Only Nixon Could Go to China

nixon and mao by Edel Rodriguez

The phrase ‘Nixon goes to China‘ or ‘It took Nixon to go to China’ is a historical reference to President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to the People’s Republic of China, where he met with Chairman Mao Zedong.

As a political metaphor, it refers to the ability of a politician with an unassailable reputation among his supporters for representing and defending their values to take actions that would draw their criticism and even opposition if taken by someone without those credentials. Although Nixon’s example is that of a hardliner taking steps toward peace with a traditional enemy (the most common application of the metaphor), it could also be applied to a reputedly cautious diplomat defying expectations by taking military action, or a political leader reforming aspects of the political system of which they have been strong supporters.

Nixon’s visit to China was of particular significance because it marked the beginning of a process of thawing in Sino-American relations — the two countries had been estranged for many years, as the U.S. was ardently anti-Communist and refused to recognize its government (maintaining relations with the anticommunist Republic of China in Taiwan to that point), and China had viewed the USs as its top enemy. Because Nixon had an undisputed reputation of being a staunch anti-socialst, he was largely immune to any criticism of being ‘soft on Communism’ by figures on the right of American politics.

The phrase originated prior to Nixon’s actual visit to China. An early use of the phrase is found in a December 1971 ‘U.S. News & World Report’ interview with then Senate Democratic Leader Mike Mansfield, in a section summary lead that read ”Only a Nixon’ Could Go to Chin.’ The actual quote from Mansfield (which he prefaces by noting he had heard it said before) was ‘Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it.’

A popular use of the expression came in the 1991 film ‘Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,’ where ‘only Nixon could go to China’ is quoted by Spock as ‘an old Vulcan proverb.’ In the context of the film, it is given as a reason why James T. Kirk, a character with a history of armed conflict with the Klingons and a personal enmity for them, should escort their chancellor to Earth for peace negotiations with the Federation.

Author and historian Zachary Karabell compared President Chester Arthur reforming the civil service system America (in the early 1880s) to Nixon going to China, since Arthur himself was a product of the spoils system and yet he was the one who helped get rid of it (with the Pendleton Act). Other examples include President Dwight D. Eisenhower (a former World War II general) confronting the military-industrial complex. As President Lyndon Johnson (a southerner from Texas) was instrumental in pushing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through the U.S. Congress. Also, the actions of Israeli right-wing Likud Prime Ministers Menachem Begin (in giving up the Sinai Peninsula in exchange for peace with Egypt in 1979) and Ariel Sharon (in withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2005) are sometimes considered Nixon-to-China moments.

One Comment to “Only Nixon Could Go to China”

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