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Book review – Nixon and Mao: The Week That Changed the World

July 28, 2012

I met Margaret MacMillan, the author of this book at a dinner in April hosted by Henry Kissinger in New York. Some years ago I had bought her book Paris 1919: Six Months that Changed the World (2002) which is about the Versailles Conference but hadn’t got round to reading it. She told me over dinner she’s now writing a book dealing with the most fundamental challenge of modern historiography: the causes of World War I. “What do you think caused the war?” she asked me. “Certainly not the ‘economic, political and social’ factors we were taught in high school,” I said. “More likely the Kaiser’s hatred of his mother.”

I enjoyed Nixon and Mao (2007), her account of America’s opening to China. Of particular value is her canvassing of the different considerations about whether it would have happened anyway without the personal contribution President Nixon brought to it. She sums it up: Nixon and Mao often took credit but the times were ripe for ending the absurd stand-off.

There’s a lot of good global trivia in the book like the reminder of the strained relationship between the White House and the State Department in the Nixon years. “Strained” is too mild a word. The Secretary of State, William Rogers, was no match for Kissinger who was from the start the principal source of advice on foreign policy for the President. And indeed Rogers had been a weak choice for Secretary of State. His proudest achievement before in his legal career had been to fight product liability suits on behalf of Bayer Aspirin.

The best story in the book is Mao’s resolution of a deadlock over wording. With Kissinger negotiating President Nixon’s visit, the Chinese and Americans stalled over who sought their historic meeting. Did the Americans come as supplicants? Or did the Chinese throw out a request? There seemed no way to settle this issue for the communiqué. The Chinese took it to their ailing General Secretary and Mao instantly declared: no one asked for the meeting, both sides asked for the meeting. In the end, the communiqué read, “Knowing of the President’s deep desire to visit China, the Premier issued him an invitation…”

As Mao said in his poem, quoted by Nixon:

So many deeds cry out to be done,
And always urgently…
Seize the day, seize the hour.

MacMillan’s pace is steady, almost solemn. While I thought I couldn’t be won over by a story so familiar, I ended up reading it – despite many distractions – with keen interest, and completed it on flights to and from China on my first visit as Foreign Minister.

  1. David Armstrong permalink
    July 28, 2012 5:07 pm

    Hi Bob: Why would anyone want to write a book about the origins of the First World War? Everyone knows the causes were many and varied!

  2. Ivan Pagett permalink
    July 30, 2012 11:43 am

    I’ve just been re-reading Jopnathan Aitken’s Nixon biography. Untangling the mystery of Nixon’s character is easily as interesting as that of LBJ’s. So many competing egos among the eye witnesses. Especially Kissinger whose books I have also dug out. The opening to China was a major deoarture from US orthodoxy. I think Nixon deserves a lot of credit for it. His earlier pursuit of reds in the government made him the bete noir of my generation of left of centre types. But we now know that both in the US and here in Australia there actually was a threat worth exposing. I think that the absence of that threat is a big factor in the collapse of the Labor right. Nothing to believe in now.
    The Kaisers relationship with his mother as a cause of the first war is worth a book. I’d buy it but I’m not sure that it would be a bestseller.

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