Anyone who delves into the historical origins of Washington’s Taiwan policy in the Nixon-Kissinger opening to China a half-century ago is struck by the haphazardness of the American approach and the ruthlessness of the Chinese. One also begins to realize why American policy-makers are so befuddled by their “legacy” policies. The major compounding factor was duplicity.
Duplicity was President Richard Nixon’s preferred tactic in dealing with domestic opposition to his China Policy. On the one hand, as I wrote in these pages last March (“The Governor and the Generalissimo”), Nixon deputized California Governor Ronald Reagan to meet Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) in Taipei on “Double Ten” 1971, and authorized Reagan to deliver Nixon’s warm assurances of support for Taiwan. On the other hand, Nixon gave secret assurances to the Chinese leadership through his top national security aide Henry Kissinger that he intended to abandon Taiwan.
Ten days after Reagan’s Taipei visit, Kissinger arrived in Peking for a second working-trip which he hoped would settle the wording for an inchoate Shanghai communique. Kissinger warned Chinese Premier Chou En-lai (周恩來) that serious resistance to Nixon’s China initiatives was mounting among American conservatives. Kissinger urged secrecy, and hinted that Nixon would deliver far more on the Taiwan question than he could admit in public. Within weeks of his visit to Taiwan, Governor Reagan himself even suspected that Nixon would “give away Taiwan to Peking”.
In January 1972, Kissinger’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, also ventured to Peking and repeated Kissinger’s worries to Premier Chou En-lai. Haig said there was a “a strange merger” of forces in the US “dedicated to either preventing the President’s visit to Peking or to contributing to its failure.” These were, first, “the American Left which is essentially pro-Soviet” joined in a “strange wedding” with “conservative elements who are strong supporters of Taiwan.” The American press was a second danger, said Haig, who then gratuitously editorialized that “most American journalists are shallow idiots.” Haig left a file folder of news clippings from The New York Times and other newspapers so the Premier “can see how these forces have been working in the United States against both the normalization of relations and the President’s visit.”
But Kissinger’s paramount anxiety, it turned out, was neither the American press nor Nixon’s conservative rivals in the Republican Party. It was the politically moderate former governor of Texas (now Nixon’s Treasury Secretary) John B. Connally. Secretary Connally was the politician Nixon most admired, he was Nixon’s most trusted advisor, and he was the man whom Nixon believed should succeed him as President in 1976. So, before Nixon departed for Peking in February 1972, Kissinger consulted Connally about the “Taiwan Clause” of the draft communique. Connally took a look and told Kissinger bluntly, “You’ve sold out!”
Connally was particularly upset by draft communique’s phrase “Taiwan is a province of China.” Connally insisted it had “a peculiar connotation in America.” He read it as meaning that America was “turning over Taiwan to China right then and there.” Kissinger tried to explain that even Chiang Kai-shek considered Taiwan to be a province of China, but to no avail. Connally fumed, “you never have a chance to explain these things after all hell has broken loose.” Kissinger recounted Secretary Connally’s irritation to his Chinese interlocutors and apologized: the US side could not accept the word “province,” he said, “there is no complicated rationale.” “We want to avoid the word ‘province’ — and we are trying to gain Connally’s support which could be useful” in presenting the Shanghai communique language to the American people.
Nixon’s political opposition vis-a-vis Taiwan was a point Kissinger would bring up frequently with Chou. Regarding Taiwan, Kissinger said, “there are many elements in the US who are violently opposed to the policy we are pursuing and who will be even more opposed to it as it begins to unwind.” Kissinger had good reason to keep Secretary Connally on-side. Initially, the Nixon trip had caused the President “domestic troubles.” Senators Hubert H. Humphrey (D-MN) and Henry M. Jackson (D-WA), leading democratic moderates, were uneasy. Jackson questioned Nixon’s election-year grandstanding and warned that the Shanghai communique made it appear “that we are doing the withdrawing and [the communist Chinese] are doing the staying,” adding “that does not strike me as good horse trade.”
