PARIS -- Even now, it is generally thought that Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 was a U.S. diplomatic coup that recast the geopolitical balance to America's advantage.
That certainly was how the trip was presented at the time, although even then it wasn't clear how this could be true, since the United States seemed to have gained nothing.
The purpose of Nixon's initiative was to get China's help in ending the Vietnam War while putting the Soviet Union at a disadvantage. This is how the matter was portrayed in the accounts of President Nixon and the memoirs of his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.
But the visit accomplished neither. When Mr. Kissinger asked Zhou Enlai for help with the Vietnam problem, the Chinese prime minister replied, "You must get out of Vietnam. Let the Vietnamese solve their own problems."
That was good advice, but Nixon and Kissinger were looking for more than advice. The war went on until South Vietnamese forces were routed and the surviving Americans scrambled to helicopters on the U.S. Embassy roof.
Before the Nixon visit, the Chinese had two great enemies: the U.S.S.R. on their inner Asian border; and the United States in Southeast and Northern Asia, and on their Pacific Ocean frontier.
Afterward, they could play Washington against Moscow. The geopolitical balance was changed, but to China's advantage.
The story of this extraordinary episode in U.S. foreign relations is developed with new detail in a documentary television program called "Playing the China Card," which is scheduled to appear soon on U.S. public television, after just appearing in Britain.
"Playing the China Card" uses new interviews with members of the Nixon administration and with Chinese Foreign Office officials, as well as the documentary record and amateur films of the period, to demonstrate how Washington anxiously solicited an invitation for Nixon to meet Mao Tse-tung, and how China ignored Washington's importunate overtures for six months.
When the Nixon party finally arrived in China it conducted itself in a manner curiously like that of foreign "tribute bearers" during China's imperial period -- as if the Americans were barbarians from beyond the borders of the celestial realm.
The gifts they brought were remarkably good ones. Nixon presented Mao Tse-tung and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai with diplomatic recognition, reversing an American policy two decades old.
And with that, the United States gave China the seat on the U.N. Security Council held until then by the former Chinese Nationalist government of China, installed in Taiwan since defeat on the mainland in 1950.
The United States got absolutely nothing in return.
The strange thing is that this pattern of unsolicited U.S. diplomatic gifts, pressed upon the Chinese, despite their failure to reciprocate, has since been repeated by both the Bush and Clinton administrations.
President George Bush and his colleagues did everything in their power to prevent the 1989 Tiananmen massacre from damaging U.S.-Chinese relations, again to no evident U.S. advantage other than the pursuit of commercial relations -- which have, for the most part, proved a disappointment to the American side.
The Clinton administration has vainly looked for a "strategic partnership" with China -- at the cost of weakening U.S. relations with Japan.
One China policy
The administration has taken a further step toward dissociating the United States from Taiwan, announcing a "One China policy" that seems to endorse China's claim to Taiwan on Beijing terms.
Previous U.S. policy was to "acknowledge" that Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Strait saw Taiwan as part of China, while opposing the use of military force against Taiwan.
All of this follows from the conviction, held in all three administrations, that China will soon become the most important economic and political power in Asia.
Those who believe this hold that it is in the interest of the United States to defend good relations with China, even against bad behavior by the Chinese.
They will not admit that China in the future might continue to be economically dependent and politically weak, or that Japan will continue to be the great power of East Asia.
The Nixon trip in 1972 abandoned Washington's ultimately unsustainable commitment to the pretense that the Chinese Nationalists in Taiwan were China's government. As it turned out, the Nationalists themselves were better off by being released from that claim.
They turned to modernizing Taiwan's society and economy, so that Taiwan today is not only a democracy, but an economic and trading power of greater international importance than mainland China itself.
However, that was the serendipitous result of U.S. policy that then, as today, holds to the illusion about China that says size plus population equals power.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.