Nearing the 30th anniversary of former President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China, former Nixon administration National Security Council members met at GW Friday to discuss the historic implications of the 1972 visit.
The three officials discussed the trip’s significance in international politics and shared anecdotes from the trip, in front of a standing room-only audience in the Stuart Hall auditorium
Winston Lord, a member of the NSC from 1969 to 1973 and Special Assistant to Henry Kissinger, said Nixon deserves credit for his role in the China talks. Lord defended the president, saying that although Nixon was preoccupied with the Watergate scandal in the United States he was not distracted by it and focused on research and preparation for a visit that brought about renewed Sino-American relations.
Dean of the Elliot School of International Affairs Harry Harding moderated the discussion, which recounted the events leading up to the
“high impact” meeting.
“Our niche is to bridge the gap between history and theory,” Harding said.
W.R. Smyser, a member of the NSC brought a photo album he called “the most classified document,” which included exclusive pictures of ordinary interaction between Mao and Kissinger.
Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a State Department official and Kissinger associate who served as senior NSC aide on Soviet affairs from 1969 to 1974, said Nixon was a strong anti-Communist who also had the “capability of opening the channels of communications.”
The panelists discussed their own perspectives and how the newly declassified documents have changed the way scholars currently approach the Cold War.
The panel also discussed the secrecy of the events of 1971 and 1972. All documents concerning the visits were “top secret, eyes only,” Lord said.
“American presumptions (were) that we were in deep trouble” Lord said, citing American skepticism of the success of meetings with the Chinese.
“It is never as good as it looks or as bad as it looks,” Smyser said.
Smyser said the Korean conflict was not raised during the discussions on the trip, saying there was “no wasting time” on the visit. Instead, Smyser said there were three strictly regimented days in which the Americans had to accommodate discussions of the Soviet Union, Taiwan and peace in Vietnam between tours of the Forbidden City and a flight to Tehran, Iran.
Audience member Jie Chen, director of the institute of Asian Studies at Old Dominion University, said he was surprised to hear that Korea was a non-issue.
“Weight of the Korea issue was surprising that it was not as important,” he said. “They put their real national interests in front of their ideologies.”
Jim Goldgeier, an associate professor of political science at GW, described the seminar as “a new interpretation of old events with a new perspective.”