Henry Kissinger on the 40th Anniversary of His Secret Trip To China
Dr. Henry Kissinger joins me in the second hour of today’s program. Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of Dr. Kissinger’s secret trip to China that led to Richard Nixon’s history changing visit there in February, 1972.
Now four decades after these events, Kissinger has authored a new and engrossing book, On China, which is much more than a history of China or a memoir of Kissinger’s role in the diplomatic engagement of the U.S. and PRC spanning eight presidencies, or an essay on statecraft, though it all those things.
On China is also a deeply alarming forecast of what could be the next phase of China’s history, one in which the “triumphalists” push the PRC into a set of moves which it has never before undertaken and for which the global order has no precedent.
On China should be required reading in the White House, the Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon, and by anyone doing business in China or invested in the market. The transcript of the interview will be posted below later today.
HH: Pleased to welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show now Dr. Henry Kissinger. Congratulations, Dr. Kissinger, on the publication of On China. It is really an extraordinary book.
HK: Thank you, I appreciate you saying that.
HH: We are coming up on the 40th anniversary on Saturday of the arrival in Beijing of an American delegation led by you, then National Security Advisor. So I wanted to begin with some details about that trip, including how, I did not know this, the Chinese had sent people ahead to Islamabad to join you on the plane. Did that surprise you?
HK: Yes, I had no idea that this would happen. So when I got on the plane, the Pakistanis told me at the last moment, but I had two Secret Service people with me, and I didn’t tell them. And when they got on the plane and saw four people in Mao uniforms sitting there, they thought they might have to do their job right on the spot. [# More #]
HH: One of them was Nancy Tang, who recurs in On China. She’s really quite an amazing figure. Explain who she is to our audience.
HK: Actually, I saw her again last week in Beijing, because they had a celebration of all the people who had, to commemorate the 40th visit.
HK: And they invited all the survivors to a dinner. Anyway, Nancy Tang is a Brooklyn-born Chinese-American, who worked, whose technical job was interpreter to the top Chinese leaders. She spoke perfect English. We thought at the time that she was ideologically on the extreme side in China, and that she was being used by Mao to keep him informed about what was going on in the negotiations, and to act as a conduit to Zhou Enlai. She told me in Beijing last week that that was not correct, although this, I can’t judge. But she was a powerhouse.
HH: You tell the story about the only time you saw Zhou Enlai lose his temper is when you brought up Confucius, and suggested that the PRC had managed to med Marxism into his tradition, and that, “Zhou exploded, the only time I saw him lose his temper. He kept up the argument, no doubt, to some degree so as to have it on the record for the benefit of Mao through Nancy Tang.” That…
HK: Yes, exactly. That was the role I thought she played. It was not a very thoughtful remark on my part, because we found out later that Zhou was being accused by Mao of being a Confucian, really, a secret Confucian. And shortly after all of this, not because of this, Zhou was relieved of his office.
HH: Did you, when you got off the plane, you write about how no American really had any experience of Chinese diplomacy, and so you’re being greeted by one of the four marshals that Mao recalled from disgrace to help figure out China’s strategic options. Did all of that register when you were getting off the plane? Or is that all in retrospect that you could figure out the significance of sending a PLA officer?
HK: I knew he was a marshal. And I knew at that time he was commander of the so-called People’s Liberation Army. What we did not know was that he had been purged and recalled. That, we didn’t know partly, probably, because my trip was prepared secretly, so I could not vet names with the CIA. But I didn’t know that he would be greeting me until, again, shortly before my arrival. And we were not all that familiar with all the ups and downs of Chinese leaders during the Cultural Revolution.
HH: You know, what’s amazing about those chapters, about this trip, the anniversary of which we are marking this Saturday, is that you really didn’t have much preparation for anything, because we’d never done it before. It comes through when you sit down with Zhou Enlai for the first time and you have a, “conceptual discussion, at some point sounding more like a conversation between two professors of international relations,” on Page 240. What had you been expecting?
