home | about | documents | news | postings | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

Winner of the 2005 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News & Documentary Research

New Documentary Reveals Secret U.S., Chinese Diplomacy Behind Nixon's Trip

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 145

Edited by William Burr

December 21, 2004

Related Postings

Nixon's Trip to China
Now completely declassified, including Kissinger intelligence briefing and assurances on Taiwan

Negotiating U.S.-Chinese Rapprochement
New American and Chinese documention leading up to Nixon's 1972 trip

Henry Kissinger's Secret Trip to China
The Beijing-Washington Back-Channel, September 1970-July 1971

Record of Richard Nixon-Zhou Enlai Talks, February 1972

The Sino-Soviet Border Conflict, 1969
U.S. reactions and diplomatic maneuvers

China, Pakistan, and the Bomb
The Declassified File on U.S. Policy, 1977-1997

The U.S. "Tiananmen Papers"
New documents reveal U.S. perceptions of Chinese political crisis

Reconnaissance Flights and Sino-American Relations
Policy developments and a Hainan Island incident, 1969-1970

The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960-1964
Companion documents to Winter 2000/2001 edition of International Security

Tiananmen Square 1989
The declassified history

China and the United States
From hostility to engagement

The United States, China, and the Bomb

Chinese marshal received Top Secret intelligence briefing from Kissinger in 1972, member of four marshals who told Mao "play the American card" in 1969

"History Declassified: Nixon in China" premieres December 21, 2004, 10 p.m. EST, on Discovery Times Channel (digital cable by Discovery and the New York Times)

ABC News Productions based show on National Security Archive documents,
Interviewed Kissinger, Haig, Lord, Smyser, and China Experts

Washington D.C., Tuesday, December 21, 2004 - The first TV documentary based on the fully declassified record of President Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972 premieres tonight on the Discovery Times Channel at 10 p.m. EST. Titled "History Declassified: Nixon in China," the show combines previously secret U.S. documents gathered by the National Security Archive with newly available evidence from Chinese files to reveal details of the dramatic diplomacy that remained hidden for 30 years.

Shown on television for the first time are the secret initiatives on the Chinese side that began as early as 1969, when a group of four marshals recommended that Chairman Mao "play the American card" against the Soviet threat and even undertake high-level talks with the U.S.

One of the four marshals then sat across from national security advisor Henry Kissinger during the most secret single meeting of the 1972 Nixon trip, when Kissinger briefed the Chinese in detail on Soviet troop movements - details so sensitive even the U.S. intelligence community was kept out of the loop. The transcript only emerged in 2003 after appeals by the National Security Archive. "My jaw dropped when I saw what these discussions had covered," says Tom Jarriel, who reported on Nixon's trip for ABC News, in the documentary.

Produced by ABC News Productions for the Discovery Times Channel (the digital cable venture of Discovery Channel and the New York Times), the documentary features interviews with key players and eyewitnesses Henry Kissinger, Winston Lord, Dick Smyser, Alexander Haig, James Lilley, and Jarriel, together with commentary from China experts such as University of Virginia professor Chen Jian and Georgetown University professor Nancy Tucker, along with National Security Archive director Thomas Blanton.

"The new documents are rewriting the history of that amazing breakthrough, of what we thought we knew," comments Blanton on screen in the program. "But the new evidence also serves as a reminder of the use and abuse of government secrecy."

The Archive today posted ten of the documents cited in "History Declassified: Nixon in China," including an excerpt from the four marshals' report, transcripts of telephone calls (telcons) between Nixon and Kissinger, a front page photograph in the People's Daily intended by Mao as a signal to the Americans (which they missed), and the transcript of Kissinger's 1972 intelligence briefing to Marshal Ye Jianying.

Note: Many of the following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1: Front page of People's Daily, translation of Richard Nixon's inaugural address, 28 January 1969
Source: Library of Congress

On the orders of Mao Zedong, People's Daily published a translation of the full text of Nixon's inaugural address. In the address, Nixon said, "Let all nations know that during this administration our lines of communication will be open. We seek an open world--open to ideas, open to the exchange of goods and people--a world in which no people, great or small, will live in angry isolation." Nixon may have intended this as a signal to Beijing because in a Foreign Affairs article in 1967 discussing the need to normalize relations with China, he had written "There is no place on this planet for a billion of its potentially able people to live in angry isolation." By publishing the inaugural address in Chinese, Mao was returning the signal, although it remains to be seen if anyone at the White House noticed it.

