Nixon Played China Card in Vietnam War


Jotting notes to himself on a yellow legal pad during breaks in his precedent-shattering trip to China in 1972, Richard Nixon outlined the bargain he would offer China’s Communist leaders: U.S. opposition to Taiwanese independence in exchange for help in ending the Vietnam War, according to a newly published book.

The notes--revealed for the first time in “About Face,” a book about the often troubled U.S.-China relationship by James Mann, foreign policy correspondent for The Times--show that Nixon offered much stronger assurances of a one-China policy in his private talks than was reflected in the public declaration issued at the end of the trip.

“Taiwan = Vietnam = tradeoff,” Nixon wrote as he rested in the Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, preparing for private talks with Chinese Premier Chou En-lai. On another page, he wrote: “Won’t support Taiwan independence.”

China provided little overt help to Nixon in extricating the United States from the Vietnam War, although it refrained from doing anything to make the task more difficult, Mann writes. But Nixon’s assurances on Taiwan established a U.S. policy that has remained in force ever since, despite Taiwan’s evolution from a repressive dictatorship pressing its absurd claim to be the government of all China in 1972 to today’s prosperous and vibrant democracy.

The notes also emphasize the need for secrecy, showing that Nixon realized the issue would become politically difficult for him to sustain at home “if it appears we sold out Taiwan.”


In the Shanghai Communique that marked the end of Nixon’s trip, the United States said it would not challenge the position of “all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait [that] there is but one China and that Taiwan is part of China.”

The book chronicles the nations’ relationship from Nixon’s Cold War-driven rapprochement with China to the business-oriented policies of the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations that generated campaign finance controversies and a dispute over the use of Chinese rockets to launch U.S. satellites.

Mann discloses that one year before the 1989 crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Deng Xiaoping, then China’s “paramount leader,” angrily warned the United States government to stay away from Chinese universities and their students.

The secret warning came after U.S. Ambassador Winston Lord and his China-born wife, Bette Bao Lord, spoke to students at Beijing University. The book says the Lord presentation had been extremely bland, so Deng’s stern tone should have tipped off U.S. policymakers to the Chinese leadership’s extreme sensitivity to any sort of unorthodox intellectual activity.

Although then-President Bush reacted to the Tiananmen massacre with a list of diplomatic sanctions, he immediately sought to ease the blow. Four weeks after the crackdown, White House National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft assured Chinese leaders that Bush considered the long-term relationship between the two countries to be extremely important, Mann writes. Scowcroft’s trip, secret at the time, has been known for years, but Mann provides a detailed description of the talks.

Mann’s title is a play on words, focusing on the Asian concept of face, or dignity, which affected judgments in both countries, and on sharp reversals of position by a generation of U.S. political leaders.

Despite the zigzags of individual politicians, however, the broad outlines of U.S. policy toward China have remained remarkably consistent. President Clinton supports U.S. business ties with Beijing despite its human rights failings, and that was essentially the policy of Bush, whom Clinton accused of “coddling dictators.” Republicans in Congress now criticize Clinton using similar language.

A special House investigating committee concluded last week that American firms have transferred militarily important technology to Beijing in the years since the U.S. began allowing satellites to be launched on Chinese rockets. Mann reports that the satellite-launch policy began in 1988, when the Reagan administration used it as a trading card in a largely unsuccessful attempt to persuade China to stop exporting missiles to the Middle East.

According to the book, Reagan’s defense secretary, Frank C. Carlucci, exchanged the satellite plan for a promise that Deng would show restraint in missile sales. But Deng’s pledge proved to be so vague that, within months, Washington had to send other aides to find out what it really meant.

As it turned out, the assurance did not end Chinese missile exports.