HK: I didn’t know what to expect. But what we basically had experienced with the Russian negotiators, who are totally different from the Chinese, Russian negotiations fight over every comma as if it were a station on the road to Moscow against Napoleon’s armies. The Chinese understand that a psychological framework can be more important than the physical framework. But what I expected, what I came to China to do were two things. One, to see whether there was a possibility of continuing negotiations, preferably through a negotiation between Mao and Nixon. Secondly, to establish a framework within which such a negotiation could take place. So the reason we talked like two college professors was because we were trying to explain to each other how we viewed what the future would hold for us over the next, say, five years, so that when specific steps were taken, one had a framework within which to consider it. So on the one hand, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. But I did know that if the mission failed, it would of course be a public relations disaster for us. And it would also be a huge political setback for the Chinese, because it would demonstrate to the Soviets, of whom they were mortally afraid at that moment, that they were truly isolated. And what gave the Chinese an impetus for the coming together was their increasing fear of a Soviet attack along the Manchurian and Xinjiang borders.
HH: That comes through throughout the entire book. So does, it’s a marvelous portrait of these amazing leaders of the PRC, Mao and Zhou, and then of course, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin. I want to quote for the audience your quick summary. “Mao dominated any gathering. Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passions strove to overwhelm opposition. Zhou’s intellect would seek to outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic, Zhou penetrating. Mao thought himself a philosopher, Zhou saw his role as an administrator. Mao was eager to accelerate history, Zhou was content to exploit its currents.” Explain what accelerate history means, Dr. Kissinger. It sounds a little bit like, you know, Francis Fukuyama in the End Of History. Did Mao think he could actually jump entire decades or even centuries?
HK: Well, yes. Mao had a vision of the future, and he thought of himself in the same role as a Chinese emperor two thousand years earlier unified China and built the Great Wall, and brought about the evolution of Chinese history that one has seen then. But he had one problem in his own mind, which was that he did not trust the Chinese people to move at such a pace. And he remembered, and kept pointing out that many attempts at reform, or changing China, had failed, because the Chinese people, in its traditional way, would slow them down to a point that they lost their momentum. So he was determined to do the whole thing in his lifetime. And he wanted to bring about an irreversible transformation while he still lived. And therefore, he never committed things to settle down. As soon as he had made one move, rather than let people recuperate and catch their breath, he would make another move. That, of course, created horrendous casualties and suffering.
HH: In fact, you talk in the context of describing Zhou as the, “advisor to the prince, Zhou Enlai to Mao, occasionally faces the dilemma of balancing the benefits of the ability to alter events against the possibility of exclusion. Would he bring his objections to one policy to a head? How does the ability to modify the prince’s prevailing conduct weigh against the moral onus of participation in this policy?” This is the dilemma that Zhou Enlai had. Do you think that Mao’s brutality weighed on him? Did you ever get a sense of that, Dr. Kissinger?
HK: I had the sense, on the one hand, when I was asked to recognize that Zhou Enlai was prime minister during all the excesses of the Mao period, and Deng Xiaoping said about Zhou Enlai once, that without the premier, the suffering would have been much greater. And he said but also, without the premier, the suffering would not have lasted so long, because no one else could manage it.
HH: You quote that, in fact, on Page 242, and I made some notes at that point, because in On China, this amazing book, you talk a lot about the Cultural Revolution and the centrality of it, and what I believe you sense is history’s ultimate ambivalence about it. But does it come down to no Mao, no Cultural Revolution, no Cultural Revolution, no Deng Xiaoping, no Deng, no tour of the south, and no tour of the south, no superpower?
HK: No, I wouldn’t say that. First of all, by my standards, and I would suspect by the standards of 99% of your listeners, the Cultural Revolution was an unmitigated disaster. And it inflicted a degree of suffering that no government by our standards has a right to inflict on its population. But in China today, a school of thought is evolving that says the Cultural Revolution was, what happened to us for the world in which we lived, it showed us a sense of values. And that comes through often from the children of those who suffered in the Cultural Revolution.
