The tension and curiosity was palpable here in America when President Richard Nixon touched down in China with an entourage of government officials and press on February 21, 1972.
The reason was clear: the country had been fighting a war against communism in Indochina for the last seven years and this would be the first time in more than two decades that the United States would be engaging the Chinese Communist Party publicly, and in China. Most Americans — including the press — hadn’t a clue of what China was actually like beyond the politically-driven, exaggerated Hollywood caricatures of the Chinese people. As veteran journalist Dan Rather later put it, it was a bit “like leaving earth and going deep into the cosmos to some distant planet.”
On that plane was Chas Freeman. At the time he was a foreign service officer working for the U.S. State Department’s China Desk. Fluent in several languages, he was tapped to be the principal American interpreter for Nixon. Leaving from Washington on Feb. 17 and traveling to Hawaii, Guam, then Shanghai, Air Force One landed in Beijing (then still pronounced Peking), and was greeted by China’s premier Zhou Enlai. Famously, First Lady Pat Nixon wore a bright red coat, some saying it was chosen because of the color’s Chinese symbolism for luck, others reporting it was planned to contrast with the expected sea of gray and black suits on the tarmac.
From Nixon immediately grasping Zhou’s hand (the premier had been slighted when Secretary of State John Foster Dulles refused to shake his hand years earlier), to the timed state dinners and speeches for American nightly news, everything was staged for peak visual consumption. It was a spectacle, but one that had serious strategic significance — this detente had been calculated to serve as a wedge between Communist China and Communist Russia on the chessboard of Cold War politics. Nixon had also hoped to gain leverage with China over the North Vietnamese in Washington’s ongoing war in Indochina.
Nixon proclaimed it the “week that changed the world,” and in many ways it did, explains Freeman, who sat down with us recently to talk about his experience as an interpreter during this audacious moment. The “Shanghai Communique,” the tangible outcome of the visit, was a joint statement affirming the detente and movement toward normalization, and set the tone of understanding for the next several decades on the Taiwan issue. Here, the United States underscored support for the “One China policy” and strategic ambiguity. They both agreed that neither party would pursue hegemony in the region and would oppose any third party’s effort to do so — very clearly meaning Russia.
“It was an almost unprecedented instance of American initiative and statecraft,” Freeman said of the trip, referring to the planning, execution, and accomplishments. Too bad it didn’t last. He talks about this — and that warm furry hat — in his interview below: