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Public speculation

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President Richard Nixon was inaugurated on January 1969, when the Cold War was the overshadowing reality of the time and the United States was at war with Vietnam. The anti-communist ideals of President Nixon did not prevent him from achieving his ultimate goal, one he had mentioned to key National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger since day one in office: to review relations with China. The People’s Republic of China had been isolated from international affairs since 1949 when communist leader, Mao Zedong, took control of the country. President Nixon wanted to change the fact that the most populous country in the world was living in angry isolation. Henry Kissinger was the key advisor tasked with arranging the visit to China, which was organized in secrecy since the day Chairman Mao Zedong invited the President in 1971. Nixon and Mao knew that this visit was profitable for both countries as the cooperation served their respective interests. It was as a diplomatic and strategic overture that normalized relations between the United States and China. The China visit was key for Nixon and Kissinger’s policy of “détente,” the relaxation of international tensions with communist countries to protect American interests and defuse the threat of unintended nuclear war; especially in order to gain more leverage over the Soviet Union. The visit was scheduled for February 1972 and every detail of the trip was meticulously organized. President Nixon landed in China in February 21, 1972 and greeted by Premier Zhou Enlai effectively beginning “the week that changed the world.” However, in times where the television was crucial for people getting informed, President Nixon wanted this event to be broadcast live for everyone to experience this historic moment. The extensive media coverage was key for the visit and 87 US correspondents were chosen very carefully to cover China’s culture and the negotiations daily. Nonetheless, the meetings between the leaders were held in secrecy until the Shanghai Communique was released at the end of the trip. Many US correspondents were left in the dark as the negotiations were held in secret. As a result, news articles were often based on assumptions. The details of these meetings and negotiations were later declassified by the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) documents which included ten memorandums detailing the conversations. Comparing the FRUS declassified documents and the daily news coverage of journalist Stanley Karnow from the Washington Post directly from China is crucial for understanding why US foreign policy is made at top levels. This led to major discrepancies between the secret discussions and the public statements. Although US correspondents from major news outlets were frustrated with the limited coverage of the historic trip, the “common enemy” proverb, the self-effacing approach and particularly secrecy were necessary for building honest and strong relations with the Chinese.

The daily press coverage was fundamental for President Nixon’s historic visit. Nonetheless, the Chinese government was skeptical about this profound coverage due to the Communist Party’s policy of strong control of the media. President Nixon wanted to establish an honest relationship with China and in order to gain their trust they respected to keep the negotiations in secret and jointly decide what was going to be released to the general public. This was a challenge for the 87 correspondents who worked arduously to cover the trip with the limited information offered by US officials. Some correspondents focused on covering the Chinese society. However, some journalists such as Stanley Karnow wanted to report what was really being discussed in the close-doors. Karnow tried to fill the void created by the secrecy and reported focusing on expert’s opinions and speculations. This meant that the general public was being informed of this historic moment based on speculations. These assumptions later were verified as the FRUS documents were released, some were correct and others were not.

The first accurate assumptions by the Washington Post was made even before the negotiations commenced. President Nixon visited China when the US was fighting in Vietnam. The day the Airforce One departed to China, the Post wrote that American officials believed that the Chinese will show no sympathy for the administration’s Indochina policy midst the conflict. The FRUS documents then confirmed that senior Chinese officials offered no room for negotiations. This was confirmed by the conversations after the arrival banquet where Premier Zhou Enlai stated that “our position is that so long as you are continuing your Vietnamization… we can do nothing but to continue to support them (North Vietnamese).” Also, Karnow’s assumptions made from the arrival celebration were later confirmed by the declassified documents. Premier Enlai’s banquet speech served as a way to welcome Washington and to implicitly indicate Peking’s expectations for the visit. The Washington Post’s article following the event accurately predicted the American stance on Taiwan and its geopolitical issues with China. Karnow assumed that “the administration believes there is only one China- which is not far from Peking’s claim.” Taiwan was a crucial topic for the Chinese officials and, as Enlai highlighted in the speech, that the “mutual respect for territorial integrity” is the basis for creating a positive relationship. This claim made by the Post was precisely the US’s stance since the beginning of the visit, according to the FRUS documents. There were five principles regarding Washington’s stance on the island and the first principle states that they believed that “there is only one China, and Taiwan is part of China.” Moreover, the FRUS documents exposed the tense exchanges between Secretary of State Rogers and China’s Foreign Minister Chi P’eng-fei throughout the visit. The banquet’s “cool atmosphere” was due to the exchanging demands between Rogers and P’eng-fei.

Nevertheless, not all the speculations reported by Karnow during the trip were correct. One of the biggest misconceptions made by the newspaper was that President Nixon agreed to Chinese demands regarding the removal of US troops from Taiwan and Asia. It was President Nixon who actually planned and was determined to withdraw troops from Taiwan. Nixon explained to Enlai how this plan was going to take place:

Now, I would add to that, as Dr. Kissinger had pointed out, two-thirds of our present forces on Taiwan are related to the support of our forces in Southeast Asia. These forces, regardless of what we may do here, will be removed as the situation in Southeast Asia is resolved. I have made that decision. And the reduction of the remaining third of our military presence on Taiwan will go forward as progress is made on the peaceful resolution of the problem.