HH: You know, Dr. Kissinger, reading this, I was thinking of Deng Xiaoping, who emerges so vividly in On China, in the context of Solzhenitsyn. They both suffered incredibly at the hands of their countries, but Solzhenitsyn became a great artist, and Deng Xiaoping became the great reformer of China, meaning could China be what it is today without people like Deng Xiaoping, who had been crushed and shattered?
HK: Without Deng Xiaoping, it’s hard to imagine the China of today arising. I thought I had met all the top leaders of China of the last 40 years. But I cannot think of one who ever developed for me the vision that Deng implemented. And so without Deng, everything would have been much slower. But the essence of your question is Deng, who was also a major cooperator with Mao, and implemented many of his more brutal measures when they first came into power, would he have acted as he did if he had not been first purged and gone through…
HK: …all that suffering? Or was he purged because Mao suspected that that’s what he wanted to do all along? My guess is that Mao suspected him of being more practical than ideological, and that sooner or later, he’d implement his maxim. I don’t care whether a cat is black or grey, as long as it catches mice.
HH: When you returned to San Clemente to brief President Nixon, in a room I spent a lot of hours in, you are very short on the details. When you sat down with R.N., what did you tell him about what you had discovered during the course of your secret visit there?
HK: Well, you know that Nixon had one of the most penetrating minds that I have encountered in politics. And secondly, he knew a lot about foreign policy, so when you talked to Nixon, you were not talking on a blank sheet. You were talking within a framework that he had very well articulated for himself. So he wanted to know many of the details of how does Zhou think, what is his approach, is he conceptual, is he practical? You remember, we had no experience with him whatsoever. It might amuse your audience, and you would understand it, when I was in China, I must have been the only senior representative who ever came to China who did not want to meet Mao on that first visit, because I knew that Nixon had his heart set to be the first American leader to negotiate with Mao and to meet him.
HH: That makes perfect sense. Yup.
HK: It makes a lot of sense.
HH: You write about…
HK: And Mao had given instructions to Zhou Enlai, which I didn’t know, that if I asked for a meeting, I should be brought immediately to him. But I never asked for a meeting. And I was sort of terrified that he would invite me to come, which I couldn’t have refused.
HH: That is fascinating. You know, you write about Nixon that he had a unique grasp of long term international trends. And a little bit later, however, on Page 393, that he didn’t foresee the fall of the Wall, and of course, he didn’t see the rise of Islamist terror, or this domination of China now. Can anyone…
HK: No, what Nixon foresaw was that the Communist system was not tenable. But he did not foresee the fall of the wall, nor did I, and nor did anyone else as quickly as it did.
HH: That brings me, though, to the question about democratic leadership. If Nixon was the most talented on foreign affairs of the presidents, can any president get to that job with the skill sets necessary to contend with dynastic rulers like Mao and Deng Xiaoping and other ones, who have the benefit of time in office?
HK: Well, the issue you raise is one important point. Another important point is this. When Nixon ran for office, he did so on the basis that he thought the man with the best program would win. Now, when people run for office, they really are more concerned with the technique of electoral appeal than with the substance of electoral appeal, because they have to paint on such a huge canvas, and they’re on display every hour of the day. So whether current candidates of either party can gain enough experience, you know from your experience with Nixon, that he read a lot, that he was in seclusion a lot. The modern pace of politics doesn’t permit that.
HH: Oh, interesting. Back to the book On China, it’s both a book and what I tell people, a fact. It’s a history, but it’s also an instrument of history to the extent it impacts decision makers here or in China. It’s certainly going to do the former. But as to the latter, the people reading it in China, what do you hope it accomplishes? Are you writing it for the triumphalists or the opponents of the triumphalists? Who is its audience in China you most want to read it?
HK: No, there are two slightly different purposes in writing the book. One is to explain how Chinese think about international affairs to non-Chinese. Not to explain the Chinese point of view so much as to explain the way of thinking, the different concepts of time, and the different concepts of deterrence and defense that the Chinese have. Now as far as the Chinese are concerned, what my book might do is to show them how their actions are interpreted by other countries, and therefore, to the extent that they care about what other countries think, to enable them to conduct a policy that leads to cooperation rather than confrontation, if that is the decision they have made.
