In This Review

About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton
About Face: A History of America's Curious Relationship With China, From Nixon to Clinton
By James H. Mann
Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, 352 pp.

In this outstanding study of U.S.-China relations, James Mann of The Los Angeles Times skillfully combines archival research and extensive interviews with both high- and low-ranking American officials. His conclusion: None of the U.S. Administrations had well-reasoned China policies. Obsessed with secrecy, Nixon and Kissinger were so awed by the historical significance of their visits to Beijing that they confused Mao's banalities for words of great wisdom. George Bush foolishly sought to revive secret meetings in the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton had to make total about-faces from their positions as candidates to their official China policies. The very richness of Mann's account underscores the gap between American intentions and accomplishments -- a gap that leaves the impression that the Americans were outwitted at nearly every turn, if only due to the lack of comparable details about their Chinese counterparts. This problem aside, Mann has set standards that scholars of diplomatic history will find hard to match. His smooth and quietly witty prose style, combined with his insights into the American personalities, makes his account one of lively politics, not abstract strategic calculations.