During a live television and radio broadcast, President Richard Nixon stuns the nation by announcing that he will visit communist China the following year. The statement marked a dramatic turning point in U.S.-China relations, as well as a major shift in American foreign policy.
Nixon was not always so eager to reach out to China. Since the Communists came to power in China in 1949, Nixon had been one of the most vociferous critics of American efforts to establish diplomatic relations with the Chinese. His political reputation was built on being strongly anti-communist, and he was a major figure in the post-World War II Red Scare, during which the U.S. government launched massive investigations into possible communist subversion in America.
By 1971, a number of factors pushed Nixon to reverse his stance on China. First and foremost was the Vietnam War. Two years after promising the American people “peace with honor,” Nixon was as entrenched in Vietnam as ever. His national security advisor, Henry Kissinger, saw a way out: Since China’s break with the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, the Chinese were desperate for new allies and trade partners. Kissinger aimed to use the promise of closer relations and increased trade possibilities with China as a way to put increased pressure on North Vietnam—a Chinese ally—to reach an acceptable peace settlement. Also, more importantly in the long run, Kissinger thought the Chinese might become a powerful ally against the Soviet Union, America’s Cold War enemy. Kissinger called such foreign policy ‘realpolitik,’ or politics that favored dealing with other powerful nations in a practical manner rather than on the basis of political doctrine or ethics.
Nixon undertook his historic “journey for peace” in 1972, beginning a long and gradual process of normalizing relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. Though this move helped revive Nixon’s sagging popularity, and contributed to his win in the 1972 election, it did not produce the short-term results for which Kissinger had hoped. The Chinese seemed to have little influence on North Vietnam’s negotiating stance, and the Vietnam War continued to drag on until U.S. withdrawal in 1973. Further, the budding U.S.-China alliance had no measurable impact on U.S.-Soviet relations. But, Nixon’s visit did prove to be a watershed moment in American foreign policy–it paved the way for future U.S. presidents to apply the principle of realpolitik to their own international dealings.