Document 2: Memorandum of conversation between Ambassador Agha Hilaly and Harold H. Saunders, 28 August 1969
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project. National Security Council Files. Box 1032. Cookies II (Chronology of Exchanges with PRC Feb. 1969- April 1971)

This is a record of NSC staffer Harold Saunders' discussion with Ambassador Hilaly of Nixon's meeting with Pakistani President Yahya Khan during Nixon's trip to Asia on 1 August 1969. So far no U.S. account of the meeting has surfaced but Ambassador Hilaly debriefed Harold Saunders on the discussions several weeks later. Hilaly's account of the meeting showed Nixon asking President Yahya to "convey his feelings to the Chinese at the highest level" that he believed that 1) "Asia can not move forward if a nation as large as China remains isolated," and 2) the United States would not be "party to any arrangements designed to isolate China." With this conversation, Nixon had taken the first step toward opening a secret channel through Pakistan that would later prove decisive.

Document 3: Xiong Xianghui, "The Prelude to the Opening of Sino-American Relations," Zhonggong dangshi ziliao [CCP History Materials] No. 42 (June 1992), excerpts

In the early 1990s, Xiong Xianghui published the first historical account, along with documents, of a special study group tasked by Chairman Mao in 1969 to review China's strategic policy. Xiong, formerly an aide to Zhou Enlai, had been the secretary to this group, which consisted of four marshals, senior military figures who had been sent to inspect factories during the Cultural Revolution. The four marshals first focused on relations with Moscow just as the Sino-Soviet border clashes were breaking out; although they saw the Soviets as dangerous, they doubted that Moscow intended to launch war against China. After Lin Biao gave a speech harshly attacking U.S. and Soviet imperialism, Mao asked the marshals to think outside the box about U.S. and Soviet policy. The four marshals initially doubted that the Soviets and the Americans would act against China either separately or jointly. When the border fighting intensified in August 1969, marshals Chen Yi and Ye Jianying worried about a confrontation with Moscow and proposed playing the "card of the United States." In a separate report, Chen proposed high-level talks with the U.S. in order to solve basic problems in the relationship. The fourth line of the third page reproduced here includes the text about playing the American card. (Note 1)

Document 4: Front page of People's Daily, 25 December 1970, showing from left, Edgar Snow, interpreter Ji Chaozhu, Mao Zedong, and Lin Biao, at a reviewing stand facing Tiananmen Square on 1 October 1970
Source: Library of Congress

In another attempt to signal to the U.S. government but also a domestic audience about the need for a new relationship with the United States, on 1 October 1970 (National Day), Mao had journalist Edgar Snow stand by him at the Gate of Heavenly Peace during the parade. Several months later, Snow met with Mao for five hours of talks on 18 December 1970 during which the Chairman said the following:

[T]he foreign ministry was studying the matter of admitting Americans from the left, middle, and right to visit China. Should rightists like Nixon, who represented the monopoly capitalists, be permitted to come? He should be welcomed because, Mao explained at present the problems between China and the US would have to be solved with Nixon. Mao would be happy to talk with him, either as a tourist or as President.

A week later, perhaps to reaffirm that something was afoot with Sino-American relations, People's Daily published a picture of Mao and Snow from the National Day event. While the China expert Allen Whiting proposed going to Switzerland to debrief Snow about his trip to China and meetings with the leadership, John Holdridge, the China expert on Kissinger's staff, advised against that on the grounds that Snow was a leftist. Had the debriefing gone ahead, Nixon could have learned that Mao had invited him to China, months before Snow made it public in Life magazine at the end of April 1971. (Note 2)

Document 5: Record of Nixon and Kissinger Telephone Conversation (Telcon), April 14, 1971. With Hand-written annotation, "April 18?" [April 14 date is accurate because it is consistent with the events of the day]
Source: Henry A. Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts (Telcons), Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Archives II, College Park, MD., box 29.

On April 14, 1971, only days after the visit of the U.S. ping pong team to China, Nixon announced measures to liberalize trade and travel restrictions affecting China. In this conversation, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the press reaction to the initiative as well as the possible impact of a new China policy on U.S. relations with Chiang Kai-shek's Taiwan. While Nixon regretted that the United States would have to let Taiwan down by developing a relationship with China, he opined that "it better take place when they've got a friend here rather than when they've got an enemy here." As Kissinger put it, "we have to be cold about it."

Document 6: Message from Zhou Enlai to Nixon, 21 April 1971, rec'd 27 April 1971, responding to Nixon's 16 December 1970 message
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council files, box 1031, Exchanges Leading Up to HAK Trip to China - December 1969-July 1971 (1)

Conveyed through the Pakistani channel, this message from Zhou Enlai affirms the "willingness" of the Chinese government to "receive publicly … a special envoy of the President of the U.S. (for instance, Mr. Kissinger)" to make possible the "high-level" talks needed to restore U.S.-China relations.

