Books History

Review of “Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World” by Margaret MacMillan

Yesterday I finished Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. As is obvious from the title, it concerns the Nixon-Mao visit of 1972 and the drafting of the Shanghai Communique, which famously includes the cryptic line

The US side declared: The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position

MacMillian emphasizes the unlikely nature of the meeting. It did not have to happen. Less time paced from the closing of the US mission in Red China in 1950 and Nixon’s visit in 1971 than has elapsed since the Communist Revolution in Cuba or the Islamic Revolution in Iran. However, because of Nixon, we had relations with China after only 21 years, while much longer than that has passed in the cases of Cuba and Iran. Indeed, if the author had access to more recent sources, such as Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, her case would be even more reinforced. Mao began retaliating against those who carried out his orders to make the opening for Nixon almost immediately after Nixon left.

The book is strongest when it focuses on the events surrounding the talks, such as Al Haig‘s preparatory trip to China and the surprisingly prominent role of Chas Freeman (called by his given name of Charles in the book). While Nixon and Mao was written during the recent Bush administration, an updated volume is already desirable. Chas later sold out to the Saudis and Chinese, was railroaded by Nancy Pelosi for his remarks on the Tiananmen Massacre, and subsequently blamed the Jews.

Nixon and Mao contains numerous, if generally small, errors of fact. These rarely impact the main narrative and are only annoying or noticeable if you know the situation better than MacMillian. As an example of Mao’s “dig deep” campaign, she says that the Communists built massive tunnels from the Great Hall of the People to Zhongnanhai. As these two locations are catty-corner from each other, both the epic nature and timing of this feat are dubious. Some are more serious (generally, anything concerning Lin Biao), but the most recent information was not available to her at the time, and Lin was dead during the Nixon-Mao talks, anyway.

Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World reads like two books stapled onto each other. The second half of the book feels more like an original text. It is fast-paced, cleanly structured, informative, and valuable. The second half is boring, meandering, full of psychological theorizing, and occasionally duplicative of the second half. My assumption is that the second half was submitted to the publisher, rejected because it would have been too much of a scholarly book, and a general interest first half was added. I felt like giving up on the book a number of times during the first half. Knowing what I know now, I would have just read the second half.

After reading the book, I was struck by the genius of Richard Nixon, and the small-mindedness of the Congress during his administration. While any number of his policies are open to criticism, it is striking that America’s best foreign policy President was paired with the first actively traitorous Congress in American history. No one can take seriously the empty, mind-dead rhetoric of “a nation of laws, not of men” when in our own time few Democrats support impeaching Tim Geithner, or enforcing the same level of openness on Ben Bernanke.

I highly recommend the second half of Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World.

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