John Paton

Wu Ningkun


INTERVIEWER: If I can ask you first, Ambassador Lord: going back to the rapprochement with the Chinese, what was the thinking behind the rapprochement, what was the real purpose of it?

AMBASSADOR WINSTON LORD: There were several reasons that President Nixon and Henry Kissinger thought it was in the US interest to open up with China after 22 years of mutual hostility and isolation. First, we had been dealing with the so-called communist bloc really just through Moscow, and even as we were opening up with Eastern Europe, we thought it was important for diplomatic flexibility to deal with Beijing as well, and it was clear that Beijing and Moscow had tensions and this would be possible. Secondly, in order to improve our relations with Russia, Nixon and Kissinger believed that rapprochement with China, or at least an opening, would give us some leverage, given the geopolitical competition between them. So, obviously the Soviet factor was very important. In addition, we were in the middle of the Vietnam War, which was costing us heavily internationally and tearing our society apart, and Nixon in particular, more than Kissinger, but both, felt that by opening with China we might get their co-operation in bringing negotiations to a successful conclusion. In short, that if we were dealing with both of Hanoi's patrons, Beijing and Moscow, that this would help to isolate them and put pressure on them to be more reasonable to the negotiating table. And then finally, in a longer-term perspective, we saw the possibilities of trade and other exchanges, and a broader relationship with China being built up over several decades. So those were the main reasons that President Nixon took his courageous decision to open up with China.

INT: Right. It's easy to understand why, after the Korean War and the Taiwan Straits crisis in the 1950s, relations with China were not likely. But why did it take so long, why, throughout the Sixties, was there no attempt at rapprochement until Nixon?

WL: Well, first China did not look attractive to the American audience in terms of the regime, its foreign policies, its attitudes on everything from nuclear weapons to revolutionary movements throughout Asia, and the rhetoric was quite chilling compared to even what was coming out of Moscow. So you had that general perception and indeed, to a certain extent, reality. You had the memories of Korea, you had the domestic political situation in particular in the United States not just flowing from the McCarthy period and anti-Communists, but people who genuinely were concerned about China and thought that containment was the proper course. There was also the view, mistaken as it turns out, that China and Russia were close and therefore presenting a geo-strategic challenge to us. By the late Sixties, it was clear that this was a wrong analysis, but that persisted for some time. But I would say domestic political considerations and the perception of Chinese threat and misbehavior combined to make it very difficult for any president either to want to or feel he politically could move ahead with China.

INT: Now, obviously the Nixon rapprochement, the Nixon overtures, coincided with a Chinese willingness to listen to the approach. How much did you know about the Chinese position, the Chinese willingness?

WL: It was very difficult, because we had no contact with them except through sporadic talks in Warsaw and Geneva that took place in the Fifties and Sixties, but these were set pieces by diplomats carrying out instructions from their capitals and really not much more than an exchange of formal positions, and we had no journalists, we had very little intelligence, so we didn't know a great deal. However, both Nixon and Kissinger - and I keep mentioning both of those because they both deserve credit for this initiative - analyzed the geopolitical situation and the particular fact of growing Sino-Russian tensions, culminating in border clashes in 1969, and so they saw a good likelihood that at least some Chinese leaders - we of course knew that China had some strategic thinkers like Zhou Enlai and Mao - might calculate that an opening with us would help them with the Russians. And that was the primary analysis, and it was underlined by the border clashes of 1969. Nixon had written an article in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1967, suggesting that we probably should change our policy toward China, and of course, as is now conventional wisdom, the fact that he was a known anti-Communist protected his right flank and made it much easier for him to open up to China than it would have been, say, for Hubert Humphrey, whom he defeated in the election. So we figured geopolitical reasons might be the motive for China. They had been caught up in the throes of the Cultural Revolution; it officially went on till 1976, but the excesses were in the late Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, and there was some evidence that they wished to emerge from that. So it was based on Kissinger and Nixon figuring what would they be thinking if they were the Chinese leaders, and they looked out and surveyed the world scene and what might be useful to them.