However, China’s decision to allow American troops in Japan was not published by the press. In discussions revealed by the declassified documents, Nixon completely disagreed with Chinese officials demands for the ejection of military presence in Japan.

As mentioned before, the secret negotiations between American and Chinese officials challenged the press coverage. Many agreements were made behind closed doors where the correspondents were unaware and uninformed of the collaborations. President Nixon’s request to Premier Enlai for the liberation of American prisoner John T. Downey was not published by the Washington Post nor other media outlets. Henry Kissinger shared highly classified information to the Chinese about Soviet military equipment. This secrecy and exchange of classified information reveals Washington’s use of triangular diplomacy in order to achieve its primordial goal of creating a strong relationship between the United States and China.

The Washington Post’s challenges for covering Nixon’s visit to China due to the secret negotiations and lack of correspondents’ presence in meetings between senior officials demonstrate why US foreign policy at top levels creates public speculations that can lead to misinterpretation of events. President Nixon feared the general public’s misunderstanding of the events and stressed to Zhou and other Chinese officials that he cannot control what the press may speculate with regard to their meetings but will take every precaution to knock down any stories that are inaccurate and that are in violation of understanding. The use of foreign policy in closed doors is key for creating a strong and honest relationship between the United States and China.

As demonstrated by the Washington Post articles, there are disagreement between what is publicly reported and what happens behind closed doors. Even though this disagreement can be explained by multiple reasons, the “common enemy” proverb, the self-effacing approach of the US, and the secrecy explain the reasons behind the disagreement and help understand the forces that improved US-Chinese relations.

The often-cited “common enemy” proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” served the Nixon administration in a significant way. In his conversations with Zhou, President Nixon frequent mentioned the USSR, the North Vietnamese, India and Democrats as enemies that threatened the normalization of relations. Zhou often concurred with President Nixon’s statements, which confirms how the proverb might have played a significant role in bettering relations between the two leaders by cultivating trust. Although no public confirmation of the aforementioned statements can be made (as this would result in presumptions of collusion between US-China), the fact that his happened proves why disagreements between what is publicly reported and what happens exist. Behind closed doors, these statements helped develop trust between President Nixon and Zhou, but should this leak, US-Chinese relations would have deteriorated considerably. Both leaders mentioned publicly that they endlessly attempted to find common ground, hence this would not help explain why there were disagreements between public and private records.

Since the beginning of the negotiations, the US wanted to portray an image of accessibility and deference. Even though some journalists attacked the US’s stance for not generating much after the Shanghai Communique, the self-effacing attitude assumed by the US was key in bettering relations. Notwithstanding critic’s opinions, the US was able to attain its main objectives by employing this methodology. President Nixon, rather than taking into account short term goals, focused on long term achievements:

I noticed, for example, that we were criticized by one of the TV correspondents because we on our side have not informed the press about what we were talking about to each other. We have done that because that is the understanding we have had with the Prime Minister, and we have tried to keep that understanding. And that is the role that I want all of our people to understand and that the Secretary of State and I will convey when we get back. Our interest with regard to this great step forward in our dealings with the People’s Republic should never be the headline that we make today but the history we make for tomorrow.

“They got Taiwan, we got Eggroll,” read a criticizing headline that, from a public standpoint, was accurate. Nonetheless, the US succeeded in getting troops in Japan, scaring the USSR, and a future of normalizing relations. Once FRUS documents were released and a more detailed account of the events was given, it was no longer only “Eggroll” what the US got.

Although the “common enemy” proverb and the self-effacing attitude played an important role, the most important factor behind the disagreement was secrecy. Since the onset of the conversations, both Nixon and Zhou had agreed upon the secretive nature of their discussions. Nothing was getting out unless agreed to by both parties:

One of the points it is important for all our colleagues here to understand is that the meetings we will have will be ones in which we can talk frankly, and there will be no disclosures to the press unless we agree—unless the Prime Minister or the Chairman and I agree, and the Foreign Minister and Secretary Rogers agree—because it is important that the talks we have be completely open, and they will not be completely open if we are talking to the press rather than to each other.

Obviously, the American press was growing increasingly upset with this position and their frustration grew as “Ziegler refused to give American newsmen here an assessment of the talks.” When reporters pushed President Nixon on his decision to keep the conversations confidential, he stated that he did not want to endanger any “possibility of agreement in some areas.” Confidentiality and secrecy were crucial in creating an environment of trust between the world leaders as well as setting the stage for what would become a successful trip to China for President Nixon. However, secrets cannot be made public, hence these were also the reason why disagreements occur between public reports and private occurrences.

As part of this trip, the US was also attempting to improve public opinion back home. President Nixon and his aides wanted to make sure that the public in the continental US understood the importance of the visit to China. They wanted as much television audience as possible, without generating any speculation. In short, President Nixon was happy with a television spectacle, but feared printed speculative coverage. Unlike previous presidents who opted for no press coverage for international summits during crisis, President Nixon’s approach to his China visit proved to be unique.

Besides this intentional coverage, newspapers covered Chinese culture, infrastructure and lifestyle. They followed the President and First Lady in their public touristic trips. For instance, the media covered a visit to the Great Wall by the President and his wife. Nonetheless, given the previously explained reasons, the general coverage was never supplemented by meaningful coverage of the President’s conversations with Premier Zhou Enlai.  

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