer. An actual occurrence then, but also, as Adams and his librettist Alice Coleman understood, a brightly lit performance with carefully staged arias as well as often repeated choruses and, as Nixon never forgot, a vast audience of television viewers in America.

Having successfully launched the show that Nixon himself would shortly call ‘The Week That Changed the World’, the Americans boarded a motorcade that swept them through Tiananmen Square to the Diaoyutai, a secure compound of modern villas built on an ancient site known for its lakes, groves and blossoms. Dwight Chapman, Nixon’s appointments secretary, observed that Nixon seemed reluctant to meet Zhou Enlai’s eye as the two leaders exchanged pleasantries from adjacent sofas in Villa 18. In the early afternoon, a State Department interpreter noted that Nixon’s pancake make-up was also yielding to stress: there was, he recorded, ‘a large glob of Max Factor hanging from a hair in the middle of the groove at the end of his nose’.

Graver problems beset Mao, who was waiting some distance away in his house in the walled Zhongnanhai compound, impatient for news of Nixon’s arrival. Dressed in a new suit and shoes, the aged dictator was uncomfortably swollen: he was suffering from heart failure. Having kept his visitors in suspense, in a manner that one American official considered typical of an ancient Chinese emperor, he summoned them in the afternoon. Nixon, Henry Kissinger and an aide called Winston Lord quickly got into a limousine with Zhou and set off, leaving Bob Haldeman, the White House chief of staff, frantic with worry over their security. They entered Mao’s house, finding it ‘simple and unimposing’, as Kissinger noted, and with a ping-pong table in the hall. Then they encountered Mao himself: shuffling, speaking with difficulty, supported by one of his ‘pretty young assistants’.

The meeting with Mao may have represented a momentous ‘earthquake in the Cold War landscape’ as MacMillan claims, but it was hardly the ‘serious and frank exchange of views on Sino-US relations and world affairs’ that would be claimed in the Shanghai Communiqué signed by Nixon and Zhou at the end of the visit. Indeed, its main coinage consisted of banalities tossed like untethered grappling irons between a passing ship and a just floating hulk. Nixon proclaimed that ‘the Chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed a world.’ Mao replied: ‘Your book, The Six Crises, is not a bad book.’ When he tried to get a grip on more serious issues, Nixon was fended off by Mao, who insisted that the relations between the two countries should be reserved for Nixon’s discussions with Zhou: ‘I discuss philosophical questions.’ Nixon nevertheless impressed the Chinese leader, who later told his doctor that he far preferred America’s straight-talking anti-Communist president to ‘the leftists, who say one thing and mean another’, and also to the Soviet Russians, ‘who talk about high moral principles while engaging in sinister intrigues’.

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[*] Penguin, 352 pp., $25.95, September 2006, 978 1 59420 098 4.