Humphrey said, “it is apparent from the communique as I read it that concessions were made by the President and by Dr. Kissinger, but not any, insofar as I have been able to interpret, were made by the Chinese.”
Senior Republicans were also alarmed. Senator James L. Buckley (R-NY) called “a news conference to voice concern that the communique was ‘being widely interpreted both at home and abroad as signaling the ultimate abandonment of Taiwan by the United States’.” Virtually the entire conservative Republican leadership held its collective tongue. They simply couldn’t believe that Nixon would sell out Taiwan. Senator John Tower (R-TX) mused that the communique “requires considerable clarification.” Senator Peter H. Dominick (R-CO) wanted more information. “The President is too good horse trader to give way Taiwan without something in exchange,” an unidentified conservative Republican senator told The New York Times. “Therefore, I think there must be some arrangements we are not aware of.”
Where President Nixon dealt with his “domestic opposition” by telling each side — Chinese, American, Taiwanese — what it wanted to hear, Premier Chou and Chairman Mao Tse-tung (毛澤東) faced “domestic opposition” — of a more fatal kind. Chinese Communist Party “Vice Chairman” Lin Piao (林彪) was the leader of Mao’s opposition. Lin had vociferously opposed the United States and instead pestered Mao to reconcile with the Soviet Union.
Nixon and Kissinger had been oblivious to this. On his first visit to China in July 1971, Kissinger brought presents from Nixon for China’s three top leaders. Chou was gracious: “we express thanks for the gifts which the President and you have sent to Chairman Mao, Lin Piao, and myself.” Chou pointedly did not use Lin Piao’s “Vice Chairman” title. He continued, “you may say that Chairman Mao and I both send our regards to President Nixon.” Chou pointedly did not send regards from Lin. These omissions whizzed right over Kissinger’s head. Premier Chou’s clues to Lin’s fate were noticed only years later by Richard Solomon who had catalogued and cross-referenced the Kissinger transcripts at the RAND Corporation.
But the Lin Piao dimension showed that Mao and Chou had their own ways of dealing with “domestic opposition.” Unbeknownst to the world, in September 1971, Marshal Lin Piao perished in a failed coup attempt after he fled to Russia in a commandeered jetliner. His aircraft crashed into the desolate East Mongolian steppe, killing all aboard. Marshal Lin Piao was dead and unburied but, around Kissinger, Chou innocently acted as if Chairman Mao’s constitutional successor was merely “seriously — possibly fatally — ill.”
When Nixon made his historic journey to Peking the following February 21, his first meeting was with Chairman Mao. Nixon and Mao had a jovial exchange. Mao even promised to “vote for Nixon” in that 1972 election year. Nixon voiced a few complaints that he faced opposition from “those on the left” who “are pro-Soviet and would not encourage a move toward the People’s Republic.” At the word “Soviet,” the Chairman laughed, “Exactly so!”
Mao had his own opposition: “In our country also there is a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you. The result was that they got on an airplane and fled abroad.” Mao ghoulishly added, “as for the Soviet Union, they finally went to dig out the corpses...” Blank stares from the Americans. “…in Outer Mongolia,” Premier Chou helpfully finished Mao’s sentence.
Mao and Chou looked pleased with themselves. Nixon looked perplexed. Neither Mao nor Chou had mentioned Lin Piao’s name. Nor did Nixon or Kissinger have any inkling of what Mao was talking about.
Mao had revealed inadvertently that homicide was his preferred tactic in dealing with domestic opposition. The Central Intelligence Agency remained ignorant of Mao’s disclosure; four months later, in July 1972, the first CIA estimate on Lin Piao’s disappearance read: “Chinese officials have still not admitted to foreigners — in fact have denied — that Lin is dead.”
By the way, during his first and only conversation with Nixon as President, Mao never mentioned “Taiwan.”
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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