Document 7: Record of Nixon-Kissinger Telephone Conversation, 27 April 1971 8:18 p.m.
Source: Record Group 59, Department of State Records. Subject Files of the Office of People's Republic of China and Mongolian Affairs, 1969-78. Box 4. 1969-71: Chinese Initiative - Third Party Messages

Only a few hours after the Pakistanis delivered Zhou's message, Nixon and Kissinger discussed possible candidates for the "special envoy." Although Zhou had suggested Kissinger (as well as Secretary of State Rogers and Nixon himself), Nixon mentioned a number of candidates: Nelson Rockefeller, George H. W. Bush, and Alexander Haig, among others -- but not Kissinger. It was not until the next day that Nixon told Kissinger that he would be going to China. Besides assessing candidates for special envoy, Nixon and Kissinger also discussed the implications of the China initiative for Vietnam. "We will end Vietnam this year," Kissinger declared.

Documents 8A and B:
A: Message from Zhou Enlai to Nixon, 29 May 1971 (copy of original in Zhou's handwriting)
B: Message from Zhou to Nixon, 29 May 1971, with commentary, as transmitted and copied by Ambassador Hilaly for the White House

Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC files, box 1031, Exchanges Leading Up to HAK Trip to China - December 1969-July 1971 (1)

The possibility of a U.S. envoy arriving in Beijing became more tangible with this message suggesting possible dates and means of transportation, either Pakistani or Chinese aircraft. Zhou was not convinced about the necessity for secrecy but offered to keep the visit secret "if secrecy is still desired." Whatever the circumstances were, Zhou wanted Nixon and Kissinger to know that he "warmly looks forward to the meeting with Dr. Kissinger in Beijing in the near future." (Note 3)

Document 9: Memorandum of conversation between Kissinger and Zhou, 9 July 1971, 4:35-11:20 PM, with cover memo to Kissinger, from Winston Lord, 29 July 1971
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC files, box 1033, China HAK Memcons July 1971

Upon their arrival in Beijing, Kissinger and his party were whisked away from the airport and taken to the Great Hall of the People for a series of intensive meetings. The first one was decisive because Kissinger made the assurances on Taiwan that the Chinese saw as a precondition for normalization. During earlier discussions with Kissinger, Nixon had been reluctant to give up too much ground on Taiwan but he knew that the success of the trip depended on U.S. admission that it did not seek "two Chinas" or a "one China, one Taiwan solution." In this conversation, Kissinger did not accept Zhou's formulation that "Taiwan was a part of China" but he nevertheless tilted toward it by declaring that "we are not advocating a 'two Chinas' solution or a 'one China, one Taiwan' solution." Kissinger also stated that "as a student of history, one's prediction would have to be that the political evolution is likely to be in the direction which Premier Zhou Enlai indicated to me," that is, the restoration of Taiwan to China. Kissinger's declaration on Taiwan prompted Zhou to say what he had not yet said, that he was optimistic about Sino-American rapprochement: "the prospect for a solution and the establishment of diplomatic relations between our two countries is hopeful."

Document 10: Memorandum of conversation, 23 February 1972, 9:35 a.m.
Source: Nixon Presidential Materials Project, NSC Files, HAK Office Files, box 92, Dr. Kissinger's Meetings in the PRC During the Presidential Visit February 1972

The possibility of a Nixon trip to China had been reaffirmed during Kissinger's secret visit. During the months between the secret visit and Nixon's February 1972 trip, Kissinger tilted U.S. policy closer and closer to China in order to strengthen the U.S. posture toward the Soviet Union. As a sign that the United States was committed to friendly relations with Beijing, during the Nixon visit, Kissinger provided Marshal Ye Jianying, one of the four marshals (see document 3) with a top secret intelligence briefing on Soviet force deployments at the Chinese border. As Kissinger pointed out, the briefing was so secret that not even senior U.S. intelligence officials knew about it. (Note 4)


1. Chen Jian, Mao's China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 245-249. The first English-language publication of the four marshals' story was in Chen Jian and David Wilson, "All Under the Heavens is Great Chaos': Beijing, the Sino-Soviet Border Clashes, and the Turn Toward Sino-American Rapprochement," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project 11 (Winter 1998): 155-175.

2. Chen Jian, Mao's China, 254-259; Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan (Washington, D.C., Brookings Institution, 1994), 254-255.

3. For discussion of Zhou's letter, see Chen Jian, Mao's China, 265.

4. For more information on the briefing and the Nixon visit to China, see National Security Archive, "Nixon's Trip to China," posted 11 December 2003, <http://www.nsarchive.org/NSAEBB/NSAEBB106/index.htm>.

home | about | documents | news | postings | FOIA | research | internships | search | donate | mailing list

Contents of this website Copyright 1995-2017 National Security Archive. All rights reserved.
Terms and conditions for use of materials found on this website.