Warren I. Cohen is Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a Senior Scholar in the Asia Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the author of "America's Response to China".
In the mid-1960s, having failed to win either the presidency or the governorship of California, Richard Nixon had ample time to think about international relations, his primary policy interest. Like most China specialists, he concluded that the United States should end its efforts to isolate China. Few analysts doubted the reality of the Sino-Soviet split, and Nixon was among those who recognized that opening diplomatic ties with Beijing might strengthen the U.S. position in the Cold War. If China was no longer an urgent threat requiring containment, the United States would be able to reinforce the lines against the Soviet Union and marshal its power for a single great war. Moscow, meanwhile, would have to worry about China as well as its western front: the Soviets reportedly had 500,000 troops stationed on the Chinese border.
When Nixon was elected president at the end of the decade, the most pressing foreign policy problem of the day was finding a way out of Vietnam. But he and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, understood that managing relations with the Soviet Union and China had to be their principal task. Perhaps Moscow or Beijing, they thought, could help with Hanoi.
Margaret MacMillan, author of the prize-winning "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World", has marked the U.S.-Chinese rapprochement of 1971-72 as another major turning point in world history. Her new book, "Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World," is a well-researched and analytically sound popular history. MacMillan may not be the equal of James Mann or the late Barbara Tuchman, but she has the ability to turn complex foreign affairs into engaging tales. She takes her readers through the delicate maneuvers between Chinese and U.S. leaders that ultimately led to Kissinger's secret mission to Beijing -- secret in particular from Secretary of State William Rogers -- and provides thoughtful analysis of the two sides' goals during the ensuing negotiations.
Nixon's initial overtures to Chinese leaders won a favorable
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