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Global Times: Witness to history: Former US ambassador to China reveals brilliance behind Kissinger's secret mission in 1971 that changed bilateral ties after 22-year hiatus

By PRNEWSWIRE

Published : Aug. 14, 2023 - 20:30

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BEIJING, Aug. 14, 2023 /PRNewswire/ -- The recent visit of centenarian veteran US diplomat Henry Kissinger to China was warmly welcome by China and has since garnered significant attention from global media outlets. The visit brings to mind Kissinger's secret trip to China in 1971, which caused a sensation worldwide. 

The Global Times recently reached out former US ambassador to China Winston Lord, who accompanied Kissinger on the secret trip as a special assistant to then-national security advisor Henry Kissinger, to learn more details about how they prepared for and successfully executed one of the most remarkable diplomatic achievements since the start of the Cold War, paving the way for former president Richard Nixon's historic trip to China in 1972. 

As a firsthand witness and key participant in the secret trip, 85-year-old Lord shared many interesting memories with the Global Times. Through his account, we can truly appreciate the immense challenges that China and the US faced during the ice-breaking stage and how they overcame them with courage, wisdom, and foresight. 

Today, 52 years later, do we still possess the same wisdom and foresight to forge new breakthroughs in the deteriorating China-US relationship? History may offer us some inspirations.

This story is a part of the Global Times' "Witness to history" series, which features first-hand accounts from witnesses who were at the forefront of historic moments. From scholars, politicians, and diplomats to ordinary citizens, their authentic reflections on the impact of historical moments help reveal a sound future for humanity through the solid steps forward taken in the past and the present.

In 1971, Lord referred to him as "the first American official to enter China" after a period of 22 years with no official exchanges since 1949. "The world thinks Kissinger got there first. Of course, he did not because as we got closer to the Chinese border, I was in the front of the plane and Kissinger was in the back. And so as we went into Chinese air space, I was there ahead of Henry!"

Looking back on the extraordinary covert mission to China, Lord defined it as "the most significant foreign policy event during the Nixon presidency, and a pivotal moment in Henry Kissinger's career." 

"It was also one of a handful of geopolitical earthquakes in the last half of the 20th century. You have to recall that when Nixon and Kissinger came into office, we had no relationship with China and indeed a hostile relationship with one-fifth of the world's population. We had a tense, unstable relationship with the other nuclear superpower. We had a long, agonizing, and costly war in Vietnam. We had riots, assassinations, and anti-war demonstrations at home. We had an American public that was fatigued and disillusioned about our place in the world. And we had an America that could not act boldly on the world stage," was the atmosphere in the US leading up to the historic China trip at that time.

But as a result of the trip, a series of subsequent developments in bilateral and multilateral relations happened, including the Nixon's presidential trip to China in 1972, Nixon's attendance at the 1972 Moscow Summit, the major progress on the first major arms control treaty signed in 1972, and progress of negotiations regarding the Vietnam War. 

It all started with a memo Nixon sent to Kissinger on February 1, 1969, saying "I want to get in touch with the Chinese and indicate that we want a new relationship."

Challenging preparations

When Lord became a special assistant to Kissinger in February 1970, he was aware of the fact that the US was searching for a new relationship with China. The US was starting to send some signals to China via concrete but modest measures such as easing some unilateral restrictions.

The US' efforts to get closer to China could be seen publicly by the spring of 1971 when there was "Ping-Pong Diplomacy" between China and the US, and there was also an interview of Chairman Mao Zedong by well-known American journalist Edgar Snow, which, in Lord's words, "indicated some Chinese receptivity to better relations with the US."

The US made their intentions known both publicly and privately. "We tried several channels before we found a mutually agreed upon one, using the Pakistani one. So [we spent] two years of effort with signals through the private channel. We set up the secret trip, send Kissinger there to see whether a presidential trip would make sense. It was a courageous move, because it was not assured that it would succeed," said Lord. 

"Both the Chinese and the US had to overcome the historical and ideological framework of 22 years to reach out to each other," he noted.

Kissinger chose three people to go to China with him, plus two secret service agents. And the group began reading extensively on Chinese history, culture, and so on. The group also met with the CIA and Joseph Farland, who as the American ambassador to Pakistan in 1971 helped Kissinger's secret trip to China, to go over some of the logistics of how to get in and out of China secretly.

Then the plan was hatched. There was a publicly announced itinerary that Kissinger would visit Vietnam, Thailand, India, and Pakistan. Then Kissinger was supposed to return to Washington through Paris. 

