Strategic incompetence has always plagued Beijing
When I first arrived in China in 1976, four years had passed since Nixon and Kissinger had gone to Beijing to meet Mao, kicking off what Nixon would label “the week that changed the world”. But that interval was not long enough to dispel the thick fog of misrepresentations and outright lies spun during that visit by both the Americans and Chinese — though none of those tales concerned what really mattered: the geopolitical victory that came from that trip.
At the time, exactly 50 years ago, the US was deeply divided by the Vietnam war. Congress was refusing to fund both that increasingly unpopular war and also the broad build-up needed to match the Soviet Union’s huge military upsurge. It would ruin the Soviet economy a decade later, but in the meantime, the US was being outmatched — until, that is, Nixon went to China and secured a diplomatic revolution that would open up a “second front” for the USSR.
Among other diversions of Soviet energies, by 1976 at least 45 Soviet tank and motor rifle divisions were deployed towards Beijing, thousands of miles from Nato’s front in Germany.
Whatever else may be said against Nixon or Kissinger, their decision to open up to communist China at its worst — in 1972, the murderous cultural revolution was still in full swing — was a clever idea that many might have thought of only to dismiss it out of hand. All President Nixon had to do was embrace the malodorous Mao (his doctor would reveal that he never brushed his teeth, or bathed, unless he was in merry company).
But for Nixon the politician, the sacrifice was much greater, although he did not know it until the Watergate scandal drove him from office on August 9, 1974, two years after he had triumphantly landed in Beijing. The connection was straightforward: the centre-Right core of the Republic Party coincided with the “Taiwan Lobby”, which in turn encompassed the anti-Communist bloc, and which formed the hard core of Nixon’s supporters from the start of his political career. When Nixon betrayed the cause by embracing the very worst communist on the planet — altogether more extreme than the Soviets when it came to abolishing private property — and when he turned his back on Taiwan, the Republican Right did the same to him as he pleaded for help to fight off the Watergate charges.
A strange man in many ways — who else would think of himself as an absolute underdog while sitting in the White House’s Oval Office? — Nixon was also a real patriot: in 1942, assigned to the safest of Navy billets in Iowa, he strove very hard to manoeuvre himself into a combat zone. But had he known that his Beijing foray would leave him unprotected before his enemies and cost him the White House, he might have stayed well away from Mao.
Neither the American nor the Chinese media misrepresented that momentous strategic encounter, but they did join hands in utterly concealing the reality of China itself. For example, none of the admiring descriptions of Beijing and its imperial monuments in the New York Times prepared me for the stomach-turning stench that pervaded the city, and reached indoors as one tried to eat in the Beijing Hotel dining room. Throughout the city, human waste was not flushed away but carefully collected as precious “night soil” fertiliser, and then ladled into handcarts that were slowly pulled through the city to the surrounding vegetable fields.
Nor did I read in 1972 about how the crowds in Beijing’s streets trudged from place to place in various states of clinical depression, understandably enough given the deep misery in which they were living — from their one-room-per-family, courtyard houses with no hot water to everyone’s shabby Mao suits and grey faces that evidenced border-line malnutrition. All this stood out even more because of the ubiquitous posters depicting ecstatically happy, rosy-cheeked enthusiasts applauding Mao.
Nor did anyone in 1972 care to mention that the officials they encountered — as I did four years later — were all suffering from intense sleep-deprivation: they had to reach their offices soon after dawn for lengthy pre-work “struggle sessions”, with the janitors and junior staff who run their ministry’s Revolutionary Committee playing Red Guards to upbraid them. The topsy-turvy rituals of the Cultural Revolution persisted until Mao died.
Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations. A former chief of staff of the US Air Force describes him as "a hell of a lot smarter than Clausewitz."
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Hand of China on peasants