Nixon-Mao Meeting: A Major Turning Point in Modern History

From the lecture series: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

A fateful meeting was held in China on February 21, 1972. The preparations for the meeting had been going on in secrecy for months in advance. The Communist Party leadership compound in Beijing, which was called Zhongnanhai, an exclusive place, was where this meeting unfolded. Little did anyone imagine that this meeting would prove to be a major turning point in modern history.

The painting depicts US Marines fighting with rebellious Boxers outside the Beijing Legation Quarter in 1900.
During the Boxer Rebellion, USA was one of the western powers that sent its troops to crush the uprising. (Image: National Archives at College Park/Public domain)

The US President Arrived in China

The President of the United States, Richard Nixon and his national security advisor, Henry Kissinger had flown into China and both of them were feeling really nervous on arrival. Although many careful and clandestine preparations had been done before they actually arrived in China, there was never any confirmation from the Chinese officials whether the President would be able to actually meet the leader of this vast country, Chairman Mao Zedong. And without any such meeting, their whole visit would be considered an ignominious failure.

But just after they had settled into their guest rooms, all of a sudden they were asked to come for a meeting with Mao Zedong. After reaching inside the Zhongnanhai compound, they were escorted to Mao’s study room. The aged Mao was not at all in good health. In fact, he was in very bad shape, afflicted with congestive heart failure. He was so weak that for days before he had been practicing the simple act of sitting down and rising up again, in advance of just this meeting. A young Chinese woman, who had lived in Brooklyn as a little girl, coordinated the discussion that followed and was a witness to a turning point in modern history that was to follow soon after.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Richard Nixon Met Mao Zedong

The meeting between the two leaders lasted for one hour. Overall, the meeting was vague and polite and no commitments were made, it was full of mutual compliments and self-deprecating humor and jokes. For example, Mao claimed that in the previous election he had voted for Nixon. Although Nixon was very earnest and tried to pull Mao toward a profound discussion about world politics, Mao Zedong said that their officials and subordinates should be handling all such topics.

President and Mrs. Nixon visit the Great Wall of China.
Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and this visit proved to be a turning point in modern history. (Image: Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Mao told them that he discussed only philosophical questions. Very soon, the meeting concluded. Nixon had assumed that there would be another meeting with Mao during the course of his historic visit to China. After all, it was the first visit by an American president to China. And it had all the makings of a turning point in modern history. However, there was no further meeting. President Nixon met Mao only for that one hour on his first day in China.

A remarkable historical account of this meeting has been written by the historian Margaret Macmillan in her book titled, Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. Macmillan has written in her book that this one hour chat between the two leaders was “curiously inconclusive”. So, here the question arises, how a “curiously inconclusive” meeting could be a turning point in modern history?

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The Actual Turning Point in Modern History

It was not the words that were exchanged that were crucial, nor even the dramatic and striking personalities of the people involved. What makes this a key turning point was the mere fact of the conversation itself—the conversation came after decades of antipathy and decades of no diplomatic connection between the United States and China.

Another reason for which it became a turning point in modern history was that following this visit by the American president, there was a huge international realignment of world politics and there was a change in the relationship between the United States and China. 

Another key moment that this turning point in modern history brought out was in a much longer and extended process. That moment was China seeking its own type of modernity and its own place in the modern world. First, after deadly and destructive convulsions within China, this event set China on the course it continues to follow today. Second, as a result, this meeting also redrew world politics, shifting the balance of the Cold War that was then going on. But beyond even that, the international transformation that followed produced global consequences that are still unfolding in the present times.

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Common Questions about Nixon-Mao Meeting: A Major Turning Point in Modern History

Q: Who accompanied US President Nixon in his trip to China in 1972?

Henry Kissinger, President Nixon’s national security advisor had accompanied him to the trip to China in 1972.

Q: Why is President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 considered significant?

President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 is considered significant because the leaders of the US and China had a dialogue after decades of no diplomatic connection between the two countries. This visit was also responsible for a huge international realignment of world politics.

Q: Who is the author of Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World?

Margaret Macmillan wrote the book Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World. The book is based on US President Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 and his meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong.

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