However, the game plan was to go off secretly to Beijing from Pakistan and by pleading illness and the need to go to a Pakistani hill station to spend a couple of days allegedly recuperating, Kissinger would, in fact, secretly be going to China. 

"Ironically, Kissinger came down with a real stomach-ache in India, and so he actually was sick in advance of this secret trip. He covered this up as much as possible, because he wanted to save his real illness until he arrived in Pakistan," Lord recounted.

Then, this historic 10 to 12 day odyssey was thus started.

Exhilarating journey

"We flew to Vietnam, Thailand, India, and then Pakistan. I was in charge of the briefing books for the trip. And I had a real challenge. We had three different sets of briefing in this cramped plane for three different types of people onboard. We had the four of us going to China so they had the complete book, with all the detailed talking points and background, agenda, and logistics of secrecy. And we had a few others who knew we were going to China but didn't need this kind of detail. They just needed to help cover our absence from Pakistan while we were in China, so they had a different kind of briefing book. And then finally, there was somebody on the plane who didn't even know we were going to China. So they got a third version," Lord recalled. 

"Working with others, I would laboriously keep these books up to date, and I would generally be falling asleep while Henry would be waking up from a nap and calling what I'd done insufficient, as he always did, and instruct me to redo them, all three versions, juggling them, making sure each person on the plane only got the right version to preserve the secrecy. I'm certainly not complaining. It was exciting and exhilarating, but it was also exhausting," said Lord.

In this way, Lord started his 48-hour secret trip to China with Kissinger with great excitement. The next morning in Pakistan, the story was put out that Kissinger was not feeling well and, at the invitation of the Pakistanis, he was going up to a hill station [mountain resort] to recuperate for a day. Meanwhile, the Kissinger delegation was in China. At the end of that day the Pakistanis put out a communiqué saying that Kissinger was still very unwell and was going to stay another day at the hill station.

"When we arrived at the airport in Islamabad and boarded the plane and found four Chinese already seated there, our Secret Service agents were so surprised to see these Chinese officials and staffs involved in the visit on the airplane," Lord recalled.

"There was a sense of drama that we were going to the most populous country in the world, after 22 years and there were huge geopolitical implications of that. There was the anticipation of meeting with then Chinese premiere Zhou Enlai, this great figure, and there was the excitement and anticipation of those talks. There were James Bond aspects to this trip, since it was totally secret. For me, personally, there was the realization that I was the first American official to visit China in 22 years and that I was married to a woman from Shanghai. I'll never top this experience in terms of drama," said Lord.

Tough negotiation

After arriving in Beijing, every detail of the meeting and negotiation held with Zhou Enlai impressed Lord deeply. The US group's discussions with Zhou lasted for 17 hours and the major challenge was to work out an agreement that Nixon would indeed visit China and developing a rough sense of what the agenda would be. 

"Indeed, we carefully crafted Kissinger's opening remarks and his talking points both to be sensitive on the Taiwan question and to put the bigger picture forward, and why it was in the interest of both countries to overcome decades of mistrust and hostility. So there were a lot of exchanges. This is where Kissinger was immediately impressed with Zhou Enlai in terms of his sophistication, historical sweep, and eloquence," said Lord.

The US had prepared a draft communiqué in advance to be presented to China, but found out it was far different from the Chinese version. Then they began to negotiate on the details, particularly on the issue of "who invited whom."

"We wanted to make it look essentially like China wanted Nixon to come to the country. The Chinese essentially wanted to make it look as if Nixon wanted to come to China and that the Chinese were gracious enough to invite him. So we went through our first, agonizing process of negotiation on that issue," he recalled.

Finally, the two sides worked this issue out. The formulation used went as: "Knowing of President Nixon's expressed desire to visit the People's Republic of China, Premier Zhou Enlai, on behalf of the Government of the People's Republic of China, has extended an invitation to President Nixon to visit China at an appropriate date before May 1972. President Nixon has accepted the invitation with pleasure." 

Lord recalled that there were considerable geopolitical exchanges between Zhou and Kissinger, calling them "one of the most remarkable multi-year dialogues ever conducted in diplomacy." Lord said he was privileged to be present throughout the hundreds of hours of talks between these two giants.

The following things are well known. Nixon went on TV and made the announcement of his visit to China, causing a sensation worldwide. Everyone knows what a dramatic impact it had. 

Before leaving China, Lord brought back with him, for his Chinese wife a small sampling of Chinese soil, to commemorate the profound memories made on the land, his enduring connection with China for the next few decades, and in memory of a secret visit that remarkably changed the history of China-US relations.