HH: One of the themes that you document is that China historically has feared encirclement. But now, it looks to many of us who follow it from journalism that they are moving beyond defense to offense with their investments in drones, their cyber attacks, and a variety of very provocative moves. Is this the triumph of the triumphalists, Dr. Kissinger?
HK: Well, you have in China at least two groups – one that you call the triumphalists, and the others that don’t have a clear label, whether I would say talk about partnership with the United States. At this moment, the partnership group seems to be the more preeminent one, but the other one is certainly vocal enough. So the big challenge that China has, and that to some extent we have, is this. When you have two major powers that impinge on each other all over the world, as we do, the outcome is very often conflict. But we know that a conflict between two countries of this magnitude is going to have catastrophic consequences. So can the leaders of both sides find a mechanism and a way of working together, and to avoid the catastrophe that happened in Europe, where nations went to war, and I’m talking about World War I, went to war. And if they had known what the world would look like five years later, they would never have done it. Can we avoid that? Can we avoid that outcome?
HH: You know, one of the bright…
HK: There are literally trends in China to worry about.
HH: One of the bracing things, alarming things, is at the end of On China, you quote a couple of their current bestsellers, one of which calls the United States an old cucumber painted green, another is PLA senior Colonel Liu Mingfu’s China Dream, that the great goal is to be number one, and that there’s a marathon contest, a duel of the century underway with us. And then your essay on the Crowe Memorandum, I finished the book thinking you might be a fatalist about the inevitability of a big conflict.
HK: No, I’m saying if you just study history, if you insist that history repeats itself, then you become fatalistic. But when you think that you have an obligation to create a better world, and to learn from history, then you try to avoid the mistakes that previous generations have made. But one shouldn’t kid oneself. If both sides are driven by nationalistic impulses, the tensions are going to get more and more severe, and that is what both sides have to try to avoid. It’s not something that we can do unilaterally.
HH: Do you, you made the analogy of the United Kingdom-German relations in the early 20th Century as perhaps informing U.S.-People’s Republic of China relations now. But do you also see China acting today as Japan did 90 and 100 years ago, and aggressively pushing out a co-prosperity sort of sphere?
HK: It’s not the normal Chinese style. The normal Chinese style is to influence by osmosis rather than by conflict. If they were to behave like Japan, the outcome would be very similar as in the case of Japan. They haven’t done that yet, but they have certainly been more assertive, especially in the South China Sea, than makes one comfortable.
HH: Why are they so afraid, Dr. Kissinger, of Christianity in China? Their persecution of the House Church has accelerated quite a lot in recent days and months.
HK: They are not afraid of Christianity as such. They are afraid of any organizational movement or face that asserts an independent control separate from the political structure of the state, because they think this would undermine Chinese cohesion, and because they also have had the experience of, in the 19th Century, where a religious, group of religious fanatics that called themselves Christians with a weird theology, and claimed that Jesus had come back in China, that produced a horrendous civil war. But the major concern is that for thousands of years, China has been dominated by a strong government, and has been suspicious of organized activity that is not subject to its influence.
HH: Now what would your advice be, since the mistreatment of Christians is such a flashpoint in the United States, you’ve got all these great chapters on how human rights agenda have often complicated the relationships between our country and theirs, what would your advice be to the Chinese hierarchy about how to handle the Evangelical movement in its midst?
HK: Well, let me say first of all, the sentence you read, the human rights agenda, is addressed at just one limited point, namely the use of American governmental sanctions, trying to oblige China to follow our human rights preferences, because that leads to confrontation. And my preference is to make those demarches without a formal challenge. I fully understand the concerns of Evangelicals who express their worries in private organizations, that they may, and produce public expressions of these concerns. That is not only a legitimate, but an important exercise of our democratic principles.
