EVERYBODY'S favorite talking heads were talking about China and President Clinton, and, as it always does on such occasions, the old "only-Richard-Nixon" theory (or myth) came up. I thought of a headline that never appeared but could have:
arrives in China
"Michael," said PBS' Jim Lehrer, "as a matter of history, how important was the Nixon trip?"
"We've had 25 years of Chinese-American relations," replied historian Michael Beschloss. "That might have been 10 years or five years or actually even zero years had Nixon not gone . . And just imagine what it would have been like had some other president been the one to create this opening into China in 1971 or '72.
"Kennedy would have loved to do that. So would Lyndon Johnson. They were terrified that someone like Richard Nixon would [attack them for it] . . . That dissuaded Kennedy and Johnson from doing what probably was in the American self-interest. We're all just lucky that Richard Nixon was enough of a creative global strategist . . . that he was able to toss away 20 years of opposing the Communist Chinese regime and essentially do what very few other political leaders in that time could have done."
"Do you agree, Doris? Nobody else could have done it but Nixon?" asked Mr. Lehrer.
"Oh, I think it certainly helped that it was Richard Nixon," said biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin. "He knew what he was doing, he knew his past allowed [him] to do it, and he certainly deserves credit."
"And he does get the credit, does he not, Haynes?" Lehrer continued.
"Absolutely," said Haynes Johnson, journalist and author.
Well, Nixon deserves some credit, but this widely held "only-Nixon" view is certainly not true. Had Vice President Hubert Humphrey defeated Nixon in the 1968 presidential election (as he almost did), he probably would have gone to China at least as early as Nixon went. The truth is that by the end of the 1960s, a consensus was developing among Americans with internationalist responsibilities that the time was at hand for the United States to recognize China and allow it into the United Nations.
That was made clear during the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon's rival in the Republican presidential contest, Nelson Rockefeller, said flatly that year, "I would begin a dialogue with Communist China." And Vice President Humphrey said, in a mid-summer speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco: "To widen our contacts with mainland China we should 1) lift restrictions in trade on non-strategic goods, 2) encourage interchange of scholars and journalists, 3) make it clear that should China make its decision to become a responsible member of the community of nations, we will welcome it. And we should, now, encourage it."
That was nothing new for Humphrey, and his many speeches in that vein prior to 1968 were one big reason public opinion was changing. Typical was this statement made at West Point in 1966: "We seek and will continue to seek to build bridges, to keep open the doors of communication, to the Communist states of Asia, and in particular Communist China."
The Democratic platform that Humphrey ran on in 1968 said, "We would actively encourage economic, social and cultural exchanges with mainland China as a means of freeing that nation and her people from their narrow isolation." Even conservative Southern party members accepted that. Sen. Richard Russell, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, came out for an official diplomatic exchange between the two nations.
The Republican platform said only that "under existing conditions, we cannot favor recognition of Communist China." So Tricky Dick reneged? Not at all. Conditions changed. Or as Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, put it, "events came to our assistance."
Mr. Kissinger played an important role in the decision to change the policy. While he said later that he doubted whether the rapprochement could have occurred "with the same decisiveness in any other presidency," he did not believe that rapprochement would not have occurred in some other presidency, in approximately the same time frame.
Mr. Kissinger had written that 1968 Rockefeller speech. Had Rockefeller been elected president, Mr. Kissinger would have been at his right hand when he journeyed to China.
It is even possible (though unlikely) that had Humphrey won, Mr. Kissinger would have served him in some high advisory or bureaucratic foreign policy role and helped President Humphrey shape a China policy very similar to Nixon's.
In late October 1968, when the vice president dramatically closed the gap with Nixon in the polls and a Democratic victory suddenly seemed possible, Mr. Kissinger wrote Humphrey, criticizing Nixon, whom he had become an adviser to after Rockefeller was defeated, offering to help surreptitiously in the remainder of the campaign and volunteering for service in a Humphrey administration.
Theo Lippman Jr., a former Sun editorial writer and columnist, writes often about recent political history.
Pub Date: 7/06/98