A summary of Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong (1972)

On February 21st 1972, US president Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong and premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. This is an abridged memorandum summarising their conversation:

(There were opening greetings during which the Chairman welcomed President Nixon and the President expressed his great pleasure at meeting the Chairman.)

President Nixon: “The Chairman’s writings moved a nation and have changed the world.”

Chairman Mao: “I haven’t been able to change it. I’ve only been able to change a few places in the vicinity of Peking… Our common old friend, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, doesn’t approve of this. He calls us Communist bandits. He recently issued a speech. Have you seen it?”

President Nixon: “Chiang Kai-shek calls the Chairman a bandit. What does the Chairman call Chiang Kai-shek?”

Prime Minister Zhou: “Generally speaking we call them Chiang Kai-shek’s clique. In the newspapers sometimes we call him a bandit; we are also called bandits in turn. Anyway, we abuse each other.”

Chairman Mao: “Actually, the history of our friendship with him is much longer than the history of your friendship with him.”

President Nixon: “Yes, I know.”

President Nixon: “I hope to talk with the Prime Minister and later with the Chairman about issues like Taiwan, Vietnam and Korea. I also want to talk about — and this is very sensitive — the future of Japan, the future of the subcontinent, and what India’s role will be. And on the broader world scene, the future of US-Soviet relations. Because only if we see the whole picture of the world and the great forces that move the world will we be able to make the right decisions about the immediate and urgent problems that always completely dominate our vision.”

Chairman Mao: “All those troublesome problems I don’t want to get into very much. I think your topic is better – philosophic questions.”

President Nixon: “For example, Mr Chairman, it is interesting to note that most nations would approve of this meeting, but the Soviets disapprove, the Japanese have doubts which they express, and the Indians disapprove. So we must examine why, and determine how our policies should develop to deal with the whole world, as well as the immediate problems such as Korea, Vietnam, and of course, Taiwan.”

Chairman Mao: “Yes, I agree.”

President Nixon: “We, for example, must ask ourselves — again, in the confines of this room – why the Soviets have more forces on the border facing you than on the border facing Western Europe. We must ask ourselves, what is the future of Japan? Is it better — here I know we have disagreements — is it better for Japan to be neutral, totally defenceless, or it is better for a time for Japan to have some relations with the United States? The point being — I am talking now in the realm of philosophy — in international relations, there are no good choices. One thing is sure: we can leave no vacuums because they can be filled. The Prime Minister, for example, has pointed out that the United States reaches out its hands and that the Soviet Union reaches out its hands. The question is which danger the People’s Republic faces, whether it is the danger of American aggression or Soviet aggression. These are hard questions, but we have to discuss them.”

Chairman Mao: “At the present time, the question of aggression from the United States or aggression from China is relatively small; that is, it could be said that this is not a major issue, because the present situation is one in which a state of war does not exist between our two countries. You want to withdraw some of your troops back on your soil; ours do not go abroad. Therefore, the situation between our two countries is strange because during the past 22 years our ideas have never met in talks…”

Prime Minister Zhou: “The main thing was John Foster Dulles’ policy.”

Chairman Mao: “He (Zhou) also discussed this with Dr Kissinger before… Do you have anything to say, Doctor?”

Dr. Kissinger: “Mr Chairman, the world situation has also changed dramatically during that period. We’ve had to learn a great deal. We thought all socialist-communist states were the same phenomenon. We didn’t understand, until the President came into office, the different nature of revolution in China and the way revolution had developed in other socialist states.”

President Nixon: “Mr Chairman, I am aware of the fact that over a period of years my position with regard to the People’s Republic was one that the Chairman and Prime Minister totally disagreed with. What brings us together is a recognition of a new situation in the world and a recognition on our part that what is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world, and toward us. That is why — this point I think can be said to be honest — we have differences. The Prime Minister and Dr Kissinger discussed these differences.

It also should be said — looking at the two great powers, the United States and China — we know China doesn’t threaten the territory of the United States. I think you know the United States has no territorial designs on China. We know China doesn’t want to dominate the United States. We believe you too realise the United States doesn’t want to dominate the world. Also — maybe you don’t believe this, but I do — neither China nor the United States, both great nations, want to dominate the world. Because our attitudes are the same on these two issues, we don’t threaten each others’ territories. Therefore, we can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own ways on our own roads. That cannot be said about some other nations in the world.”

Chairman Mao: “Neither do we threaten Japan or South Korea.”

President Nixon: “Nor any country. Nor do we.”

Chairman Mao: (Checking the time with Zhou) “Do you think we have covered enough today?”

President Nixon: “Yes. I would like to say as we finish… Mr Chairman, the chairman’s life is well-known to all of us. He came from a very poor family to the top of the most populous nation in the world, a great nation. My background is not so well known. I also came from a very poor family, and to the top of a very great nation. History has brought us together. The question is whether we, with different philosophies, but both with feet on the ground, and having come from the people, can make a breakthrough that will serve not just China and America, but the whole world in the years ahead. And that is why we are here.”

Chairman Mao: “Your book, The Six Crises, is not a bad book.”

President Nixon: “He (Mao) reads too much.”

Chairman Mao: “Too little. I don’t know much about the United States. I must ask you to send some teachers here, mainly teachers of history and geography.”

President Nixon: “That’s good, the best.”

Chairman Mao: “That’s what I said to Mr Edgar Snow, the correspondent who passed away a few days ago.”

President Nixon: “That was very sad.”

Chairman Mao: “Yes, indeed.”