INT: Now where did you fit into this, how did you come to get involved with the project?

WL: First of all, in terms of identifying the Chinese view on opening up with the US, in addition to analysis of the geopolitical nature that I've just mentioned, we began early in the Nixon Administration to try to get in touch with the Chinese through third parties and through messages passed through third parties, that included France, Romania and, most importantly and finally, the official one, Pakistan. We began to get some indications from them that they might be interested in getting together, and this took place from 1969 up until the Kissinger secret trip in July 1971. And I should point out that Nixon moved on this very quickly. He was inaugurated, I believe it was January 20, 1969. On February 1st, in a memorandum to Kissinger, which I saw, he instructed Kissinger to immediately try to set up some contacts with the Chinese to see whether we could move ahead in our relationship. So this was an early sense by Nixon and Kissinger that maybe the Chinese would be receptive, and an early attempt to do so.

With respect to my own involvement in China, first there's an irony here. I married a Chinese citizen, born in Shanghai, in 1963. I was a Foreign service officer in the State Department, and in those days you had to get permission from the State Department to marry a foreign national. All my wife's family, except for her immediate family, were in mainland China. Her father worked indirectly for the Taiwan government, so the State Department said, "You can marry this woman" - Betty Bow, her name was at the time - "but you should know that you will never work on Chinese affairs in your career, because it'd be too sensitive." I of course said I could find other areas to work on, but I can't find another Betty Bow, so I went ahead. Therefore, it was ironic that eight years later, I went with Henry Kissinger to China and was heavily involved ever since in that issue. The reason I became directly involved is, I was on the National Security Council staff; I went there in 1969, at the beginning of the Nixon Administration. I started out as a policy planner and someone (working the system?). I wrote some memos to Kissinger, usually attacking our policies, which he appreciated for at least their intellectual rigor, if not their content. And when he needed a new specialist assistant in early 1970, he asked me to join him. That job entailed many things; it was global in its perspective, but above all special assistant work with Kissinger on those aspects of diplomacy that were secret. So my three biggest assignments were the opening to China, bringing the Vietnam War to a close through secret negotiations, and attempt to improve relations with the Russians. And the China portfolio, of course, was particularly clhold, and I and just a few others worked in that. So that's how I got involved. But it was ironic that had a Chinese wife.

INT: Just about the three biggest foreign policy projects to be involved in, aren't they, really?

WL: I also had to do some speech-writing for Kissinger and Nixon, which I wouldn't recommend to anybody, in terms of the agony outweighing the ecstasy.

INT: Why not?

WL: Because he was very demanding. Kissinger was a speechwriter. He thought speeches made policy, and he took great care on them. I did more of this later when he was in the State Department, so you'd have to go through about 20 drafts and many insults before you got to the final speech.

INT: Yeah, biographies of Kissinger have him jumping up and down on speeches. Isn't there an anecdote where... you'd written a speech and he kept having you re-write it and saying, "Can't you do any better?" and clearly he hadn't read them?

WL: Well, basically it was, I went in with a draft, and it was actually of a presidential foreign policy report. This is slightly apocryphal and not directly on your subject here, but I would go in with a draft of the speech. He called me in the next day and said, "Is this the best you can do?" I said, "Henry, I thought so, but I'll try again." So I go back in a few days, another draft. He called me in the next day and he said, "Are you sure this is the best you can do?" I said, "Well, I really thought so. I'll try one more time." Anyway, this went on eight times, eight drafts; each time he said, "Is this the best you can do?" So I went in there with a ninth draft, and when he called me in the next day and asked me that same question, I really got exasperated and I said, "Henry, I've beaten my brains out - this is the ninth draft. I know it's the best I can do: I can't possibly improve one more word." He then looked at me and said, "In that case, now I'll read it."