HH: So what would your advice be to the Chinese about accommodating or…
HK: Well, my advice to the Chinese would be to understand that America feels very strongly about certain principles of which respect for religion is an important one, and making their judgments, they should keep in mind that you can’t just judge them by the mood of the moment, but by what the long range perception of their country is in the United States.
HH: I’d like to go back now to Mao, Dr. Kissinger, especially to the chapters early in his reign. Did he make a great strategic error, one for the benefit of the free world, that he did not take Taiwan or assault Taiwan before the beginning of the Korean War?
HK: It probably, in retrospect, in the mind of the Chinese leaders, that is probably an argument that opponents used against him. And the ironical fact is that had he done that, he probably would not have intervened in the Korean War. One of the impulses in his mind obliged him to enter the Korea War was that having failed to liberate, in their terms, Taiwan, to permit a Communist country on its borders to be defeated on top of that would have been a double setback.
HH: You also, an aside here on American leadership, you talk about the Acheson speech in January of 1950, when Dean Acheson did not communicate well American objectives, and you say, “to the extent deterrence requires clarity about a country’s intention, Acheson’s speech missed the mark.” Are we doing that today in failing to communicate around the world what is and what is not of great significance to us?
HK: Well, there are two levels of communicating. One is to make the other side understand how you view a challenge. The other is to draw a precise line, and this issue isn’t always the same. Now actually, Acheson in 1950 was absolutely brilliant in his analogies of the situation. And he foresaw that someday, Russia and China would clash. What he failed to do is to make clear that an attack on Korea would be considered by America a threat to our security, partly because we didn’t know that our military planning had been to have Korea outside our security zone. And General MacArthur had made a similar set of remarks that Acheson had made, but they made it in an abstract context. So when we faced the reality of Korea being occupied, and therefore Japan being potentially threatened, we were made to choose the strategically correct choice. But we had not communicated it well.
HH: Do you think President Obama, in his messages to the Islamic world, may be communicating a lack of clarity about what does and does not matter to America’s national interest?
HK: I think he does not always bring together his idealistic version and his geostrategic necessities, and as something to our geostrategic necessities, which means you’re going to defend them. And if you leave lack of clarity about that, you can wind up in a dangerous situation.
HH: Now I want to go back to Mao and so many of these extraordinary quotes in On China, Dr. Kissinger. At one point, he says to you in November of 1973, so long as the objectives are the same, we would not harm you, nor would you harm us. And we can work together to commonly deal with a bastard. Actually, it would be that sometime we want to criticize you for a while, and you want to criticize us for a while. You say away with you communists, we say away with you imperialists. Sometimes, we say things like that. It would not do not to do that. Now this casual embrace by this world historical leader of rhetorical excess, it’s so cynical. At the same time, is it common among either Chinese leaders or diplomats everywhere to just look at each other and say yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, or the modern day equivalent, yada, yada, yada. Does this go on all the time?
HK: You can identify Mao was a man of much greater intellectual reach than most people who practiced diplomacy. And there was always an element of menace in what he said. The basic point he was obviously making in this remark was this was within a few years of the Soviet Union collecting a million troops on the Chinese border, and engaging in a period of military clashes with China. So the main major point was we’ve got to work together on this problem. But he seemed to be saying each of us have our own constituencies, so every once in a while, we need, we should be free to criticize each other. This degree of cynicism cannot be carried over any extended period of time, because you confuse your own constituencies more than you help whomever you’re wanting to deal with.
HH: Let’s focus on that element of menace for a moment, Dr. Kissinger. At another point, he says to you, when you ask him how to survive the storm he predicts is coming, he says Dunkirk, we adopt the Dunkirk strategy. That is, we allow them to occupy Beijing, Wuhan, Shanghai, and in that way, through such tactics, we will become victorious and the enemy will be defeated. Both world wars, the first and the second, were conducted in that way and victory was obtained, only later. That’s from Page 309. Was the chairman serious on this, and on the many other occasions when he sort of casually professed indifference to tens of millions of deaths, maybe even hundreds of millions of deaths?
