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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: July 2009

5 - Nixon's China Policy Discourse in Context


Great ideas can change history, but only if great leadership comes along that can give those ideas force. … What lifts great leaders above the second-raters is that they are more forceful, more resourceful, and have a shrewdness of judgment that … enables them to identify the fleeting opportunity.

Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon's opening to China in 1972 has been indelibly associated with balance-of-power politics and its attendant assumption of a sudden, almost automatic realist reaction to structural changes from 1969 onward. Yet Nixon had been a prominent figure in the U.S. government since the 1950s and had maintained a high-profile involvement with communist and Asian affairs during the 1960s, when he was out of office. This chapter traces Nixon's thinking about China policy prior to, and during the first two years of, his presidency and investigates its relationship to the developing discourse of reconciliation in official and informed public circles during the 1960s. Did Nixon, in keeping with his front-line Republican conservative position, perceive China as a “Red Menace” to be ruthlessly contained and isolated? How then did he turn to the discourse of reconciliation with China that accompanied his moves toward rapprochement when he took office?


Nixon's early political career was built significantly upon anticommunist foundations. Shortly after being elected a congressman from California in 1947, he was appointed to the Herter Committee, which undertook a study tour of Europe in preparation for the Marshall Plan.