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Remembrance of Things Past

Margaret MacMillan examines a week that changed the world

Historian Margaret MacMillan (BA 1966 Trinity) knows how to tell a story. The Trinity College provost and the author of Paris 1919 can conjure a time and place – and political conference – with exceptional force. In her latest offering, Nixon in China: The Week that Changed the World, she summons a moment in February 1972 when Richard Nixon was in Beijing for his historic meeting with Mao Tse-tung, the leader of the People’s Republic of China. Nixon’s visit marked the end of the deep freeze between the countries, which had existed since the Communists took power in 1949. Lisa Rundle talks to Margaret MacMillan about the book.

What were Chinese-U.S. relations like before the meeting between Nixon and Mao? There were no direct relations. Very few people from the West had ever been there. Nobody knew what was going on – it was mysterious. And the Chinese had the same view of North America. It’s really like North Korea today – who knows what’s going on there?

The conversation between Nixon and Mao was not particularly substantive – they mostly chit-chatted – but as a symbol it was very meaningful. It was hugely important symbolically, and it did represent something of an earthquake in international relations because suddenly you had two very big countries talking to each other who hadn’t been talking to each other for more than 20 years. It opened the door, just, for the future economic and cultural exchanges that were going to make such a difference.

Did you change your mind about these very big characters you were writing about – Nixon, Mao, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Chinese Prime Minister Chou En-lai – as you researched? I think you always do. I knew more about Mao than Nixon but usually the more you learn about a person – especially a famous person – you get more depth, you learn about them as human beings. And Nixon… I was so influenced by what happened during Watergate and, I suppose, the tail end of Vietnam, but there was much more to him than that. I hadn’t realized really how well prepared he was to do international relations; he was a great statesman.

What most surprised you? Possibly that I actually found myself coming to rather like Nixon. He was sort of awkward and he had sudden enthusiasms. And he wanted to do things well and he didn’t always get it. You know, he designed these new uniforms for the White House and everybody laughed at them. And he loved Around the World in Eighty Days and that was a sort of touching side to him I thought.

Almost a tragic figure. I think so. I think tragic figures are often those who aspire to be something and don’t make it. They have fatal flaws or they aspire too much and they come crashing down. And I think Nixon wanted to be a great president, a great leader of the United States, and he never quite made it. But he’s a serious figure, he’s not just a buffoon.

What does understanding this meeting and its history help us understand about today? It makes us understand more about both of the countries. These are countries with strong senses of who they are; they both feel they’re a model for the world in some ways; they both had lots of reason to be suspicious of each other. I think understanding why there was a long standoff and then why they became friends helps explain something about the relationship. And unless you know that, you won’t understand why the Chinese are so attached to Taiwan, you won’t understand why they’re so sensitive about the power of the United States and you won’t understand, perhaps, why the United States has such mixed feelings towards China. They sort of fear it but they are also drawn by it and interested in it. So, the history helps us to understand. I mean, it’s just like understanding an individual. If you know what’s happened to them in the past you have some sense why they behave as they do.

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