HK: Yeah, he would use the figure 300 million dead. Well, you have to consider that what was the objective situation of China at that moment? It was very weak. And it had maneuvered itself into a position of hostility to almost all of its neighbors, and truly all of the great powers. So some of this was rhetoric to discourage other countries from trying to take advantage of this weakness, and there was this frequently repeated stance, yes, you can come in, you can take cities, but we will never quit, and we will defeat you by fighting in the interior of our country. That, he probably meant. When we said 300 million, we would accept 300 million dead, this either meant he didn’t understand the nature of nuclear warfare, or he was, well, bluffing. But having said all of this, it takes a certain type of person to bring off such a bluff, if that’s what it was.
HH: You are there as a statesman, but you are also a historian and a scholar. Did that every break out in you, where you just sort of put aside the statesman role, and you look at a Mao or a Deng Xiaoping, and you ask them about their nature, their character, even their histories, like their participation in the Long March? Or do you always have to stay in the moment as the statesman?
HK: No, I’m a historian, so less with Mao than with Zhou, I did review historical situations with him. And actually, he on my first lunch in Beijing, began to explain the Cultural Revolution to me, so that we spent about an hour on that subject in a period when I had only about 24 hours of negotiation available.
HH: Wow. What was he trying to communicate to you through doing that?
HK: He was trying to communicate to me that whatever we knew of the Cultural Revolution at the time, we should not conclude that China was a divided country, and that was while as a potential associate, because they had overcome, or they would have caused them to undertake the Cultural Revolution, but that actually was not quite accurate at that moment, because the Cultural Revolution went on for another three years.
HH: Now Dr. Kissinger, I’ve got to be careful of your time here…
HH: But I’ve got to cover two more things with you, and that is…
HK: No more than five minutes.
HH: All right. Should the United States be trying to encourage Russia to be as strong now as you and Nixon did towards China, vis-?-vis Russia there, in order to blunt Chinese power?
HK: No, I think it’s a different problem, because first of all, Chinese power, militarily, is not anywhere near as great as Soviet power was at that moment. We should…the fact that China is surrounded by countries of considerable size, so a Chinese military venture would, either towards the north or south, would not be an easy matter. Secondly, the Soviet Union has huge stockpiles of tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, and therefore, I believe the emphasis should be on political, social and economic relationships, and on balancing the nuclear weapons both Russia and the United States have, and reducing them to the greatest extent possible. I don’t think we should get into a posture in which we try to use the Soviet Union as a military point against China.
HH: Penultimate question, Dr. Kissinger. You don’t mention much, though you do in passing in On China, about China’s Muslim population, which is large, in absolute numbers. Would the U.S. be smart, if not to actually abet the Islamic radicalism in China, to do everything to sort of stand aside and watch it happen? Or ought we ought to be helping the Chinese vis-?-vis Islamist radicalism in their own country?
HK: I think we have learned from our support of the Taliban during the first phase of the Afghan war when the Soviet Union was occupying, that any support of radical Islamic groups, it’s going to find its way eventually to the United States.
HH: And I want to close by asking you about Deng Xiaoping in his 24 character instruction, his 12 character instruction. This is fascinating to me. I think everyone should read this. The 12 character instruction is enemy troops are outside the walls, they are stronger than we, we should be mainly on the defensive, and it’s that word mainly that worries me in the context of your book, which again and again shows that the PRC likes sudden, sharp blows as in Korea, as in India, as in the third Vietnam war. Was Deng Xiaoping saying that that’s a good strategy? And how worried are you about a sudden, sharp, mainly defensive but occasionally shatteringly offensive strategy by the PRC?
HK: Well, we have to understand that that is their strategic pattern. And worrying about it doesn’t help. One has to be aware that we must avoid situations where that strategy can be applied.
HH: Are we approaching one of those?
HK: I don’t see any place where this is imminent. Maybe in the South China Sea, this is a situation we should look at very carefully.
HH: Dr. Henry Kissinger, thank you for your time. It’s a magnificent book, On China. I hope to talk with you again further about it sometime in the future.
HK: Thank you for your kind words.
End of interview.